1940s, Horror/Eerie

Son of Dracula (1943)

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Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenwriter: Eric Taylor

By Roderick Heath

World War II proved an ironic boom time for Hollywood’s horror cinema. Such was the general assumption that piling morbid and fright-inducing images on top of all too immediate worries and losses was too much for the public at large that the British government banned them all for the duration of the war. But appetite for the genre remained strong in the US, even as it entered a period of declining fortunes, with many a short, cheap horror entry tossed onto movie screens, still often entertaining but generally lacking ambition. Horror films actually provided a neverland where audiences could escape the war, as very few genre entries mentioned it, except as background or as a subtext. Lon Chaney Jnr’s arrival as a genre star with George Waggner’s Man Made Monster (1940), quickly amplified when Waggner cast him in The Wolf Man (1941), helped give Universal Pictures’ horror franchise a new shot of life, and the studio quickly started casting Chaney in the studio’s familiar roster of monster roles. Universal would smother their renewed fortunes through a succession of cynically produced, if certainly well-made and entertaining meet-ups between their monsters, like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943). The Val Lewton series made for RKO would represent the supreme achievement of the decade, and a handful of other filmmakers took inspiration from them at the time, but the Lewton brand was ultimately too rarefied a mould to popularise, and after the end of the war horror films almost vanished from English-language screens for the next decade.

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Son of Dracula wasn’t the first time Universal had tried to concoct a follow-up to Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film that had proven the biggest hit of 1931 and gave impetus to the entire idea of sound-era horror cinema. The idea that a vampire didn’t necessarily have to stay (un)dead even after the usual rituals of staking or sun exposure wasn’t yet a familiar motif in screen genre lore, and Bela Lugosi was so strongly associated with his star-making role that any notion of recasting it seemed self-defeating for a long time. So Universal offered Dracula’s Daughter in 1936, featuring the statuesque Broadway actress Gloria Holden as Countess Walewska, the equally sepulchral offspring of Dracula, and Edward Van Sloan reprising his role as Van Helsing. Dracula’s Daughter was initially met as a disappointment, only to gain appreciation much later to the point where it’s now one of the best-known Universal horror entries, entirely for one notable scene with needling erotic overtones, in which Walewska attacks a young, female photographic model. This scene has been long since installed in a pantheon of notably queer-coded vignettes cutting against the general faith Old Hollywood kept such things neatly hidden away. Trouble is, otherwise Dracula’s Daughter is a dull, clumsy affair, a by-product of Universal’s confusion when it came to enlarging and evolving their franchise.

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By contrast, Son of Dracula is probably the best of the works Universal made in the 1940s. Although it lacks the tragic stature of The Wolf Man, it makes up for it in the beauty of its imagery, the sly perversity of its story, and the clear imprint of a fraternal creative team, Carl and Robert Siodmak. The Siodmak brothers were born in Dresden, members of a German-Jewish family with roots in Leipzig: Robert, born in 1900, was the elder, and Curt came two years later. Years later, Robert would pretend to have been born in Memphis, Tennessee, to obtain a visa to Paris and get out of Germany after the Nazi ascension. Robert tried his hand at banking and theatrical directing before he found work in cinema through the director Curtis Bernhardt and later with his own cousin Seymour Nebenzal, who hired him to forge new movies out of recycled stock footage. Nebenzal eventually produced Robert’s first proper feature, People On Sunday (1929), a work that made Robert’s name and involved a host of the future talent that would eventually crowd together in Hollywood, including his brother Curt, who co-wrote the script with Billy Wilder and also invested in the project, and Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, and Eugen Schufftan amongst the crew. Robert’s affinity for what would later be called film noir was already apparent in The Man in Search of His Murderer (1931) and Storms of Passion (1932), before he was singled out for attacks by Joseph Goebbels, and decamped first for France and then Hollywood.

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Curt, meanwhile, made his name as a screenwriter and pulp novelist, gravitating often towards the evolving science fiction genre. His novel FP1 Doesn’t Answer was adapted into a trio of films in 1932 (each in a different language), whilst his later works The Beast With Five Fingers and Donovan’s Brain would become staples. When he followed Robert to Hollywood, Carl soon became a go-to figure for fantastic cinema, contributing to several major films of the era, including the scripts of The Wolf Man and I Walked With A Zombie (1943). He also wrote storylines for many of the later Universal entries including Son of Dracula, which reunited him with his brother professionally, although the actual script would be written by Eric Taylor. By this time Robert was rising rapidly through the ranks at Universal, escaping the ghetto Ulmer became stuck in, and soon becoming one of the major directors of the noir age with works like Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1948), and The File on Thelma Jordan (1949). Of the films he made at Universal as a studio hand, two of the most cultish were Son of Dracula and Cobra Woman (1944), beloved for very different reasons and yet works linked on a fascinating level as smuggled reflections on the raging war.

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Son of Dracula followed the lead of the previous year’s The Mummy’s Tomb in bringing a familiar monster to American shores, opening in the railway station of a small Louisiana town as a train rolls in. Plantation princeling Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and local GP Dr Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) have come to meet an important visitor, Count Alucard, who proves not to be aboard. Only his luggage arrives, and Brewster notices the crest and the letters of the Count’s name which are, of course, Dracula spelt backwards. Alucard was to be the guest of wealthy but elderly and frail landowner Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), at the invitation of his daughter Kay (Louise Allbritton), at the estate of Dark Oaks. Kay has an obsessive fascination for the supernatural, a fascination the Count supposedly shares and which has made her idolise him, although she’s engaged to Frank. The welcoming ball the Caldwells throw for their absent guest still goes ahead, and the Count (Chaney) proves to be hovering outside, transforming into a bat and infiltrating the house to attack and kill the Colonel, which is taken for death by heart attack. A lately rewritten will gives the estate money to Kay’s sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) and leaves Kay the house and plantation. Kay pleads with Frank to not to doubt her no matter what she does, but soon she meets clandestinely with the Count and marries him. Frank, on the warpath, confronts the couple on their wedding night and, after the Count hurls him across the room, Frank shoots at him. The bullets seem to pass through the Count, and Kay, who shelters behind, collapses dead instead.

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Siodmak’s aesthetic wielded an updated, carefully controlled version of the classic Expressionist style that had permeated the German cinema he started off in, and would use it to lend his noir films, tales of earthy violence and folly, an aspect of overwhelming psychological distress, a mimetic zone where the illusory constantly threatens to reshape the tangible. That style perhaps reached an apotheosis perhaps with the killer’s viewpoint in The Spiral Staircase erasing the mouth of the mute heroine, but continued to permeate his hardboiled stories, like the climax of Criss Cross where characters fade in and out of the dark like agents of fate. Son of Dracula’s superb studio simulation of a southern gothic atmosphere is first explored in an early sequence in which Kay leaves the Caldwell mansion and visits the ancient gypsy seer, Madame Queen Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), she allows to stay in a waterfront shack. Allbritton’s Kay with her jet black pompadour contrasted by the swirling silk about her body, strides a trail between tangled trees and reeds, a vision of morbid beauty, tracked by Siodmak’s gliding camera, escaping the prim white halls of her home for the landscape that’s forged her imagination, a wonderland of dangling Spanish moss and rippling swamp water caressed by moonlight. Queen Zimba waits in her shack with black raven sitting on hand, feeding the potion in her brazier, withered face and curling smoke inscribed by candlelight. Zimba tries to warn Kay of the bleak fate awaiting her – “I see you, married to a corpse!” – but a bat invading the shack terrifies her so much she promptly dies of a heart attack.

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Meanwhile Siodmak pulls of a beautiful tracking shot as he retreats from the mansion window, the ball in full swing within, and locates the Count, cowering in the shadows, awaiting his chance to invade the mansion. When he does, taking a bat form, he flits through the household corridors and transforms, sneaking up on the luckless Colonel Caldwell as he puffs a cigar in his bedroom. The sultry reaches of the southern bayous seemed to have an appeal for European directors taking on American thrillers around this time, considering the likes of Andre De Toth’s Dark Waters (1944), Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water (1943), and Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp (1946). The out-of-the-way, backwoods atmosphere and fetid remnants of a collapsed feudalism with lingering old world manners still permeating the deep south might have seemed a coherent and appealing zone for such artists, as well the obvious potential in the picturesque and dreamlike qualities of the bayou environments. Certainly such a setting was made for a horror film. Son of Dracula depends on a peculiar dichotomy. Siodmak presents Dracula as an avatar for an invasive, parasitical foreign evil in a manner that at once recasts the original plot of Bram Stoker’s novel and invokes wartime anxieties of invasion by infiltration, whilst also evoking the not-quite-buried skeletons of slavery and exploitation: Dracula proposes to use the plantation class in the way they used and profited from others. His quest is to find a “young and virile race” to feed amidst, finding a ripe one in the American polyglot, lending Dracula’s canonical hunt for new feeding grounds a hint of an ubermensch mentality in search of lebensraum. Or is it untermensch?

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The ripe, proto-camp Technicolor fantasia of Cobra Woman would let Siodmak pivot to an inverted proposition to this beware-the-fascist-invader narrative, instead viewing the war against Nazism through a sequin darkly, stranding plucky heroes on an island ruled by a death cult with a snaking-armed variation on the Nazi salute, plucking out random sacrifices to feed its bloodlust and secure its power. Many Universal horror entries, unthinkingly or not, finished up celebrating mob law and lynching as townsfolk, pushed too far by murders and mayhem, set out in gangs with blazing torches to cleanse their locale of malefactors. This refrain started with James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), which gave fuel to a quality of populist energy in Universal’s horror imprimatur, in courting the audience’s simultaneous feelings of exclusion and rejection in the Depression milieu leading it to identify with the monster, and also a desire for communal identity and mass action blurring into mob justice (Whale clarified his vision as one of persecution of the outsider in The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, but the problem remained elsewhere). Siodmak pointedly avoids this pattern, and indeed turns a sceptical eye upon Frank’s efforts to wield his smug sense of position in his community to browbeat Dracula. This feels unexpectedly close to the portrayal in Cape Fear (1962) of a clash between the undoubtedly evil and the discomfortingly ineffectual network of good old boys who allow such evil to flourish through misjudging their own power and distinctness from the rotten underworld.

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Rather than wilt before Frank’s threats to have him jailed or run out of town which might carry some weight if this was a Tennessee Williams play, Dracula grips him by the neck and makes him feel like a child in an adult’s grip, unmanning him to such a degree that Frank starts his fast spiral into near-lunatic dislocation. Kay meanwhile signals the arrival of something new in pop culture, the horror movie character who also represents a variety of horror movie fan, enthralled by dark fantasies, and a brand of rebel bohemian spirit anticipating everything from the Beatnik to the Goth and the Emo. As with the ecstatic blooming of camp in Cobra Woman, Siodmak conjures this new figure from amidst the official seriousness and grimness of the war, embodying a reaction. Kay is ecstatically morbid, seeking new dimensions of experience and deliverance from the ordinary. “What do they know of these occult matters?” she questions in frustration in contending with the smaller minds she lives amongst. Eventually it emerges that she courts a nocturnal existence, hoping to obtain it through playing up to the Count to obtain his vampiric gift, and then pass it on to Frank, her true love. But he remains far too attached to the everyday world, and so must be forced to join her. Already pale and stark of feature under her crown of black hair before she becomes a member of the undead, as a vampire Kay slides in and out of the shadows, skin white as milk and sometimes dissolving into vapour, eyes gleaming with otherworldly light, airily assuring Frank “you have no choice” as she explains her plans to make him her undead mate and helpmate in eliminating the Count’s controlling threat.

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The film’s second great interlude of gothic beauty comes as Frank tries to follow Kay as she drives into the swamps, losing track of her whilst Kay descends to the water’s edge in a remote corner of the swamp. Dracula’s coffin rises from the depths and the Count, taking the form of a curling mist, slides out of the coffin and takes form upon it, riding it like a gondola in sublime smoothness across the bayou as Kay awaits in beaming anticipation. There’s a dash of drollery in the way Siodmak contrasts this vision of otherworldly grace and unholy accord with the more humdrum, as Dracula and Kay go knock on the door of a bewildered small town JP to be married, a notion so obscene that the winds rise and thrash at the door once they enter the JP’s house, but the portents of the elements go unnoticed. Siodmak keeps the tone very close to the worldly precepts of noir throughout, identifying Frank’s furious reaction to the charismatic stranger subsuming his place and placing the control of the Dark Oaks at the centre of the narrative: even when eternal life is involved, or perhaps especially then, property remains a good motive for murder. Frank’s attempt to shoot Dracula only to kill Kay instead, conflates a clever use of the supernatural with the hysterical overtones of much noir like Ulmer’s Detour (1945) where the hero keeps finding himself implicated in crimes against all his intentions, rooted in a fear that at any moment the shape of reality might distort and the absurd become the only certainty. Notably, Siodmak would later offer, in Criss Cross, essentially the same basic story and triangle between sucker, femme fatale, and evil overlord.

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Siodmak’s third great, if brief interlude of horror style comes as Frank flees Dark Oaks, pursued by Dracula as a bat: Siodmak even offers a high-angle shot of the bat hovering over Frank as he dashes through the undergrowth. Frank collapses on a grave in a cemetery, and the bat lands on his prostrate form, nuzzling up to his neck, only for the moon to emerge from behind a cloud and cast the silhouette of a grave-marker cross on Frank. Siodmak inverts the field of cast light and dark so the cross shines blazing light. Dracula flees to the edge of the cemetery and cringes ruefully at his missed chance. Frank manages to stumble his way to Brewster’s house, and Brewster investigates his hysterical tale of killing Kay: caught by Dracula investigating the cellar of Dark Oaks, he’s ushered upstairs where Kay proves to be apparently alive and entirely lucid, if a touch spacey. In the morning, Brewster finds Frank has fled his house and gone to confess to Kay’s killing to the local sheriff, Dawes (Patrick Moriarity), who insists on investigating despite Brewster’s assurances. To everyone’s shock, they find Kay’s body laid out in a coffin in the family crypt. Brewster manages to avoid being arrested whilst Frank is locked away in the local court house, and he welcomes the arrival of Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), a Hungarian-born authority on folklore who knows the Dracula legend inside out.

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Son of Dracula inserts an interesting, prototypical aspect of the metafictional as it portrays a world in which Stoker’s book exists and is known to the characters, and Brewster is portrayed reading it, trying to tease fiction from fact. Having spotted the game in the name Alucard, he asks Lazlo if any members of the historical family are still alive. Lazlo proposes that considering that the original Dracula was destroyed, the one they’re dealing with is a descendant. As Lazlo explains to Brewster that Dracula can transform himself into animals or a mist, Siodmak ingeniously has Dracula take that precise cue to enter Brewster’s living room by wafting under the locked door and appear to his foes, forestalled in his attack only by Lazlo’s canniness in having a crucifix in his pocket to drive him out again. Much as J.R.R. Tolkien’s remedy for evil was described by one critic as a yeoman sensibility based in ale and common sense, Siodmak’s answer for migrating vampiric masters is a pair of cool-headed old men smoking pipes, unhurried, almost folksy in response to the eruption of supernatural evil in their community – “A nauseating thought,” Brewster comments with a wince at one point as Lazlo proposes accurately what the nature of Kay’s plot could be. Brewster the embodiment of canny, homey Americana and Lazlo the wise embodiment of European poise.

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Except that Brewster and Lazlo don’t really do much to stop Dracula, instead forced to contend with the narrower precepts of policing and proof. Brewster’s most forthright achievement comes when a young boy, bitten but not killed by Dracula, is brought to him, and Brewster performs a palliative measure, painting small cruciform over the bite marks. Son of Dracula contributed a couple of permanent concepts to screen vampire lore, as the first to actually portray, through simple but effective animation and editing effects, Dracula transforming into a bat, and the notion of him leaving behind only a skeleton when killed. The most distinct and ingrained quality of the Universal horror brand was its sense of the genre as something fundamentally tragic. The studios’ films created a place of sepulchral passion and deeply sublimated sexuality mixed with the worship of Thanatos, soaked into the textures of the chiaroscuro photography. A place where the monster is a victim as well as villain, consumed by a need that also leads them to consume others, a quality joining the Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man, as well as less storied characters like the various ill-fated scientists Boris Karloff and Bèla Lugosi played, or Onslow Stevens’ luckless humanitarian doctor in House of Dracula.

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Dracula never quite fit this template as a character despite giving the marque its adrenalin dose: it wasn’t until much later that the notion of Dracula as cursed and timeless lover floated by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola would surface. Dracula served more as a catalyst for assailed lovers to feel the pain of unnatural desires tearing them apart, a force of refined, malignant erotic wont coming between them and the sanctitiy of heteronormative union, a note sounded in the Browning film as Mina mourns her relationship with Jonathan Harker as vampirism slowly takes her over. Siodmak makes much more of this theme whilst subverting it at the same time through Kay and Stanley, whose childhood love turned corrupted adult passion finally reverts again in the final moments of the film: Kay becomes an agent of corrupt adventuring for whom the Count is a mere means to an end, and Frank seems to be tempted right up to the threshold of eternity to share it with her. Like a true surrealist, Siodmak sees the force of love dragging a couple not towards the insular and the permitted but out into the wilderness, a place where only the ferocity of one’s commitment to passion can hold one together.

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Chaney had formed his screen persona playing average men with lodes of tragic luck and pathos, including his breakthrough role as Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939) as well as his signature role as Larry Talbot. His father’s reputation as the “man with a thousand faces,” an actor famed for his demanding and often excruciating physical transformations, became a difficult inheritance for his son. Chaney Jnr had acted at first under his real name of Creighton but only gained career traction as directly took on his father’s mantle, but unlike his rubber-limbed, almost professionally masochistic dad, Chaney Jnr, stocky and specific, was no such multifarious performer. Nonetheless he played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the mummy in three entries of the Kharis series in addition to returning to his role as Larry Talbot four times. To play Dracula he was made up with suavely greying temples and a sharp moustache, a look that makes him seem a little like a rough draft for Vincent Price’s horror persona. A few snarky tongues noted that the beefy Chaney looked like an extremely well-fed for a vampire. He’s merely okay in the role, lacking the silken charisma of Lugosi’s nobly diseased conqueror or the intensity of John Carradine’s gentleman pervert take in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, although he does project the character’s aggressive authority well, particularly as his imposing stature properly dominates.

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Chaney Jnr is at his best in the finale as Dracula tries desperately to extinguish the fire consuming his coffin leaving him without a resting place before the dawn, his frantic, panicky reaction palpable in a manner Chaney Jnr was effective at: his horror antiheroes are most vivid when exposed before terrifying forces of fate. Two aspects of Son of Dracula hamper it naggingly despite its fine points. One is casting. Allbritton looks the part but she and Paige lack the right kind of contrasting passion and neurotic vibrancy to really sell the amour fou Siodmak seemed to want to generate in their relationship, on top of Chaney Jnr’s unease in his part. Ankers, the official Universal scream queen who had been effective opposite Chaney Jnr in The Wolf Man, is wasted here in a role that doesn’t even give her a chance to give her famously shrill lungs a workout. The other is Taylor’s uncertain screenplay. Taylor had written Dick Tracy movies and he brought a rather stolid touch a little too much like B detective movies to the horror films he was assigned to, also including The Phantom of the Opera (1943), where the horror elements are subordinated to investigation and tepid romance. The narrative here belongs to the twisted threesome of Dracula, Kay, and Frank, but too much of Son of Dracula is devoted to Brewster and Lazlo arguing with Dawes and others about the veracity of things vampiric. Another foil is the film’s general cheapness with a straitened wartime budget, forced to hang around a few basic sets and fill out screen time not with action but talk.

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But the flashes of mysterious beauty and covert perversion continue as Kay materialises in Frank’s cell and tries to talk him into killing Dracula, wafting through the cell bars to stage his escape and drinking blood from his neck as he sleeps whilst in bat form, a deeply strange new frontier in erotic encounter. Kay still strongly resembles the familiar femme fatale figure here but goes one step further, becoming a literal phantom lady, free-floating animus goading Frank to defy limits of life and society: she can even help him casually subvert the law, usually the reef her kind leads mean like Frank to run aground on. She gives him the information required to track down Dracula to his sleeping place, in a disused, dried-out draining tunnel at the swamp, a detail thankfully overheard by Frank’s prison watchdog Mac (Walter Sande), who takes Frank for a nut: “Some goofball talkin’ to himself!” But Frank does manage to escape with Kay’s aid and finds Dracula’s coffin. Dracula returns to catch Frank before he can flee, but is quickly confronted by the sight of his coffin ablaze. The vampire hysterically tries to extinguish the fire. Failing that, he instead starts throttling the life out of Frank, only for the breaking dawn to send its lances of light through the gaps in the wooden structure, causing Dracula to collapse in a puddle and dissolve like a bad dream.

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As a climax this is a welcome eruption of the visually dynamic and physically brutal after all the chat. Siodmak cleverly delays sight of the burning coffin until Dracula himself sees it over Frank’s shoulder, whilst the rising sun appears out of a stock footage netherworld, and Chaney’s Dracula is dumbstruck by his own vulnerability, keeling over and fading away, another failed ubermensch. But it’s the very end that makes the movie, as Frank stumbles into Dark Oaks and finds Kay laid out in her coffin in what used to be the old playpen they shared as children, a frigid sleeping beauty and bride awaiting her mate, the veiled canopy a travesty of the wedding bed. Frank even completes the foiled ritual by taking a ring from his finger and placing in on Kay’s. When the ponderous trio of Brewster, Lazlo, and Dawes arrive after finding Dracula’s remains, they find Frank has not joined Kay but set fire to her coffin instead, the veiled canopy consumed by flame, a Viking funeral for a false idyll. Siodmak films Frank’s mournful visage through the burning silk, suggesting that the veil of complicity and abnormal love has been stripped from over his eyes, but leaving him abandoned, solitary and earthen, in an existence stripped of wonder and passion. Which is the fate worse than death?

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The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

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aka Dance of the Vampires ; The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck

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Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski

By Roderick Heath

The Fearless Vampire Killers has long suffered a benighted reputation. It’s remembered to pop culture lore chiefly as the film on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate met. Tate’s sorry fate and Polanski’s later disgrace tend to weigh heavily on attempts to appreciate the film’s near-unique, bewitching blend of horror and comedy, two modes notoriously difficult to blend. The Fearless Vampire Killers was Polanski’s follow-up to his first two films made in Britain, the psychological horror film Repulsion (1965) and the tragicomic thriller Cul-de-Sac (1966), films that established Polanski as a force to be reckoned with outside his native Poland, where he’d first gained notice with his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962). The Fearless Vampire Killers saw Polanski working with a comparatively large budget and filming in colour for the first time, on a production shepherded by producer Gene Gutowski and co-written with Polanski’s regular writing partner Gerard Brach, partly filmed around the Italian Dolomites. Originally screened as Dance of the Vampires upon release in the UK, the film was retitled The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck for its American release, heavily edited, appended with a new, animated opening credit sequence, and marketed overtly as a campy, farcical parody. Seen in this form the film was largely dismissed as a creative blip before Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the film that brought Polanski to Hollywood with a bang. The proper cut has long since been restored and generally known by the plainer title of The Fearless Vampire Killers.

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The original title perhaps contained more of the essence of Polanski’s odd melding of elegance and bite, in a film that his cinematographer Douglas Slocombe correctly saw a sensibility strongly rooted in a rarefied central European evocation of fairytale menace. Certainly, Polanski intended to make sport of the waning Gothic horror film revival of the late 1950s and ‘60s, particularly Hammer Films’ beloved imprimatur with its boldly textured use of colour and lushly coded sexuality. Ironically, Polanski gained a bigger budget and heftier technical collaborators, like Slocombe, than what he was targeting could dream of. With Repulsion Polanski had helped formulate the modern horror movie with its basis in socially transmitted evil and psychological roots of mayhem, inaugurated by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, advance a few more degrees. But The Fearless Vampire Killers is executed in a fashion that reveals Polanski’s deep affection for and peculiar understanding of the gothic style of horror movie even as he’d done his bit for rendering it antiquated, crossbred with aspects of silent movie comedy and Yiddish music hall humour. Polanski cast himself in the film as Alfred, the gangly, jittery assistant to Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran), a former teacher at the University of Konigsberg and expert in nocturnal wildlife who’s turned his hand to the great and holy mission of proving the existence of vampires, tracking them down, and exterminating them.

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Abronsius has been chased out of academia by colleagues who, as Ferdy Mayne’s inimitable opening narration tells us, blessed him with the nickname of “The Nut.” The opening scene evinces Polanski’s strange and ethereal mood blended with absurdism, envisioning a snow-caked Mittel Europa landscape through which a sled carves a laborious path. The sled carries Abronsius and Alfred, and Alfred realises they’re being chased by wolves, forced to fend off the animals alone because of the driver’s obliviousness and Abronsius is almost frozen stiff in the bitter cold. The film’s first shot signals Polanski’s technical mastery with a complex, multi-plane matte shot, zooming out from a model moon and pulling back to an eerily beautiful wide shot of the snowy landscape across which the sled progresses laboriously. Immediately we’re drawn out of any sense of the real world and into one that’s more like illustration, only for the mood to shift to one of dry slapstick in Alfred’s panicky fight with the wolves and attempts to alert his companions. Polanski continues such a dance of tones throughout, rarely going for big laughs or overt horror, but tracing the edges of a queasy zone where a sense of the ridiculous abuts a sense of the oneiric. Abronsius and Alfred are installed in the inn of Yoyneh Shagal (Alfie Bass), a place where the local yokels assemble in a haze of steam and goose down flecking the air, with garlic cloves hanging all around.

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Abronsius and Alfred are defrosted and installed in an overpriced room by Shagal, who has a rotund and watchful wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robins), a pretty daughter, Sarah (Tate) just returned from a girls’ school, and a maid he patently lusts after, Magda (Fiona Lewis). The coming of the crusading duo causes friction in the Shagal household, as Sarah admits to Alfred she became very fond of having a bath when at school, but the only tub in the inn, located in a room adjoining both hers and the new arrivals, is placed off-limits to her, after they catch sight of her naked in the bath when Shagal shows the new arrivals the amenity. Polanski and Brach have fun with their concept of Abronsius as a vampire killer whose general method is to obey genre cliché. Abronsius notes the garlic hanging all around and feels he’s getting close to his goal. “Is there by chance a castle in the area?” Abronsius enquires, only for the yokel who tries to answer in the affirmative (Ronald Lacey) to be quickly silenced by his fellows. Alfred meanwhile becomes smitten with Sarah, catching her eye by building a snowman in the yard.

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When a grotesquely misshapen hunchback, Koukul (Terry Downes), arrives at the Inn on a sled, Abronsius suspects he’s the vampire overlord’s traditional minion. He assigns Alfred to track Koukol to his base, but Alfred quickly abandons the task as it proves too hard to cling onto Koukol’s sled and after he’s been treated to a bloodcurdling sight, as Koukol, far from being harassed by the same wolves that chased Alfred and Abronsius earlier, stalks after one of the animals and returns with his massive buck teeth dripping gore. Man bites dog is news indeed. Shagal makes midnight excursions, first to nail shut the door to Sarah’s room and then to set about trying to get into bed with Magda, who coolly rebuffs his advances. He attracts the attention of both his wife, who stalks him with a huge salami to bash him on the head, and the would-be vampire slayers, out to learn what’s afoot. Shagal successfully eludes his wife by hiding behind Magda’s door and she instead the wallops Abronsius on the head, knocking him out cold. The next day Abronsius meets only stonewalling shrugs as he tries to alert the Shagals to his assault. Sarah gets around her father’s barricade by sneaking into the duo’s room and begging Alfred to let her use the tub, only her choice of words makes him think at first she’s talking about lusty needs provoked when she was at school: “I adore it…Besides, they say it’s good for your health…do you mind if I have a quick one?” But Sarah has fatefully attracted the attention of Koukol’s master, the Count von Krolock (Mayne), who lurks on the roof awaiting his chance to spring on her.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers nods occasionally to comic territory familiar from other movies of its time. Some bawdy gags would fit in with likes of the Carry On… films, as when Shagal becomes mesmerised by Magda’s rhythmic backside as she scrubs the floor, and his games of hide-and-seek as he tries to get into the maid’s bed. Other jokes have a basis in the broadening social compass of pop culture, ribbing the blind spots of the old, square, carefully constrained horror style. That old Jewish theatrical tradition, which also echoed through the work of some comic filmmakers emerging in the late ‘60s including Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, inspires the best-known gag in Polanski’s film. The vampirised Shagal waves his hands in delighted disdain at the crucifix brandished at him by Magda and declares, “Oy-yoi, ‘ave you got the wrong vampire!” Queerness was a common subtext in many a classic horror film, but Polanski made it plainer as Alfred encounters Von Krolock’s gay son Herbert (Ian Quarrier), “A gentle, sensitive youth,” as the Count put it, with Alfred threatened with a new form of the fate worse than death as Herbert’s undying toyboy.

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Polanski also weaves in a stream of visual puns. A shot of what seems to be Alfred staking Shagal at Abronsius’ instruction, filmed in silhouette as per genre visual convention, proves instead to be a practice run on a pillow where Alfred whacks his mentor’s fingers. An attempt to stake a presumably hidden vampire releases a gushing red torrent that proves to be wine. When Shagal sneaks into the duo’s room to close off the bathroom, he’s seen at first to have what looks like huge fangs jutting from his mouth but prove to be nails. Other comic sights have a more subtle, weird inflection, like Alfred placing heated cups on Abronsius’ skinny, pale blue back, or a shot of Abronsius sprawled asleep over a desk, his snoring gusts causing a piece of paper to flutter and unfurl, straight out of a Looney Tunes animated short. The silent comedy influence becomes clearer in Polanski’s lyrical sense of peculiar motion, watching Alfred and Abronsius trying to ski across the snowy landscape, or lope from block to block on a castle battlement, Abronsius’ long, stork-like limbs and Alfred’s rubbery physique providing a study in constantly linked yet distinct modes of ambulation. Late in the film comes a priceless piece of visual comedy based in the nearly Escher-like sense of the castle’s geography, as Alfred tries to flee Herbert, dashing at speed around the balcony over the castle courtyard only to arrive back face to face with his would-be lover-killer.

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Sarah’s assault by Von Krolock changes the film’s initial atmosphere, however, from one of general, oddly textured play to one charged with a rather darker undertone. A few flecks of fairytale snow falling onto Sarah’s bathwater alert her to something strange, and she glances up to see Von Krolock floating down towards her with red eyes and long teeth. As he would do more extensively on Chinatown (1974), Polanski switches to hand-held shots to evoke physical urgency and distress, as Von Krolock pinions Sarah and bites her neck as she thrashes in the water, soap and water flying, and when he departs he leaves only a red stain on her bath bubbles. There’s a charge of genuine disquiet that certainly feels consistent with Polanski’s more familiar, dire portrayals of intimate violence. The scene is further augmented by one of the film’s most remarkable elements, the music by Christopher (Krzysztof) Komeda. Komeda, a jazz musician and another of the people involved with the film who died tragically young, had scored Polanski’s three previous movies, and here he provided one of the greatest and weirdest film scores with stark, throbbing instrumentations interwoven with vocal ululations, remixing familiar aspects of many a horror score – organs, harpsichords, ominous choruses – into a truly weird melange, reaching an apogee during Von Krolock’s attack. And yet Polanski sneaks in a fillip of humour here too as Alfred, catching sight of Von Krolock through the keyhole and cringing in tongue-thrusting, ferret-eyed fear.

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The Shagals’ distraught reaction to Sarah’s vanishing treads a line between the two states, at once a depiction of parental grief and vaudeville shtick. Shagal heads out into the snowy night to try and bring back Sarah, girding himself for battle by chewing up garlic cloves. This proves an insufficient defence, however, as he’s found outside the next day frozen into a bizarre sculpture and riddled with vampire bites that Abronsius uncovers with justified satisfaction, although the rest of the villagers continue to obfuscate and call them animal bites. Abronsius tries to convince Rebecca her husband’s body needs to be staked, only for her to chase the vampire hunter off at the point of his own stake. So Abronsius and Alfred decide to do the job themselves, cueing one of Polanski’s best pieces of visual humour, as the two men pause to crouch down by the table Shagal’s corpse is laid out on, and take out vampire killing implements only to see Shagal revived and watching them in grinning bemusement. Shagal flees as eludes the hunters in the wine cellar, and attacks Magda in her room. The dynamic duo give chase on skis to Shagal as he dashes out into the countryside, leading them to Von Krolock’s castle. The ski pursuit becomes a lyrical moment of physical action upon vast spaces of snowy land stained blue in the moonlight, ski track cutting the frame with ribbons of blue and lines of action following contorted geometry.

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The familiar heroic figure of the Van Helsing-type vampire slayer, the iron-willed and well-versed enemy of evil, is perverted into an extended and acerbic joke about intellectual dilettantes, taking on monolithic evil with tunnel-visioned confidence and book learning. McGowran’s peerless comedic performance presents Abronsius as a man of no small mental muscle – witness how cleverly he extracts himself and Alfred from being imprisoned by Von Krolock by making use of an old cannon – but who’s also the epitome of the absent-minded professor, aging, distractable, and hardly a dynamic swashbuckler. Abronsius is too often more absorbed in and pleased by proving himself right than cognisant of entering a dangerous situation and provoking his quarries. He and Alfred evoke many a classic comedy team, transposing Laurel and Hardy into Hammer Horror, constantly getting themselves into another fine mess, or a subtler take on Abbott and Costello’s adventures in horror-comedy. Polanski had been acting in movies as long as he’d been directing them, having appeared in Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (1955) in the same year he made his first short, but he was still taking a chance on casting himself as Alfred, a role that would’ve certainly fit some British comic actors of the day like Michael Crawford or Norman Wisdom. But he might have been precisely hoping to avoid making the role too comedic in the familiar sense: Polanski’s gawkily handsome, rather boyish façade and light Slavonic whistle lend a faint abstraction, and he managed to balance his characterisation at the intersection of comic foil, romantic lead, and holy fool. Tate, for her part, gives a deft comic performance, bewitching Alfred with painted-on freckles and mane of red hair, although she’s not in the film for much of the runtime, inhabiting it more as an elusive dream.

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The funny – or unfunny, depending on your viewpoint – thing about The Fearless Vampire Killers is the way it mediates Polanski’s essential themes, more often articulated in bleak psychodramas, in a style usually considered beyond his purview, although he’d make periodic returns to black comedy for sharply diminishing returns on What? (1973) and Pirates (1986). The figuration of a monstrous and all-powerful overlord who lays claims to the young innocent would be taken up again in Chinatown. Polanski gained attention with his early films for his stark sense of setting matched to a fascination with psychology and power and the nexus of the two, couched in a ready lexicon of modernist literature and art. Knife in the Water, set mostly on a sailing boat in dead calm stretches off Poland’s Baltic coast, isolated his characters in a setting stringent in its lack of orientation, turning space claustrophobic; in Repulsion he did the opposite, as a tight London apartment became, through its heroine’s viewpoint, a plastic space remade by her own crumbling psyche. Cul-de-Sac’s setting mediated the two, private castle perched atop an islet separated from the mainland by vast reaches of sand and mud. Polanski’s feel for landscape echoed Salvador Dali’s hallucinatory plains, abstract spaces of time and memory, a fitting setting to deploy dramas laced with influences from culture heroes like Kafka, Ionesco, and Beckett, mixed in with pulp fiction tropes.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers revolves around a detected likeness between the icy satire and allusive yearning for meaning in Kafka’s The Castle and the traditional format of the vampire tale, as the vampire killers are caught between obfuscating villagers and the dominating castle which they try to penetrate and locked in an extended game of politesse covering mutual intent to destroy. Like Kafka, Polanski was a product of the Eastern European Jewish experience, although the terrible experience of World War II separated them. The little humiliations and descriptions of a perverse and purposefully illogical social structure Kafka depicted had given way long since to mass murder and destruction and then resumed a superficial placidity with imposed political order: Polanski knew intimately about both. The Fearless Vampire Killers, in its own mordant, frisky way, analyses the familiar vampire myth as codified by Bram Stoker in a manner attentive to its purpose as political parable, an aspect usually kept as a strong subtext in the vampire movies of Fisher and Don Sharp, whose Kiss of the Vampire (1963) seems to have been a particular touchstone for Polanski and Brach. In offering vampires as an inferred stand-in for the impacts of Nazism on the landscape of his homeland, Polanski both echoed and also repatriated the theme after Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943), which offered the same idea except as a warning over invasion and subterfuge. The devolved and desiccated remnants of aristocratic power still nonetheless rule the locale Abronsius and Alfred enter in blithe disinterest for the laboured efforts of academic do-gooders, the gnarled and desiccated ranks of the undead still wrapped in shabby robes of power and crawling out of their coffins to suck the life out of the few remaining specimens of beauty and potential left. Polanski uses vaudeville shtick to soften ever so slightly a tale of malignant power that starts out as a purely regional ill before gaining a chance to spread across the world.

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The comedy-horror film has always been a difficult tightrope to walk. Many a great horror film has made capital from characters’ natural habits of making quips amidst menacing surrounds, conspiring with the audience’s temptation to do the same thing in order to undercut it. But Polanski aimed for something distinct, and also different from a more straight-laced kind of spoof, which aims to disassemble familiar tropes and making sport of them, but tries to dig down to that niggling nerve where horror and humour converge, as different expressions of anxiety. A much later brand of gross-out movie, like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (1991), would adopt a quick path to stoking appalled laughter by deploying outrageous visions of gory depravity, whilst something like Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011) offered an essay analysing the function of genre essentials even whilst provoking laughs at their recognition. Polanski followed more a model employed by the old Bob Hope vehicles The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), and which would in turn also be taken up by An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Ghost Busters (1984), where funny characters are unleashed in a situation that obeys classical horror genre rules.

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Mayne’s terrific performance as Von Krolock works in part because he’s assigned to play the traditional vampire master totally straight except with dimensions of deep existential dread and mocking humour aimed at Abronsius and Alfred, who he knows are unworthy foils. A sight like Downes’ Koukol, with overgrown pageboy haircut and colossal buck teeth, crouched in a pose reminiscent of a Hanna-Barbera animated grotesque but with a huge axe in his hands, somehow manages to be bizarrely funny and genuinely menacing. Much like the yacht of Knife in the Water, the flat of Repulsion and the castle of Cul-de-Sac, the labyrinthine sprawl of Von Krolock’s castle becomes a stage where the human interlopers’ efforts to prove themselves in control founder amidst the ridiculous. Polanski offers homage to Laurence Olivier’s films as director, as his vampire homestead becomes, like Olivier’s Elsinore in Hamlet (1948), a twisting, mimetic trap for behavioural perversity, whilst late in the film he includes a dancing vampire who looks like Olivier’s Richard III. Polanski suggests a sense of Horror cinema history as the echoing singing of Sarah recalls the haunting melodies echoing in dark places in the Val Lewton-produced Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher (both 1945). Alfred and Abronsius spend their time lurching around the confines of the castle and yet find themselves ludicrously ill-equipped for some simple breaking and entering, unable to come to grips with their enemy even when prostrate before them, often locked up in small rooms by Koukol, and reduced finally to literally running around in circles.

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Von Krolock plays the indulgent, engrossed host for Abronsius and Alfred once they gain access to him, confessing a liking for the Professor’s book on bats and drawing him into an extended, increasingly silly attempt to sustain his cover story over chasing a bat flying well out of season. The heroic duo’s efforts to penetrate the family crypt see them fended off by an axe-wielding Koukol at the gate, so they stagger around the battlements to access it by a skylight. Alfred slips through but Abronsius gets stuck, so the Professor tries to coach Alfred through staking the Count, but Alfred lacks necessary killer instinct. Alfred’s attempts to circumnavigate back out of the crypt and around again to the roof to pull Abronsius free are delayed when he hears eerily melodic singing echoing around the castle, and encounters Sarah bathing, preparing happily for her role as guest of honour and unwitting main course at the Von Krolocks’ annual ball and hiding the bite wound on her neck with a lock of hair. The love-struck Alfred tries to convince her to leave with him immediately, but as he scratches a love heart on the frosted window sees Abronsius still jammed in the skylight and dashes out to free him.

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The recurring joke about people being frozen solid or near enough makes sport of the farceur tradition’s sense of elastic physicality by making actors at once exploit their muscular control but also deny it: they become an object. It also offsets one of the film’s most fervent concern, with human (and inhuman) connection, peculiar pacts and perversities rooted in mutual need. Alfred’s love for Sarah and desire to rescue the damsel in distress offers the most traditional frame but the same force binds Alfred to Abronsius and makes Herbert fall for him, makes Von Krolock play “pastor” to “my beloved flock,” and drives Shagal to madcap excursions in his efforts, both alive and undead, to claim Magda: even the dead can’t stand being alone. Von Krolock touches his son’s arm with a tender solicitude as Herbert gazes mournfully out upon another sunrise as they prepare for sleeping in their coffins. Malignant as they are, Polanski sees even his vampires as creatures beset by pains of solitude and need echoing on with strange intensity across aeons rather than the mere lifespan of humans. Such need is however also repeatedly seen to be consuming: to love is also to destroy, to consume.

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Understandably, then, high-flown romantic chestnuts come in for a ribbing as well as horror clichés, as Alfred digs a book out of Von Krolock’s library entitled “A Hundred Goodlie Ways Of Avowing One’s Sweet Love To A Comlie Damozel” for the purposes of wooing Sarah, only for Herbert to snatch it from his hands and start using it to guide his own advances: whereupon Alfred finds the book remarkably useful not as lubricant but as a prophylactic – shoving it into Herbert’s mouth to ward off his bite. When Alfred and Abronsius manage to infiltrate the ranks of dancing vampires Alfred announces himself to Sarah as her saviour: “It is I!…life has a meaning once more.” A late gag, which also signals the final veering into territory close to romantic tragedy, takes a swipe at La Boheme as Alfred grips Sarah’s frigid fingers and exclaims, “Your tiny hand is frozen!” When Alfred tries to track down Sarah again when he thinks he hears her singing, he finds the squeaking voice is actually a water pump Herbert’s pumping. Meanwhile Von Krolock tells the vampire slayers, with a blend of mordant irony and pride as they watch the vampirised Shagal snatching Magda from the Inn via telescope, that the innkeeper’s been blessed with the restoration of his youthful vigour and life-lust. But Shagal, tasked with helping Magda dress to be another guest of the ball, finally gets too greedy and accidentally kills her in drinking too much of her blood.

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The social element to Polanski’s satire resurges as Shagal finds to his chagrin that Koukol won’t let him share the Von Krolock family crypt with the Count and Herbert, even dragging the newcomer out in his coffin and kicking him down stairs into the adjoining cemetery. Yes, even the undead have their undesirables and their clubs that won’t let Shagal’s kind in. When Alfred later penetrates the crypt, he finds, in a moment at once hilarious and pathetic, that Shagal’s still managed to get back in and has curled up, like a faithful dog, on top of Herbert in his coffin. Von Krolock hints at the kind of existential angst Werner Herzog and Francis Coppola would later dig into with their variations on the Dracula tale, as he promises to Abronsius that once he’s a vampire they can talk it all over during “the long evenings,” Mayne wittily stretching out the enunciation with both threat and also aspects of pain he’s all too happy to share with his enemy. Von Krolock clearly fancies himself not merely as patriarch to his vampire clan but a kind of priest-king who ministers to his “flock” and considers it an exalted status, promising Abronsius that he’ll understand “when you attain my spiritual level.” And yet Polanski undercuts Von Krolock’s pretences as he keeps revealing the animal edge of his behaviour, his leering, toothy visage as he hovers over Sarah, and baring his fangs as he torments Alfred, only to quickly hide them again as he resumes a veneer of haughty dignity: Von Krolock’s quasi-Nietzschean faith is actually Hobbesian nightmare.

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When his undead cotillion begins arriving for the ball, they crawl out of their graves and assemble in his hall, a collection of rotting, mouldering visages wrapped in dusty clothes from an ancien regime still clinging to existence in its cordoned corner of the world. Although it’s hinted the vampires’ success in retaining overlordship of the district has been self-defeating as fewer travellers bother coming there. Von Krolock, after saluting his brethren with the devil’s horns gesture, rouses them with a speech promising a feast this year after the gloom of the previous ball: “There we were, gathered together gloomy and despondent, around that single, meagre woodcutter.” Von Krolock plays the triumphal impresario as he bids his guests come closer before unveiling Sarah as bauble that will sate unholy hungers. The pivotal moment of the climax, and perhaps the film’s most ingenious melding of the droll and the surreal, comes when Alfred, Abronsius, and Sarah try to disguise their efforts to escape the vampire ball as part of the dance, only to find themselves confronted by a huge, dirty but still effective mirror affixed to the ballroom wall. Of course, the hapless trio are the only ones reflected in the glass, prancing puppets in foolish exposure.

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Tellingly, this is again a joke based in social distinction, the ultimate act of being outed as an outsider. It’s reminiscent, in a distant but crucial manner, of the moment where Tom Cruise’s Dr Harford is unmasked by a similarly controlling, perverse, youth-and-beauty-consuming crowd in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The main difference is that in Polanski’s film the bloodsucking is entirely literal. Alfred and Abronsius’ know-how proves equal to the moment, however dumb they look, however, as they improvise a huge cross out of old knightly swords and place it on the floor to keep the vampires at bay. Von Krolock sends the unaffected Koukol after them, and Koukol uses one of the coffins he’s fashioned as an improvised sled to chase down the sleigh the humans escape in. Koukol miscalculates, however, and crashes over a precipice to become food for the vengeful wolves. It seems like a victory for good, an unlikely yet hard-fought end for such dopes. Except that Sarah, possessed by the vampiric taint left in her bloodstream by the Count’s bite, unveils massive fangs and sinks them into Alfred’s neck. The oblivious Abronsius cracks the reins and transports the infected duo out into the world, free to transmit evil unchecked. A perfect resolution for Polanski’s stringent ransacking of genre familiarities, and one in keeping with the filmmaker’s career-long habit of ending on a downbeat note of misanthropic assessment. Alfred’s naively charming ardour proves, far from ennobling him, to be the ripest target for evil to find a purchase in.

Standard
1960s, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Peeping Tom (1960)

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Director: Michael Powell
Screenwriter: Leo Marks

By Roderick Heath

The tale of Peeping Tom’s rejection upon release, and the way it doomed Michael Powell’s directorial career, is today inseparable from its mystique. After twenty years spent as one of Britain’s most respected and high-profile filmmakers, Powell ended his “The Archers” production partnership with Emeric Pressburger following Ill Met By Moonlight (1958) and carried on alone, even the signature Archers logo sequence featuring an arrow hitting a bullseye now amended for a solo act. Tired of trying to subsist in the increasingly mundane mood of late ‘50s British film, Powell seems to have seen a way out as horror films and thrillers regained popularity: fierce thrills awaited. Powell had never really worked in Horror before, although his early quickie The Phantom Light (1936) had offered a playful lampoon of genre canards. Having worked early in his career as still photographer under Alfred Hitchcock, Powell went to the same well the Master of Suspense was about to have his biggest hit in drawing from, with Psycho. It’s generally forgotten now that as Psycho opened in cinemas many critics and cinema figures wondered if Hitchcock had gone too far. Hitchcock might have taken some warning from Peeping Tom’s fate, as he bypassed critics at first, letting the audience set the pace. The film’s colossal success essentially forced an entire culture to roll with it. No such restraint was offered Powell.

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Whereas Hitchcock was strictly associated with his niche genre and knew how to playfully mediate his persona so that even his darkest provocations could be made to seem mischievous rather than malign, and the gore and provocation of the Hammer Films product was veiled relatively in a relatively benign and stylised historical setting, Powell situated his in the immediate, full-colour present. Not that he was alone in that, either: the likes of Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) offered studies in tabloid cruelty not that dissimilar. But no one expected better of such movies. Powell however seen as a fallen angel of prestige film turning to a debased genre by the British press, which would maintain its punitive view of horror films through to the “Video Nasties” debate of the 1980s. Powell’s oeuvre was ransacked for evidence he’d always been a pervert. Plenty of evidence was available, from the hothouse eroticism and maniacal assaults of Black Narcissus (1946), the consuming down-home passions of Gone To Earth (1950), the erotically useful statue coming to murderous life in The Thief of Baghdad (1940), the glue-wielding small-town enforcer of A Canterbury Tale (1944), and the sadomasochistic view of artistry in The Red Shoes (1948).

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Such analysis was perfectly correct. Powell and Pressburger had made their names offering their unique cinema in an age of grim and intractable facts, ironically countering with narratives celebrating an almost obstinate perversity in individualism and applying a psychologically aware, layered texture taking inspiration from fairy tales and theatrical fantasias to otherwise grounded stories. Powell and Pressburger’s partnership, and the films they made in the 1940s, exemplified a strange variety of idealism fired by the war and its immediate aftermath, a desire to express the human urge at all extremes, even the irrational and disturbing. Powell noted later that The Red Shoes’ success seemed rooted in the way it gave permission for people, after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, to now go out and die for art, whilst The Archers’ written manifesto had the quality of a crusade in just that fashion. But the swooning cinematic fervour of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘40s heyday had been slowly corroded by forces without, as audience tastes changed, and also within. The very lightly satirical frothiness of Oh Rosalinda! (1955) felt forced, and the darkness crowding at the edges of The Red Shoes, Gone To Earth and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) betrayed a desire to dig deeper into the nightmarish and neurotic, held in check by a love of colourful style that threatened to become mere artifice. Powell and Pressburger’s last two works in official partnership, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight, had seen their eccentric art turned upon the reminiscences of the war, fine works that were nonetheless products of creative wills entrapped by the rest of the culture’s inability to look forward.

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Peeping Tom saw the black beast suddenly bust out of its chrysalis, but it paid the price. Later Powell would note with acidic acuity that a film no-one wanted to see in 1960 became, thirty years later, the film everyone liked. The funny thing about Peeping Tom is that it’s a thriller without thrills. Psycho kept the mystery of Norman Bates in the shadow until the end, psychology offered at the end by way of explanation as also as source of sour, sceptical humour, betraying Hitchcock’s ultimate unwillingness to betray the mystery and insidious will of the killer to mere jargon, whilst also allowing him to sustain the basic precepts of a mystery, uncertain as to where threat will resolve and in what form. Peeping Tom is even more dubious about the science of psychology, but is also more straightforward on that level. It tells us in precise and insistent terms why its antiheroic killer Mark Lewis (Karlheinz ‘Carl’ Boehm) is what he is, and presents his situation more as a pathetic character study, anticipating later works like Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1987) in offering the killer not just as roving embodiment of the audience’s hunger for violent thrills but as active antihero, a perspective you’d rather not share but are forced to identify with. We’re left alone with a madman, and obliged to cringe when justice comes close and grit teeth as someone violates his private world. Powell doesn’t really try to create any traditional sense of suspense, but rather a queasy certainty, a grim patience.

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Peeping Tom inspires an almost desperate empathy for Mark, who’s working through a psychosis he has no control over and all but begs for someone to intervene, only to be foiled by good English traits like politeness and neighbourly respect for privacy, plus a more general incapacity to read the screeching eyes of the quiet, polite, good-looking young man. But Peeping Tom manages to grope its way to the far side of the bright light to find the shadows again, in the way it offers an active assault on the very drive to make and watch cinema. Peeping Tom offered a ripe fetish object for cineastes for the way it puts the act of seeing and filming front and centre as a pathological act. Peeping Tom’s time was in the future, when the desire to both experience and capture experience, to see and be seen all at once, became all-consuming and technologically enabled. The opening sequence inevitably offers a point-of-view shot through Mark’s movie camera, hidden under his trenchcoat, as he approaches a blasé prostitute, Dora (Brenda Bruce), follows her up to her room, and then assaults her. Her screaming, makeup-emblazoned face becomes a hallucinatory vision of femininity and fear.

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At the climax, the hidden facet of Mark’s modus operandi is revealed, a polished lighting parabola that reflects back the image of the victim’s own screaming face at them, turning the act of murder into an inescapable, infinite, yet depthless succession of seeing and being seen. But the reflection is distorted, a Picasso mask, a grotesque revision grafted onto the face of the killer. Mark seeks to document the perfect and absolute moment of terror that’s also transcendence, where object is image, the dying person with no future or past, only the terrible eternity of death/recording. The very first shot of the film, however, is a carefully aestheticized glimpse of a seedy London backstreet, the light of the streetlamps pooling red on the cobbles. As a shot it clearly refers back to a passage in the central ballet sequence of The Red Shoes, where the bewitched heroine finished up exiled in similarly nightmarish spaces, grazing against women of the night twisting like gargoyles. The darkest corner of that film’s conjured psychic landscape here has become the entire world, and the film stumbles into a hall of mirrors it can’t escape until the very end when Mark treads a gauntlet of cameras mimicking those mirrors, entrapping his image from every vantage.

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The credits sequence, unfurling after the preamble of Dora’s murder, essentially repeat the sequence, except now in black and white, without sound, projected upon a screen in Mark’s flat: the act of watching Powell’s movie is directly connected with the act of Mark watching his own. Powell’s regular composer, the great Brian Easdale, offers a single, relentlessly neurotic piano thrumming away in mimicry of a silent movie accompanist as Mark watches his personal cinema of cruelty with its little flourishes of artisanal signature, as when Mark shoots the discarded box of his film reel as he dumps it in a bin. Peeping Tom’s script was written by Leo Marks, a former cryptographer and son of a bookstore proprietor who packed the film with characters he recalled from his youth observing the types coming in and out of the store. The film is then deeply rooted in a sense of suburban London as a place of property and exchange. Mark has turned his father’s large and potentially lucrative building into a boarding house but his obsessions lead him to scarcely pay attention to it, not even the money he makes from it, in a manner opposed to the film studio boss (Michael Goodliffe) and the corner newsagent (Bartlett Mullins), both of whom employ Mark and are out to make money in part through retailing desirable imagery.

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Powell’s perspective amplifies all this in making Peeping Tom as an infinitely sarcastic panorama of British society from the specific viewpoint of a filmmaker. The commoditised sex of the streetwalker represents the lowest, and yet least falsified stratum. Next is Mark’s job shooting nudie pictures of a pair of models, Milly (Pamela Green) and Lorraine (Susan Travers), bound to be sold under the counter to respectable pervs like the elderly customer (Miles Malleson) who comes to the newsagent on recommendation, and walks away with a folio of them bundled with the label “Educational Books.” Quite. The highest level is the movie studio where Mark works during the day as a focus puller, engaged on a shoot of a bright and chintzy romantic comedy set in a department story, replete with consumerist pleasures. The shoot pits the increasingly infuriated director Arthur Baden (Carl Esmond) against his unpliable and amateurish starlet Diane Ashley (Shirley Anne Field), who just won’t faint the way he wants. Like Norman Bates, Mark is blessed with counterintuitive purity in his indifference to money or other material interests not relating to his specific mania, seeming rather a romantic ideal of a shy, unworldly yet good-looking young man.

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His tenant, the librarian and budding author Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who lives downstairs with her blind mother (Maxine Audley), is intrigued precisely by Mark’s fleeting, toey presence. Coming up to bring him a piece of her birthday cake, leaving behind her flat full of her birthday party guests, Helen talks Mark into showing her some of his films as a present. Mark obliges, in a gesture laced with urges towards both sadistically discomforting Helen and revealing his own pain to a confessor, shows her footage of a young boy filmed by his father: it becomes clear that the boy is Mark and the film was taken by his father, an experimental psychologist who used his son as a guinea pig for his experiments, particularly his obsession with recording fear. This is recorded all too vividly in shots of the elder Lewis waking his son in the night with torches shining in his eyes and a lizard tossed onto his bed, and even his grieving beside his mother’s body as she readied for burial. Helen is understandably disturbed by such a privilege, but it also deepens her fascination with Mark and his intense, seemingly self-sufficient private world and mode of mystic transport, to the point where she seems to transmute it for a children’s book she writes about a magic camera.

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It’s tempting to read this facet of Mark relationship with Helen’s as a metaphor for Powell’s with Pressburger, Powell noting his release from Pressburger’s magic-realist lilt and elegiac sensibility, stuck pondering how to isolate his own, more carnivorous instincts. The way Peeping Tom foregrounds the theme of scopophilia and the receptivity to it of cineastes perhaps invites a touch of scepticism in itself, lest it totally displace other aspects. Suffice to say Peeping Tom is also a cold lampoon of forms of childrearing that insists on imposing rational adult concerns upon the frail, fantastical, protean nature of childhood, and a dissection of repression in sexual terms and also cultural. The film offers a rare feel for a London caught between the immediate pall of exhaustion in victory that defined the post-war period and the glitter of the Swinging London age. Powell’s acidic caricature of the kind of anodyne, brightly-coloured moviemaking popular in the late ‘50s ties in with the general portrait of a grubby and rundown era, filled with people cut off from all sources of authentic passion save what simulacra they can by under the counter or glean from a movie screen. Mark inverts the proposition by trying to make movies out of the stuff of reality, manufacturing his scenes directly where Baden tries to bellow them into being. Life provides him with all the apparatus of a good movie. Life, death, danger, mystery, beauty, savagery.

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The ironies of image-mongering are highlighted early on as Mark photographs the two porn models, making Milly pose on a bogus set representing a fantasy of Parisian sleaze, and discovering to his mesmerised fascination that Lorraine has a scarred and twisted lip. “He said you needn’t photograph my face,” Lorraine snaps, only for Mark to take up his cinecamera and approach with almost loving coos as the attraction of broken beauty accords with his mania. Providing Helen with a blind mother, left out of the roundelay of image-making and smashing, was a borderline excessive idea in thematic underlining. But the film nonetheless employs her for enriching dramatic ends, as she becomes disturbed by her daughter’s interest in Mark and eventually gropes her way around Mark’s workspace, having entered it and lingered in the dark until he got a shock switching on a light to find her waiting. “The blind always live in the rooms they live under,” Mrs Stephens comments. Mrs Stephens is imbued with qualities close to the sagacious, not simply keener to sound and motion but able to sense, like her daughter, Mark’s glaring presence through her rooms’ ground floor window. When she feels his face to learn his features, Mark comments, “Taking my photograph?” She carries a cane that resembles Mark’s own weapon of choice, a metal spike on the end wielded as a device to ward off danger.

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“Instinct’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it Mark? A pity it can’t be photographed,” she tells Mark, sensing the obsessive and fetid nature of his experimentation, some code of the malignant transmitted through his footfalls, and then delivers the film’s watchword: “All this filming isn’t healthy.” Despite having her at bay, frightened and unsure, Mark can’t kill Mrs Stephens in his usual method, because of its futility for his ends: she can’t offer the endless mirror of self-seen death. Peeping Tom has a requisite dose of Freudian symbolism, particularly the inevitably phallic device of the key: Helen receiving a large cardboard card in the shape of one for her 21st signals her coming of age but Mark has no keys: he tells her his father never allowed him to have any and it’s become so habitual he leaves all his own rooms unlocked, his manhood stunted and impotent, and his lack of urgency in amending the fact suggests on some level he invites invasion and discovery. Late in the film it’s revealed Mark’s father rigged the entire house for sound, the reels containing all the shrieks and moans of Mark’s fear from years of being systematically terrorised still all available at the flick of a switch, a perverted family album: Mark has the rare privilege and nightmare of having his childhood available in instantaneous recall, without expurgation or pleasant vagary. Plus he has the talk of his tenants, chattering away in all their mundane states: even their transgressions and clandestine kinks retain the tinny ring of the predictable, the measly; Mark has a mission, however mad.

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Hitchcock had always kept his fascination for the act of looking as a form of voyeurism enclosed within the logic of his stories, allowing it to nudge the surface of Rear Window (1954), so Powell was going one better on the master by turning it into the essence of his psycho-thriller venture. Mark’s weapon, a leg of his clockwork camera’s tripod with a knife hidden within, brought to bear for murder, seems like a device an assassin might use in some vintage pulp novel. But Powell manages to make it an unnerving device, keeping the feature of real terror, the mirroring lamp, hidden until Mark confronts Helen with it, her face reflected back to her in a distorted travesty. Powell seems to obviously implicate himself in the study of cinema’s dark side by casting himself, in blurry cameo, as the late Dr A.N. Lewis, glimpsed in footage shot by his young second wife, stands with his son and gives him a fateful present – his first movie camera. Powell, whose messy private life saw him constantly falling in and out love of the women in front of his camera, knew well how enticing and diaphanous the object of obsession was: the protagonist of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) projects an elusive ideal onto successive performers. Mark’s desire to arrest the ideal image, to reduce it to the pure and unchanging state, gives sarcastic flesh to Powell’s self-accosting concept of the male movie director as perpetually frustrated fetishist.

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Peeping Tom seems on the surface of things antipathetic to The Red Shoes’ epic and free-flowing sense of creative passion, but both essentially chase after the event horizon where art and act, deed and performance, become unified, and the project of alchemising weak flesh and the pathos of life into a perfect totem can only end with the complete annihilation of self. Mark combines young romantic and twisted puppeteer as embodied separately by Craster and Lermontov in The Red Shoes; like Vicki Page, Mark ultimately destroys himself in perfect dedication to his art, or perhaps rather in ultimate obedience to a project imposed upon him. Powell twists the knife of likeness by featuring the star of The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer, as Mark’s second victim Vivian. Vivian works as a stand-in on the film Mark’s also working on, with its trenchant title The Walls Are Closing In. Vivian and Mark sneak back onto the sound stage, as Mark has asked Vivian to participate in a filming project he’s making. Vivian is easily seduced into Mark’s plot, through the hope of gratified yearning for stardom and glimmerings of romantic promise. Vivian limbers up by dancing to a jazz number on her tape recorder whilst Mark arranges the studio to facilitate the perfect visual record of his bloodthirsty art. Powell’s prowling camera and the loud colours of the set turn this sequence into a musical, more Stanley Donen than Powell’s usual look, however. Vivian’s cheerful, vibrantly physical presence couldn’t seem more alien to Mark’s boding purpose, spinning around the stage and leaping onto a camera, inverting the gaze, so Mark films her in return, “photographing you, photographing me.”

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The vignettes of Baden trying to make The Walls Are Closing In do more than show Mark at work and poke fun at bland cinema product, but offer a blackly comic echo of Mark’s real work, the snapping despotic male director and the blasé female star. Where Baden snaps in response to Ashley’s complaint that “I don’t feel it,” with “Just do it!” by way of sensitive direction, Mark’s more immersive method gets just the right performance out of his subject, but his technical execution proves off, provoking howls of anguish from Mark as he screens his footage of Vivian’s death. But he does get to make a covert record of the discovery of her body, hidden in a trunk to be used in an asinine gag sequence on the movie, Ashley screaming in shock as she discovers the body enclosed in the candy-coloured coffin, Mark’s (and Powell’s) incidental guerrilla assault on cutesy mainstream cinema, a turd on a wedding cake. Another nod to Hitchcock, the body hidden in plain sight in Rope (1948). “The silly bitch’s fainted in the wrong scene!” Baden bellows. Vivian’s murder brings the police to the studio, Chief Inspector Gregg (Jack Watson) and Det. Sgt. Miller (Nigel Davenport) taking the lead in a perplexed enquiry, neither dolts nor supermen but canny investigators faced with a pair of murders with no apparent connection, only a modus operandi as individual as a thumbprint. Mark hovers in the rafters, filming the investigators. The spillage of gleaming red pencils from his pocket seemingly dooms him, and yet he still eludes detection.

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Along with Psycho, Peeping Tom announced the arrival of a new, truly modern variety of horror film, refusing veils of the folkloric and psychologically symbolic, if in a way that draws mythological parallels into a hard and technocratic likeness – Mark’s camera becomes a version of the gorgon, the look that annihilates, his invention as torturous as Procrustes’ beds, his entrapped state of yearning labour echoing Tantalus and Sisyphus. But Powell’s model was harder to assimilate: Psycho’s narrative, dank and incestuous as its evocation are, nonetheless echoes outwards into the world, encompassing the collapse of an old system of morality in the glare of modernity, whereas Peeping Tom twists inwards into infinite self-reference, the camera, a signature device of modernity, allowing only a descent into death-dream, a place where hallucinations of people live on forever.

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Yet as Peeping Tom emerged from the dustbin of initial appraisal to become a cult object and then well-regarded classic, filmmakers latched onto it as a lodestone, a fittingly extreme portrait of their own obsession, a self-flagellating self-diagnosis. Brian De Palma would take the duel of watcher and watched as the basis for his entire career and deliver particular tribute with Raising Cain (1992). Martin Scorsese’s fascination with the film would permeate works like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) with their focus on monomaniacs in search of fellowship and glory. Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1987) would pay it heed in shifting attention onto its serial killer finding momentary rapport and potential rescue in a blind but otherwise entirely ordinary girl. David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) would offer a variation with a female protagonist with a similarly exploited childhood who becomes not a maker of images but a ruthless manipulator of them. And of course Peeping Tom’s vision found its revelation in the stage-managed triumphs and cruelties of reality television and the self-obsessed gazing of social media.

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The film’s second-last line of dialogue is a recording, the elder Lewis’ haughty declaration, “Don’t be a silly boy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” despite dedicating his life to giving his son things to be afraid of, seems nonetheless only like a particularly hyperbolic brand of very familiar tough-love patriarchy, delivering wounds with the purpose of strengthening against taking more. Casting the German actor Boehm was an odd touch, with his accent muted but still apparent in playing a character who’s supposed to be entirely English, but his smooth-faced, golden-haired visage and his speech imbue Mark with an aspect of alien allure, distinct in his environment, even as he tries to edit himself out of that setting, to become a mere mediating eye. His casting stirs associations with Powell’s familiar obsessions, a fairytale prince out of a Grimm tale raised by an evil alchemist, a broken Coppelia trying to reassemble itself, a child of the fascist age imploding like the lad at the end of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1946). When Mark encounters the psychiatric advisor Gregg brings to the film set to study the denizens, Dr. Rosan (Martin Miller), Rosan recalls not just Mark’s father and his work but also notes that “He has his father’s eyes,” incidentally confirming the way Mark is entrapped by both genetics and inherited obsession, the killing gaze. “Goodnight Daddy, hold my hand,” is the actual last line from the recording, echoing off into the dark, a whispered prayer for safety and understanding never answered.

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The bleak comedy of the movie shoot, once it recommences, sees Ashley unable to make it through a recast version of the would-be funny scene she was filming when she beheld Vivian’s corpse, her lines dissolving in hysterical moans: before she couldn’t feel the scene where she had to faint, and now can feel nothing else. Waggish cops hanging about quote cartoons (“I tawt I thaw a puddy tat!”) whilst the murderer lurks in the shadows. The depth of sardonicism apparent in Peeping Tom feels close to shocking considering the warmly humanistic lilt of Powell’s work with Pressburger, and yet it’s just as keen to flashes of warmth, the proofs of community, the displays of human wit and feeling, inherent in Helen’s approaches to Mark, in Vivian’s dancing, in Gregg’s attentive and unstereotyped policing and his love of a beer whilst watching the football on TV, and Mrs Stephens’ keen and confrontational obedience to her ways of knowing that necessarily bypass appearances. Powell’s refusal to be entirely rational and realisitc, an aspect that always manifested in his work and informed its perpetual distinction from the fussier, more strictly earthbound, empirical tenor of British dramatic art, cuts through the texture of careful realism and precisely observed psychology, like the preternatural awareness Helen and her mother have for Mark’s presence at their window.

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Significantly, Dr Lewis’s attempts to create an entirely rational and thus fearless son are a terrible failure: facing his own blade, Mark comments “I’m afraid, and I’m glad I’m afraid.” The rejection of reality is a necessary gift for the artist, but one that can easily be maladapted to incapacity to actually share it. Mark’s failed attempt to understand himself by speaking to Rosan instead helps Gregg finally grasp the truth, who has Mark tailed. Mark however is indifferent to capture or punishment, having already written the script for his end, and he blithely ascends to the makeshift apartment where Milly waits for him for another photo session: Milly, prostrate on a bed, breasts bared (a first in a mainstream British film, although clipped out of many prints), is the pornographic priestess invading a thousand masturbatory dreams but Mark can only cut apart like a clumsy editor. Meanwhile Helen, delivering her manuscript to Mark’s rooms with pride, can’t resist switching on his projector to see what he’s been filming.

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The horror is abyssal, but not bottomless. Helen forces Mark to explain how he killed his victims to deliver her from eternal fear, which proves to be the one grace Mark can offer anyone. Mark’s march of death, recorded for posterity, finishes up with him skewered upon his own weapon, collapsing dead with Helen fainted on top of him. It’s a familiar motif of horror cinema, the tortured monster seeking release in death and the woman who loves him even in knowing his darkness, not that far from The Wolf Man (1941). But in staging, we’re far from any traditional ending of a horror film, at once inhabiting a place closer to grand opera as a spectacle of death and love, but also caged by a dank room and the cold regard of Mark’s camera array, rhapsodic exultation plucked from the click of shutters and the frigidity of the lens. Even as Gregg and his men arrive, the old recordings of Mark’s fear and longing still play, but at least he’s delivered from them. Powell, in making the film, might well have dynamited his familiar career, but he was also freed, in a fashion. Eventually he’d wash up on an Australian beach, dreaming of nymphets and suntanned barbarian-visionaries.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle rather than making his own hell. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, particularly Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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1910s, Auteurs, French cinema, War

J’accuse (1919)

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Director/Screenwriter: Abel Gance

By Roderick Heath

Of all the great creators of early cinema, Abel Gance seemed the one born with the very stuff of the new medium in his blood, immeasurably talented and determined to stretch the new art to the absolute limit of expressive possibility. And yet he’s always been a figure with a complex legacy. The illegitimate son of a doctor and his working-class mother, Gance was brought up by his grandparents in a regional coal mining town until his mother married a Parisian chauffeur and mechanic, whose surname her son took. Although he left school at 14, Gance maintained a voracious fascination for art and history. Initially working as a law clerk, he eventually turned to acting, joining a theatre in Brussels. Gance started writing and selling film scenarios to Gaumont for 50 to 100 francs each, despite his initial disdain for the medium – “You could eat for three days on 50 francs,” he said in the 1960s, by way of simple explanation for getting into that line of work. He made his screen acting debut when he returned to Paris. He contracted tuberculosis, an ailment that would keep him out of the army, but after successful treatment Gance formed a movie production company with some friends, and released his first work as director at the age of 22, La Digue (ou Pour sauver la Hollande), in 1911. Gance made successful films throughout World War I, but signs of the ambition that would make him both a great filmmaker and a hapless victim of industry models and public taste were already manifesting.

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Gance would later complain of the total resistance to any sort of innovation he often encountered from studios like Pathe, which for a time wouldn’t accept any movies that didn’t shoot people entirely full-frame. His five-hour epic Victoire de Samothrace, which he refused to cut down, had trouble getting exhibited, and the proto-psychedelic La Folie du docteur Tube ran into trouble with censors bewildered by its distorted visual effects. But as Gance persuaded his backers to let him try making more psychological works, the films he started making, including Le Droit a la vie, Mater Dolorosa and La Dixième Symphonie (all 1917) proved hits, replete with signs of innovative visual gusto and rapidly maturing dramatic sensibility. Gance spent a brief spell in the French Army’s film unit in the last year of the war, an experience that left him deeply shaken and depressed as he witnessed the carnage and lost friends. After the war’s end, Pathé bankrolled his next film, a massive and potentially controversial undertaking. Borrowing the famous phrase Emile Zola levelled in attacking the state during the Dreyfus affair, Gance proposed a movie examining the terrible cost of the war.

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The result, J’accuse, was immediately acclaimed and immensely successful in France and the UK as a public reckoning with the war through film, in a manner echoed decades later by the likes of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Gance followed it with an even more ambitious work, La Roue (1920), initially nine hours long. After a detour with Max Linder’s comedy-horror film Au Secours! (1924), Gance hunkered down to begin work on a projected multi-episode portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. He only got to make one episode, which, at six hours long and composed of an astonishing stream of imagery, left his audiences overwhelmed as it was. Napoleon, upon release in 1928, and his sound follow-up The End of the World (1931), confirmed Gance as a beggaring genius of the medium, but also a creator who far outstripped the public’s readiness to keep pace. Although he kept making films on and off for another thirty years, he never regained the same edge of vision or artistic liberty, although he did after a fashion get to extend his Napoleon cycle with The Battle of Austerlitz (1960).

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But it wouldn’t be until Napoleon’s restoration and revival in the late 1970s, that it was recognised as a singular height of movie artistry, just as Gance passed away. As Gance’s two best known works, J’accuse and Napoleon seem on the face of it to offer nearly antipathetic attitudes, the former regarded as a bleak and critical antiwar tale befitting the immediate post-war mood of disillusionment and appraisal, and the latter a high-flown tribute to la gloire of Napoleon’s emergence as warrior chief exporting French Revolutionary values at the point of a gun. Gance pushed this vision to the point where some have accused it of being rather fascist in outlook. And yet J’accuse and Napoleon aren’t nearly as opposed as they might seem. Both are in large part works about the meaning of patriotism, tales where idealism and dank realism clash with often calamitous results. The giddy historical romanticism of Napoleon was couched less in love of war, which is portrayed just as ferociously and grimly as it is in J’accuse, than Gance’s faith in the nascent Emperor as a supreme example of human potential in general and the French in specific unleashed by the positive aspect of the Revolution. In short, the essence of a cause, whilst J’accuse expresses a sentiment demanding a sense of responsibility in the living as well – in short, a desperate search for a cause.

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Gance’s reflexive sensibility is somewhat represented in J’accuse by his hero, the provincial poet Jean Diaz, who is at once a celebratory voice of French culture based in his adoration of its landscape, and a social critic who wields Zola’s catchcry as a perpetual intellectual motto. Gance had taken powerful inspiration from D.W. Griffith, who returned the favour by helping Gance get J’accuse attention in the US. The influence of the first reels of The Birth of a Nation (1915) is apparent on the opening of J’accuse, depicting a small Provence town as the outbreak of war is announced and the populace celebrate by dancing in the streets and marching by firelight. Jean (Romuald Joubé) lives with his mother (Mancini) and longs for his childhood sweetheart Édith (Maryse Dauvray), who has been married to François Laurin (Séverin-Mars). The two former lovers gaze at each-other from the windows of their houses on opposite sides of the town square. Édith and François’ marriage took place at the behest of Édith’s father Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins), a former soldier from the Franco-Prussian War and staunch revanchist who keeps a map on his wall with the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, marked in black ink. François is Lazare’s idea of a surrogate son, a man’s man and potential warrior for his cherished fantasy war, with a penchant for hunting, drinking, and domestic violence, in about that order.

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Gance’s initial tableau portrayal of the Laurins’ home life sees Édith seated by the window in pining remove: Gance opens up the rest of a blacked-out frame to reveal François, sitting by his dining table, with a deer he’s killed spread out, dripping blood on the floor, as François gets hammered and is stoked to a livid rage when he catches his wife making eyes at Jean across the way. Gance segues into a brief but bloodcurdling vision of a terrified, semi-unclothed Édith at the mercy of François’ drunken attentions, grasping a handful of her hair and forcing her head back for a view of her nipples. Unsurprisingly, Édith seeks out solace with Jean, who approaches her on the banks of the river flowing by the town, but François hovers too attentively for any rekindling of their former romance. But François must serve the purpose for which Lazare has anointed him, and he joins the army, and Jean and Édith are free for a time to subsist in something like happiness. Catching wind of this thanks to his father-in-law, François returns home on leave and forces Édith to go live with François’ parents in a different town. But this proves to put Édith in the path of danger, and it’s reported, much to the grief of her father, Jean, and François, that she’s been captured during a German advance. Grief-stricken upon first learning of this development, François soon becomes convinced that Édith’s vanishing has been concocted to cover up the fact she’s now secretly living with Jean. Meanwhile Jean, given a personal motive to fight, joins up, and much to François’ surprise and disdain he soon finds himself under Jean’s command.

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The storyline of J’accuse has a basis in familiar melodrama, with its propelling tension of eternal triangle versus patriotic solidarity, with scenes like a shadowy suggested rape similar to what had been seen in many propaganda movies made during the war. And yet Gance methodically complicate it with nimble psychology and a web of allusions to his concept of the war and its social background. Jean is plainly presented as his symbol of France’s higher-minded aspect – “All intelligence, all melancholy, all tenderness, all France,” as an intertitle puts it. A sensitive artist at the outset, he is also a product of maternal values, whilst Édith has been stuck with her oblivious patriarch and brute of a husband. Lazare, described as “straight and simple as a sword blade,” is an emblem of the revanchist mindset and epitome of an armchair general – he gets word of Édith’s capture whilst he and some like-minds are pouring over a map and arguing strategy – who soon finds himself utterly stricken as the reality of the war claims costs from his pride and feeling he cannot pay. Gance’s stabs at a kind of panoramic social commentary, accusing people like Lazare of dooming a younger generation to slaughter and suffering, and propagating a violent mindset through arch nationalism, has an edge of immediate anger that’s as surprising and confrontational as the social criticism in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Édith is the encapsulation of the long-suffering female population, literalising the notion of invasion as a form of rape and subjugation. François at first represents a blunt and ignorant streak in the national character, but also qualities of native strength.

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As the story unfolds, Gance charts the changes to his characters and the smudging of their initial identities as the nature of war breaks down clean oppositions and forces hybridisation. Jean’s optimism as a poet is initially described through his book of poems entitled Les Pacifiques. His mother falls asleep in bliss as he reads to her the poem “Invocation to the Sun,” at the same point where later in the film she will die, suggesting Jean’s poem has a kind of metaphysical power too rarefied for a world he soon learns is infinitely cruel and grubby as well as bounteous beautiful. Jean proves himself every bit as gutsy and competent as François once he does become a soldier, taking the place of one of his soldiers for a solo foray across No Man’s Land to blow up a German ammunition dump, a deed that a CO tells him could just easily gain him a court martial as a medal: he earns the latter. François, a man without means to express himself like Jean, tries at first incoherently to impose will on things and people, but a weird streak of romanticism in the man first described as a drunken brute is revealed as he reverently fetishizes a glove of Édith’s he takes with him to war. Once Jean arrives at the front, he discovers François has erected a sort of shrine to his wife composed of such objects, a display that tells Jean that François, in his own way, loves Édith as much as he does.

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François’s shrine to Édith resembles a similar array in Lazare’s house, except that the old man sits in worshipful regard of his own old military paraphernalia. The rhymes of sexual obsession and militarist mania echo throughout J’accuse as both evoke forms of loyal and compulsion that override all good sense, stakes for which men live and die. At one point Gance depicts Lazare plucking at one of the shining buttons on François’ uniform, an amusing flourish that nonetheless underlines Lazare’s virtually erotic delight in soldierly trappings and his equally pseudo-erotic claiming of François as a tool for killing Germans. Eventually, as Édith returns home with the child she’s had after being raped by German soldiers, the two zones converge, plunder of body and nation sparking crazed reaction. Immersion in violence and soldierly responsibility ironically prove to humanise and mature François, and once Jean approaches him and begs his forgiveness for not realising François loved Édith as much as him, the two become inseparable comrades. But the shadow of jealousy doesn’t entirely depart them. Eventually Jean is given a medical discharge as he’s exhausted and ailing from assuming too much of his command burden, and he returns home. Eventually, with a spry humour, Gance has Jean’s mother and Lazare become furtive friends as each becomes an agent for their son, trying to find out what the other knows about Édith’s fate.

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On the same night Jean’s mother finally passes away after an illness, Édith turns up bedraggled and exhausted, having escaped from German occupied territory with her child, Angèle (Angèle Guys). Lazare, consumed with rage and shock as he beholds his family’s colonisation by his hated opposites, leaves with the intention of finding some way of avenging himself on the enemy, and vanishes, never to be seen again. When François next returns from leave, Édith, terrified that François might kill the child if he learns who she is, gives Angèle to Jean, who pretends it’s the displaced child of some relatives of his and determines to raise the child as perfectly French. The servants in the Laurin house, including solicitous maid Marie (Angèle Decori), help them keep the secret. But François soon comes to suspect some secret and believes Angèle might be Édith and Jean’s lovechild. He unmasks the deception by pretending that Angèle drowned in the river: Édith immediately dashes down the riverside in panic, only to find Jean and Angèle strolling together. François waits in Jean’s house for them to come there, and in the scene that follows sees François almost bash Jean’s head in before Édith manages to intervene and tell François the truth. François immediately resolves to return to the war to kill Germans, and Jean elects to return with him, this time as a private soldier.

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J’accuse unfolds in three episodes, each just under an hour long (the film apparently originally contained four, but Gance, always a tinkerer, edited it down, and now only the shorter version survives). Jean and François’ return to the front concludes the second part. For a film of 1919, J’accuse is a wonder of form, for Gance’s pace of editing and richly composed visuals, as well as the careful, rhythmic construction that becomes a form of conceptual rhetoric, taking us from personal drama to incantatory poetic device describing the downfall of a generation and the heavy load of its survivors. The near-delirious editing style Gance would push to the limit on Napoleon was already present here. It’s evident even in a functional early sequence where Jean and Édith look at each-other from their respective houses. Gance gives straightforward alternations of their faces in mutual regard, but the naturalism of the shots of Édith is contrasted by semi-abstract shots of Jean and his mother against a black background, making emblems of them, and creating the suggestion of internal dialogues as the mother’s face reveals aspects of pride and concern in her son’s ardour: Édith is a figure in the world where Jean and his mother are creatures of intangible ideal. Gance portrays the workings of Jean’s mind and Lazare’s through montages of the conflicting images that pace through their minds, Jean’s littered with visions of islands and oceans, setting suns and ghostly fantasias of Edith wandering in scenes pastoral and moonlit; Lazare imagines cavalry charges and maps of conquered territory. The sight of an owl, a potential evil omen on the night of the war’s start, offers at first only two strange, glaring orbs glaring out at the startled revellers from a field of dark, before the rest of the bird is lit up.

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Throughout the film Gance deploys interludes of symbolic drama and an ardour for mixing in fragments of literature and art like a distant ancestor of Jean-Luc Godard’s penchant for the same approach. Quotes from Corneille appear on screen. Artworks are arrayed in dialogue like an artistic representation of spring revels, which Jean keeps pinned over his bunk, giving way to Death riding in the sky over battlefields, and visions of dancing skeleton. These symbolic flourishes seem to have made a particular mark on Fritz Lang, who would recreate the Death motif in particular in Metropolis (1926). Radiant, pastoral illustrations are used to convey the sensibility of Jean’s poems, illustrations that are revised to dank and haunted images by the end. J’accuse, in its war scenes, certainly feels like the definition of the WWI epic as it would become a genre over the next two decades, with an immediate stylistic impact on Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and on through the likes of The Big Parade (1925), Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Westfront 1918 (1930), most of which would march protagonists through similar sagas commencing with the start of the war and the concomitant romanticism of the future young warriors and trace through a series of increasingly terrible and disillusioning events. But its influence might well echo further. Horror cinema had been a minor force before the war but J’accuse coincided with the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in defining the haunted spirit of the immediate era. The last part of the film hinges upon a more literal connection between the war dead and the spectre of an emerging army of revenants.

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Until then J’accuse remains anchored by its personal drama, which, despite its potential banality, Gance sells entirely through conviction and observant, humane sense of character. Gance’s ambition was to be the Victor Hugo of cinema, and he has a similar talent for balancing real art and raw melodrama. To watch the film is to embark on a long and compelling trek with his characters. He imbues the steely Lazare with an edge of amusing vulnerability as he strikes up a friendship with Mme Diaz, and works in some gentle humour as the two parents become interlocutors for their feuding and suspicious sons. Gance portrays François’ partial redemption and maturation after making the viewer loathe him at first, and even elicits some sympathy for him as he’s frustrated by Édith’s initial incapacity to see his growth. But Gance is also canny enough not to believe in total transformations, as François’ cruel streak when his jealous anger is raised resurges when trying to divine the truth about Angèle. Jean has an aspect of idealised self-portrait, a warrior-poet who finds his worldview tragically misshapen by frontline experience but whose artistic gifts serve a real purpose according to Gance. He fires up his fellow soldiers with inspiring rhetoric reminding them that “inside every Frenchman is a Gaul,” a notion Gance illustrates literally by having the shade of a Gaul, looking remarkably like Asterix, striding across No Man’s Land and through the trenches by the contemporary French soldiers, achieved with double-exposure shots. Jean’s vitality as an inspirer of men is later contrasted by his equal effect as an advocate for the dead and evoker of the spiritual as well as physical landscape, scar-pocked and corpse-littered, for the edification of the residents of his home town.

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Édith’s return from exile sees Gance illustrate her tale of woe by a flashback to her rape, portrayed with the silhouettes of the German soldiers projected against the wall with outreaching hand looming over her. The villains are abstracted almost into an existential threat in a shot almost exactly the same as the murderous Cesare attacking his victim in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The familiar world has become nightmarish, but the fruits of the nightmare are clasped in Édith’s hands, unveiled as Édith spread out the shawl she’s been wearing against the rain to reveal Angèle. Édith’s fear her husband would kill her child and Lazare’s departure to go looking for foreigners to kill is contrast by Jean’s mental refrain of “J’accuse,” this time illustrated with the words spelt out by bound and trussed figures tied in torturous forms to make the letters, over a painted image of a young female martyr sinking into water. Subtle Gance wasn’t, but the angry tallying of the abuses and responsibilities is very much part of his project. Jean even teaches Angèle how to write “J’accuse,” and later she helps him relearn the words when he’s terribly shell-shocked. Angèle is ganged up on by local kids who force her to play the part of a German soldier executing a prisoner, complete with Pickelhaube helmet jammed on her head, a prop she tosses in the fireplace once she returns in tears to her home.

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Such scenes ram home just how raw the wounds of the war still were when Gance shot the film: it’s not exactly a work of forgive-and-forget liberalism, but rather a tribute laced with smouldering anger for the conflict’s direct impact on the country and its inhabitants. The famous climactic scenes turn the accusations around on the civilian populace themselves. When Gance remade the film with sound in 1938 as an urgent plea for peace in the countdown to the next great war, he extended its narrative to also make it a pseudo-sequel where the returned Jean labours on an invention that could render war obsolete, again smacking of a metaphor for Gance’s hoped-for impact as an artistic voice. The editing gains pace again as Gance’s rhetorical efforts increase in the older film, as Jean and François become two casualties of a calamitous onslaught, during which Jean sees the dancing skeletons romping amongst soldiers in the midst of crumbling buildings and shell-punched battlefields. When a shell lands close to Jean and François whilst they talk, many of the men around them are killed and François is left in a state of near-lunacy.

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Not recognising François in his dazed state, he gives him a bunch of letters he wants sent to Édith at intervals so she’ll think he’s alive even if he’s killed in battle. Whilst Jean is hospitalised a grand battle unfolds, during which François is fatally wounded, and he finishes up in the bed neighbouring Jean, dying as they two men hold hands. Édith is the shocked witness to Jean’s return home, injured and almost deranged, but still aids him in getting people of their town to gather in her house. There, in the stark firelight cast out from her hearth, Jean begins to recite a tale, part poetic parable, part hallucinatory rant, in which he pictures himself as a solitary guard over a vast field of crosses under a sky of boiling cloud. The crosses become the corpses of the dead, which then begin to twitch and move, finally standing up and amassing into a vast new army that starts marching down the road, with Jean fleeing ahead of them in alarm. He tells the initially dismissive townsfolk that they’re coming to demand answers from the living – “If you’ve been faithful to your dead, you’ve nothing to fear” – and begins terrifying his peers by identifying their transgressions during the war, naming one as an adulterer, another as a high-living profiteer.

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The march of the army of the dead is explicitly counterpointed with the march of the living under the Arch of Triumph as part of victory celebrations, in a split screen effect: official pomp and rites of healing bought at the price of sanitising and suppressing the reality of loss. Bedraggled, bandaged, wound-pocked and white-faced, Gance’s soldier ghouls lurch up to windows and gaze in upon the living, shocking them into protestations of regret and faith. One who turns up is old Maria Lazare himself, along with François. This vision of almost cosmic horror and collective guilt does at last abate and find a vague sense of mutual compassion. The army of dead halt on the threshold of the house, and begin to retreat in sheer gratitude for being able to see their friends and loved-ones, marching back along the road, carrying their grave marker crosses. This gives a salve to the townsfolk, but the sight of Angèle helping Jean write “J’accuse” again on the mantelpiece disturbs Édith, and she realises that Jean really is mad. This climax is certainly one of the great sequences of cinema, silent and beyond, although its sits in fascinating tension with the rest of the film, which is precisely about the ambiguities of private situations and how they mesh with such a vast and impersonal epoch.

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Gance’s annexation of medieval imagery and outright embrace of a distorted dream vision that gives a voice to an unsayable truth clearly rhymes with the emergence of surrealism around the same time, as well as the nascent German Expressionist movement. Jean, the warrior-poet, enacts the general crisis of all humanist artists when confronted by the post-war world as he mocks his own pastoral idylls and instead conjures armies of corpses and alien landscapes: it’s like Gance is incidentally trying to portray the birth of twentieth century modernism and genres. Gance’s sensibility is ultimately directed outwards in opposition to such interiorised visions, however, his conjurations broad dramatic gestures. When he returns to his home, Jean thumbs through Les Pacifiques again and laughs in disdain for his naïvely perfect visions, and finally collapses, seemingly into a catatonic state, after accusing the sun itself of lying to humanity. If he’d made it just a couple of years later Gance might have allowed Jean to recover some sliver of the hope and meaning in his old work, but J’accuse ends with the wrenching sight of its embodiment of the national spirit left as a stricken, maddened ruin. Gance does admit one ray of light, quite literally, as the rising sun falls upon Jean’s prostrate form, suggesting that the long and evil night is over.

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2010s, Auteurs, British cinema, Mystery, Romance

The Souvenir (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg

By Roderick Heath

Joanna Hogg’s rise to something like eminence was a long time coming. After experimenting in photography when she left school, Hogg had a chance meeting with Derek Jarman that set her on the path to becoming a filmmaker, with the director even loaning her a camera to experiment with. Graduating from the British National Film and Television School in 1986 with the short film Caprice, starring Tilda Swinton, Hogg spent the next twenty years working in television and music videos. When the time came at last for Hogg to make her feature debut with 2008’s Unrelated, she was determined to work against the grain of every rule TV work had imposed upon her, making extensive use of improvisatory acting and telling stories based around the vague and even petty signifiers that make up much of our lives rather than programmatic melodrama. She followed it with a portrait in class tensions on holiday, Archipelago (2010), and the more recondite, allusive portrait of a couple of married artists, Exhibition (2013), a work that grabbed Martin Scorsese’s attention. Scorsese helped produce The Souvenir, a film that’s made Hogg something of the woman of the moment. The Souvenir purposefully takes on a well-worn artistic motif, casting its thoughts back to the milieu of Hogg’s creative youth in the 1980s.

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It’s the kind of story plainly charged with deep personal and autobiographical meaning, approached with the tint of unsentimental rigour middle age imbues whilst still capturing the sharp poignancy of the sorts of experiences that shock a person into full maturity and leave an indelible stamp on a creative mind. At the same time it’s a meditation upon such meditations, contending with the way such experience informs and infuses art. The Souvenir is also a study in ambiguity between people, even people who are nominally very close, the trouble with the yardsticks we’re obliged to use to understand and judge who those people are in comparison to ourselves. Hogg’s central character, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is confronted precisely by dissatisfaction with her own identity. The daughter of wealthy parents, she has a sizeable flat in Knightsbridge and a line of credit she can wheedle out of her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), but she’s attending film school and wants to make a movie about how the other half live, hoping to film a project about a young boy in the poor quarter of Sunderland who idolises his mother, a studied contrast to her own frustrating relationship with class and parents. It’s the mid-1980s and Thatcherism is in full swing, and so is an IRA bombing campaign, whilst post-1960s radicalism has faded to a background hum of barbed comments about privilege and desirable addresses and aspirations to social conscience expressed through art. Julie’s apartment is a magnet for nightly soirees of young arty types who rake over their ambitions, obsessions, and personal positions with forensic determination. Amidst one of these parties, a friend brings as a guest a man she describes as her lodger: Anthony (Tom Burke), a beefy, sullen-eyed chap in a blue pinstripe suit.

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Hogg opens with Julie’s black and white photographs of the blasted environs of Sunderland she wants to chart in her proposed dream movie project, a place in stark contrast to the classiness of her family abode and the upscale vantage of her flat, which overlooks Harrods. As the polite interest of her teachers and Julie’s articulate yet unimpassioned attempts to sell the project to them makes clear, it’s an elaborate act that stickily contrasts both the unofficial doctrines of write-what-you-know-ism and the niceties of cordoned interest. It also represents an attempt by Julie to shake herself out of a bubble. Which might succeed brilliantly (and could be correlated with the breakthrough works of some of Hogg’s fellows amongst the ranks of female directors rewarded for earnestly arty accounts of mundane lives in movies like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, 1999, and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, 2006), but feels more like an attempt on Julie’s part to find a voice rather than something welling out of her authentic creative imagination. Irony circles Julie, as her life is something like the popular conception of Englishness as held dearly by Tories and foreigners, rooted in country house and replete with posh venues – Julie and Anthony meet to chat in a restaurant that looks like a backdrop for a Henry James tale rather than, say, a McDonalds. Julie’s film school pal, Marland (Jaygann Ayeh), improvises a wry blues ditty about aspiring to such worthy climes.

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Hogg and Burke conspire deftly in the early scenes to keep Anthony an ambiguous entity, standing or sitting with face turned away from the camera, registering as a low drawling voice and physiognomy trapped within that suit, brushing by Julie as he first enters her apartment only vaguely registered. He listens to Julie at the party, looking down upon her as she tries to articulate her immediate ambitions, but later when meets her in that restaurant they’re directly opposed in telling attitudes of appealing openness and supine coolness. Anthony quickly begins engaging her in a manner that splits the difference between patronisation and intrigued challenging, an approach that energises Julie because there isn’t anything else to prod her in such a fashion, except for the broad sniping of her film school teachers. As Anthony comes into focus, so does Julie: where scenes of Julie with her friends or her mother are filmed in handheld shots, Julie’s encounters with Anthony are offered with the precious, detail-rich framing and lighting of a Dutch master painter, as the lovers leave behind the mundane spaces of home and school and roam art galleries and ritzy Venetian hotels.

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The artistic motif finds its lynchpin as the duo roam a gallery with its perfectly composed neoclassical features and fixtures, and admire Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s picture “The Souvenir,” which depicts a decorous, long-tressed maiden fervently carving her lover’s initial into a tree after receiving a letter from him. Anthony tells Julie he works for the Foreign Office, and claims to be involved with business that relates, somehow, to the IRA campaign and other clandestine threats. Such a picture with its idealised vision of romance filtered by distance and historical mores seems a great distance from the louche mores of modern London, and yet the artwork nonetheless speaks eloquently to an affair defined by ardour in a war with distance and obscurity. Julie’s romance with Anthony unfolds in a series of spasmodic advances, shifting from random acquaintances to lovers without gradation, and Anthony could be counted as a masculine equivalent to the “girl who came to stay” John Lennon sang about. Their relationship continues in much the same way. Anthony doesn’t seem on the surface of things a particularly odd person: the son of a successful artist with roots in the northern working class, he’s become an establishment operative, Byronic instinct wrapped a self-consciously maintained Whitehall package. And yet Anthony seems to hover on the fringes not just of bohemia but society in general, contrasting the dressed-down funk of Julie’s arty pals and carefully locating common ground with Julie by airily declaring his great love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose example he points to as a way of looking for artistic truth rather than mere realism.

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Much of the time Anthony seems to be posturing as an Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell character, the saturnine, superciliously knowing public servant who knows life and is only too happy to school his naïve and unfinished young girlfriend. But at home Anthony swans about in a floor length, brass-buttoned coat like a wannabe Dostoyevsky dissolute, and has a couple of tell-tale wounds in the crook of his elbow Julie notices one night in bed. During a dinner with Julie’s mother and father William (James Spencer Ashworth), Anthony successfully negotiates the trickiest of moment of the meet-the-parents occasion as he discusses the terrorist campaign and calmly responds to her father’s perfectly generic Tory opinion with his own position that he’s against the violence he sees being committed by both sides, but managing to seem perfectly reasonable and informed all the while. Meanwhile William recalls the staunch sectarianism of the colleges of Cambridge he attended. Julie and Anthony’s relationship becomes defined by transactions of credit, spiritual and literal. Anthony, after a polite waiting period, makes a play to claim more space in the bed with Julie. Anthony offers Julie the experience of being drawn into a larger world, of new and more complete standards of maturity, including post-graduate sexuality as he buys her lingerie, and she gives him a safe harbour.

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Eventually his most immediate and consequential secret is revealed to Julie when she and Anthony have dinner with her filmmaker friend Patrick (Richard Ayoade), who extemporises airily on shooting two features with equipment he liberated whilst nominally in film school and declaring that there are no good British musical films. Patrick then announces he can’t reconcile Julie’s apparent squareness with Anthony’s reputation as a habitual heroin user. Julie’s disquiet is plain although she officially takes it in her stride, as it hardly seems to be a great bother, even as Anthony occasionally gets her to drive him out to the boondocks to buy gear off seedy beings in backyards, claiming it’s “for work.” One day, just as she and Anthony are planning to go off on holiday to Venice at his suggestion, she finds her apartment has been ransacked and robbed. Anthony claims to have find it in such a state, but after they arrive in Venice he admits what she already suspected, that he robbed it in desperate need of funds for a fix. Julie often has to submit to the commedia dell’parents in calling up her mother to wheedle a loan out of her, usually under the guise of buying equipment, and has to ask for particularly egregious sums as she has to keep Anthony’s habit.

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Hogg thrives on the forms of tension and contradiction apparent in The Souvenir’s purview, presenting a tale of youthful folly and tragic learning from a cool and meditative middle-aged distance. What such a viewpoint loses in raw immediacy gains in being attuned to the sense of the surreal that can linger around such events, that did-that-really-happen? lustre that can light upon events remembered, as well as a more precise ledger for things gained and lost. The gaps in the movie are also the gaps in Julia’s knowledge of Anthony and herself. It’s an interpersonal, even domestic story, but nonetheless rhymed to larger phenomena. Hogg’s evocations of the ‘80s milieu extend beyond mere cosy shout-outs or wistfully recalled psychic geography. Much like the later era of Brexit, the artificial but effective allure of the Thatcherite era lay in its self-willed recourse to an array of icons and ideals of a bygone Britain utterly passé in any realistic sense but so deeply entwined with the national self-perception that it became suddenly recharged with glamour. Even the era’s pop music, with the elegantly glitzy sound of the New Romantics, declared a desire to unify the best of a self-mythologised present and an idealised past – although Julie’s social circle prefers the ganga-and-dole-cheque chic of The Specials. One of the sharper British films of the era, Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), named itself after an advertising creation posing as ye olde repast.

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British cinema, still picking itself up after the collapse of the early 1970s, also underwent a split in this period that still lingers, despite some attempts to bash down the divide, between a polished and classy, internationally popular mode of period dramas, and gritty and provocative realism, ironically banished to the art houses. Anthony, in his way, is the living incarnation of such a spirit, with his retro affectations and love for studied, bygone art, his continental jaunts and mumbled reports of guarding against skulduggery, albeit with the other foot planted in a raw and squalid reality, and even seems draw some charge from such disreputable disparities, whilst claiming to be a foot soldier in the official war against existential threats. Meanwhile Julie struggles to invent a form of aesthetic that can comprehend such schismatic ways of seeing. The film’s most crucial yet cryptic entwining of personal and public myth comes when Julie finds Anthony has left hand-made paper arrows trailing through her flat, leading up to a windowsill where he seems to have left a present only for the thud of a bomb blast to shake the apartment – Harrods down the road has been attacked by the IRA. Such a coincidence could be a spasm of Jungian synchronicity, but given Anthony’s sometimes confused references to his work and his generally screwed-up attitude it doesn’t feel entirely impossible he didn’t know about the bombing through the jungle drums of covert intelligence or was even involved in the bombing through some kind of false-flag operation and wanted Julie to know it.

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At the same time it’s just as possible Anthony’s just a professional bullshit artist, an intellectual kibitzer whose creative/destructive impulses turned inwards and arrested in form through drug use and siding with power. Hogg doesn’t make too much of this – it’s just one of those strange and bewildering moments life can throw up given a special flash of rare meaning, charged with an addict’s sense of paranoid connection. What’s more immediately alarming is the strange, tattooed, incoherent lowlife Julie finds in the flat when she returns to it, some connection of Anthony’s who might as well be a horror movie mutant suddenly erupting into Julie’s world: Julie freaks out and bundles him out as quickly as possible. Like many young creative people Julie gets bent far off course for a time by the sheer pleasure of a consuming romance, to the point where the solicitous Marland asks here where she’s been after her ardent and fixated early days at the film school. But she’s also becoming an artist through the perverse and ungovernable processes of life: the lectures on how to use a moviola or the function of editing in Psycho (1960) give way to the efforts of Julie and her fellows, including Marland and denim-skirted, piercing eyed Garance (Ariane Labed), to shoot their student film projects.

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Anthony’s encouraging Julie to look beyond mere fashionable or reflexive realism is ironically realised through the texture of The Souvenir itself, utilising a smart tension between her often jarring edits and the deadpan gaze of her camera to open up zones of ambiguity even when what’s being shot seems perfectly straightforward, and Hogg dramatizes the head-versus-heart split at the centre of the tale as a dialectic of values. The artwork that gives the film its title encapsulates an entirely bygone romantic sensibility that nonetheless still captures something of the obsessive fire of love. Hogg’s previous films viewed haute bourgeois mores and blind spots through the register of suggestion through environment, a la Michelangelo Antonioni, with an added gloss of real estate porn: character inextricable from location, obsessions with domain and property giving form to people rather than the other way around, as in Exhibition which described the lives of artists trying to sell their home and cope with the aftershocks of an unstated crisis in the recent past. Julie’s apartment has a similar potency, gifting her influence and notoriety, independence and authority, even if she doesn’t quite understand what to do with it all.

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It’s quickly become a cliché to describe Hogg as a social realist filmmaker albeit with a different perspective to the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Certainly The Souvenir registers minute vibrations of class and financial disparity, but it also studies the way personality operates lawlessly in such terms. Lebed’s presence bolsters the feeling of affinity with Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011), which, whilst quite distinct in its method, nonetheless similarly winnowed its portrait of awkward maturation down to a crux of tragic loss. Hogg occasionally interpolates fixed and ruminative shots of country landscapes whilst Julie reads Anthony’s letters with their stark and surprisingly ardent phrasings. This touch reminded me of Francois Truffaut’s shots of his letter writers reading their words direct to the camera in Two English Girls (1971), if with an inverted affect. The fire of personal communication is swapped for a cool longing for immersion in the calm reaches of pre-Romantic pastoral art with all its intimations of natural harmonies and sublime accords, but the same result in transmuting the staidness of the written word into a potent cinematic device.

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Common oppositions – new and old, aristocratic and plebeian, classical and modernist, establishment and revolutionary, man and woman, parent and child – all are invoked at some point, their limits tested, their mutant offspring called art. Julie and Anthony are lovers but their relationship comes to ironically mimic her mother-son project, Julie’s attempts to care for her lover laced with distinct maternal aspects. Real intimacy seems most possible – perhaps only possible – when Andrew makes Julie complicit in his habit, an admission that should start alarm bells ringing for Julie and yet which also offers the pleasure of feeling at once maternal and childlike before such inchoate need. The siren call of bohemian pleasures offers the possibility of maintaining some hot line into an authentic if dangerous mode of life experienced like a secret theatre within the package of bourgeois solidity. Hogg constantly envisions Anthony and Julie in separate spaces within her frames, usually in some disparity of business – Anthony cooking whilst Julie cleans, or the like, or talking over a table – in a way that nonetheless informs us of the way they contend as beings and inhabit space without quite meeting in it.

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Even in bed they have what Anthony wryly refers to, a la It Happened One Night (1934), as the Walls of Jericho between them, taking the form of the stuffed toy lion that betrays Julie’s uncertain level of maturity. This portrait of schism is also, more sarcastically invoked as Hogg portrays Julie and her film school fellows listening to a lecturer, the teacher at the centre of the frame, Julie and Garance on the right, and the male students crowded into the left. This sense of distinction is paired off with the use of mirrors, festooning the walls of Julie’s house, offering up alternate selves, alternate universes: the first time to pair are seen speaking is in reflection. The crucial scene where Julie is made aware by Patrick of Anthony’s habit sees Julie framed alone with Patrick and his girlfriend in reflection behind her, with Anthony then taking his place, intruding into the shot and completely transformed by Julie’s new awareness. Later, after Anthony’s been through an agonising attempt to kick his habit cold turkey in the apartment with Julie watching over him, a mirror panel on the wall glimpsed behind William’s head is seen to be punched in, echoing a key vignette in The Red Shoes (1948) and silently declaring the shattering of illusion. The most purely romantic moment in the film sees the couple dancing with their reflections granted equal space in the frame, the real and the illusory given perfect momentary balance and truth.

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These twinned motifs finally converge when the couple arrive in Venice and are installed in a beautifully decorated hotel room within which Julie and Anthony rove uneasily. Amidst the plush décor of the space a mirror contains both lovers as Anthony kisses her on the head, their little, crowded corner of baroque emotion in the midst of the ages’ splendour as purveyed in the shuffle of commercial tourism. It’s small wonder Hogg references Powell and Pressburger, however dubious a mouth she puts the admission in, as The Souvenir reveals itself as one of the great British tradition of romanticism lurking under a restrained surface in a way the filmmakers captured, and glimpsed only rarely in such other odd places as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Brief Encounter (1945), and Hogg casually nails the sensibility Paul Thomas Anderson spent the entirety of Phantom Thread (2017) labouring to nail down. After their fusion in the hotel room, Julie is transformed into a la The Red Shoes’ heroine as she follows Anthony in a ball gown through the winding streets of Venice, heading off to the opera: they have finally entered a magical land, delivered from the meanness of the present and become the flesh of their dream-selves. Back in their hotel room Anthony fucks Julie in garter belt and stockings, a capstone of intense yet dreamy sexuality befitting the haute couture cosplaying and Julie’s sense of arriving in amidst the fleshpot delights and filthy fantasias of true adulthood.

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Return to London however sees reality impinging ever more urgently until Anthony is arrested and, after she bails him out, Julie confronted by a different array of paraphernalia, Anthony’s junkie kit, and she orders him to get out. Julie sets about getting herself back on track, plunging back into work and brushing aside admonitions from her teachers and picking up one-night-stands with a new ease, filled with erotic glee mixed with a detectable self-satisfaction as she watches a hot young lover strip down before her. But when she reconnects with Anthony their gravitational pull is still strong. Anthony puts himself through the hell of withdrawal for Julie’s sake, and the ordeal seems worth it as Anthony emerges wan and shellshocked-looking but apparently clean and calm, to the point where he’s again dining with Julie and her parents to celebrate her birthday. But Julie’s immersion back in creativity, which sees her staying up to work on a project, seems to open up a void again for Anthony. Julie’s relationship with her mother is eventually revealed to be more than just one of indulgent parasitism as Rosalind voices hopes to Julie and Anthony about trying to go back to school, and she stays with her daughter one night when Anthony doesn’t return from a jaunt about town.

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Casting the real-life mother-daughter duo of Swinton and Swinton Byrne not only gives the film a smart charge of immediacy in their interactions but also, given Hogg’s creative history with Swinton, lets them take on an aspect of a split sense of self, generational drafts with all their varying levels of hope and experience, knowing and becoming. Family has other forms and potentials, too: Hogg films Julie travelling with her pals and collaborators late in the film in a van, united in their voices and enthusiasms, and the film crew becomes a different form of enveloping and delivering family, a collective act of arbitrating vision and ability rather than subjective and egotistical submersion. Their project comes to resemble something Jarman might have shot, a tip of the nod to the mentor and a depiction of the growing aesthetic courage and independence of the young students. When Anthony fails to return home Julie and her mother wait up and finally Julie pins a note to the building’s front door telling him not to worry about waking her.

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The sight of Julie’s unread note flapping unread on the door is one of the most forlorn sights in cinema, and her mother soon gets a phone call confirming the dread inevitable: Anthony’s been found dead of an overdose, consumed by his incapacity to sustain himself in the endlessly drawn-out tension of the immediate moment, which Julie can escape through creative and intellectual submersion. The loss is terrible and transfigures Julie, but it’s also another fantastic cessation, the vanishing of one aspect of her life as others crowd in, filmmaking no longer just an ambition but an authentic necessity. Hogg’s last shot is totemic, as Julie stands in the doorway of a sound stage, gazing from the threshold out at the countryside beyond, caught between the real and the created, the wild and the safe, ready to turn it all to good use in art, but also cursed with the incapacity to choose in which realm she stands. Hogg hides a brilliant sting at the very end of the credits, promising The Souvenir II, coming soon. The franchising of the art film, a new frontier for cinephiles.

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2010s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, all the way back in 1992, was a film about acting in crime film drag where Tim Roth’s antiheroic Mr Orange was the prototypical Hollywood wannabe, working to become his role so deeply all lines between life and performance vanish, immersed in a game of whose tough guy act ruled. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, his ninth film, inverts that proposition to a great extent: it’s a film explicitly about acting, intersecting with crime and other random and inescapable cruelties of life, and the feeling when that gravity you’ve been defying through the transportation of creativity suddenly kicks in. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood sees Tarantino returning to the climes of Los Angeles he recorded in his first three films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), albeit a recreation of a remembered city, the one of Tarantino’s childhood, recreated in such fetishistic detail it constitutes an act of conjuring. As ever in Tarantino’s cinema, fantasy and reality are blended to a delirious and unstable degree, but this time nominally subordinated to a pastiche of the familiar true crime ploy of outlaying narrative as a succession of checklist items in terms of who did what, where, and when.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood revolves around one of the most infamous episodes in modern crime, by extension often regarded as an authentic pivot in the psyche of an epoch: the conversion of the counterculture dream into a nightmare by the marauding of Charles Manson’s “family” of young, disaffected disciples, events that refashioned not just Hollywood’s social landscape but in the whole relationship of celebrity culture to the world beyond. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’s title pays overt heed to Sergio Leone, one of Tarantino’s singular heroes, but its resonances go right down into the psychic life of Tinseltown and its misbegotten children. Tarantino’s narrative befits such fairytale associations, offering a revision of familiar history mixed with character dramas enacting a legend of renewal in a triumph of hope over experience. It also evokes the strange relationship between Hollywood, which was entering a crisis point at the time the film is set, and the filmmaking world Leone represented, in particular the Spaghetti Western. Today known for a rich and peculiar annex of pop culture, that mode was at the time so generally deplored and regarded as a synonym for cheap and nasty that one of Tarantino’s central characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left distraught by the proposition of turning to it for career extension.

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Tarantino rose swiftly to the top of the heap of eager young independent filmmakers in the 1990s not just for his postmodern nimbleness and evil comic sensibility, but for his eagerness to resurrect the careers of actors out of favour for whatever reason. Tarantino’s belief in the special connection between actor and role, audience and on-screen avatar, brought immediacy and amity to his bricoleur excursions. Tarantino’s time as a struggling young talent who turned to acting to try and make a few bucks seemed to have honed such identification as well as armed him with some of the core themes of his oeuvre. Tarantino highlights the likeness between the industry schism of the ‘90s where once-mighty, now-waned stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds took their shot in indie film, and the more urgent upheaval of the late 1960s, where Hollywood almost collapsed in on itself with backdated product, a breakdown that also cheated many interesting and promising performers of the careers they seemed to deserve. Dalton is glimpsed at the outset in his heyday as the star of the TV show Bounty Law, being interviewed along with his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

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By 1969, agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is trying to talk Rick into going to Italy, as Rick’s career faltered after his decision to leave Bounty Law and try for a movie career, and now he’s trapped in a succession of guest roles as bad guys in TV series, a punching bag to build up new stars. Rick’s great consolation is that he owns his house on Cielo Drive, nestled in the groves of Beverly Crest, with new neighbours in Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). “I could be one pool party away from starring in a Polanski movie,” Rick notes. Sharon’s career, in sharp contrast to Rick’s, is just taking off, ushering her into the jet set. The bulk of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood unfolds on a single day in February ‘69, as Rick struggles to keep an even keel whilst playing the villain in a pilot for Lancer, a new Western being helmed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond).

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After buying a fateful first edition copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for her husband, Tate takes time out to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew (1968) in a downtown theatre. Cliff has fared in even more undignified straits than Rick, living in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theatre and working as Rick’s chauffeur, professional buddy, and general dogsbody because he can’t get any stunt work, for reasons that emerge later in the film. Whilst driving around town, Cliff repeatedly encounters lithe, gregarious, jailbait hippie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and finally picks her up. He agrees to drive her out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a rundown former shooting location for Westerns where she lives with a peculiar gang of fellow waifs and weirdos. Pussycat is disappointed their beloved chieftain Charlie isn’t around, but Cliff is nostalgic to see the Ranch, where he and Rick used to shoot Bounty Law, and wants to talk to the owner George Spahn. But Spahn is laid up blind and guarded by a squad of young women who keep him sexed into submission, of which the most aggressive is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff runs the gauntlet and chats with George, who doesn’t remember him, but upon emerging finds one of the young men in the gang has put a knife in one of his car tires.

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Tarantino grows his story out of the tempting morsel offered by the Manson Family’s residence at the Spahn Ranch, one of those details of history charged with layers of irony. The Ranch’s decaying state spoke of the sharp decline of the once-booming production of Westerns for both movie screens and TV, of which Rick and Cliff become avatars. Pop culture at large is being reinvented and colonised by a new sensibility represented by the so-groovy Tate and other exalted beings she’s glimpsed partying with at the Playboy Mansion, colourful and urbane rather than terse and rustic. The Family’s resemblance to the kinds of ruffians beloved of Western plotlines, a gang of disaffected and free-floating cultural exiles under the thumb of a lowlife posing as a guru, comes sharply into focus as Tarantino shoots Cliff’s arrival at the Ranch as a variation on Clint Eastwood’s arrival in town in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), threat vibrant behind every gesture even without an apparent cause. One reason that Manson’s onslaught lodged so deep in the psyche of Hollywood wasn’t simply because he bade his followers invade their mansions and desecrate the bubble of their community, but because he seemed to have fashioned a grim alternative version of the fantasy dynamics of the town, the great male visionary with his small army of rapt followers and pliable harem. The damage his female followers inflicted on Tate wasn’t simply execution but a wrathful act of blood sacrifice that punished her not simply for being successful, beautiful, and exalted in the world but for being their counterpart.

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For most of its first half, however, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood barely touches on the Manson cult, instead drifting with its central characters in their various spaces of labour and lifestyle. Cliff sighs his way acquiescently through odd jobs for Rick but loves tearing about the streets of the city in his car with the radio cranked in the meantime. Tate puts her feet up and gets to enjoy the movie, beholding herself transmuted into movie star gaining laughs and cheers from fellow patrons and all the fruits of a job well done. The Family girls wander the streets salvaging food and scrap whilst in a beatific bubble, seemingly happy as fringe dwellers in the great society, a little like Cliff, who proves receptive to their presence, aware of them as weird fixtures around the LA scene. Rick, even in the midst of personal and career crisis, has a wellspring of professional skill he can tap. This approach to narrative signals Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood as much closer to a character study than a standard plot-driven thriller, where the time and place are also a character.

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Rick’s career is also a compendium of anecdotes, many with unhappy endings, as when the star of Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), asks if it’s true he almost got the lead in The Great Escape (1963). Tarantino mischievously offers digitally altered sequences inserting DiCaprio-as-Rick over Steve McQueen, as Rick grudgingly mumbles his way through explaining what happened. Acting is an eternal hall of mirrors filled with alternate selves, prospects grasped and missed, integral to an industry that needs the star actor as interlocutor between audience and art but also beset by ambiguity, a job with less security than the average mailman knows even for a man like Rick who’s colonised the dream life of a generation. The actor’s image achieves immortality, but the actor certainly doesn’t. By contrast Cliff is at once more curious and pathetic. Sent by Rick to fix his aerial whilst he shoots the Lancer pilot, Cliff drifts into a reverie recalling when Rick guest-starred on The Green Hornet, when Rick finally managed to talk the show’s stunt supervisor Randy (Kurt Russell) into giving Cliff the chance to possibly get some stunt work on the show, only to get lippy with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as he showed off to the other stuntmen and accepted his challenge to a fight.

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Cliff as stuntman is the working stiff supporting the star show pony, the one who, whilst still immersed in the reflective glamour of the movie world, nonetheless has to put actually body and soul on the line for the construction of effective and convincing action cinema. Thus the stunt artist exists in that nebulous zone between fantasy and reality Tarantino loves plumbing. Lee is a taunting object for a man like Cliff not simply as a potent rival but as one making the leap from one caste to another: Lee has not just usurped his position but also achieved the ultimate promotion. So Cliff stokes Lee’s famous temper and they come out of it tied in terms of hits laid, although the fact that Cliff left a great dent in a car he threw Lee against seems to prove him the victor. Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell) interrupts them and gets her husband to throw Cliff off the set. Tarantino cuts back to Cliff as mutters, “Yeah, fair enough,” in the sure realisation and acceptance that even if he did get another chance he’d surely find a way to screw it all up again.

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This sequence reveals much about Cliff, including his genuine ability as a fighter as well as confirming all his talents for self-sabotage. It also deliberately begs many questions, as it’s revealed the big objection to Cliff is a strong rumour that he murdered his wife. A flashback is even added as Cliff recalls drunkenly handling a spear gun on a fishing trip with his wife who was just as soused and abusing him, but whether Cliff actually meant to kill her or some ugly mishap happened out of focus because of the booze isn’t shown. This all seems to explain a lot about Cliff’s situation. And yet the way Tarantino deploys it lodges it firmly in an ambiguous zone, affecting the way others regard Cliff in his memory and yet, much like his impression of Lee, possibly so non-objective that it’s hard to trust – compare it to the way Tate remembers Lee as a gracious tutor. Rick certainly doesn’t seem to believe Cliff killed his wife, but then again he’s so joined at the hip with Cliff, so reliant on him as a friend and helpmate, that he hardly counts as objective either. This is unusual territory for Tarantino who, whilst always engaged in a slippery dance between realist and fantasist postures, usually avoids engaging in destabilising the integrity of his storytelling in this manner. Much as a movie like Kill Bill (2003-4) had the undertone of a tale created by the child of a single mother designed to mythologise their parent, it maintained the rules of that fantasy.

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This disquiet in Cliff’s background lends a troubling aspect to what otherwise seems his easy-to-idealise valour in all other respects, as a near-forgotten war hero, a loyal pal and manservant to Rick, and unswayed enemy of Manson’s antisocial thugs. This is certainly in keeping with Tarantino’s general disinterest – the women of Death Proof (2007) and Django excepted – in the kinds of unsullied knights pop culture prefers, or at least likes their dark days well-hidden. Like his previous film, the often aggressively misunderstood The Hateful Eight (2015), Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood needles our laziness as viewers over who we assign sympathy to in movies and why and the kinds of myths we like swallowing and why. Most of Tarantino’s narratives have revolved around characters who can be hero or villain depending when you meet them. It also invokes awareness over the treacherousness of the history he’s engaging, with the tendency of the members of the Manson Family to blame each-other for heinous acts and the various forms of apologia attached to them depending on one’s personal and socio-political sympathies, as well as Polanski’s swift trip from tragic lover to exiled creep. The Manson murders were a long time ago now, and yet they still retain relevance, still inflecting aspects of the zeitgeist from political discourse to the difficulty as a film viewer to be had in watching Tate’s body of work, short of roles worthy of her startling beauty and comic talent.

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Rick’s career is explored with such fanatical detail, from his spot hosting and performing on the TV music show Hullabaloo to his B-movies like the Nazi-roasting war flick The 14 Fists of McCluskey, for which he learned how to use a flamethrower, to the point that we know his oeuvre better than many a real career. This serves not just Tarantino’s delight in pastiche but also his larger narrative target. Rick’s body of work is replete with echoes of Tarantino’s own – Bounty Law depicts a professional bounty hunter a la Django Unchained (2012), The 14 Fists of McCluskey offers a simplified version of Inglourious Basterds (2009) – and the feeling that Tarantino’s facing down his own middle-aged, mid-career demons through Rick repeatedly surfaces. Tarantino’s no longer the coolest kid on the indie movie block, but to all intents and purposes an establishment figure who’s taken some licks in recent years and facing the challenge of constantly trying to outdo himself when it comes to outré provocation and trying to mature without sacrificing his specific cachet. More immediately, Rick’s attempts to hold himself together in the course of shooting his guest role seem almost trivial given the forces waiting in the wings, and yet they’re all-consuming to him and vitally important in terms of his profession, a gruelling study in shattered confidence duelling with professional pride and abused talent.

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Rick is confronted with a preternaturally smart and disciplined eight-year-old co-star, Trudi (Julie Butters), clearly a kid with everything before her and impatient with his old-school affectations. Rick bursts into tears as he tries to explain the plot of a Western novella he’s reading to her as he sees the likeness to his own lot in the hero’s struggle with aging and wounding. This moment doesn’t simply acknowledge a metatexual commentary but makes an active aspect of the story, Rick knowing full well as he explains it to Trudy exactly how it reflects his own story and also connects with a very specific instance in Western movie folklore, the bullet in the back John Wayne’s character in El Dorado (1966) stands in for his aging, a reference that comes full circle in the finale as Cliff takes a similar wound that will also compel him to act his age. “’Bout fifteen years you’ll be livin’ it,” Rick mutters as Trudi tries to console him over his wane, reflecting both his own awareness that as a female actor Trudi’s up against even more daunting forces than him and also taking a momentary pleasure in the cruelty of acknowledging it, stealing just a tiny flame of her magic back from her, before his shame kicks in. It’s one of the best bits of writing Tarantino’s ever offered, not just in terms of the way it characterises Rick but also in the way it registers in terms of the larger narrative. The Manson Family will attempt to do just the same thing in far louder and more pyrotechnic terms, and the likeness echoes again as Rick’s role on Lancer is playing a vicious criminal mastermind with a coterie of henchmen.

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On set, Rick struggles to get through a lengthy scene with Stacy, and unleashes a torrent of abuse at himself once he’s back in his trailer, aghast at his inability to do what he’s known and prized for. This moment drew me back to Orange rehearsing his legend in Reservoir Dogs, as if we’re seeing the other end of a train of thought for Tarantino, the contemplation of what mastering such skill means at different ages, the fantasy of transcending self finally and inescapably exhausted, but with the bitter kicker that the only answer is to recommit to it. So Rick returns to the shoot newly galvanised and attacks his next scene with such gusto even Trudi is bowled over. Such are the absurd and yet inescapable measures of an actor’s gravity. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood posits what could have happened if the Manson Family had targeted someone a little more capable of taking care of themselves. The key precept here is a great one: acting, especially in the language of old-school machismo, is often written off as an inherently phony art for creampuffs and pretty boys. And yet the Hollywood of the 1960s (and now) would have been filled with people who really could fight, shoot, ride, and do many a difficult and dangerous thing, and many lead actors were, then and now, rewarded to the degree that an audience sensed something authentic about the way they handled the world – no-one doubts, for instance, that Lee could have won just about any fight in life even if many a barstool brave could, like Cliff, fancy himself as the one who could take him.

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Tarantino offers a system of rhyming vignettes binding together the real and the imagined in these terms. Tate defeating an opponent in The Wrecking Crew wrings applause from the audience she sees it with, and she learned her karate moves from Lee, whose tutelage of her is briefly glimpsed as one of the film’s most cheery, fleeting visions of two ill-fated people alight in their youth and ability. Later Cliff and Rick’s honed skills will be used in a more immediate and consequential way which the audience knows is both total fiction and yet palpably real in the viewing context. Where Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) dealt with an LA left paranoid and punch-drunk in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a prelude where the possibility of something malignant and dangerous is only slowly registered and reality is just starting to lose a certain shape. Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is only glimpsed once in the film, appearing in Polanski and Tate’s driveway seeking Dennis Wilson, who used to live there, looking like just another weedy, hairy hipster. Tarantino stages the finale with Cliff under the influence of acid and has trouble being sure, when he’s confronted by the Family members, whether he’s hallucinating or not. In his Lancer role Rick is called upon by Wanamaker to remake himself in a vaguely hippie image with buckskin jacket and Zapata moustache, adopting the new apparel of the popularly perceived reprobate. Rick himself doesn’t like hippies either, in large part because he senses accurately they’re part of the forces corroding his career as well as decorating the corners of his town with strange sounds and smells.

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Cliff is easier-going in that regard, buying an acid-soaked cigarette off a hippie girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) for eventual delights, and laughing indulgently as Pussycat bawls at a passing cop car. But Cliff’s intrusion upon the Ranch sees a collective of gangly, unwashed drop-outs gaze at him like irritable marmosets from the old mock-up frontier cabins. This spectacle changes the film’s tone subtly but radically as something enigmatic and dangerous manifests amidst the otherwise entirely ordinary world we’ve been watching, and suddenly we’re in one of Tarantino’s classic, patient suspense situations. A scene like the beer cellar shoot-out in Inglourious Basterds depended on a sense of the unexpected suddenly and steadily turning an apparently straightforward meeting into a slaughter. Here Tarantino plays on the audience’s presumed awareness of the various signifiers here and there, like the names Spahn and Charlie and Tex, to lend menacing undercurrents to a situation that otherwise seems borderline silly, with the mistrustful youths ranged about like Hitchcock’s crows and Squeaky playing hard-ass watchdog. Cliff is unfazed by the attitude turned his way but also not aware, as the viewer is (presuming the viewer knows anything of the Manson story), of the kind of danger he’s in.

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Cliff eventually does manage to chat with Spahn (Bruce Dern), who proves aged, cranky, and barely aware of who Cliff is. He’s also an elder avatar for Cliff himself, a physically ruined and impoverished old stuntman, used by the Family in a way that surely feels like beneficence to him. When he fixes on Clem (James Landry Hébert) as the one who knifed his tire, Cliff beats the shit out of him and forces him to change the tire. The cliquish, self-cordoned sensibility of the Family – the adoring girls of the gang signal their sympathy to Clem and hurl abuse at Cliff – is noted with a fastidious sense of black comedy mixed with a sharp understanding of the rituals of such a gang for whom their own expressions of violence are considered honest and those of others unforgivable offences, crashing against Cliff’s complete indifference to such signs, a natural loner who’s long since mastered the arts of surviving that way. One of the Family girls rides up to fetch Tex Watson (Austin Butler), the most murderous of Manson lieutenants, who’s off running riding trail tours: Tex’s speedy ride back the Ranch transforms him into the quintessential Western henchman dashing to save a useless underling, only to find Cliff already driving away. Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming” rings on the soundtrack, pursuing the various characters on their journeys back home with a note of wistful longing: the adventures of the day are passed, and what’s left is the mopping up.

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Rick and Cliff’s experiences are counterpointed throughout with Tate’s, free and easy on the Hollywood scene, somehow managing, despite the fact she lives right next door to Rick, to exist in a different universe. Rick and Cliff finally catch sight of her and Polanski in their convertible entering their driveway, like a glimpse of the anointed. The couple’s arrival at the Playboy Mansion for a party is a glimpse of a moment’s idyll, the apotheosis of a period in-crowd with so many of them doomed to an early grave. Tate dances with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass whilst Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) watches and explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) the strange situation Tate lives in with husband Polanski and former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch): “One of these days that Polish prick’s gonna fuck things up and when he does, Jay’s gonna be there.” There’s a suggestion Tate’s living arrangement with Polanski and Sebring was essentially a ménage a trois, but Tarantino keeps a wary distance from engaging with that. There’s a surprising gentlemanly streak to the way Tarantino lets Tate retain her almost too-good-for-this-world lustre, and not replacing her visage in her movies with Robbie’s. Tate gently mocks Sebring for his penchant for listening to Paul Revere & The Raiders and enjoys using her new if still fledgling star status to get herself in to The Wrecking Crew screening. Tate has no reason to worry about the disparity between herself and her screen self, recreating her on-screen movements from the audience in muscle-memory of the acquired skills and thrilling to the impression of cool reflecting back at her.

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Late in the piece Tarantino introduces an amusing codicil to the way the entwined yet distinct Tate and Rick stories relate, as it’s revealed both Tate and Sebring are fans of Rick’s and too shy to breach the distance between them. TV, cheap and unglamorous, is a nonetheless a common lexicon for everyone. Watching The FBI ironically unites Fromme and Spahn and Rick and Cliff, the latter two watching Rick in one of his guest roles as another bad guy: these stark little morality plays join the highlife to the lowlife, planting different seeds for cultivation. Tarantino spins this as he finally shifts focus onto the murderous crew Manson sends out to Cielo Drive, with Tex in command and including Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty). As they work themselves up for the oncoming attack after being abused by Rick for driving their old and noisy car up his street, they latch on to a motive, the felicity of killing actors like Rick: “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” Atkins raves in increasingly demented enthusiasm in a vignette that captures the pseudo-radical morality of the Manson clan whilst also hinting Tarantino’s having a sideways swipe at the rhetoric often swirling around his films.

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It’s passing inane to note the obvious, that Tarantino deeply immerses himself in not just the movie business but specific wings of that business that have long tended to obsess him. He makes a show like Lancer, a second-string The High Chaparral or Bonanza, central to his plot precisely because of its virtually forgotten status and thus a fitting totem for pop culture’s mysterious melding of the ephemeral and the perpetual. Tarantino even allows Atkins that much grace in grasping an aspect of a truth. The little myths and legends we absorb day in and day out as consumers of such fare, so vital in the moment and readily discarded, are part of our substance whether we like it or not. Rick’s anxiety is made clear precisely because he knows he’s being actively written out of the mythology of his day remembered to less dedicated movie and TV buffs. What’s most interesting here is the way it frees Tarantino up on other levels, with a story structured and sustained in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood often seems scattershot as it’s unfolding, when in fact many apparently random vignettes and details prove carefully designed, in an attempt to deliver an entire film that’s one of his long, slow burns. Even a digression depicting Cliff in his trailer feeding his dog, has a function in this regard beyond simply noting Cliff’s shambolic life: we also see the perfect control he has over the pet, and like Cliff it’s a lethal weapon awaiting a signal to attack. By the time Tex and the others finally stalk the night in black clothes with butcher knives in hand, they’ve become actuations of fate stalking our heroes as well as very real terrors.

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When Tarantino resumes his story six months after the long day he’s described, the season has shifted. Rick has been to Italy, shot four movies that even gave Cliff a chance to recover his mojo, and is returning home married to Italian starlet Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). The great days are over: Rick has no idea if his sojourn will bring him more work so he’s looking at selling his house and tells Cliff he can’t employ him anymore. So the two men get roaring drunk before returning to Rick’s house and Rick lights up that fateful acid cigarette, and the doors get kicked in. Finally all of Tarantino’s gestures large and small reveal their larger pattern: Rick and Cliff have been granted as much solidity in their existence as Tate, Sebring, and their friends Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin), their movements ticked off as part of the same historical ledger, the grim stations of the true crime calvary doubling.

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The way Tarantino twists the true story of the fateful attack on Cielo Drive to his own purposes isn’t that hard to predict but still arrives as a set-piece of blackly comic ultraviolence as Cliff in an acid daze smashes Tex and Krenwinkel to bloody pulps, and Rick, shocked by the bloodied, sceaming Atkins crashing through his window and into his pool, grabs the first weapon on hand, which proves to be that flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey. As a climax this is of course similar to the finales of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained with a similar blast of gruesome, schadenfreude-tinted catharsis not just in the absurdly hyperbolic destruction of a truly malignant enemy, but also in releasing Rick and Cliff and even the bewildered Francesca from feeling like guest stars in their own lives. That part of Tarantino’s oeuvre which has long felt inspired by MAD Magazine reveals the depth of the influence in the way he transposes those old “Scenes We’d Like To See” strips into his movies. Indeed, the more one knows about the real brutality of the killers the more punch there is to it. Tarantino can make the revenge fantasy as nasty as he likes and still it cannot compare to what was really done to Tate and her friends.

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And yet this also made me wonder if Tarantino might have done better to swap his signature absurdist bloodshed for a harder, more realistic battle, all the better for breaking the spell of dark magic the Manson Family managed to weave about itself despite all. But as catharsis it still packs such a giddy, outlandish punch it’s hard to care too much about the distinction. The real brilliance of it becomes clearer in the subsequent scene as Cliff and Rick take leave of each-other not in any paltry parting but a scene of heroic gratitude and kinship. Rick encounters Sebring, brought out by the disturbance to the gate of Sharon’s house. Rick explains what transpired to the startled and fascianted young man, and gaining exactly the sort of potentially career-changing rapport he’d hoped for with Tate, who’s been saved. Sebring, as a fan, even grasps why Rick had the flamethrower. This particular revelation managed somehow to make me laugh and tear up all at the same time, as it finally becomes clear what Tarantino’s been trying to describe, for all his love of posturing as a cynical bastard. He knows well that part of us still longing to be saved by our heroes, even long after we learn what clay we’re all made of.

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