2000s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, New Zealand cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) / The Two Towers (2002) / The Return of the King (2003)

.

Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair (The Two Towers only), Fran Walsh

By Roderick Heath

For over forty years, John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings defied all efforts to adapt it as live-action cinema. The requirements of such an adaptation, including a large budget, advanced special effects, and an intelligent filmmaker with a feel for the fantasy genre, put it beyond the scope and interest of movie studios, although a fascinating array of directorial talents, particularly John Boorman, confirmed a desire to try. Stanley Kubrick, an admirer of the novels, turned down an offer to film them because he thought it impossible at the time. There was even an aborted attempt to make a version starring The Beatles. Tolkien, a philologist, Oxford don, and First World War veteran, spent most of his adult life creating his beloved and endlessly influential legendarium, drawing on the classical and medieval myths that were the marrow of his intellectual interests along with the languages they were told in. Tolkien’s stated aim was to synthesise a specifically British equivalent to the tales of Homer and the Norse sagas as he felt the cultural core of the ancient land had been erased by the Romans and subsequent invaders.

LordOfTheRings02

Tolkien’s earliest forays on this project were scribbled out when he was serving in the trenches during World War I, at first for private amusement and then with increasing purpose that crystallised when he wrote a short novel for young readers, 1937’s The Hobbit, rooting it in his invented world. That book’s success spurred him to start work on The Lord of the Rings, which took nearly twenty years. An immediate hit as the three volumes were published, the work only grew in popularity, particularly as its themes and imagery concurred with the emerging counterculture in the 1960s. Tolkien gave new and powerful life to the fantasy genre, which had its roots in the backwards-looking wistfulness of late Victoriana and branched off into the arcane macho fantasias of pulp magazines. Tolkien was dismayed by the first BBC radio adaptation in the mid-1950s, a version that no longer exists: it took time for the lexicon of high fantasy which Tolkien had all but birthed to permeate pop culture enough to be used to retranslate his imaginings into other forms. Maverick animation director Ralph Bakshi bypassed many of the difficulties by making an animated version, but the result, released in 1978, told only half the story of the novel and its indifferent reception meant the project was left unfinished. The BBC’s second radio adaptation, broadcast in 1981, was on the other hand richly detailed and much admired.

LordOfTheRings03

The man who finally talked a studio into backing a multi-episode adaptation produced on the most lavish of scales was as unlikely in his way as Tolkien’s diminutive, world-defying heroes. Peter Jackson had made his name in low-budget, freakish punk-gore comedy-horror films in his native New Zealand, beginning with 1987’s incredibly cheap and patchy but ingenious Bad Taste and pushed to an extreme with 1992’s Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive), strongly influenced by fellow no-budget provocateur Sam Raimi but with new, baroque dimensions and a gift for blockbuster-like narrative intensity and spectacle. Heavenly Creatures (1994) marked Jackson’s sudden swivel towards international respectability in tackling a notorious and deeply tragic true crime tale, whilst still drawing on a fabulously fecund and bizarre imagination, as well as the new realm of digital special effects through the burgeoning Weta Workshop, to illustrate the hothouse bond of two young women who committed a murder in 1950s Christchurch.

LordOfTheRings04

Jackson’s first film made for Hollywood, if still shot in his homeland, was The Frighteners (1997), a return to his earlier gore-comedy fare, only slightly toned down for a wider audience. It proved a flop, but Jackson, undaunted, gained the approval of rights holder Saul Zaentz and got Miramax and New Line Films to fund his grandiose Tolkien venture. Some of Jackson’s value for money would still have been obvious. He was a hot young property despite a commercial stumble, he proposed making the films back to back in New Zealand to save costs and exploit its variety of locations, and knew how to ride the cutting edge of digital special effects. The novel’s popularity also promised a ready-made audience. To a certain extent. The Lord of the Rings had to win over the ordinary moviegoer as well, something fantasy film had long had a hard time doing, without a major hit in the genre since John Milius’ take on its gamier, pulpier wing, Conan the Barbarian (1982). But 2001 was an auspicious year, also seeing the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and for a while at least pure fantasy became a popular movie genre. Jackson, his partner and collaborator Fran Walsh, and writer and fellow arch Tolkien fan Philippa Boyens, approached their adaptation with wise scruples.

LordOfTheRings05

The challenge, and the films’ subsequent success, can be summarised with one key word: balance. Jackson and company had to even the scales between the many frames of reference that had become part of the mystique of The Lord of the Rings as well as the intricacies of its writing and story. Jackson avoided either becoming mired too deeply in the esoteric aspect of Tolkien’s tales or trying to revise them into something more contemporary, finding more room for creativity in extrapolating and amplifying the action aspect of Tolkien. The books had become signal works for fans in their preoccupation with a fictional world where everything has multiple dimensions of history, language, and symbolic portent, and the protective concept of nature as an interconnected system matched to a hostility towards industrialism. This also lurked behind the material’s popular perception as something beloved by asocial nerds and patchouli-soaked collegians, an association Jackson played up with unobtrusive mirth in making the Hobbits’ tobacco-like “leaf” rather more suggestively pot-like. In any events, the three films’ success made them an immediate pop cultural standard, the third instalment netting the Best Picture Oscar for 2003 and the trilogy more or less defining for the last generation or so what people think of as epic cinema. The Lord of the Rings incidentally created instant visual clichés of the new digital effects era, like the opening shots of CGI armies marching across the screen.

LordOfTheRings06

The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment, grabs attention nimbly from its opening moments, utilising Cate Blanchett’s sinuous narration in playing the lovely, ageless Elf lady Galadriel, to narrate and with Howard Shore’s tingling, elegant, gently foreboding string scoring lacing around the images like the curlicues of medieval penmanship. The quasi-mythic background of the ensuing drama is sketched in a few brief, spectacular scenes, as the Dark Lord Sauron, a fallen angel-like being who served the Legendarium’s great Satanic figure Melkor until his defeat, and then tried to gain control of the world called Middle-earth by sharing out magical rings of influence to the lords of Men, Elves, and Dwarves, all bound secretly to his own ring which can subjugate others to his will. The kings of Men given the rings became the Nazgûl, undead, completely enslaved beings, but the various races of Middle-earth formed an alliance to take on Sauron and his army of brutish beings called Orcs in their hellish wasteland home of Mordor. In the final battle Sauron seemed completely unstoppable thanks to the ring, until the human king Isildur (Harry Sinclair) managed to slice off Sauron’s fingers along with the ring. Sauron’s physical form exploded and the armies of darkness were pushed back, but Isildur, ignoring the pleas of the Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to throw the ring into the volcanic pits of Mount Doom where it was forged, decided to keep it. But the ring, an object inculcated with the pure malice and treacherous wit of Sauron as well as his life-essence, contrived eventually to bring about Isildur’s death and be lost, eventually claimed by Sméagol (Andy Serkis), a being so susceptible to the ring’s consuming power he is taken over by a rival personality calling itself Gollum, and becomes its perfect protector in the long wait for Sauron’s power to re-emerge.

LordOfTheRings07

The theme of the cursed ring, based on several mythic objects including Andvaranaut from the Völsunga Saga which also supplied Wagner with the chief basis for his version of the Nibelung legend, is used in Tolkien’s story rather differently to its source, where it was an object hazily symbolising greed, misused authority, and grave legacy. Tolkien reforged it into a catch-all symbol of demonic corruption, working insidiously on every psyche it encounters. The abstract power of the ring was one of the more difficult ideas to communicate cinematically, with Jackson pulling every trick in the book to give it a menacing gravitas, from shots using forced perspective lensing to capture its mysterious and subordinating charisma, to menacing, simmering voices heard on the soundtrack when its power is stirred, as well as dramatically stylised visions when people don the ring and behold the shadowy world of spiritual energy usually cloaked to mortal eyes. The ring eventually came into the possession of a Hobbit – a race of very short and stocky people who like to live prosaic lives on the fringe of the great world of Middle-earth – named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who found it during an encounter with Gollum. But the story only truly starts when the ring is passed on to his nephew and ward Frodo (Elijah Wood), a gambolling innocent who proves, thanks in part to his native Hobbit qualities and his own character, the only being capable of resisting the ring’s influence long enough to stand a chance of taking it back to Mount Doom and destroying it.

LordOfTheRings08

Sauron, still only a spiritual entity after losing his body, has nonetheless regained enough power and dread purpose to manifest as a cloud of fire shaped like an eye atop his grim fortress in Mordor, and it’s time for him to send out his minions in search of the ring and unleash his new project to enslave the world. The ring’s true nature is recognised by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) after Bilbo bequeaths it as well as his underground house Bag End to Frodo on his 111th birthday. Once certain of its identity he urges Bilbo to carry it out of The Shire to Elrond’s home at the Elf city of Rivendell. Gandalf pressgangs Frodo’s friend and gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) into accompanying him after catching him eavesdropping on their conversation. Frodo gains more company when they run into his relatives, the perpetually hungry gadabouts Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took (Dominic Monaghan) and Meriadoc ‘Merry’ Brandybuck (Billy Boyd), on the road. Eventually the foursome are taken under the wing of a friend of Gandalf’s, an enigmatic warrior commonly called Strider but actually named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who tries to lead them safely through the increasingly rugged and dangerous country east of The Shire. Meanwhile Gandalf, planning to rendezvous with the Hobbits, visits the most powerful and respected of Middle-earth’s small clique of wizards, Saruman (Christopher Lee), at his tower in Isengard, to warn him of the portents of Sauron’s return, only to find Saruman has already cast his lot with the Dark Lord, and Saruman uses his superior power to imprison Gandalf.

LordOfTheRings09

The central metaphor of Tolkien’s story, that the little people – the figurative made literal here, in a touch at once faintly ribbing but also self-mythologising in its attitude to Englishness as a pure-sprung virtue – are the most truly heroic, was never meant to be subtle, and it’s a deep-wound part of the story’s universal appeal. The Lord of the Rings plays with the usual substance of warrior culture hero myths to place the usually unheroic at the heart of the tale whilst the emissaries of martial vainglory are more often than not held in suspicion until they prove worthy. Crucially, Jackson purveyed the twee existence of the Hobbits, with their idyllic version of a rural English lifestyle, and the mock-classical speech and concepts with dashes of good-humour but without any concessions to modern incredulity. Jackson himself swore off inserting any message of his own in tackling Tolkien, but there is, in the first film’s quick portrait of The Shire and its denizens, dashes of the satirical eye Jackson turned so scathingly on the New Zealand bourgeoisie in his earlier films, in the glowering Hobbits who dislike any sign of disruption or peculiarity. For Tolkien the road out from The Shire was a fraught and half-dread one for a man who knew what marching off to and home from danger felt like; for Jackson, there’s the squirming provincial creative person’s suspicion the risky path is the only way out. Jackson’s directing approach is quickly in evidence in the thrusting camerawork and wide-angle lensing to give the actions and objects a looming, overlarge force, giving the expensive blockbuster much the same visual energy as Jackson’s marauding B-movies.

LordOfTheRings10

The sequence of Gandalf’s return to Frodo’s home after confirming what the ring is an excellent thumbnail of Jackson’s technique. After creating the sense of looming and imminent danger with a vignette of one of the mounted Nazgûl questioning a hapless Shire farmer, Jackson depicts Frodo coming home after a night drinking with his friends. A lurking presence is suggested via hand-held camerawork peering through a grill. A long shot of Frodo entering the house dollies slightly to note papers flitting about in the breeze and then then forced-open window it blows through. Frodo pads into the darkened house, the camera moving hungrily from behind Frodo to before him: a hand reaches out of the shadow behind him, grasping his shoulder, with Gandalf suddenly looming out of the dark, his face lunging forward and the camera moving to meet him so his dishevelled, wild-eyed visage entirely fills the screen, before his totemic question – “Is it secret? Is it safe?” The actual revelation of the ring, performed by throwing it in fire so that the ancient words written on its surface are revealed, and Gandalf’s grim news about how the Nazgûl know it’s now in the hands of a Baggins, is then followed by a swift cut to one of the searching Nazgûl beheading a challenging watchman somewhere out in the Shire night, a jagged illustration of nightmarish danger moving inexorably closer: cut back to Frodo’s panicked reaction and his plea for Gandalf to take the ring.

LordOfTheRings11

The visual and storytelling cues here are all straight from horror cinema, nodding to Dario Argento and John Carpenter’s use of negative screen space as the place where threat lurks as well as Raimi’s hypermobile camerawork. Expectation is raised only for what is suggested to be a lurking danger to prove a friend, but the danger is real and now feels omnipresent. Such a trick Jackson plies arguably once or twice too often but certainly as a consistent tactic to keep the narrative in agitation, playing games throughout with his style of set-up and follow-through, in contrast to traditional approaches of screen epics and fantasy. The style informs the sudden transformation of The Shire from a place of hermetic stability into one charged with threat, but doing so in a manner that emphasises the building menace as intimate: the colossal, world-reshaping supernatural force lying out in the vast wilds in the east manifests locally to Frodo through troubling portents and roaming assassins. The actual trek for Frodo and Sam is momentarily halted when Sam notes they’ve reached what was previously the furthest point he’d ever travelled from The Shire’s centre, the moment of leaving behind home and known things and venturing into the world identified as something crucial in the course of the quest and the heroes’ concepts of themselves. Soon they’re eluding the Nazgûl on the road, Frodo resisting the urge to put on the ring as they come close, and racing to beat them to the only ferry across the bordering river.

LordOfTheRings12

A heavy dose of jolly comic relief counterpoints the high drama, largely provided by Merry and Pippin, whose minds initially, scarcely rise above their stomachs and thirsts until they’re immersed in the great conflict, and even once they join battle they still know how to take time out for a puff of weed and a spot of carousing. The Hobbits hover on the border of the childlike in their personas and wide-eyed approach to life, an aspect Jackson emphasised by casting youngish actors in the roles in contrast to other envisionings that often made them lumpen. They’re also in their provincialism ideal tourists in this world to discover everything for the first time, insular in the best sense in representing homey values almost undiluted, and good for speaking exposition to. As innocents abroad they need a protector and find one in Aragorn, introduced as a shadowy, knowing figure who embodies the promise of classical heroism but disdains the trappings of it, for very good reasons. Aragorn saves the Hobbits from an assault by the Nazgûl, but Frodo is stabbed with a cursed blade, beginning his slow transformation into another wraith. Luckily, the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), Aragorn’s lady love and Elrond’s daughter, intercepts them on the road and makes a gallop on horseback with Frodo to the safe harbour and healing arts at Rivendell.

LordOfTheRings13

Once Frodo recovers, and Gandalf joins them after escaping Saruman, they call a meeting of envoys from the various Middle-earth races, including the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the human knight Boromir (Sean Bean), who represents his father Denethor (John Noble), steward of the Italianate human realm of Gondor. These three join Gandalf, Aragorn, and the four Hobbits in a Fellowship that sets out for Mordor. During an attempt to make passage through the Mines of Moria, a subterranean former Dwarf city now abandoned to Orcs and an enormous fire demon called a Balrog, Gandalf seems to die fending off the Balrog. The rest of the Fellowship find refuge briefly with another Elven commune ruled over by Galadriel, with her great arts as a seer and sorceress. After boating downriver, Frodo, with Sam in tow, is obliged to split from the Fellowship when Boromir, unbalanced by the ring’s influence, tries to snatch it, and they trek off alone. The others in the Fellowship are attacked by a new breed of Orcs reared by Saruman called Uruk-hai: they kidnap Merry and Pippin, think them to be the Hobbits carrying the ring, and kill Boromir. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas set out to save the two captives, ending the first film. In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam continue their arduous trek and form an uneasy partnership with Gollum, who’s been tracking them across country. Stricken by the pathos of Gollum’s state and feeling discomforting kinship with him, Frodo agrees to let him guide them to Mordor. They’re briefly held captive by Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham), but eventually he is convinced of the necessity of letting them go.

LordOfTheRings14

Whilst Frodo is the linchpin of the narrative, he is bound through his general if tested decency and enforced passivity to be the least compelling figure, worn down to a husk by the weight of the burden and the effect of the ring: the challenge of his character is not his growth but his need to remain the same, to retain his essential goodness and optimism. The former child star Wood’s innate likeability and large blue eyes go a long way, but it is nonetheless not an easy part to play, as Frodo’s deterioration and increasing attitude of grim knowledge, in both his sense of impending personal doom and his battle with the ring, demands careful shading. Meanwhile Sam, his most stalwart companion, grows ever more valiant as the quest unfolds, until the dramatic crescendo when Sam, unable to carry the ring himself, decides instead to carry the exhausted Frodo on his back. By contrast, the humans are more fretful, complex creatures most vulnerable to the ring’s predations because their best motives are often close kin to their worst, the temptation to try and wield its power to protect their communities the most devious potent of its manipulations, the one that ruins Boromir.

LordOfTheRings15

But the most heroic human characters like Aragorn, Faramir, Théoden (Bernard Hill), and Éowyn (Miranda Otto), are defined as such in overcoming their sense of inner frailty and unsureness in their identities, a process of becoming that makes the humans, by the tale’s end, the inheritors of a world where the fixed and unchanging races are moving on to “undying lands,” fading in their power and relevance. Aragorn is very much the central figure in this, a man who steadily resolves from a shadowy outsider by choice to a nascent warrior-king as it emerges he is the descendent of Isildur, the line of kings having abandoned the throne of Gondor, but still retains a quiet fear he will ultimately prove as weak as his ancestor, a fear he must eventually quell when he faces situations requiring exactly his gifts. With Mortensen expertly depicting steely fighting pith balanced by a rather gentle, philosophical spirit, Aragorn represents the complex balance of forces required in being a civilised and civilising man, whilst possessing all the ancient virtues, the ideal fighter and eventual king because of, rather than in spite of, his complexity. He’s also the only true romantic figure in the film, once who suffers as well as feels anointed through his apparently impossible love for Arwen.

LordOfTheRings16

Gandalf, based broadly on versions of Odin in his wanderer guise in Norse tales, is the chief engine of the storyline as the being who urges the others into the quest and who knows a deeper lore about the world, from his introduction where he seems little more than a gentle entertainer and old smoking pal of Bilbo’s, through to his rebirth as a white-robed, priestly figure who barely remembers his old identity and represents a divine promise throughout the fearful onslaught. McKellen was cast with surprising astuteness (considering he had revived his movie star fortunes playing the relished villainy of Richard III, 1995) as the inscrutable but paternal wizard, a figure who much like the other characters must pass through his own trial forcing him to evolve into something else, but in his case treads somewhat closer to an outright act of transcendence. McKellen provides the three films with their backbone of gravitas and authority infused with a gruffly avuncular streak and a dash of plummy humour. Gandalf’s travails as a large man in Bilbo’s burrow as built for small people provides more than a dash of slapstick, as it helps underline his position as the figure providing a vivid connection between a world like our own and the larger fantastical zone.

LordOfTheRings17

There’s a fascinating, likely coincidental similarity between Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog and the scene in Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) where McKellen’s character Cuza stands up to the demonic entity Molasar. Both scenes involve McKellen’s aged, wizened, but uncorrupted character standing up to a monstrous avatar, wielding a totemic object – in Gandalf’s case his staff, in Cuza’s the cruciform talisman that keeps Molasar imprisoned – and rising to a titanic pitch of resistance in facing down all the evil in the world personified. Both scenes require McKellen’s capacity to turn his voice from something soft and reassuring to a booming, powerful device. Gollum, a creation that broke ground in the mostly seamless fusion of digital effects and Serkis’ brilliant performing, is by contrast one of the great screen grotesques, representing debased spirit. Gollum alternates shrieking, cringing pathos and crafty malevolence depending on which personality is in charge, delighting in his diet of raw insects and animal flesh, singing ditties to himself when happy, and speaking in mangled syntax often delivered in a sibilant purr. Serkis surely built upon Peter Woodthorpe’s characterisation from the 1981 radio version but added his own, most insistent quality in emphasising Gollum’s own, aggressively perverse childlike streak, often acting like a playground tyke, sometimes taking delight in petty cruelties and his peculiar appetites, other times viciously jealous of Frodo. Gollum counterbalances the Hobbits with a different brand of essentialised human nature, driven back into a kind of prelapsarian innocence except one that’s cruel and driven by a singular elemental need that has displaced and combined all the others.

LordOfTheRings18

Gollum winnows the vast world and grand military, political, and spiritual crises down to one fixated urge, plotting to regain the ring and revenge himself on the “filthy, tricksy Bagginses,” with Sam warning Frodo all the way and Frodo daring to take the chance because he knows the way but also because of Gandalf’s prediction that Gollum’s role in the drama might still be crucial, and indicative of Frodo’s own fate. Sméagol briefly resurges thanks to Frodo’s kindness, but when Frodo is obliged to betray him to Faramir’s men to save his life, Gollum returns more dominant than ever. Serkis’ genius in the role helped it do something that the Star Wars prequels failed notably to do with Jar-Jar Binks, in making a CGI character substantial and dramatically dominating. Jackson starts The Return of the King with a prologue flashback to Sméagol and his friend Déagol (Thomas Robins) first discovering the ring: the bauble’s immediate, deadly effect on Sméagol drives him to strangle Déagol and claim it. This scene turns the movie immediately towards a film noir-like underpinning in noting that obsessive jealousy and greed motivate one of its most crucial elements. It also lets Serkis appear on screen as the character.

LordOfTheRings19

Whilst Jackson and his co-writers reshuffled some events and employed a cross-cutting structure more reminiscent of the Star Wars films than Tolkien’s segmented narrative, and stealing some of the fire of those films with their heavy debt to Tolkien back, the three films correspond generally to the three volumes of the novel. The Fellowship of the Ring offers a pure, picaresque quest structure after its carefully laid story gambits. Jackson’s translation of Tolkien’s concept of an Anglocentric folklore presents its mythical, distorted prehistoric Europe as a place of untold ancient wonders and malignancies, monsters and spirits permeating taboo places, Elves lurking in woods and hills trying to maintain natural balance, and the industry of the Dwarves with their works remaining long after their builders have been wiped out by dark monstrosities. The beautifully blasted visions of arcane ruins, deserted chthonic cities, swamps littered with preserved corpses from long-ago battles, and volcanic wastelands, are always counterpointed with scenes of fecundity and splendour, particularly the Elven realms. Rivendell, pitched somewhere between storybook illustration and Chinese scroll painting in visions of jagged gables and hewn-wood decoration hovering weightlessly amidst soaring mountains, foaming waterfalls and delicate footbridges and shafts of soft light tickling gleaming bowers in the gloaming. The demesne of Galadriel with homes woven around and dug within the trunks of colossal trees. All filmed with unstinting excellence by the late Andrew Lesnie.

LordOfTheRings20

Another consequential choice Jackson and company made was to minimise the impact of the background lore on how the plot onscreen plays out. The film still retains constant hints of this extra dimension in the dialogue, so the random references to Melkor or Helm Hammerhand or Númenór mean something to people immersed in the books, but don’t trip up entirely fresh viewers. Such streamlining is one of the trickiest of arts in adaptation for this sort of thing and one the filmmakers did exceptionally well from one point of view, compared to, say, David Lynch’s zealously detailed yet corkscrewed approach to Dune (1984). Despite the general determination to stay true to the defiantly anti-modern lilt of the source material, they also sheared away some portions of the story, most particularly the puckish sprite Tom Bombadil, most likely to turn off a contemporary mass audience. The arguable unfortunate collateral cost of this is subtle: for Tolkien, the lore, the world that surrounds his characters and provides them with their legends and histories and reasons why things stand as they do in Middle-earth, was as much the point as the immediate melodrama, if not moreso. By stripping away Tolkien’s songs and parables and hushed little reveries on the meaning of things the heroes witness, a crucial part of his work essence is minimised. It also, to a degree, makes Tolkien’s world over in the image of some of its lesser imitators in the world of fantasy, where things simply are what they are in obedience to general generic dictum: Sauron is the Dark Lord, and that’s that.

LordOfTheRings21

And yet Jackson, as a director in full command of his medium, is able to communicate much of this flavour through his imagery. Sights like the grand statues of the ancient Gondor kings called the Argonauth looming from cliffs in the midst of wilderness, or the decapitated head of a statue and other ruins littering the landscape, convey the impressions of this vast and layered history as well as a dozen pages of written lore, a world pitted with the scars of primeval wars between demons and archangels and the refuse of civilisations risen and fallen. This connects with Tolkien’s obsessive refrain of damage and regeneration, sickening and healing, permeating both the storyline’s preoccupation and its visual realisation, inculcated in very human incidents like Frodo’s poisoning and revival and Théoden’s recovery from his withered, enslaved state, through to entire socio-political structures, in Aragorn’s coming presaging the recovery of Gondor. Just a little too often, Jackson uses bright glowing light to signal the presence of the ethereal, although it’s certainly in keeping with Tolkien’s imagery chains and Manichaean conceptualism. The trilogy also constantly sees Frodo swooning and falling when he feels the ring’s influence for little good reason except to amp up the drama, to the point where you wonder if he actually has an inner ear infection.

LordOfTheRings22

The Two Towers sees Merry and Pippin escape from their Orc captors when the raiding party is attacked by horsemen from Gondor’s neighbouring human kingdom, Rohan. After encountering Gandalf, reborn as a higher order of wizard through defeating the Balrog in battle, the two Hobbits are taken in hand by Treebeard (voiced by Rhys Davies), a member of a species called Ents who look like walking, talking trees and consider themselves shepherds and protectors of the forests. Merry and Pippin set about trying to convince the lethargic but hulking Ents to attack Saruman’s stronghold. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas also meet up with Gandalf, who leads them on a visit to the king of Rohan, Théoden, knowing that human realm lies in the path of Saruman’s legions. They find Théoden has become decrepit and wizened, as Théoden’s minister, the magnificently named Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), a minion of Saruman, has helped the evil wizard control Théoden as a puppet. Gandalf proves now powerful enough to break Saruman’s hold over Théoden and he returns to his normal state, whilst Gríma is exiled. With an army of Uruk-hai marching their way and many of his best fighters exiled by Gríma including his heir apparent Éomer (Karl Urban), Théoden decides to hole up with his populace in a fortress called Helm’s Deep, where they’re reinforced by Elf warriors come to honour their old alliance, but thanks to Gríma’s advice Saruman mixes up an explosive device to shatter its defensive wall. The defenders prevail thanks to the last-minute arrival of Gandalf with Éomer and a force of Rohan’s mounted riders, the Rohirrim, whilst the Ents, stirred to wrath by Saruman’s predations on their forest, assault Isengard and lay waste to the wizard’s doings.

LordOfTheRings23

In The Return of the King, the Rohirrim move to help Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith which comes under siege by Orcs out of Mordor led by the strongest and most evil of the Nazgûl, the Witch-King of Angmar. Gandalf’s efforts to stir the city to defence are treated disdainfully by Denethor, who mourns Boromir’s death and has heard about Aragorn. Pippin volunteers as a warrior of Gondor to pay the debt he feels he owes as Boromir died saving him. Consumed by a need to enact the world-ending sorrow he feels as a literal cataclysm, Denethor sends Faramir out to die in a suicidal assault on the advancing Orcs, and then arranges a funeral pyre for them both despite Faramir, as Pippin notices, not being dead. Meanwhile Sam and Frodo are led into a trap by Gollum, who promises to show them a pass over high, jagged mountains in Mordor, neglecting to mention it’s inhabited by the huge, carnivorous spider-demon Shelob, as Gollum hopes Shelob will eat the two Hobbits so he can claim the ring out her spoor. Realising the Rohirrim aren’t strong enough to defeat the Orc army, Aragorn, with Gimli and Legolas in tow, heads into a haunted cave inhabited by the men who broke their oaths to Isildur to fight for him only to be cursed and linger in an undead and abhorred spectral state. Wielding Isildur’s reforged sword, gifted to him by Elrond as a totem of hope, whilst also testing the strength of the legitimacy of his claim on the throne, Aragorn obliges the dead men to follow him to help lift the siege of Minas Tirith.

LordOfTheRings24

Middle episodes of movie trilogies often represent a special challenge, and The Two Towers struggles with a disjointed narrative line including Gandalf’s deus ex machina return, a relative lack of real drama for the two pairs of Hobbits to play out, and the introduction of many characters of consequence to the rest of the tale, particularly Théoden, Faramir, and Théoden’s niece and ward Éowyn, who yearns to fight and falls for Aragorn. Jackson’s desire to hit the ground running is made a little too literal as he opens with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas jogging endlessly in their pursuit of Uruk-hai with Merry and Pippin: where Conan the Barbarian made its montage of its heroes dashing across the steppes lyrical and ebullient, here it feels oddly laborious and overextended, like fantasy workout video, despite Gimli’s comical complaining. The little dramas playing out in Théoden’s realm have to be quickly sketched. The structure, unlike the open-road narrative of the previous movie, demands more attention to the slow build of suspense before the final battle, with relatively little action in between. Nonetheless, The Two Towers eventually turns most of these potential problems into unusual strengths, allowing for Jackson’s most poetic visual flourishes and character touches, like Theodon holding a flower whilst standing before his dead son’s grave, and Gríma making a romantic overture to Éowyn so surprisingly lush in its longing that it momentarily arrests Éowyn’s justified loathing of him.

LordOfTheRings25

Particularly effective in this manner is the mid-film sequence where Elrond, trying to convince Arwen not to remain in Middle-earth pining for the mortal Aragorn, paints a picture of future grief as the unchanging Elf weeps over Aragorn’s sarcophagus under billowing wintry leaves, one of the many images in Jackson’s repertoire that seem stolen from some pre-Raphaelite painter. Jackson’s approach had plenty of cinematic forebears too. The feel for grandeur both natural and architectural and the basic lexicon of this kind of screen fantasy can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), and some of Jackson’s shots might as well have been clipped out of it. There’s also the strong imprint of Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur (1981) with its careful visual contrast between sleek and brilliant, fashioned textures of armour and gleaming pseudo-classical buildings and the crude earth and fecund nature, but Jackson can’t quite reproduce the directness of Boorman’s gleaned concept of the human social order and natural flourishing as entwined. There are flashes of Conan the Barbarian and Krull (1983), along with King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasy films: Kong shaking the log informs Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog whilst the heroes sailing past the feet of the Argonauth nods to the equally dwarfed heroes of Jason and the Argonauts (1963). There are some tips of the hat to Hong Kong wu xia cinema in the gravity-defying athleticism and deftness of Legolas as well as the balletic camerawork, harking back to Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1980) and Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), an influence that would grow more pronounced in the prequel The Hobbit series.

LordOfTheRings26

The battle scenes draw on suitable models ranging from Alexander Nevsky (1938) to Seven Samurai (1954), Spartacus (1960), Zulu (1964), and Waterloo (1970) with their sense of how to handle large masses locked in deadly, diagrammatic symmetry, delivering moments of raw cinematic spectacle like the defenders of Helm’s Deep beholding the awesome host of their enemies in flashes of lightning, before Kurosawan rain begins to fall upon the assembled armies. The war movie influence becomes stronger in the second and third episodes of the trilogy as the narrative switches from quest to combat. Jackson’s most vigorous innovation on his influences lies in his attempt to make the films studies in near-constant motion both narratively and stylistically. He exploits the digital effects to present an unfettered use of the camera, whilst still trying to retain a sense of contiguous gracefulness, creating something distinct from the increasingly hyperactive approach of some Hollywood directors in the 1990s whilst still declaratively modern. One great example comes when Saruman stands atop his tower using incantations to foil the Fellowship’s progress, the camera sweeping down with a bird’s-eye-view, conveying all the wild drama and shamanic natural communion inherent in the scene. Another, more traditional piece of camera dynamism comes in the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring with a long tracking shot that starts on ground level and soars to high overhead, following Uruk-hai as Boromir blowing the Horn of Gondor brings them running to that fight.

LordOfTheRings27

The combination of CGI and model work is used to deliver breathless spectacle, like the flying explorations of Saruman’s underground works where Orcs labour constantly, before going in closer for memorable visions of the Uruk-hai being born out mud. Certain sequences in the trilogy have the kind of breathless, super-cinematic power once reserved in reference for the likes of the parting of the Red Sea from The Ten Commandments (1956) or Kong on the Empire State Building or the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and they’re liberally scattered through all three instalments – the chase through Moria and Gandalf’s stand-off against the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring and the return to at the very start of The Two Towers as he and the beast plunge into the bowls of the earth; the ride of the Rohirrim climaxing The Two Towers; just about the whole battle for Minas Tirith in The Return of the King including Éowyn standing against the Witch King and Legolas clambering up the back of one of the monstrous elephant-like creatures called Oliphaunts and felling the beast and all its crew. The heavy emphasis on special effects to make all of this work on screen sometimes results in some tacky interludes, like the visualisation of Frodo’s delirium whilst arriving at Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring with faces looming in a digital blur overlaying Elvish architecture captured in swooning camerawork, looking like a TV commercial for a day spa. Similarly misjudged is the depiction of the Dead Men in The Return of the King, who look like day-glo ghouls off the back of some trading cards.

LordOfTheRings28

But other effects are consistently remarkable, particularly the motion-capture work applied to Serkis to realise Gollum and the techniques used to place the actors playing Hobbits and Dwarves in shot with those playing normal-sized folk, effects that are virtually seamless and let the actors interact believably. Most importantly, the effects come on with a level of giddy enthusiasm directly tied to the storytelling, and Jackson’s capacity to make them serve his impeccable sense of staging, particularly when used with a dash of appropriate poetry, as when Arwen summons a flood upon the pursuing Nazgûl, the wave plunging upon them forming foamy shapes of horses on the gallop, or the flood of dazzling light that cascades down the hillside with the Rohirrim charging the Orcs at Helm’s Deep. One critic at the time of the films’ release cleverly likened the smaller, more fleeting effects dropped seemingly casually into shots to Sergio Aragones’ margin doodles for MAD Magazine, like Legolas managing to swing himself up onto a charging horse with a casual show of his superhuman dexterity, and one of the Ents rushing to douse his burning head in floodwater.

LordOfTheRings29

Despite all the outsized trappings and showmanship, the three films nonetheless usually retain a canny sense of when to slow down and contemplate, in vignettes like Gandalf’s famous speech to Frodo about weathering terrible times and deciding “what to do with the time that is given us,” or Gríma’s appeal to Éowyn, and Théoden mourning his son, slain in combat with the Orcs. Whilst it’s not exactly a character drama in the fullest sense, The Lord of the Rings keeps the human level in focus. The sense of the characters’ purpose as mythic emblems is wielded with a Dickensian sense of potent caricature and constantly mediated by humour, preventing any hint of characters becoming frieze blocks of nobility. Merry and Pippin are mostly comic relief figures at first, as is Gimli, whose very real prowess as a warrior is given a constant edge of irony by his need to talk himself up with his outsized pride matched to his small stature, engaging in a running competition with Legolas. Bloom was immediately, if briefly anointed with matinee idol status in playing the longhaired, eternally poised, stoic-faced but mischievous-eyed Legolas, the character in the trilogy most in touch with swashbuckling spirit of movies of yore, thanks to Jackson who hands him some of the movies’ most inventive action moments, as when he surfs down a flight of stairs to save his friends during the Helm’s Deep battle, and the more elaborate set-piece of him bringing down the Oliphaunt.

LordOfTheRings30

Jackson was one of the first directors to truly exploit the new DVD era as he prepared considerably longer versions of the three films for home viewing release – The Return of the King was the first film to capture Best Picture whilst still technically being in production. Not everything added to the extended editions works, like a silly scene with Merry and Pippin in the forest under Treebeard’s watch, and the scene where Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are chased off by the Dead Men at first with a cascade of skulls is rather pointless. They’re also inevitably less smoothly paced, playing more as TV series-like, and in their way probably helped give birth to the age of binge-watching. Nonetheless, the extended versions are considerably more dense and coherent works, making many relationships and moves of the plot more intelligible as well as more sharply defining the character and events in the context of their world. Particularly valuable is the restored scene where Saruman and Gríma, trapped by the Ents in the sorcerer’s tower, fall out and Gríma kills Saruman before being struck by one of Legolas’ arrows. The scene’s absence from the theatrical version was particularly egregious not dealing with the fates of two of the trilogy’s major characters, and the performances by Dourif, adding to his great gallery of on-screen weirdos, and Lee, capping his career with a role that was important to him as a great fan of Tolkien.

LordOfTheRings31

If there’s a lack in The Lord of the Rings, it’s one inherited in large part from the source material. We’re certainly in mythopoeic territory where the characters, both humanoid and other, exist in emblematic dimensions, ranging from Gollum as pathetic-malevolent greed to Gríma as political corruptor to Shelob as septic sexuality, Middle-earth conceived as a grand Jungian world of archetypes and Freudian dream-symbols. And, of course, a large part of the reason why the story is loved is precisely for the deliverance from sordid realities and entrance into a realm where the beauty and purity of the Elves and humble fortitude of the Hobbits coexist, where the valiant arrive on horseback to charge the lines of pure malice, and the entire universe trembles like a spider’s web to the palpable ruptures of good and evil. The Lord of the Rings, both books and films, is often criticised for black-and-white moral schemes, which isn’t entirely accurate: what it tries to do is allegorically dramatise moral ideas, like Gollum literally split between his good and bad streaks, and the confrontation with evil involving a physical and spiritual pilgrimage, in a manner that is authentically mythic. But it does lack some of that vital fire of human behaviour that drives great epics, both literary and cinematic, particular romantic and sexual desire, and protagonists who battle deep flaws.

LordOfTheRings32

It’s worth noting how vivid the human characters in authentic great myths and sagas tend to be. Any glance at some of Tolkien’s sources like the Nibelungenlied, the Völsunga Saga, the Arthurian cycle, Beowulf, and the Greek myths is to behold tales filled with spectacles of human perversity, savagery, interwoven with civilising traits, the tales of mad kings and wicked queens and perfect knights who are imperfect men, wild passion, incest, ego, greed, treachery, murder, and most particularly warring value systems, an essential ingredient of classical myth and tragedy. By creating Sauron and the Orcs Tolkien purposefully removed a rival moral and social faction to the heroes, presenting instead a catch-all Other to be resisted and slain without compunction. In terms of epic movie tradition, too, there’s a lack. There isn’t anything as elemental as the clash of personal and politico-religious urges in The Ten Commandments, or as fervent as Rhett and Scarlett or even Jack and Rose, or the pointed political subtexts and well-parsed metaphors for maturation of the Star Wars films, and despite the similarities in story it never explores the social meaning of a warrior creed like Seven Samurai. The Lord of the Rings accepts the medieval proposition that government is just about as good as the individuals holding power, and whilst Frodo and the other Hobbits all learn they’re stronger than they think, there’s no psychological process to their growth. When characters behave ignobly, like Boromir, it’s the external influence of the ring that causes their lapses. The notion of a personified and objectivised evil is very much at the heart of the story but also one that helps keep the story and its dimensions in the childlike. There is passion, but it’s relentlessly chaste: Éowyn’s love for Aragorn remains unrequited; Aragorn’s love for Arwen is given some body by Mortensen and Tyler but remains an almost entirely ethereal idea. The Lord of the Rings leans heavily upon its audience’s presumed fondness for virtuous simplicity and a boyish idea of the adult world.

LordOfTheRings33

Jackson and his fellow writers mediate the simplicity in this regard by fleshing out the characters’ needs and anxieties. Gríma’s desire for Éowyn is noted as his motive in the novel but given extra dimension in the films. Aragorn’s self-doubt is a recurring note that pays off in one moment of significant suspense when he seems to be arrested by Sauron’s whispered offerings, only to turn his comrades a smile before launching into battle. Perhaps Jackson’s most ambitious moment of grand and lyrical pathos comes in The Return of the King where Denethor, having ordered Faramir’s suicide attack, sits down for dinner and makes Pippin sing him a song to leaven the oppressive mood. Juice from his meal dripping like blood from his lips, Denethor listens to Pippin’s sad, spare lament, intercut with the defeat of the knights. It’s not a subtle scene – the eating is either a bit much or perfectly in tune with the kind of morality play the story emulates, depending on your point of view. But it works a powerful spell thanks to the crafting, the way Monaghan’s beautiful singing is used over images of defeat and death, and the spectacle of the aged potentate’s oblivious arrogance. Jackson touches upon a sense of futility and regret in the warfare the rest of the series generally delights in, examining the difference between selfless communal bravery and the misuse of power, presenting not a meaningful warrior death fighting against bottomless evil but something more familiar, young men dying to satisfy the egotisms of their rulers. Jackson may well have been moved to include the scene given the films’ release amidst the furore of the post-9/11 moment, a moment the films somewhat incidentally fed into and when some critics took aim at the films’ enshrining of martial valour.

LordOfTheRings34

Denethor’s presence in The Return of the King gives the trilogy something it otherwise lacks, a character who might well have stumbled of a Norse saga, embodying the more familiar evils of human nature but also with flashes of its more pitiable side, a wounded overlord whose decline is tied to the teetering state of his realm. To a certain extent Gríma inhabits a similar zone, but he might as well have “villain” tattooed on his forehead: even his last stab at redemption is a pathetic murder. Denethor is splendidly awful with his consuming blend of bitterness, pessimism, pain, and cruelty, constantly belittling Faramir as a fool and weakling, and venerating the fallen Boromir. His gestures of grandiose, nihilistic impulse reach their apex when he tries burn himself and Faramir alive together, only foiled through Gandalf and Pippin intervening to save Faramir. Denethor’s end makes a good example of the adaptors’ augmenting touch: where in the novel Denethor dies in the full grip of crazed will, Jackson votes him a moment of clarity and then pity, noticing Faramir is alive and for the first time seeming to actually love his son, just before he catches fire and dies falling from the city battlements. Denethor’s subordinating use of his sons as mirrors to his own vanity and self-loathing has a clear connection with Jackson’s previous studies in sick psychological dynamics, like the relationship of the two girls in Heavenly Creatures where the offspring elect to annihilate their repressing elders, and in Brain Dead where the son’s squirming Oedipal repression is finally dramatized when he’s swallowed back up his zombie mother’s womb.

LordOfTheRings35

Tolkien always rejected the idea his novel was a metaphor for World War II and Sauron a Hitlerian figure, but it still feels likely the logic of his own time thoroughly informed that of his book as well as his understanding of the historical perspective of ancient Britons. The story recreates a certain parochial vision where evil is out there in the simmering east and south, with the abhorred land of Mordor, and the Orcs, a race of diseased and devolved beings, representing everything foreign and threatening. Tolkien was despite his overall conservatism reputedly firmly anti-racist, and the storyline reflects that, presenting the different ‘races’ who overcome all their sometimes vast differences in worldview and understanding and fractious history to work together, embodied most crucially by the slow-warming friendship of Legolas and Gimli, as well as the army of Elf warriors who come to fight with Men at Helm’s Deep, and the ultimate choice of Théoden to ride to Gondor’s aid despite them doing nothing for Rohan. Another one of Jackson’s great visualisations, something of an apotheosis of epic moviemaking, comes when Gandalf, ignoring Denethor’s hostile refusal, gets Pippin to light a signal fire, one of a chain set up to communicate between the two kingdoms and call for aid: Jackson’s soaring aerial shots of jagged mountains and remote sentries lighting each fire, all set to Shore’s most lushly momentous scoring, capped by the long, boding pause as Théoden is told “Gondor calls for aid,” before he answers, “And Rohan will answer.”

LordOfTheRings36

When anticipating the third film’s release it was difficult to see Jackson topping the Helm’s Deep battle, but then came the battle in and around Minas Tirith, a sequence marked by ever-ratcheting levels of beautifully choreographed craziness, complete with Nazgûl riding their flying dragon-like creatures to maraud over the city, and the onslaught of the Oliphaunts. Théoden leads the Rohirrim in a grand charge, and Éowyn and Merry, both forbidden to enter the fight but doing it anyway, weave their way through the carnage before finally facing down the Witch King after he attacks Théoden and mortally wounds. Éowyn is close to being my favourite character in the trilogy, first glimpsed as the picture-perfect Saxon princess struggling to stay out of Gríma’s clutches and trying to stave off a depressive stupor, before eventually donning armour and riding secretly to war with Merry at her side as another of the heroes determined to prove she’s stronger than anyone knows. Otto, despite a scene when she lapses into a strange mid-Pacific brogue (perhaps a sign of the production’s occasional shifts in direction), is a luminous presence, and gives the film one of its major sources of heart, building to the moment when she reveals herself to the Witch King and declares, “I am no man,” the greatest moment of on-screen girl power since Ripley’s choice words to the alien queen in Aliens (1986).

LordOfTheRings37

Whilst much smaller in scale, Frodo and Sam’s encounter with Shelob, into whose lair Gollum successfully tricks Frodo into entering after separating him and Sam through conniving, is just as potent a scene, thanks largely to the incredibly good effects used to realise the monstrous arachnid and the sickly intimacy of the struggle: the sight of Shelob silently stalking Frodo through crags is something I can easily imagine sending arachnophobes into fits. Sam’s reappearance just as Shelob is about to consume the paralysed and trussed Frodo is the best of Jackson’s many last-second interventions, Sam’s emergence as the ideal yeoman hero crystallising as he confronts the monster with sword and bottled starlight, a magical gift from Galadriel painful to the dark-dwelling monster. Jackson’s gift for staging extends in the final, depleting trek to Mount Doom, whilst the survivors of the great battle at Minas Tirith, led by Aragorn, march to Mordor’s gate to distract Sauron and his legions and give the Hobbits a chance to gain their goal. Jackson’s elaborate tricks to make the experience ever more agonising are deployed to their best effect here as the final yards prove the most gruelling, not just in physical exhaustion but the bitter final twist of Frodo finally succumbing to the ring’s influence and refusing to throw it into the lava, closing the circle as he stands in the same place as Isildur millennia earlier and falls prey to the same, undeniable influence.

LordOfTheRings38

Only this time the joker in the deck proves to be Gollum whose need for the ring seem to even exceed its creator’s, assaulting Frodo at the threshold and biting his finger off to get the ring, only for the enraged Hobbit to push his doppelganger into the fiery chasm, Gollum so lost in his utter joy at reclaiming the precious he doesn’t even notice as he falls, finally burning up with the ring in the lava. Jackson gleefully goes for broke in the sight of Sauron’s tower collapsing, his great eye quivering in agony and despair before exploding, and the ground swallowing up the Orc army, before Gandalf flies in to rescue Sam and Frodo before the perish in the lava streams. The final passages of The Return of the King, which frustrated some in offering several potential endings, see Aragorn installed as king of Gondor and marrying Arwen and obliging everyone to pay homage to the heroism of the Hobbits, who then return home and try to settle back into life, something Frodo eventually finds he can’t do. So Frodo is invited to leave Middle-earth with Elrond, Galdriel, Bilbo, and Gandalf and head off the Undying Lands, making his farewells to Sam, Merry, and Pippin. The embrace of a melancholy tone in the concluding scenes, the awareness of the great conflict claiming costs from its hero that can’t be healed, invests the trilogy with its last and finest flash of stylised truth, Frodo’s ascension to the status of a legendary figure one that also cleaves him from the living, growing, dying world. It’s left to Sam, naturally, to return home and resume the business of living. It’s a reminder that for all the heroic lustre and otherworldly lyricism invested in the material it’s a work written by someone who knew how hard coming home from war could be, and it’s this final motif, at once sobering and yet also deepening the mythopoeic resonance, Jackson respects to the utmost.

LordOfTheRings39

The Lord of the Rings has proved both the great moment and a bit of a millstone in terms of Jackson’s career. His subsequent efforts, King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), and The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14), were all greeted with varying levels of disappointment, in large part because each of them was beholden to pre-existing material Jackson’s approach strained against, but also all sported passages of great filmmaking. Whilst there was some legitimacy to complaints The Hobbit films were overindulged, and the attempts to synthesise an equal kind of epic story out of a slim book could not match what came before it, nonetheless Jackson used the second trilogy to explore the troubles afflicting Middle-earth largely skimmed over in The Lord of the Rings films, like the schism of Elves and Dwarves and the general spectacle of greed, and giving greater psychological dimension to figures like Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield, the latter emerging as an authentic antihero. Jackson dug deeper to find the material to find more of the satirical aspect he once thrived on, at the risk of spurning the lustre of heroic escapism the first trilogy so perfectly enshrined. The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy has its missteps and hyperbolic passages, but they’re a part of its overall, giddy texture. There were and are few cinema experiences to match it, an achievement that, so far, set the bar for Hollywood just a little too high to reach again.

Standard
Uncategorized

Black Widow (2021)

.

BlackWidow01

Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriter: Eric Pearson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It’s odd at this point that a Disney-Marvel superhero blockbuster could seem like an underdog, but Black Widow feels like one. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe series’ domination of pop movie culture grew wearisome for many well before the clumsy and disappointing but historically successful Avengers: Endgame (2019), and the enforced cessation of it during the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to drain the steam from the juggernaut. Black Widow, the chief victim of the hiatus in being pushed back a year, has then become an ideal target for a takedown. Making a solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s lithe engine of destruction is fraught with ambiguities. Marvel was long weak at the knees when it came to female superheroes fronting their own movies, having previously only dared it with Captain Marvel (2018), a film with an utter nonentity for a protagonist, and might as well have simply been delivered as the succession of internet memes it so patently wanted to spawn. Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff was by contrast the most genuinely interesting of the classic line-up of heroes in the film franchise, a warrior whose gifts were more those of enormous precision and skill rather than force and magic powers, with an enigmatic background involving lodes of trauma and guilt, allowing her to seem more than just another Smurfette in a crowd of fast and bulbous pals. The character, introduced impressively in the otherwise awful Iron Man 2 (2010), was presented as a professional femme fatale, enticing with a passively sexy veneer only to reveal by degrees the hard-as-nails and omnicompetent combatant beneath.

BlackWidow02

After numerous stand-out roles as a child actor, Johansson hit stardom with her performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), where she surprised everyone with her display of intelligence and soulful maturity despite still being a teenager, successfully playing a character older than she actually was. Perhaps not since Lauren Bacall had a female star come along who seemed to worldly wise beyond her years, and that aura certainly informed her casting as Natasha, a woman who’s lived ages before her 30th birthday. But Johansson struggled to make good on her promise with lacklustre performances in films like Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2004), and she skidded around in the next few years, mostly in middlebrow award-bait movies. It wasn’t until she played Black Widow and embraced a more populist appeal that her screen persona finally resolved, playing deftly off her clammily hailed sex appeal but also giving the perfect vehicle for her to assume a cagey kind of sovereignty, creating an image she parleyed into vehicles as different yet commonly rooted in her persona as Under The Skin (2014) and Ghost In The Shell (2017). Meanwhile Natasha provided a great foil for her co-stars in the Marvel films, particularly Chris Evans’ Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) where the two shared what Natasha wryly noted was his first kiss since 1945.

BlackWidow03

Cate Shortland’s Black Widow faces a special challenge, in being both a star vehicle reliant on Johansson in the role – she’s billed as one of the executive producers – and also a salutary farewell to her and a potential set-up to posit her replacement. The character was killed off in Avengers: Endgame, sacrificing herself to obtain one of the super-MacGuffin Infinity Stones to save half the universe. On paper it was a gutsy, nobly selfless end for a character driven by a stinging awareness of her moral compromise, in practice an odd and clumsy outro for a figure who never quite got her due and then suffered from being identified as the expendable one not required for the big punch-up finale where she was ridiculously supplanted by an array of suddenly inducted female superheroes. Black Widow is set in the series continuity between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), avoiding revising Natasha’s death, a weirdly deflating move, but also one the film turns to its own advantage in exploring its own fin-de-siecle mood, trying to give her fate some new meaning. The film begins in suburban Ohio in 1990, depicting young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) playing and strolling with their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). Later they settle down for dinner as their father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) gets home, only for him to announce that the great adventure he once promised to take them on is now imminent.

BlackWidow04

Turns out the family isn’t really a family, but a carefully planted group of sleeper agents sent to steal information by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a power-mad hold-out from the Communist era still running covert operations. Alexei is the closest thing the Soviet Union ever created to Captain America, a supersoldier codenamed Red Guardian, and he’s seen casually managing feats of strength and agility, including clinging onto the wing of the aircraft they use to flee to Cuba after dodging American agents. Natasha has to fly the plane after Melina is clipped by a bullet. Once they arrive in Cuba, where they’re met by Dreykov, the family is immediately disbanded, Melina spirited away for surgery, whilst Natasha snatches a pistol to ward off threatening soldiers from harming Yelena. But in imagery interpolated during the subsequent opening credits, Natasha and Yelena are glimpsed with a number of other frightened girls being shipped back Russia in a cargo container, deliberately reminiscent of human trafficking. We, or at least anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, know what happens to Natasha at least, as she’s put through the ruthless training program for female assassins Dreykov runs called the Black Widows. The program is run out of a secret abode called the Red Room, the mere name of which sends a shiver up the spine of anyone who knows of it, but none of the Black Widows actually know where it is because of the elaborate security protocols.

BlackWidow05

Cut to twenty-odd years later, as Natasha is being hunted by former General, now Secretary Ross (William Hurt), the asshole-in-chief overseeing the implementation of the Sukovia Accords designed to put a check on superhero activity. Natasha easily keeps a step ahead of Ross, relying on her fixer pal Mason (O-T Fagbenle) to provide her with equipment and safe houses. He leaves her in a caravan in rural Norway along with a bundle of her belongings transferred from a safe house she used to keep in Budapest. What Natasha doesn’t know yet is that the now-grown Yelena (Florence Pugh), also a Black Widow, has secreted something very important and very dangerous amongst her belongings. Yelena belongs to the subsequent generation of Widows who, after Natasha successfully defected, were subjected to chemical brainwashing that left them all completely unable to resist any orders from Dreykov. On a mission in Morocco to track down a renegade former comrade, Yelena caught a face full of a red gas that suddenly freed her will just as she fatally stabbed her quarry: an older Widow created an antidote to the enslaving treatment. Yelena is obliged with her new-found freedom to keep it out of Dreykov’s hands, turning to Natasha who had no idea Yelena was still a Widow and thought Dreykov was dead, because she and Clint Barton blew up Dreykov’s apartment in Budapest along with his young daughter.

BlackWidow06

On a plot level Black Widow is nothing special, a little bit Bourne, a little bit Bond (Shortland includes a scene of Natasha watching Moonraker, 1979, on TV, signalling which particular Bond template the film will soon follow), a little bit Boris and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It stakes out similar territory to Andrew Dominik’s Red Sparrow (2017), which dealt with the harsh training of Russian female agents and might as well stand in for the mostly off-stage experiences of Natasha, Yelena, and the other Widows, and David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017). Both of those, whilst not particularly good in their own right, went to places Black Widow might have gone and maybe should have in dealing more overtly with the guilty fantasy figure of the ass-kicking, hard-loving female spy, but Black Widow tries to stay wedged in the confluence of family adventure flick and dark-and-gritty genre film. Hard action aficionados and those who love the Marvel movies for their flashy special effects and generally bouncy tone will likely find it a frustrating watch because the nominal storyline is often placed aside for long tracts engaging in interaction and hard reckoning. Deep down it’s a character drama wrapped in the glitz and glamour of a tent-pole epic, studying the obverse of the usual driving power fantasies of superhero movies, in depicting people who are despite their abilities all human wreckage, stymied by circumstance and conspiracy, trying desperately to hang on to what few fragments of grace and worth they have left.

BlackWidow07

Shortland, who emerged with the excellent debut feature Somersault (2004) and eventually followed it up with Lore (2014) and Berlin Syndrome (2017), has been until now associated with quietly intense art house dramas that double as dark fairytales, with a fascination for young and naïve female adventurers abroad, often thrown into situations with complex and duplicitous men who may or may not mean them harm. What’s surprising is the degree to which Black Widow feels of a unit with her earlier work, down to retaining a toned-down version of her trademark jittery visual style utilising handheld cameras and shallow-focus, ever-so-slightly disorientating camerawork. Of her three films Berlin Syndrome, a complex and discomforting work about a young woman held captive by a man she’s had a one-night stand with, probably landed Shortland the job of directing Black Widow, as both her most recent and one concerned with enslavement and coercion, although the opening scene with Natasha and Yelena playing feels closer to Somersault’s portrayal of hapless innocence and a blithe attitude to a world hiding cruel fates. Shortland’s approach is most effective in the early scenes which smartly establish the fake family as nonetheless inhabiting a working simulacrum of normality and functioning, as Melina schools the two girls with her vast knowledge of biology, before returning home to a family dinner where the chemistry of the family members feels genuine, no matter how many secrets everyone is keeping. The escape plays out as a mostly realistic thriller-action scene only punctuated by Alexei’s feats of strength. It all has a down-to-earth quality that worked well in the first MCU entry, Iron Man (2008), before the fantasy and sci-fi aspects trucked in from the source comics took over, and was revisited to a degree in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the entry in the series Black Widow most closely resembles.

BlackWidow08

Of course, that kind of approach isn’t going to last forever in a movie that nods to Moonraker as a style guide, but Black Widow sustains it for a surprisingly long time. Indeed, there’s a surprising level of mostly implied but sometimes quite immediate meditation on cruelty and suffering, stated unnecessarily in the Nietzschean catchphrase Natasha and Yelena learn from Melina: “Pain only makes you stronger.” From the nightmarish tint of the opening credits vignettes Black Widow does its best to consider the process that made Natasha and Yelena so damn tough and capable as involving much pain indeed, including the previously-mentioned but still discomforting detail of their having received forced hysterectomies, which proves to be almost an aside compared to the level of control imposed over the newer Widows, who can be forced to blow themselves up. Young Yelena cries over a scraped knee; the older one uses a knife to cut out the tracking chip implanted in her thigh once she gains her autonomy. Returning to confront the institution that pulled her apart and refashioned her into something both more and less than human, Natasha is obliged to face up to the crimes she committed not only for Dreykov but in her campaign to escape his clutches, which claimed, as Natasha puts it, collateral damage. Natasha is genuinely shocked when she tracks down Yelena and her sister tells her Dreykov is still alive, so the sisters break Alexei out of the Siberian prison he’s been cast into for years hoping he knows the truth. He in turn leads them to Melina, who has remained Dreykov’s thrall and collaborator, having played a vital part in developing his mind-control methods, which Melina demonstrates on one of her pet pigs in a queasy moment.

BlackWidow09

There’s an interesting edge of the Sadean to all this, communicated through Shortland’s obsessive use of red as a totem, symbolising, natch, the lingering influence of the Soviet Union but also associated with blood, suffering, plundering, and the loss of (and regaining of via the red gas) autonomy. Background trauma is a fairly compulsory aspect of modern heroic identity in fiction, particularly for superheroes, but Black Widow digs into something more rarefied and disturbing, conscious as it is that everything that makes Natasha a potent figure is also sourced in a history of anguish, down the to eventual, brutal revelation that Dreykov had her birth mother, who Natasha thought abandoned her, killed when she kept searching for her daughter. Shortland’s images, which often manage to escape the blandness of contemporary digi-cinema, feel more attuned to bodies, presences, putting muscle behind Johansson’s cumulatively palpable performance. Winstone’s Dreykov is a comparatively weak villain, but for a purpose. The career soldier and master of puppets is rather than someone actually brave and tough himself someone accomplished at using them: he’s less like an octopus with his tentacles reaching into everything and more like a lobster, safe and strong as long as his shell holds. The organisation he runs is one of the few ever presented in pop culture that feels as insidious and perverting as Fritz Lang offered in his Weimar thriller films, more so even than any of Bond’s antagonists, with Dreykov inhabiting his sky castle, plotting to quietly control the world and army of mind control victims, boasting that he can with one command cause financial chaos and cause mass starvation.

BlackWidow10

Not, of course, that Black Widow makes as much of any of this as might have: despite offering something grittier than any other MCU film, it’s still trapped within that universe and all attendant commercial necessity. But it keeps its focus on the characters and the story infrastructure around them provides a blueprint describing their emotional landscape. The film’s best choice is almost entirely excising the rest of the MCU from proceedings, with Yelena making a quip about Dreykov not looking for revenge against Natasha lest he bring down “one of the big ones” from the Avengers on his head, and Alexei waxing nostalgic about battling Captain America in his glory days, only for one fellow prisoner to note that Cap was still in the Arctic ice when Alexei claims to have fought him. Yelena makes an acid comment at one point about Natasha posturing as a hero figure to little girls despite her history of bloodshed and the lack of choice afforded Yelena and the other Widows. It’s a nice line that makes a gesture towards dismantling the much-repeated pieties about superheroes, particularly the few female ones on the Marvel and DC movie rosters, serving as presumed role-models for their young audience when Natasha herself is not an easy identification figure. The film is then reasonably courageous in not trying to remake Natasha as some kind of straightforward character, but letting her inhabit a story with some nasty barbs. Only the character of Mason feels superfluous for someone as skilled in taking care of herself as Natasha, seemingly only really present in the movie to provide a kind of drone male all the better to show off Natasha’s dominant stature.

BlackWidow11

The pivotal scene in the film comes once the “family” is reunited, observed in all their mismatched yet oddly bonded identities, cueing a dinner table scene with alternations of grievance, fury, affection, snarky élan, and personal chemistry: it’s a more interesting breakdown of the concept of a gang of would-be heroes as a family than the several others littering the current movie scene because the characters all have pretty good reasons to hate and mistrust each-other on top of sharing a relationship that was only ever a nominal ruse. And yet they find themselves inheriting all the urges and instincts of reality, as when Alexei tries in his oafish yet well-meaning way to comfort the injured and betrayed-feeling Yelena. Harbour’s Alexei is called upon to provide most of the film’s comic relief as the battered faux-paterfamilias, and yet even he’s stricken with an even worse dose of the same crippling melancholia. The once-proud representative of his nation, degraded and imprisoned through treachery, trapped in aging impotence boasting about opponents he never got to face before struggling to squeeze himself into his old costume, is finally given a moment to shine in the climax as he goes up against Dreykov’s secret weapon, the masked monstrosity codenamed Taskmaster.

BlackWidow12

Taskmaster makes several attempts to catch up with Natasha and Yelena, almost killing Natasha when tracking down the cure shipped to her in Norway and then chasing the sisters through the streets of Budapest in an armoured car, two strong action sequences that thankfully don’t overstay their welcome. Taskmaster as antagonist has one intriguing specific ability, to match and exactly mimic an opponent’s fighting style. Taskmaster’s true identity would only be difficult to guess for anyone who’s never seen a movie: it’s actually the now-adult Antonia (a wasted Olga Kurylenko), left badly disfigured and paralysed by Natasha’s bomb rather than killed, and allowed to move by a computer chip installed in her spine that’s made her exponentially more strong and agile, at the price of being reduced to her father’s pure servant of will. This revelation is a bit rich given Taskmaster’s distinctly masculine build when masked, but then again a few dozen horror movies have pulled the same trick. More to the point, Antonia personifies Natasha’s sense of spurring guilt, and her turning out to still be alive helps finally mollify that guilt, whilst also providing her with a Frankensteinian doppelganger, the damaged emblem of what the other Widows only exhibit psychologically.

BlackWidow13

Black Widow, as movies of this kind have to at the moment, must walk the middle path between the two most annoying factions in the online world: those policing it for any hint of sexuality that might give a teenage boy even the slightest pretext for a boner, and those policing it for any signs of unwanted “woke” messaging. For the former, well, there’s a coterie of fit women in catsuits, if never lingered on. Despite it being an inherent part of their function and training, the Widows seem to have had their sexual cunning and power removed along with their reproductive organs. As far as the latter goes, the Cold War redux themes are entirely facetious – Dreykov’s project is simply the accruing of power with only a veneer of Soviet nostalgia. The metaphors for villainous misogyny are rather more barbed and tightly wound into the story, but never belaboured through speechifying: they’re allowed to speak for themselves on the essential dramatic level. There’s been controversy recently as it’s emerged that the Marvel production house has been hiring directors from the indie film world to provide a veneer of creative cool and an injection of diversity but not letting them handle their own action scenes. Such a practice was once pretty de rigeur in Hollywood – Michael Curtiz and William Wyler amongst many had practiced action staging hands sub for them – but it does explain why the action sequences in the Marvel films tend to all feel interchangeable. I can’t complain here though: the mostly down-to-earth style of thrills in the early action scenes, and the final eruption of big, Bond-style chaos at the end, are exceptionally well-done, even if noting that a crashing car in the Budapest scene is infuriatingly CGI-rendered. I understand the temptation to take such short-cuts but it hurts the very essence of this kind of movie.

BlackWidow14

The scene where Natasha and Yelena break Alexei out of jail, hovering over the prison with a helicopter and trying to scoop the old Red Guardian up before an avalanche hits, is good fun and at its best when the stunts look real and dangerous, like Natasha ducking the choppers’s sweeping tail rotor, but again is hampered by recourse to too many obvious special effects. The reality and film-texture-distorting impact of such effects might be said however to help such movies keep a foot planted in their drawn source material. The crucial dynamic in the film is most obviously between Johansson’s Natasha and Pugh’s Yelena, offering decent chemistry in their alternations of spiky attitude and quiescent affection. Their relationship is also informed by the women playing them, Johansson the still relatively young but by now weathered professional and familiar face pithed against Pugh, emerging as a star of potential after gaining attention with performances in films like Lady Macbeth (2017) and Midsommar (2019) where she played characters who meet evolve into fiends in the course of purging their own torments. Pugh’s still-young yet leonine face provides a great counterpoint to Johansson’s sleek features. Whilst she doesn’t yet have anything like the same following, Pugh offers real potential as a nominal replacement, partly because Yelena is a less sanguine creature partly defined by her edge of disdain, teasing her sister for being nearly as ludicrous as she is heroic, mocking her as a poser for her signature superhero landing in the film’s best running joke.

BlackWidow15

But it’s Johansson’s film and she helps put it over the line with Natasha’s climactic meeting with Dreykov, after she and the rest of her “family” are ambushed and captured by Dreykov’s men thanks to Melina secretly calling them in. Dreykov is eager to reclaim Natasha not just for revenge but because she can help him subvert the Avengers and finally emerge from the shadows to become world dictator. Dreykov’s fail-safes include a mental block preventing Natasha from attacking him, triggered by his pheromones. Thankfully, Natasha’s long-established capacity to use her opponents’ overconfidence and arrogance, seen before to best advantage in The Avengers (2012), here resurges in a piece of narrative three-card-monte as it emerges Melina told her what to expect and how to circumvent it. Natasha gains access to Dreykov by wearing a mask disguising her as her mother, whilst Melina, Yelena, and Alexei escape from captivity and set about destroying the Red Room, which is actually a huge flying techno-fort hovering above the clouds.

BlackWidow16

The confrontation between Natasha and Dreykov, which nods to RoboCop’s (1987) Directive 4 as Natasha finds herself unable to stab the man who perverted her life and murdered her mother, takes on a real edge of pathology as Natasha provokes Dreykov into punching her repeatedly, grinning all the time as he takes his best, meanest shots with a mocking pleasure bordering on masochism, a willingness to take punishment for her cause usually only reserved to male heroes. It’s a moment that highlights Johansson’s overqualified but definite affinity for the part, and gains its self-mutilating climax when Natasha, disappointed by Dreykov’s blows, instead smashes her nose against his desk to sever her olfactory nerve, freeing her to wail on him with impunity. Intervention by the other Widows saves Dreykov, as Natasha is despite her prowess overwhelmend and brought to the brink of ruin, only to be saved Yelena’s quick-thinking intervention. This leads to a fitting moment as Natasha releases Antonia, trapped by Alexei and Melina after a fight, from a prison cell as the Red Room begins to disintegrate, willing to face Antonia’s augmented wrath rather than leave her to die.

BlackWidow17

Yelena finishes up killing Dreykov by thrusting an explosive into the rotor of his hovercraft before it can take off, exploding the craft and hurling Yelena out into a freefall towards earth. Natasha, in a spectacular nod to the famous opening of Moonraker, leaps from the Red Room and plunges after her whilst trying to pull on a parachute amidst falling hunks of flaming debris. Everything ends well, with Antonia and the other Widows successfully freed from the mind control yoke, Dreykov’s network open to dismantling, and the wayward family surviving and making their peace. Natasha heads off to her ultimate fate with her past thoroughly laid to rest. A brief post-credits coda in the usual MCU fashion provides the gambit for a new looming conflict as Yelena visits her grave and some shadowy government screwball (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hiring her to go after the man supposedly responsible for her death, handing her a picture of Clint. Black Widow isn’t a transcendentally great entry in the current superhero cycle, mostly hamstrung by its inability through obeisance to its franchise setting to go as far as it should have in embracing a more grown-up and gruelling type of story. But I still liked Black Widow more than I’ve liked most blockbusters in several years, and it cured some of my sourness towards the MCU, because it goes as far as it does.

Standard
Uncategorized

The Traveller (1974)

.

Mosāfer

Director / Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami

By Roderick Heath

Tehran-born Abbas Kiarostami first dabbled in painting as a teenager in the 1950s, won a competition that got him to his home town’s School of Fine Arts, and supported himself during his studies by working as a traffic cop. Kiarostami soon vaulted into a successful career in advertising in the 1960s, gaining filmmaking experience shooting TV commercials and creating titles for movies. Iranian cinema grew rapidly in terms of films produced in the 1960s, and a New Wave movement began to gather steam, sparked by films like Davoud Mollapour’s Shohare Ahoo Khanoom (1968), Masoud Kimiai’s Qeysar, and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (both 1969), with a stringently realistic, neorealist-influenced approach and resolutely earthy and immediate subject matter. The Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly so impressed by The Cow that it convinced him not to ban cinema in Iran after the Revolution of 1979. Inspired by the burgeoning New Wave, Kiarostami and some other new directors set up the Kanoon Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, to make movies for and about young people, and it soon became a notable production outfit for a string of important films. Kiarostami made his first film for it with the 12-minute short The Bread and Alley, leaving behind his schooling in the slickness of commercials for a more boldly original and experimental approach as he infuriated his crew by insisting on shooting a key scene without cuts, testing out his early conviction that he could generate greater intensity and conviction by reducing shots and edits to a minimum.

TheTraveller02

Kiarostami officially made his feature-length debut with 1973’s The Experience, but he considered his true debut film to be his follow-up The Traveller. In the late 1980s Kiarostami rose to international prominence, cemented when he captured the 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, and helped other Iranian directors like Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf present a vanguard reintroducing the country’s culture to the world at large. Unlike many other Iranian filmmakers, Kiarostami weathered the Revolution, in part because his sense of parochial identity was a deep vein in his art, even liking to weave classical Persian poetry into his films, although his two late masterpieces released before his death in 2016, Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone In Love (2012), were made outside the country. Kiarostami’s mature cinema was equally acclaimed and derided for his peculiar approach to narrative cinema, often eliding seemingly crucial details and dialogue, utilising stringent long takes and a minimalist but beguilingly flexible visual style. The Traveller, an adaptation of a story by Hassan Rafi’i, has many hallmarks of a debut feature, emerging from the earnest zeitgeist of the era’s emergent national and regional film movements, counting the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves (1948), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) as immediate ancestors, and looks forward to subsequent independent films like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), in making a truthful-feeling study of the theme of a young person on an odyssey negotiating a world filled with indifferent if not actively hostile adults.

TheTraveller03

Yet The Traveller is also something quite individual, a brief (73 minute) but vigorously expressive statement of intent from a director soon to become a major creative force. Wrought in the starkest production fashion with its lingering shots and cheap, black-and-white cinema verité-style photography, it’s also touched throughout with qualities of humour and flashes of dreamlike wistfulness. Kiarostami opens with images of boys playing street soccer in an alley in of some well-weathered corner of the town of Malayer. The passion of the boys for the game soon becomes quite apparent. There’s not much else for them to do in this place where a lot of them drop out of school and get into trades, and the older boys are already holding down jobs like bicycle repairmen. Kiarostami’s renegade antihero is Qassem Julayi (Hassan Darabi), a scallywag whose obsession with the sport, and the Persepolis football team in particular, is clearly linked with a sense of frustration and ambition he cannot otherwise articulate. The son of a carpenter, Lar, Qassem is becoming increasingly alienated from his family and schooling and pouring himself into his soccer obsession. After playing in the street match witnessed at the outset, he turns up to school with a bandage around his head and jaw claiming to have been delayed by a toothache and a trip to the dentist when he was actually playing, much to a teacher’s deeply sceptical response: “I hope it rots.”

TheTraveller04

Qassem spends what little money he has buying a magazine for a photo of one of his player heroes, managing to use his father’s name to get a little credit to make up the shortfall, but he’s later sprung reading the magazine in class, the teacher prowling around behind the class and launching his sneak attack, and it’s clearly the most exciting thing that’s happened all day. His English teacher seems just as distracted by the outside world as his students, like Qassem silently doing sums over costs during class, as Qassem tries to work out how much money he’ll need to catch a bus to Tehran and see a big match live. Meanwhile at home Qassem faces constant pestering from his unceasingly critical and complaining mother (Pare Gol Atashjameh) who berates him for failing to study and pushes for him to quit school and get into a trade too. There’s a note of deadpan humour as her complaints continue all during dinner whilst his father doesn’t speak a word, seemingly having resigned himself both to her talk and Qassem’s errant nature: “It’s all in one ear and out the other,” she decries his lack of attention before asking for money to attend a mourning ceremony. Meanwhile Qassem seems to have trouble doing his studies by the dim lamplight in his house.

TheTraveller05

Qassem irritably criticises his friends for playing badly during one of their street matches, but then admits that he didn’t play so well either, because he was too distracted by thoughts of going to Tehran to catch a big league game. His mother comes to school soon after and whinges to the school principal (Mostafa Tari), repeatedly commenting that she doesn’t know how to read and write whilst asking what should be done about Qassem’s bad behaviour, which has taken a new turn as she believes, correctly, Qassem has stolen five tomans she had squirrelled away. “You come once a year to see if the little vagrant is coming to school?” the principal demands, and declares: “He is not a child, he is a monster.” After a continuing dialogue of theatrically desperate appeal and contempt, as the principal sighs that he can’t punish the students without risking parental complaints, the mother gives him permission to do what he sees fit, so the principal calls Qassem in and begins caning his hands, the increasingly distressed Qassem nonetheless insisting all the while that he did not steal the money. Kiarostami cuts, with a sense of both dark humour and pathos, to one of the neighbouring classrooms, where the teacher is instructing his class on the workings of the heart whilst trying to ignore the sounds of Qassem’s punishment.

TheTraveller06

In keeping with the Kanoon project’s avowed purpose, The Traveller is a film relevant to the kind of young person it’s about, but lacking any kind of pandering or patronising glaze. It’s a rigorously unsentimental, entirely convincing portrait of a boy, doing things many a boy has done regardless of cultural background, allowing the brat to be a brat whilst also understanding him. Whilst the film regards many of the adults around Qassem as vaguely absurd, there’s still a touch of sympathy for his mother, who really does work constantly whilst she complains about his bad attitude. Many films about childhood and adolescence take on a similar shape to The Traveller in depicting a youth engaged in an obsessive quest to realise a personal dream, often taking tentative steps towards adulthood in the process. It’s the sort of storyline that can generally be relied upon to touch a fond chord of memory in grown-ups, if also perhaps one of aggravation in parents. But where many stories of that type are nostalgic in cast, The Traveller is the very opposite, charged with anxious energy as it contemplates a budding antihero whose immediate future is bearing down upon him. Making Qassem a soccer fanatic roots him securely in his world, signalling his desire to join a crowd rather than follow some esoteric path, although his desires and impulses mark him as an outsider.

TheTraveller07

Early in the film one boy leads his fellow students at Qassem’s school in a group prayer, a brief spasm of rhapsodic communal inclusion, although of course in their midst Qassem shows to Akbar the pilfered five toman note, his own private religion something rather distinct. The subtle joke about football being something like a secular religion in Iran seems not to have dated, as the theme of trying to attend a soccer match as an expression of both individual will and communal engagement would later be taken up, with obvious shifts in emphasis, by Panahi’s Offside (2006). The attitude of institutional cynicism displayed by the teachers is one of Kiarostami’s targets here, perceiving school in mid-1970s Iran as something like a prison for teachers and students alike, all sharing a penurious, demoralised distaste for their lot. Kiarostami is bitingly sceptical about the efficacy of the corporal punishment constantly turned on the kids, which he sees more as an outlet for adult frustration and aggression than as a cure for bad behaviour.  “He will just hit us – forget about Math,” Qassem comments when debating whether to go to class or get down to his more pressing business.

TheTraveller08

As unscrupulous as Qassem’s behaviour becomes at points, the clarity and direction of his passion is singularly lacking in everyone else he knows. With his friend Akbar, Qassem begins looking for ways to add to the five purloined tomans, figuring he’ll need about forty to make the journey. He tries to sell his fountain pen to a storekeeper who coolly rebuffs Qassem’s forceful sales tactics (“You sell to kids but you won’t buy them from them?” Akbar queries incredulously) and calmly explains whilst never breaking from his menial tasks how buying from a wholesaler works to the pushy lads, who then moves on to trying to offload a stamp collection. Akbar steals a broken camera from his grandfather’s shed and the duo try to sell that: one potential buyer notices the camera is missing parts, but offers five tomans for it, but Qassem is angered by such a low offer. Instead, he comes up with a scheme: he and Akbar start pretending to take photos of their schoolmates, affecting a vaguely official mandate to charge them five rials apiece.

TheTraveller09

The imprint of neorealism is vital with The Traveller, in the way Kiarostami shoots locations in artful but unpretty fashion and elicits immediate performances from a mostly non-professional cast, and some anticipation of the way he would regularly blur the boundaries between fiction and documentray. Qassem and Akbar run through the streets and bazaars of Malayer, a place that seems perched somewhere between ancient and modern worlds, pungent and ghost-ridden at the same time. Historic town architecture is recorded for posterity by Kiarostami’s camera along with oddities of the moment like the wall in a shop festooned with professionally modelled photos. But there are hints throughout of the unusual blend of impulses that would eventually define Kiarostami’s cinema. The visual texture and language changes during Qassem’s fake photography session, taking on a lyrical quality reminiscent of Truffaut in moving into montage, wielding rhythmic editing with some sprightly music now on the soundtrack, as Kiarostami matches Qassem’s cheeky wit with his own cinematic variety. He notes Qassem tucking his accumulating cash in his back pocket whilst lining up his shots of the other kids, and moves in from regarding the kids in distant poses to close studies that capture the children in all their alternate individuality, some fierce, some friendly, some humorous, some bovine.

TheTraveller10

This allows Kiarostami to use Qassem’s eyes in capturing his generational fellows in all their collective and individual qualities, whilst Qassem play-acts something like a movie director as he instructs his subjects in their poses. The first hint here of the kind of meta-narrative play Kiarostami would often return to his movies, like the revelation of the moviemakers at the end of Taste of Cherry and the choose-your-own-narrative-truth of Certified Copy. Where in his later films Kiarostami would often feature loquacious and intelligent adult characters who work to verbalise their worldviews or play games with them in long, rolling conversations, The Traveller is more familiar to a certain extent as a social realist study in dealing with a boy whose age precludes him being able to articulate his problems. His actions are his expressions, but Qassem nonetheless has a certain quick-witted pugnacity in his interactions when he’s trying to gain something, cajoling insistently in his attempts to sell things of no value whilst insisting they do. “I’ve taken thousands of pictures with it,” he protests to the man he tries to sell the camera to, and, when he offers too little, “I passed up a better off last week.” Qassem definitely seems to have the stuff of a businessman in him.

TheTraveller11

The problem with the inspired con trick at the school is it just doesn’t bring in anything like enough money. Depressed, Qassem and Akbar try to study for a vocabulary test, filmed in a tableau that becomes for the boys an unconscious lampoon of their school experience: Qassem testily waves a stick whilst Akbar stumbles through an array of thematically appropriate words: “Outlaw – it means a rebel…Discipline, obedience…Ambition, the desire to make progress.” Qassem suddenly has another brainwave to save his project, and sells his street team’s nets and gear, despite the whole team having pooled money to buy them. Qassem justifies himself because as the captain he’s always stuck with the job of lugging it around, and nimbly talks a member of another team into buying them, netting 25 tomans. Finally able to buy his bus ticket, Qassem hitches a ride back towards home from the station on the back of a horse-drawn buggy, perched with dangling feet above the road. This sequence presents Qassem at his height, having actually proven he can, by hook and by crook, affect his own destiny with the gift of the gab and unscrupulous manipulation if with little thought of inevitable consequences, now rejoicing if in bumpy manner in a sense of liberating motion, Kambiz Roshanravan’s sprightly traditional score matched to the whirling wheels of the buggy.

TheTraveller12

The very title of The Traveller establishes Kiarostami’s preoccupation with characters whose physical wanderings, their incessant seeking, are matched to their attempts to understand themselves, to strain at the limits of their personal universes with all their small insults and frictions, whether seeking to enter others or even nullify themselves to end the questioning. Kiarostami’s film would later become famously preoccupied by characters driving and the things they do when nominally going someplace, culminating notably in the suicidal central character and his argumentative passenger of Taste of Cherry, their fierce verbal arguments matched to restless voyaging. Qassem is defined specifically as a boy in motion, shark-like in his need for constant forward movement, driven on by a specific motive to try and get something done before a looming psychological hammer, one he doesn’t quite understand, drops. Upon returning home and hiding his ticket in a schoolbook, Qassem faces a long, anxious wait and can’t risk falling asleep and missing the bus which comes through at near midnight. Akbar tosses stones at his window and keeps calling pathetically from the street, his loyal helpmate now unable to follow any further on his grand odyssey. Finally, when the appointed hour comes, Qassem sneaks out of his house. Where earlier in the film Kiarostami noted the streets of Malayer busy with merchants and artisans, now Qassem runs through a silent and deserted labyrinth. He only just manages to catch up with the bus and get aboard, and rides off into the great Iranian night.

TheTraveller13

As Qassem’s bus arrives in Tehran, Kiarostami lingers on a shot of a man walking along the roadside as bus after bus arrives, each one presumably packed with travellers who, like Qassem, have their own little odysseys to enact, whilst connecting the heart of Tehran to the body that is the rest of the nation. Kiarostami avoids passing any overt judgement on Qassem’s amorality, perceiving his spurs and his neediness shading into desperation, which registers all the more plainly on his face as the film unfolds: the closer Qassem comes to his goal, the greater the ease and risk of losing it, a principal Kiarostami illustrates with bittersweet clarity. Of course, it’s tempting to link Kiarostami’s sidelong sociological observations and recording with the transformation that would come upon the country a few years later. Even with the pervasive gentle humour, it’s not hard at all to register a miasma of frustration and simmering disquiet, an air of recessive and backward testiness where the illiterate and entrenched incompetently rear the sort-of educated who confront a lack of outlets for their raised expectations. When Qassem does finally reach the football stadium, militaristic-looking policemen maintain a heavy-handed presence to stop any shows of wrath when the tickets sell out, which, of course, they do just as Qassem reaches the vendor.

TheTraveller14

As the cops urge away the luckless, Qassem manages to still procure a ticket from a scalper and enters the stadium. Sitting in the bleachers with the adults attending the game, he gets into conversation with a weaver. After all his seemingly selfish and unscrupulous actions throughout the film Qassem is nonetheless generous, even insistent, in offering to share his food with the weaver, and the older man seems to embody something appealing to Qassem, who notes that as an independent worker he’s relatively free in his life. When Qassem furtively asks the weaver if he thinks Tehran kids would be his friends, the weaver replies that he does, but Qassem then recounts how he tried to befriend some who moved to Mayafer only to be rebuffed, and he irritably describes them as snobs: the weaver can only silently muse on this anecdote. When he learns the game isn’t going to start for three hours yet – sitting and waiting and chatting with other fans is something the weaver and everyone else takes to be part of the ritual – Qassem eventually decides to roam around for a while, exploring the environs near the stadium.

TheTraveller15

The climactic scenes wield stinging irony as Qassem’s restlessness, having brought him this far, leads him away from his cherished goal, clambering over scaffolding in an arena being renovated and gazing in through the window of an indoor swimming pool. He knocks on the glass to attract the attention of a kid within, and tries to ask him how deep the water is, but the other kid can’t hear him and irritably turns away. This brief vignette that’s perfectly naturalistic and yet contains symbolic force, crystallising something deeper about Qassem and his journey, his solitude, unable to make himself heard, cut off from the world he seeks and his luckier doppelganger within, the infrastructure of that world a window and also a wall. Tired because he didn’t sleep at all the night before, Qassem sees a number of men sprawled on a grass verge under trees taking a nap before the game, and he lies down to join them.

TheTraveller16

Qassem sleeps as the other men awaken and head off, and has disturbing dreams of being hounded and punished, of being caught cheating in class. His school fellows chase him down and take him captive, and then he’s suspended upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet, the other kids and his mother looming around him as sentries of judgement whilst he wails in pain, but without sound. Here Kiarostami confirms at least on a subconscious level Qassem knows he’s going to pay for everything he’s done, and it might even be said to finally offer a degree of imminent moral satisfaction. But Kiarostami maintains sympathy for the lad, inverting a usual method in showing us his dreamscape is no place of escape but rather where the things he quells during the day hatch out, with awareness of how all too often people elect to proceed in spite of physical threats with transgressive behaviour because otherwise they’ll kill some part of themselves, and the imagery of punishment is distressing.

TheTraveller17

There’s a hint of the underlying influence of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), another classic about needy youth with its patina of surrealism mixed in with the harsh realism. Qassem lying down to sleep with the grown men contains a hint of political as well as personal parable, as if he’s performing an act of surrender. The punchline, of course, is that Qassem finally awakens late in the day, and runs up into the stadium only to find the match over and the crowd gone, leaving behind only their rubbish flitting on the breeze as if he’s the sole survivor of a slovenly apocalypse. Qassem, the boy in motion, lost in finally surrendering to immobility what he tried so hard to obtain, cheated by his own weak flesh. A lovely tragicomic ending, one that also sees Kiarostami perhaps deliberately reversing the cinematic device at the climax of The 400 Blows. Where Truffaut arrested his young runaway in an eternal frieze, poised between past and present, youth and adulthood, Kiarostami’s lingering long shot watches as Qassem starts running again, arcing away out of sight along the rim of the stadium. Qassem can only dash on to meet his fate, at loose and trapped, travelling without moving. For a film as short and straightforward as The Traveller seems at first to be, it’s a work entirely alive with promise.

Standard
Uncategorized

Major Dundee from Arrow Films

ExahIJ0WUAM3JR1

Dear readers, if you just can’t get enough of my writing, or if you just want a top-notch edition of a classic film, Arrow Films are releasing a new limited edition blu-ray of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee on June 28. The release features both the theatrical and restored versions, the former in a 4K scan, commentary tracks by an array of critical and scholarly luminaries, a visual essay by David Cairns, spectacular artwork by Tony Stella, and an essay booklet featuring writing by Farran Smith Nehme, Jeremy Carr, and yours truly. This is a beautiful thing, people.

Here it is at the Arrow site
At Amazon
Via Zavvi, UK
Via HMV
Via DiabolikDVD
Via Grindhouse Video
Via Zavvi, US
Pre-order in Canada via Unobstructed View

You can also read my Film Freedonia essay about the film (not the same one as comes with the disc) here.

Standard
Uncategorized

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

MikeyNicky01

Director / Screenwriter: Elaine May

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Ned Beatty 1937-2021

It’s both excruciating and exalting to note that Elaine May was only the third woman to be a member of the Directors Guild of America, after Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Born Elaine Iva Berlin, May was the daughter of a travelling Yiddish theatre producer. When her father died when she was 11, her family moved to Los Angeles. May finished up dropping out of high school at 14, and later hitchhiked to attend the University of Chicago because it took students without high school diplomas, by which time she had already married her first husband, whose name she took. Quickly gaining a reputation for sparking arguments with teachers and students with outrageous and original statements, May found a simpatico mind in fellow student Mike Nichols. The two of them joined an off-campus theatrical group and began stirring attention, with May’s childhood theatre experience giving her a head start in confidence and authority. After Nichols was asked to leave the group for having too much talent, he and May formed a partnership in a comedy act that was soon generally hailed as groundbreaking and quickly gathered popularity, but their working technique proved to impossible to sustain and they called it quits in 1961. Both started on a path to becoming filmmakers as Nichols concentrated on directing theatre and May started writing for stage and screen and acting in movies.

MikeyNicky02

Whilst Nichols achieved success as a director with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (1966) and The Graduate (1967), May had to wait until 1971’s A New Leaf until she arrived as a moviemaker. Despite gaining some cult attention, May’s debut effort wasn’t a good experience, as her initial vision for the film was brutally edited by the studio. Obsessive filming practices, arduous and exacting editing process, and clashes with cast and studios became something of a hallmark of May’s productions as well as their odd and spiky brilliance. Her second film, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), was written by Neil Simon and proved her only real hit. Mikey and Nicky had a long and troubled shoot despite being initially slated as a fairly modest, low-budget drama, with May gaining industry infamy for the amount of film shot on set in her quest to get the best out of her actors. She finished up hiding two reels of the movie to keep the studio from sacking her and re-cutting the film again, but she finally lost a court case over control of the footage and the studio patched together a version to release that ultimately flopped. This, on top of all the squabbling, meant May didn’t get to make another movie until Warren Beatty, believing she still had unfulfilled potential as a filmmakers after she had written his Heaven Can Wait (1978) and parts of Reds (1981), hired her to make 1987’s Ishtar. But that experience proved another debacle as Ishtar became synonymous with egotistical on-set clashes and messy production resulting in a violently uneven if excessively criticized film. Her directing career finished, May nonetheless had success writing scripts for Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1997).

MikeyNicky03

Mikey and Nicky is certainly a highpoint and quintessential example of a celebrated strain of 1970s American cinema with emphasis on a raw, urban, unruly texture, as well as Hollywood’s uneasy and ultimately brief turn to auteurist cinema at the time, willing to give much rope to directors on the off-chance they might come back with a hit. Because May, who originally wanted Charles Grodin to play Nicky, finished up hiring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk to play the title characters, Mikey and Nicky is often seen as an extension-cum-assimilation of Cassavetes’ heavily improvised, off-kilter brand of independent filmmaking and narratives often revolving around stressed-out menopausal males. But whilst like Martin Scorsese’s early films and others on the ‘70s film scene May was assimilating Cassavetes’ influence, Mikey and Nicky is subtly distinct from Cassavetes’ films in form and style. It represents amongst other things May’s carbolic portrait of relationships between characters whose surface amity contains aspects of parasitism and destructive intent, sometimes mutual. To a certain extent May’s second two films reflect a meditation on her own artistic method over and above their immediate subjects, fumbling with deliberately errant process towards synthesis and insight in a manner reminiscent of the way she and Nichols made comedy: the shambolic texture, actually, carefully achieved, is the entire point.

MikeyNicky04

If the dopey songwriters of Ishtar presented a tellingly non-talented meditation on the concept of creative partnership, Mikey and Nicky is quietly vicious as well as wryly melancholic in portraying the hallowed, in pop culture terms, pair of pals from the old neighbourhood who know each-other inside out, resentments and failures of support turning gangrenous. Mikey and Nicky begins with Nicky (Cassavetes) locked in a hotel room in downtown Philadelphia, unshaven, filthy, stewing in a zone of fetid fear and paranoia. Having called his friend Mikey (Falk) and begged him to come but arranging a rendezvous down in the street, he sees Mikey down below wandering around in confusion, and gets his attention by tossing down a towel wrapped around an empty bottle. Mikey ascends to his room and quickly gets annoyed and frustrated as Nicky insists on grilling him timorously through the locked door. Once he finally does gain entrance, Mikey learns that Nicky expects he’s a target to be killed by mob assassins, for reasons hinted at throughout: Mikey and Nicky both work for gangster Dave Reznick (Sanford Meisner). Nicky and another employee, Ed Lipsky, who were in charge of the syndicate’s bank, started pilfering funds. Now Lipsky’s turned up dead, and Nicky expects to follow him soon. Mikey’s best advice to Nicky is to get out of town while he has the chance. What Nicky doesn’t know is that Mikey is trying to lead Reznick’s hired killer Kinney (Ned Beatty) to him.

MikeyNicky05

May’s perverse and sandpapery sense of humour manifests in the opening scene of Mikey’s attempts to follow the signs literally dropping from the sky that lead him to Nicky, before attempting to mollify the pathetic man within with gentle, increasingly irked entreaties through the hotel room door. “I don’t want you to see me like this!” Nicky insists. “Will you stop being a horse’s ass?” Nicky retorts: “How’m I gonna see you I haven’t seen you before?” Mikey tries breaking the door down and fails, but Nicky finally lets him in. Nicky is at his most desperately needy, embraced by Mikey and sobbing, and Mikey is soon making like a parent trying to feed an errant baby in trying to give Nicky a pill for his stomach ulcer, a sign of just how well the two men know each-other in all their physical and mental sore points. The latent ferocity and edginess within Mikey contrasts Nicky’s dishevelled paranoia, as Mikey quickly swerves from softly patient appeals to sudden ruptures, first when trying to access Nicky’s room and later when he goes to get coffee for him, an expedition that takes much reassurance and negotiation to undertake. Watched by the frantic Nicky from on high, Mikey enters a diner where the counter man (Peter Scoppa, who was also the assistant director) refuses his request of two coffees with separate milk and cream because that’s not how their orders work: Mikey tries playing along but suddenly leaps over the counter and manhandles the waiter until he surrenders the cream.

MikeyNicky06

Part of the reason for the film’s long and expensive filming was May’s delight in Cassavetes and Falk’s well-oiled and expert improvisatory energy and underlying friendship. But May wasn’t being merely indulgent, as the film evolves less as a portrait of a couple of mob-connected schmucks than an investigation of what friendship, particularly the male variety, actually means. May covers similar ground in a way to what Scorsese tackled in Mean Streets (1973), in the deep affection and mutual frustration of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s characters, but more mature, more deeply ingrained and spoiled. The official topic is the complexity and sometimes downright strangeness of male friendship, whilst at the same time, May’s fascination with people locked together in a blend of expedience and needfulness is a connecting thread in the three films she wrote as well as directed, particularly the marriage in A New Leaf where one of the partners is intent on murdering the oblivious other, but here gets its most complete examination. As Mikey and Nicky leave the hotel room once Nicky shaves and regains a modicum of his former savoir faire, they wander around town (May had to shift the shoot from Philadelphia to Los Angeles mid-film because of the budget overrun) and winnow through their lives and keep getting into randomly combative encounters. Nicky constantly seems to sense, however inchoately, the trap Mikey is leading him into, whilst Mikey often seems barely aware of his role in this lurking danger, even at one point deciding to leave town with Nicky to make sure he’s okay, even though he also reports back to Reznick on the phone, who then passes along the mission details to Kinney.

MikeyNicky07

Mikey and Nicky was a highly personal project for May. She reportedly drew on memories of members of her family connected with the mob, and had been kicking around variations on the material since the 1950s, perhaps with an eye initially to realising it is a theatrical project. The relationship of the two men has a more than faint echo of a classical kind of comedy duo, not perhaps May and Nichols themselves, but with distinct conceptual roots in the same kind of theatrical diptych. A schlemiel Vladimir and Estragon with all the shaggy, disparate energy that can well ironically from mental and moral exhaustion preserved. Once freed from the cage of his room and also set up on the open range that are the city streets, Nicky keeps wanting to go see a movie at his favourite theatre: a true movie lover will defy death to get their fix. This proves a curveball for Mikey’s efforts to rendezvous with Kinney, as he initially manages to get Nicky to settle down with him in a seedy bar to drink beer and milk: Kinney however gets lost when trying to find the bar, having to ask directions, and gets there too late. Mikey this time uses his oblivious wife Annie (Rose Arric) as interlocutor with Kinney by leaving word with her about the movie theatre they’re heading to. But as they ride the bus to the theatre Nicky suddenly decides he wants to visit his mother’s grave as they pass by the cemetery where she’s buried, and the two manage to get off after a fight with the driver (M. Emmett Walsh).

MikeyNicky08

Nicky’s unique capacity to keep pushing the envelope mixed with an edge of compelling charm, contrasts Mikey’s initially more disarming but also blindsiding blend of the gentle and the eruptive. When the two men go into a bar filled mostly with black patrons, Nicky get into an altercation with a man (Eugene Hobgood) after paying attention to a woman who proves to be his wife (Marilyn Randall). Rather than act apologetic or otherwise back down, Nicky responds with racist provocations, both infuriating but also unbalancing the other men, seeming just feckless enough to make them unsure as to what secret reserves of power or mere masochism he has. When another patron (Reuben Greene) tries to intervene and prevent a fight, he squares off against Nicky and comments, “We might be black, but we ain’t stupid,” to which Nicky retorts, “Then how come you’re black?” Later he insists on smoking on the bus and draws Mikey into helping him wrestle with the driver when he won’t let them get off the bus by the front exit. It’s a wonder he lives as long as he does. Nicky’s displays of crazy-brave truculence and his ever-ticking metre of macho investment in power relationships are given a rare edge by his fatalistic paranoia and efforts to prove he still has some remnant potency in the world with his refusal to be intimidated, but are also seemingly distinct aspects of his character, only more circumspectly worked.

MikeyNicky09

Mikey and Nicky roam through an insomniac world of intractable service workers, hostile gun-wielding storekeepers, edgy drinkers, exasperated hit men, sanguine but increasingly annoyed gang bosses, frayed and exhausted wives and mistresses, and all the other flotsam of the great American city at night. Their own messy and random shows of will and wont, incarnating the spasmodic spirit of people adrift on such a night even if they are technically renegades from the daylight world, contrast the people who need rigid lines of demarcation to keep up defences between them and the general craziness at loose. Meanwhile Kinney, who has the demeanour of a travelling salesman and about the same level of passion for his job – at one points he grumbles that with all the expenses he’s occurring the pay for the hit will hardly be worth it – is led on a merry dance through the same nocturnal world looking entirely out of place and sighing his way wearily through trying to find them in the movie theatre and driving around in circles in a haphazard search pattern. It’s hard to believe Kinney is a killer, but as the finale finally demonstrates, he’s good enough at it. Once he and Mikey are thrust into each-other’s orbit they form a duet of mutual aggravation as Mikey tries to guide him to where he last saw Nicky, before they’re forced to go to Reznick and argue over whose fault it is they couldn’t find him.

MikeyNicky10

“You won’t like ‘em,” ran Paramount’s resolutely uncommercial tagline for the film’s poster, and it is perhaps truth in advertising, as Mikey and Nicky are not particularly lovable or admirable or interesting guys, even as May and the actors makes them so palpable it’s impossible not to identify with them on some level. Nicky’s clammy, heart-galloping awareness of danger loans him a veneer of relevance as a representative of mundanity on the edge, all the voracity, conceit, pathos, and sheer balls of a natural-born shyster amplified and given glamour by proximity to death. Part of May’s fascination with the two, as avatars of the male of the species in general, seems to stem from a queasy amusement and desire to grasp at how they’re essentially a married couple, and have certainly sustained a more profound relationship with each-other than the women in their lives. One portion of Nicky’s seething lode of angst lies in his recent break-up with his wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten), who’s taken their baby to live with her mother after finally wearying of his general bullshit. Mikey by contrast plays at maintaining a stable suburban life with a wife who seems to barely know him but who insists he maintains a respectful and adult relationship with: “I don’t treat my wife the way you do,” he tells Nicky reproachfully, “If I’m gonna be late, or if I’m gonna be out all night, I call.” Mikey’s way with putting people on the spot with peculiar shows of honesty is both fascinatingly unguarded and also explains why he tends to put people on edge.

MikeyNicky11

Despite their closeness however there are vast gaps in what Mikey and Nicky know of each-other. Their fumbling search through the darkened cemetery in search of the grave of Nicky’s mother becomes a vaguely philosophical and metaphysical quandary couched in resolutely regular guy terms. Mikey bats off Nicky’s questions about his feeling about the possibility of an afterlife, which Nicky confesses he’s feeling keenly with his life under threat, before stating he doesn’t believe in it: “That mishigas I leave to the Catholics.” Mikey notes with a certain remnant resentment how much his late father liked Nicky because he always used to kid him. The two men are just about the only people they remember from their shared youth still alive, and Nicky himself confesses to wishing everyone from their youth was still alive, trying to articulate the feeling of being adrift in a world that has lost all its old markers of insularity and recognition, the gravity of identity that provided some illusion that the world at large had coherence: now there’s only the night world. Eventually it’s revealed Mikey gave Nicky his introduction to Reznick’s crew only for Nicky to quickly take root and become a bigger and flashier success, whereas Mikey learns that he makes Reznick uncomfortable. Mikey’s playing along with the attempt to set up the hit on Nicky is partly motivated through self-preservation instincts, knowing well his proximity to Nicky could make him suspect.

MikeyNicky12

The apotheosis for Nicky’s brinkmanship tendencies comes when he finally decides to visit his current girlfriend, Nellie (Carol Grace), a lonely woman willing to do just about anything for company. Mikey tries to strike up conversation with her as she explains her liking for keeping up to date by listening to the radio news, but it eventually forced to sit in her kitchen whilst Nicky seduces her and screws her on the living room floor. May shoots much of the scene in one, long, deadpan long shot from the corner of the room, encompassing both the carnal act in the foreground and with Mikey shrunken to his outpost in the adjoining kitchen at the back of the frame: May eventually moves to a shot of Mikey sitting and listening with a queasy look of wonder at how he’s finished up at such a point in life. Nicky however needs to twist the knife in both his companions a little more by convincing Mikey all he needs to do is make a play and he can have sex with Nellie too, but when he tries Nellie bites him and Mikey slaps her back before storming out. Nicky chases him, but Mikey furiously repudiates any remaining friendship with Nicky in recognising this as just the latest in many acts of wilful humiliation and bastardry, and the two men begin a fumbling brawl in the street.

MikeyNicky13

This entire sequence is remarkable in the fine-tuned inflicting of discomfort on both characters and audience, exposing the cruelly casual misogyny wound into Nicky’s worldview and which Mikey buys into until it literally bites him back, along with the signals of perversity that make all three of act the way they do, their mixture of need and pain and old-fashioned lust that must be worked through in a series of false guises. The encounter also rips the scab off all the wounds suffered by Mikey and Nicky’s supposedly umbilical relationship. Every slight, every piece of Nicky’s macho showmanship and one-upmanship, becomes a seed of grievance, whilst Nicky insists on further provocation and retaliation by smashing Mikey’s watch, which he loaned him earlier, Mikey’s only keepsake of his father, sparking their tussle. May gives away the fact that Mikey is betraying Nicky and leading him to his death so early in the film it removes any hint of suspense or mystery, and instead demands the viewer ponder why Mikey is doing this. During their fight Mikey confirms his belief Nicky sabotaged him with Reznick by “Making me out to be a joke.” Nicky defends himself by claiming he brought Mikey into the bank and also reminds him of the time he loaned him $200 when he needed it. Mikey response is to take $200 from his wallet, throw it on the ground, and tell Nicky, “You’re a piece of nothing,” the gesture that finally drives Nicky to attack him.

MikeyNicky14

The foreboding, which never really feels like such until the axe drops, invests Mikey and Nicky’s vignettes with implicit irony often intensified by Mikey’s split mind, as when Mikey, offended by Nicky’s suspicious questions, tells him, “I suggest you find somebody you can trust.” Once they split apart, the film changes gear subtly, as Nicky’s peregrinations become a series of encounters that underline how completely he’s managed to destroy his life and alienate anyone who might help him, in a manner that both fulfils the character study aspect of the tale and also its echoes of classic poetic realist and film noir works where a man out of time and luck searches for safe harbour. Meanwhile Mikey, in a manner quietly similar to the way Walter Matthau’s antihero of A New Leaf finds himself trapped within matrimony, is obliged to suffer his way through the rest of the night in the company first of Kinney, and then Annie, who reflect back only incomprehension and pettiness. Mikey finds Kinney in his car still waiting outside the movie theatre and drives with him around the streets where he left Nicky, at one point seeming to finally spot him and chasing him down, only to find it’s the wrong guy. The pair’s low-level bickering and frustration at not being able to find Nicky leads them to both go to Reznick and explain their failure.

MikeyNicky15

May used two different cinematographers in the course of shooting the bulk of a third and then had Lucien Ballard film the finale. The film’s ragged aural and visual language stemmed in part from the long shoot and the studio’s ultimately dismissive approach to getting it finally finished (at various points in the release version you can see film equipment and crew members hiding in bushes, flaws May cleaned up in her director’s cut), and the technical problems May had in making sense of the footage she had shot, often ending up with sound and vision forcibly patched together, particularly noticeable during the fight with the bus driver. But it also feels entirely appropriate for a portrayal of such flailing straits and exploring the fringes of big city life. May’s vision of her characters’ nocturnal odyssey pungent and authentic in its evocation of dive bars and dirty phone booths, rain-sodden streets and blearily bright shops backed up by the woozily intense and intimate camerawork, very often using hand-held camerawork. Beatty’s Kinney is the most conspicuously lost figure in this world, sometimes threatening to dissolve into the haze of mist and neon. The role deftly exploits Beatty’s excellence at playing superficially bland characters harbouring hidden strata of weirdness, sharpened to a wicked point when the man’s true nature emerges in the climax. Safe harbours beckon but a gauntlet has to be run with so many: the succession of encounters with taciturn workers in boles of commercial life ends with Nicky entering a candy store where he seeks out ice cream and comic books as if he’s reverting to childhood whilst the elderly owner packs a pistol and curtly tells his customer not to get the comic books sticky.

MikeyNicky16

Mikey and Nicky’s relationship to power, the dynamo of their city’s underworld life however cutely it’s hidden behind the dreary frontage of Reznick’s perfectly ordinary house, is the force that keeps them in an orbit, each allowing them to put up Potemkin villages in their lives to maintain some basic semblance of purpose and prosperity, something Mikey seems better equipped at maintaining than Nicky. May’s simultaneously sarcastic and realistic approach to depicting authority was to cast Meisner and William Hickey as Reznick and his lieutenant Sid Fine as both men were hugely influential and respected as acting teachers more than as performers at that point. Supposedly she originally wanted to cast a Paramount executive as one of the gangsters, only for the studio’s owner to nix the idea, but the mischievous attempt confirms the film is in part a sardonic meditation on May’s own relationship with money men. Meisner is particularly good as the stony, terse mob boss who is nonetheless as much prisoner of his employees’ quirks and incompetency as they are of his power, worn to quiet exasperation by the comedy of errors reported to him throughout the night and then grunting uncomfortably as Mikey insists on apologising for Reznick not liking him before laughing and sending him home. Reznick proves why he’s the man at the top of the totem pole at least by realising Nicky will probably turn up at Mikey’s house at some point and he insists Kinney wait outside for him, obliging Mikey to explain patiently that his neighbourhood has its own patrol service that will swoop down on anyone loitering like that.

MikeyNicky17

Nicky is at least canny enough to keep dashing into the shadows anytime a car passes by, in between attempts to take refuge first with Jan and then with Nellie. Jan is charged with hissing rage at him, at first barely interested in his protestations that he’s being hunted: “They’re gonna kill me.” “Well, I’m not interested…people get angry when you steal their money.” Nicky’s desperately clingy attempts to wring some iota of affection from her earns her smouldering anger, telling him to instruct her how his girlfriends and Reznick treat him so she can copy them. Nicky’s rejection is compounded as his infant daughter starts crying when he tries to play with her. There’s a final show of something like compassion from Jan as she asks of Nicky before embracing him, “What do you want from me, to die for you?” Nicky’s final scenes have grace-notes of self-awareness, as when he comments toJan about his fight with Mikey, “I did too much to him.” There’s similarity in May’s simultaneously acerbic and empathetic portrayal of Nicky’s unmoored neediness to what Lupino offered the more officially sympathetic title character in The Bigamist (1953), viewing masculinity in its troubled, exposed, love-needing state. At the same time May and Jan and Nellie share a trait of sensing the limits of such empathy.

MikeyNicky18

Nicky’s return to Nellie’s apartment is an even more telling seen as he busts her door chain and swaps slaps with her, before wearily settling on her bed and confessing he set up the scene earlier because he was angry she slept with two other guys he knows, only for Nellie to retort that he sent them to her, well aware of the games Nicky likes to play and was happy to go along with their subterranean logic, but finally rebelled when it became too obvious, too clumsy, too much about Nicky’s ego rather than some kind of naughty conspiracy. Mikey meanwhile keeps a vigil looking out his living room windows, groaning as Kinney keeps circling the house and attracting the patrol’s attention, whilst Annie insists on staying awake with him, leading to the pair to begin a fumbling conversation as the insecure Mikey asks his wife whether he repeats himself when he talks as Nicky accused him of, and when she says, “I never notice it,” he commands, “From now on when I do something, notice it.”

MikeyNicky19

May evokes her own character in A New Leaf as Annie is defined as a woman blankly grateful for the semblance of suburban normality Mikey has given her even, half-singing “You walked into my life!” in her gratitude for being delivered from solitude and pining, even if the cost is living with someone she barely knows in the real sense, scarcely aware of what he seems to do for a living or the meaning of all the signs and portents accumulating through the night until the final gunshots. And yet she doesn’t know things that have cemented him and Nicky together in their shared reality. Mikey eventually mentions to Annie his younger brother Izzy who died of a fever when he was a teenager, one of the tales of the past mentioned briefly between Mikey and Nicky earlier. Mikey begins recounting the pathetic story relating to the smashed watch, which his father, who he describes as “a sour man,” gave to Izzy as he was dying, then reclaimed it after he passed and gave it to Mikey. The one totem of Mikey’s father he has had and lost was actually a kind of cursed object reminding him of the paternal love he was never granted, whereas Nicky and Izzy were able to illicit it.

MikeyNicky20

Annie’s bewildered, empty reactions reveal a total incapacity to process her husband suddenly revealing the void in himself. May here seems to be clawing at some common, barely acknowledged sense of trauma connecting the bodies of American life, ensconced now in prosperity but with feet in the muck of a past that’s still raw in memory. This sets the scene for the devastating climax as Nicky arrives, demanding entry, with Mikey pretending to not be home and getting Annie to fend him off instead. When Nicky spots Kinney approaching in his car, his demands become more frantic and desperate, slamming the wood and crying out “Get me a doctor Mikey!” over and over. Mikey starts pushing furniture up against the door to keep him out, barricading himself against the looming chaos with the stuff of his bourgeois life. Finally Nicky’s cries are silenced as Kinney fills him bullets and drives off with a look of satisfaction. May fades out on Mikey’s haggard expression as he rasps a final request for Annie to go to bed. As May started regarded Nicky’s face in the first seconds of the film, so she ends it regarding Mikey’s look of glazed, haggard fatigue and dumbfounding, as if Mikey is not so much shocked and sad that he finally did such a thing to a friend as he is amazed he had the capacity to do it, that in the end self-preservation was the strongest and most authentic of instincts. Now Mikey is alone in the most profound sense, the last keeper of profound memory, full of stories boring and irrelevant to anyone else. One of the great endings, for one of the great American films.

Standard
Uncategorized

The General (1926)

TheGeneral01

Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Screenwriters: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Fifth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2021, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and/or available online

Long after most of the continent of silent cinema split away and became the rarefied preserve for a sector of movie lovers, silent comedy has retained its impudent life, its heroes still recognisable. The works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Max Linder, Mabel Normand, the Keystone Kops, and even the ill-fated Fatty Arbuckle still have the ability to charm and wow any given audience. Think of how many pastiches of it you’ve seen over the years, automatically making the connection between farce and the stylistics of silent cinema, a language unto itself. Silent comedy survives because the emerging art form and style were uniquely well-suited. Slapstick, loud and crude and personal on the stage, became a weightless ballet of pure movement without sound and the ancient traditions of mime and farceur suddenly found a new and perfect venue, cutting across all conceivable boundaries of cultural and linguistic tradition. Despite an intervening century of argument about the two actor-directors, Chaplin and Keaton merely offered distinct takes on the basic comic concept, of a man fighting both other humans and the random impositions of life in a rapidly modernising world for their share of dignity.

TheGeneral02

Chaplin’s Little Tramp, trapped eternally on the wrong side of the glass from acceptance into the world, had a least a certain degree of roguish freedom, a capacity to pick himself up and move on after calamity, to compensate for his eternal exile. Keaton’s characters were trapped within the world, surrounded by bullies and blowhards as well as ornery if not downright malignant machinery, more able to play the romantic lead but always obliged to prove himself, never given the option of failure or surrender. Keaton, blessed with the real first name of Joseph as five previous generations of Keaton men had been before him, emerged from his mother in the town of Piqua, Kansas in 1895, a pure happenstance as his parents were vaudevillians and that was where they happened to be at the time. Keaton’s father was in business with Harry Houdini with a travelling stage show that sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton supposedly gained his stage name when he weathered a tumble down a flight of stairs at 18 months of age, and Keaton himself said it was Houdini who so anointed him. Contrary to his later persona as impassive and unflappable, Keaton’s initial persona in his performances with his parents was a temperamental brat who would fight with them and hurl furniture about.

TheGeneral03

Keaton had to dodge enforcers of child labour laws to continue his career but he was on the rise as a teenager as his alcoholic father faltered. Around the same time as a stint in the army during World War I, Keaton encountered Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, already an established and popular comedy star, who encouraged him to try acting in a short he was filming. Keaton adapted so quickly Arbuckle brought him into his company immediately. Initially uneasy about his new medium, Keaton nonetheless became swiftly enraptured by the mechanics of filmmaking, borrowing, disassembling, and rebuilding a camera overnight. After making 14 shorts with Arbuckle, including his directing debut The Rough House (1917), Keaton gained the backing of Arbuckle’s producer Joseph M. Schenck and appeared in the first of his solo starring vehicles, The Saphead (1920). As he moved into making feature films, Keaton tried to stretch his screen persona, but had more luck with stretching his approach to filmmaking to a degree that was at the cutting edge of filmmaking at the time, resulting in exercises like the still-vital experimental cinema of Sherlock Jr (1924) and the self-satirising, proliferating selves of The Play House (1921) poking fun of the one-man-band tendencies of Keaton and many of his fellows.

TheGeneral04

Demonstrative in his early appearances on screen, Keaton began perfecting his “great stone face” act. He became the emblematic stoic, beset at all times by the random perversities of the world and muddling through. Keaton was proud that his persona was essentially that of a working man, getting on with things, holding to principles no matter how drastic his situations became. The General, Keaton’s magnum opus, came after an unbroken run of success, but Schenck, who by this time was the head of Metro Films, soon baulked as Keaton spent upwards of $750,000 on the production. Keaton shared directing duties with his constant writing collaborator Clyde Bruckman, and filmed the movie, set in Georgia during the American Civil War, in Oregon instead to take advantage of the old-fashioned railway equipment still littering the landscape, including two vintage locomotives the production bought up for shooting. The shoot became increasingly arduous particularly as the engines kept sparking fires in the locality, and the climactic shot of a train wreck became the single most expensive image created in the silent era. The General proved a failure with the 1926 audience and also critics who seemed bemused by Keaton’s insistence on blending comedy with more serious aspects. This hurt Keaton’s career, compounded when his production company collapsed during the shooting of Steamboat Bill, Jr (1927), and forced him to take refuge with MGM, a partnership that began well with The Cameraman (1928) but soon became a ruinous straitjacket for the creatively sovereign and personally fraying Keaton.

TheGeneral05

The reason for The General’s failure seems mysterious today, given that it’s long since taken pride of place as Keaton’s most regarded film and one of the essential works of cinema in general. There are some possible reasons, including the unpopularity of films with its Civil War subject matter, as well as more subtle dimensions to what Keaton was trying to do. The General’s simple plot is also the engine of its purity, a work about motion and possessed of it, the mechanical problems with which Keaton liked to illustrate a proto-existential worldview now become not only an aspect of the drama but its governing and dominating infrastructure. Keaton was inspired by the true story of a raid to steal a train and wreak havoc led by Union soldier James J. Andrews, as recorded by one of his men William Pittenger in his memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. The real story wasn’t a lark – Andrews and several of his men were captured and executed as spies – but a surprising amount of the story’s detail, including the name of the captured train and a pursuit by hand-cart, wove its way into Keaton’s telling. Keaton cast himself as a train driver whose chief motive is recapturing his beloved locomotive, the General, from the men who steal it.

TheGeneral06

There’s a touch of irony, given the way even the Civil War seems to be being perpetually refought rhetorically today, apparent in the way Keaton decided to play a character who becomes a Confederate hero because it suited his assailed, everyman persona better, noting that given the South lost the war it was easy to take pity on. The film conspicuously avoids any degree of political dimension beyond automatic sectarian feeling, but the very name of Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray, identifies him as the emblematic Southerner. The first dialogue title card tells us, “There were two loves in his life. His engine – and—” before cutting to the photo of Johnnie’s lady fair Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) pinned to the engine canopy. At the outset Johnnie pulls the General and the Western and Atlantic Flyer train behind it into the town of Marietta, Georgia, in early 1861. Johnnie’s simplicity and almost childlike affect are confirmed as he happily shakes hands with a couple of urchins interested in the engine, and the lads bend over in inspecting the pistons in imitation of Johnnie’s focused obsession with the running of the locomotive. The kids follow Johnnie single-file through the streets of Marietta as he advances with intent towards Annabelle’s house, only for him to pass by Annabelle herself whilst she’s borrowing a book from a friend: she spots him and joins the procession to her own front door, before politely stepping before Johnnie and entering her home before inviting him in.

TheGeneral07

There’s already an amusing obsession with linear movement, pursuit, and little surprises of chance here that reverberate through the rest of the film apparent in this gently comic sequence. The emphasis is placed on Johnnie’s intense experience of the moment, his tiny gestures and large all part of his attempt to maintain a glaze of courteous eligibility to Annabelle and her family. Inside, the two boys sit in polite attendance whilst Johnnie tries to woo, and finally to get rid of them he makes like he’s leaving, donning his hat and waving the lads through door, before closing it on them. Johnnie’s romantic connection with Annabelle is however immediately threatened with far more dramatic import for him than any other factor as her brother (Frank Barnes) informs her father (Charles Smith) that Fort Sumter has been fired on and war is breaking out. Father and son immediately prepare to go volunteer, as does the virtually oblivious Johnnie, who nonetheless once his patriotic duty is pointed out to him becomes properly determine to follow through.

TheGeneral08

Heading to a general store where the clerks have set up a swiftly formed recruiting office, Johnnie finds himself refused induction without reason, although the audience is privy to the recruiters’ conversation about him which establishes he’s far more useful as a train driver than a soldier. Johnnie, in his annoyance, tries again with face partly concealed by a cocked hat, using a pseudonym and, guessing why he was refused, also giving another profession. Recognised and refused again, his next attempt to steal another man’s induction card sees him finally booted out the back door. Walking past Annabelle’s father and brother as they queue, they invite him to stand in line with him, but he sadly shakes his head. Taking this as his sign that he doesn’t want to serve, they tell Annabelle about Johnnie’s cowardice, and Annabelle refuses to listen to Johnnie’s account, telling him no to speak to her again until he’s in uniform. Keaton illustrates Johnnie’s forlorn lot with one of his most famous visual gags, as Johnnie settles wearily upon a piston and doesn’t notice to one of his fellow drivers moving the train down the line, Johnnie lifted and lowered by the motion of the piston in an ingenious counterpoint to his arrested obliviousness. This is one of the great screen depictions of sadness, and one that also suggests a rather bluer joke: Johnnie will be alone with his piston for some time to come.

TheGeneral09

Johnnie’s predicament elicits sympathy for his protagonist, in a fairly familiar manner for Keaton, as misread and beset, regarded with suspicion as unmanly and shiftless. When the narrative picks up over a year later, Keaton depicts a Union general, Thatcher (Jim Farley) making plans with his chief spy Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender), who wants to raid into Confederate territory, steal a train, and use it as a Trojan horse to wreak havoc along the line to make Thatcher’s planned advance easier. Unfortunately for Johnnie, the General proves in the right place and the right time for Anderson and his men to grab as the train pulls up in their planned rendezvous town of Big Shanty. Annabelle is aboard the train as she’s heading to visit her father who’s been wounded in battle, with Johnnie shooting her mournful looks as he tends to the engine. Annabelle goes back to the train after everyone’s alighted for dinner to dig through her valise for her purse in the baggage compartment, just as Anderson and his men congregate by the train and move suddenly to capture it. Anderson takes Annabelle captive and ties her up whilst the train tears out of the station. Johnnie, seeing only his train being taken, give chase on foot, pursuing along the narrowing course of the railway line into the distance as everyone else gives up.

TheGeneral10

The following chase is an extended set-piece where both the orchestration of the great, unwieldy train sections and Keaton’s willingness to constantly put his body on the line, his ability to depict struggle and imagination purely by body language, are equally important. Small wonder Keaton was considered quite the heartthrob by female fans. First Johnnie clambers aboard a handcart and manages to get it moving by utilising his whole body weight upon the crank. He’s given a chance to catch up as Anderson keeps stopping the General so his team can rip up the tracks. When Johnnie hits the gap he’s thrown off the cart as it runs off the tracks, throwing Johnnie off, the luckless engineer landing on his backside whilst the cart tumbles down the slope into a river. Undaunted, Johnnie spies a man who’s just hitched up his early bicycle at his front gate: in a perfect blend of Keaton’s athletic prowess and his skill in framing it, he dashes into the shot, springs upon the seat, and takes off in renewed pursuit without missing a beat. He follows it up with a hilarious travelling shot of him trying to ride the wooden-wheeled bike along a bumpy path only to tumble over again. When he manages to reach the next stop on the line, Kingston, Johnnie finally returns to his native realm as he alerts the soldiers on a pulled-up troop train to the theft, explaining he thinks deserters took it, and leaps to the controls of the engine named Texas, only for him to accidentally leave behind the soldiers as the engine hasn’t been connected to their carriage.

TheGeneral11

The General is reminiscent of Keaton’s earlier The Navigator (1924) in revolving around his character’s battle with a large and intractable piece of machinery – there it was a ship, and Keaton was playing a rich kid learning independence. The General by contrast offers up Johnnie as an ordinary man who knows how to do one thing exceedingly well: run a train. He approaches everything else with the same quicksilver inspiration fuelled by necessity, proving himself remarkable if also often ridiculous throughout, which could be Keaton’s ultimate commentary on being human altogether. That Johnnie doesn’t even know that both of his “loves” have been snatched by the raiders gives antiheroic piquancy to his adventures. When they’re finally reunited and Annabelle expresses her thanks for him coming to rescue her, he looks like he’s tried to swallow a doorstop for a moment before simply going along with it. Johnnie ultimately finds himself gaining real heroic status by the film’s end, but he’s also just as often lucky or unlucky. Keataon’s single most famous and endlessly recreated joke, the collapsing wall in Steamboat Bill, Jr that falls upon the oblivious hero with his life only saved by his body lining up with a window, contained a similar sense of both the haphazardness of life and the vulnerability of people as well as the mysterious grace that pulls them through danger.

TheGeneral12

Today, it feels as if The General has had its deepest impact less on comedy than on modern action cinema, with its depiction of chaotic events caused by a similarly blend of heedless motive and snowballing cause and effect. The film’s imprint can be registered in sequences as disparate as the climax of Stagecoach (1939), the desert truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and a vertical edition in Die Hard (1988), as well as overt tributes like the climax of The Lone Ranger (2016). One of the few followers who genuinely grasped onto what Keaton had demonstrated with the film has been Jackie Chan, who set about emulating him in both his action and comedy staging and dissolving any conceptual distance between the two, as well as playing with Keaton’s mechanistic sensibility. Of course Keaton didn’t invent a connection between slapstick comedy and action: it was lurking since the very beginning of cinema, Chaplin had done funny-thrilling cliffhanger sequences like the finale of The Gold Rush (1923), and Lloyd made a career out of them. But the way the action plays out in The General, hinging on details like the rate the trains burn wood at and use up water in their boilers, and the limitations of the trains as machines that can only move where track lets them, tries to take a certain realism as a starting point rather than a burden or nicety for Keaton in creating his epic slapstick.

TheGeneral13

Decades later, in an interview for the book The Parade’s Gone By, Keaton would recall the problems presented for comic filmmakers by moving from short two and three-reel films into features, because previously none of them had ever done anything as undignified as write a script. Longer films demanded strong storylines rather than haphazard farce, unless they could fit in a dream or fantasy sequence. Writing films for them became chiefly a matter of coming up with a good start and a good ending and everything in between would take care of itself. The situation presented in The General could almost be a commentary on this creative process, setting up the motivating idea and finding every way possible of impeding the rush to the end. With Sherlock Jr Keaton had taken the dream option to dig into the very workings of cinema and correlating them with the malleability of the psyche, The General instead surrenders most of the way to the working of the world, the machine, the narrative. One possible reason the film didn’t quite land with its contemporary audience might well lie in the fastidiousness of Keaton’s method in this regard: the situation isn’t just a pretext but a structure, the necessary linearity of the train chase Keaton’s vehicle for exploring cinema narrative itself as a chain of events.

TheGeneral14

When Johnnie loads a cannon he’s hauling in his attempts to halt the other train, only for the cannon to start losing inclination: after haplessly detaching the cannon car, Johnnie flees right to the very cowcatcher on the train’s front in his fear of the cannon going off: right at the last moment the curving of the track abruptly opens a clear field of fire for the weapon, which goes off and blasts a crater narrowly missing the General and the raiders. In another ingenious bit, Johnnie, trying to clear the tracks of sleepers the raiders drop behind them to impede their pursuer, balances uneasily on the cowcatcher and fumbles to grab up one sleeper and uses it to flip another out of the way. This stunt, exceptionally dangerous and utterly beguiling, is also in the flow of Johnnie-as-dynamic-problem-solver a rough draft for video gaming. In terms of staging and technique this sort of thing wasn’t so different to the meticulously orchestrated automobile and trolley car chases Mack Sennett had done with the Keystone Kops, but Keaton’s more meticulous, slow-burn method approach resists their frenetic tenor.

TheGeneral15

The paradox in this is it helps Keaton achieve a more authentically absurdist tone. Johnnie keeps blinking in bewilderment when an unhitched carriage from the train ahead seems to appear and then vanish, and twists in seemingly settled forms and functions, like the missing rails that throw him from the handcart: everything works until it doesn’t, and the tunnel-visioned Johnnie is as helpless despite his proactive efforts in the face of such undermining as the audience. Keaton illustrates how and why Johnnie keeps getting this impression, but the man himself is left with the woozy impression of reality suddenly rewriting itself. So whilst The General doesn’t entirely lack the flecks of surrealism in his earlier films as inanimate objects do strange and unexpected things and quirks of chance and fate unspool with teasing wit, Keaton nonetheless insists on a precise sense of how his jokes connect with the necessarily rolling logic of the situation. Keaton was making a movie for a cinema age that was evolving, becoming more technically and aesthetically engaged with its own nature: whilst radically different in form from what the Soviet realists were doing, Keaton nonetheless explores his awareness of cinema as a system of images.

TheGeneral16

At the same time The General also nudges the melodramatic style of early silent film in a manner that suggests Keaton was already feeling and playing upon a certain tide of nostalgia. When Anderson ties up Annabelle, the film recalls the straightforward suspense scenarios of the days of Pearl White, whilst the storyline as a whole nods back to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1906). Keaton makes sport of the melodrama elements, of course. Once Anderson is knocked out during Johnnie’s recapture of the General, he starts reviving at one point, potentially threatening a fight or hostage-taking, only for Anderson to be accidentally knocked out again, and he doesn’t stir again until the very end. Nostalgia is indeed a powerful impulse throughout The General with its blend of dreaminess and immediacy in looking back to days of yore. The storyline pastiches the romantic mythology of the era with Annabelle the curly-tressed maiden of good white Southern stock who must be rescued, but Keaton teases it in ways D.W. Griffith never would have. Annabelle’s name pays heed to Edgar Allan Poe’s lost heroine. Keaton had poured over photos by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner to absorb the period look, and the influence is plain, both in the crisp approximation of the old daguerreotype image and the sensitivity to light and shade in the moments of scenic beauty he allows, glimpses of flood-flooded forests and glistening hills of grass.

TheGeneral17

Indeed it’s easy to see Keaton lampooning Griffith, making sport of one of Griffith’s famous “iris” shots when Johnnie spots the captive Annabelle through a hole in a tablecloth, and in the finale when Johnnie advances with a flag like Ben Cameron in The Birth of a Nation (1915) only to accidentally take up a heroic pose on what he thinks is a rock but proves to be an officer bent double. Keaton’s take on Johnnie’s loyalty is hardly antiheroic – actually Johnnie is one of the great screen heroes, almost casual in his acts of astounding bravery once properly motivated. But he does incidentally deflate any sense of grand and noble motives beyond wanting badly to be perceived as worthy by Annabelle and to do a good turn for people he knows and bewildered by everything outside that frame of reference: Johnnie is utterly ordinary in this regard. In the motif of Johnnie being ostracised for not becoming a soldier Keaton seems to have been more thinking of the schisms over such things that gripped all sides during the decade-past Great War, offering implicit sympathy for anyone who couldn’t serve as they might have liked. In the climax Johnnie reverts to a childlike state as he playacts a leader of importance whilst a proper Confederate General (Frederick Vroom) rides a white horse behind him, men gesticulating in imperious manner, the real manipulator of life and death on a mass scale and his impish, accidentally satirical mirror.

TheGeneral18

Johnnie’s distraction is at a zenith when he keeps laboriously chopping wood for fuel whilst the General and the Texas barrel past the Confederate and Union armies, breaking the handle on his axe and leaving him still trying to chop with the head. If as Talleyrand said treason is a matter of dates Keaton offers it more as a matter of place: Anderson hurriedly changes out of the Confederate uniform he’s donned as they enter the Union zone, and later Johnnie has to reverse the procedure, casting aside the Union uniform he puts on to rescue Annabelle. The Union raiders think the pursuing train is packed with avengers on their trail, and so throw everything they have in Johnnie’s path to hinder him. They only, finally realise their pursuer is a single man when they halt the General atop a trestle bridge and rain down firewood on him. Johnnie stops the Texas and runs off into the woods as a driving rain starts. Soon he happens upon a farmhouse which the Union soldiers are using as a headquarters Johnnie sneaks into the house and finished up hiding under a dining table the Union men gather around to discuss the next part of their campaign, alerting Johnnie to the army’s planned sneak advance across a railway bridge at Rock River. Keaton’s delight in discursive twists in the scenes he sets up extends here as the scene seems set up for Johnnie to be exposed and chased out, but even getting burnt by a cigar and almost sneezing, not to mention beholding the captive Annabelle, don’t manage to overwhelm his composure.

TheGeneral19

Johnnie’s rescue of Annabelle is a more subtle example of Keaton’s gift for deadpan staging – a club clutched by a disembodied hand reaching out of a doorway knocking out a sentry; Johnnie dresses in his uniform and then wallops another guard with his rifle butt with the same cool sufficiency. A toppled vase during Johnnie’s plucking Annabelle from her room doesn’t attract attention, but when she’s caught in a bear trap Johnnie extracts her only to get himself caught three times. The pair sleep out the dark and stormy night and find the next day what seemed like the middle of nowhere is adjacent a Union army camp. Johnnie and Annabelle prove an able team as Johnnie proposes to sneak Annabelle onto the train by stuffing her in a sack that was filled with boots and getting close enough so that she can pull a pun detaching the engine from the train being formed behind it, before Johnnie stows her in a boxcar. Johnnie then springs into the cockpit, knocks out Anderson as he oversees the operation and pushes out a couple of other men, before gunning the engine and tearing out of the camp. Union soldiers immediately give chase in the Texas. This time the reverse chase is faster, more urgent affair, as Johnnie tries for most part to maintain his lead on the chasers, but faces a lack of fuel.

TheGeneral20

The wry spectacle of Johnnie and Annabelle working to keep their escape going in their different ways helps elucidate another dimension to the film, as Keaton’s musing on coupling as the natural and unnatural consequence of love. In this regard Keaton might have been taking a little inspiration from Arbuckle, whose comedies often revolved around trying to settle into domestication only to be faced with mounting chaos. Keaton had built his film persona around the disparity between his own wiry, hangdog appearance and his physical dynamism, and the constant motif being underestimated. This motif is linked here to the way Johnnie proves simply doing his job is heroic and worthy of mythic valorisation, where it’s initially read as a moral failure by those who require more exalted proofs, insufficient to win Annabelle’s hand. Their intuitive partnering whilst on the run sees Annabelle as inspired in helping foil their pursuers: at one point she ties a rope between trees on the trackside, a device Johnnie doesn’t think will work, but it proves to slow and stop the chasers: the couple are already married in essence as a working partnership. At one point Johnnie gets left behind when he jumps from the train to work a switch, so he runs down the slope to where the railway doubles back, only for Annabelle to manage to throw the train into reverse, returning the way it’s come and forcing Johnnie to dash back up the slope again.

TheGeneral21

But Annabelle also tries to domesticate Johnnie’s work space, cleaning up the cockpit with a broom and carefully selecting pieces of wood worthy of fuelling his engine. Johnnie sarcastically hands her a twig to add to the fire which she happily does, whereupon he starts throttling her, before suddenly kissing her, and turning with equal suddenness back to his tasks. It’s both a funny and faintly shocking moment, then and now, capturing something violently bipolar about love, both delighted and infuriated by the cost of surrendering personal realm to another. Finally Johnnie and Annabelle reach the Rock River bridge and set it on fire. When the Union commanders try to send the Texas through after it as they launch their assault, the bridge collapses as the Texas passes over, dumping it into the river below. This amazing shot – the one that cost all that money – is the climax not just of the railroad action but of Keaton’s entire, life-sized aesthetic, and one that counteracts the absurdist pull of his jokes. Here, finally, the laws of gravity and probability assert their usual, implacable prerogative – on Johnnie’s enemies.

TheGeneral22

Johnnie and Annabelle deliver warning to the Confederates about the attack, and the battle sees the Confederates managing to beat back the Union soldiers. Johnnie is an amusing spectacle acting like a commander whilst waving a captured sword, the blade constantly flying out of the hilt, but he becomes more engaged as the General sends him down to instruct an artillery battery as the Union soldiers are creeping their way across the river using boulders as cover. As Johnnie tries to explain himself to the gunners, a Union sniper keeps shooting them down one by one, Johnnie increasingly bewildered by why soldiers keep dropping dead as he speaks to them. This is probably as dark a piece of humour as Keaton ever offered, punctuated when he draws his sword and the blade flies off again, only to land right in the sniper’s back. As he tries to fire off the cannon himself, Johnnie misfires the cannon, but his wild shot knocks out a weir holding back river water that crashes down upon the Union soldiers and drives them back, helping end the battle. This finale offers a key change from the structure of the rest of the film, and Keaton was criticised at the time for mixing in straight warfare with comedy. It nonetheless a brilliantly filmed sequence that contains some of Keaton’s most gorgeously crafted shots and elegantly sarcastic humour.

TheGeneral23

Johnnie finally becomes not just a hero but a soldier, the trade he happily declares his profession as he’s enlisted into the army. This comes after the Confederate General commands him to take off Anderson’s false uniform in what seems to be a moment of punishment and reckoning, only for the General to then procure him a Lieutenant’s uniform, donning it before the delighted gaze of Annabelle and her wounded father. The film’s very last joke revisits the sitting-on-the-piston gag but now with Johnnie settling down to kiss Annabelle, adjusting their position so he can rapidly salute the enlisted men passing by. If the first version of this moment contains an extremely coded masturbation joke, this one is about getting properly down to business. It’s also poking fun at the natural next stage of Johnnie’s journey, negotiating the perversities of a different kind of machine: the military. The General was first screened on the last day of 1926 in Tokyo of all places, with the likes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Sergei Eisenstein’s October, William A. Wellman’s Wings, and a host of other films all released within the months on either side, a moment that marked the high-water mark of silent cinema’s ambition and genius. But the form’s apotheosis was also its sunset, and the transfer to sound would claim many victims, including Keaton. Either way, The General is one of the great films, silent or talking. It’s also something better than great: it’s actually, genuinely funny.

The General can be viewed for free on YouTube and innumerable other places.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Thriller

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) / The Towering Inferno (1974)

.

Directors: Ronald Neame / John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Screenwriters: Wendell Mayes, Stirling Silliphant / Stirling Silliphant

By Roderick Heath

Sparked by the success of Airport (1970) but really catching fire with the release of The Poseidon Adventure, the disaster film became the premier genre for star-laden blockbuster filmmaking and special effects spectacle through much of the 1970s before Star Wars (1977) rudely supplanted it with science fiction. Whilst he didn’t make all of the era’s big disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen became synonymous with them to the point where he was granted the popular nickname “The Master of Disaster.” Funnily enough, up until The Poseidon Adventure Allen had instead been better known for sci-fi, making films like The Lost World (1960) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and TV shows including the latter film’s spin-off, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. The son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who grew up poor in New York, Allen first grazed show business by moving to Hollywood in search of job opportunities after the Depression forced him to drop out of college. He spent time editing a magazine before moving into radio and then a syndicated gossip column, before his understanding of the shifting gravity in Hollywood away from studios to talent agencies let him begin producing TV and finally films.

Allen gained success and plaudits with the stock footage-laden documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953) and The Animal World (1954), and applied a similar technique to the much-derided, patched-together fantasy-historical survey The Story of Mankind (1957), a film that evinced his faith in star power and interest in Biblical-scale tales of travail. Soon Allen turned to colourful sci-fi fare to appeal to a young audience. As a director Allen was only competent, and often the films he made himself, as would befall the very expensive but hilariously bad The Swarm (1978), betrayed his lack of instincts in that direction. But as an impresario he had few rivals, and The Poseidon Adventure and its immediate follow-up The Towering Inferno were huge, glitzy hits that cut across the fond legend that at the time everyone was watching moody art films about losers in washed-out denim, although they certainly matched the tenor of the moment with its sense of decay, bad faith, and lost idealism. When he pivoted to disaster movies, Allen found a way to recreate Cecil B. DeMille’s storied brand of epic, fire-and-brimstone storytelling for a new age, tailored to exploiting the mood of the 1970s with its guilty hedonism and equally guilty hunger for old Hollywood values even as the New Hollywood was officially ascendant. Indeed, the basic plot of The Towering Inferno is very similar to the modern-day half of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923).

The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno today might look like relics of a certain phase in Hollywood despite still being enormously entertaining. The ‘70s disaster movie genre never quite recovered from the pasting delivered by Airplane! (1980), a film that paid immediate homage-cum-ridicule to the style. In their time Allen’s films deftly tapped fashionable trends: they have something in common with The Exorcist (1973) not just in craftsmanship and storytelling savvy but in exploiting a certain guilty moralism amidst the zipless vicissitudes of the Me Decade as well as its fulminating fantasies about weathering such storms with a renewed sense of solidity. But Allen’s two best disaster films are still crucially emblematic of the emerging ideal of the blockbuster movie: indeed few other passages of cinema represent the blockbuster promise better than the opening credits of The Towering Inferno. Allen’s sense of Hollywood glamour was entirely rooted in movie stars and production values, and despite dealing in spectacle would rather spend his money on them rather than special effects, one reason he was completely bewildered by the rule-rewriting popularity of the almost big-name actor-free, FX-heavy Star Wars. There’s detectable Allen influence present in hit films as diverse as Die Hard (1987) and The Avengers films with their roster of carefully selected star turns, as well more obviously in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget breakage festivals. One obvious bridge between these two ages of Hollywood was the composer Allen brought over from his TV shows, John Williams, whose talent for emotionally textured scoring matched to outsized storytelling is as vital to the two Allen films just as it would be for Steven Spielberg.

Critics often take umbrage at the theatre of cruelty inherent in disaster movies, with some good reason, being as it is a genre that involves death on a mass scale. But that’s also part of its weird appeal, a quality it shares with horror movies: whilst there are usually certain expected didactic beats, it’s still an unusually unstable and unpredictable mode of storytelling in terms of characters and their fates, as well as usually boiling down to plain adventure tales about ordinary people trying to survive terrible situations. Paradoxically, they also purvey a dark-hearted lampooning of a crumbling ideal of Hollywood’s specialness, portraying quasi-celebrities and hangers-on or people thrust into situations once fit for Hollywood mythicism – ocean liners, skyscrapers – only to behold the fragility and tacky insubstantiality of such glamour. Allen’s films proved marketplaces where many different strata of Hollywood actor could commingle and attract different sectors of the audience.

Serious-minded, theatre-trained A-listers like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman rubbed shoulders with young, over-polished TV ingénues, veteran character actors, and aging studio-era stars who brought with them the aura of faded class, walking the line between retro camp and pathos in their presence. For his two signal hits in this mould, Allen was smart enough to employ well-weathered directors, although he would handle shooting action sequences for The Towering Inferno himself. Both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were directed by experienced, robust, no-nonsense British filmmakers, with Ronald Neame handling the former and John Guillermin the latter. Both films deal with situations where a number of characters are trapped in a deadly situation and race against time to survive, the former film depicting the survivors of a cruise ship capsized by a monstrous freak wave, the latter recounting efforts to save people trapped in a new skyscraper that becomes a flaming death trap. The former film is the superior in terms of its dramatic integrity and intensity, the latter as a piece of grandiose entertainment.

The Poseidon Adventure was adapted from a 1969 novel by Paul Gallico, a writer who had cut his teeth writing for publications like The Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s and ‘40s with their hunger for slick, polished, sentiment-greased turns of prose, and was best-known for his delicately symbolic novella The Snow Goose. Gallico reportedly took some inspiration for his plot from a story told to him by a crewman on the Queen Mary during its World War II troop ship service when it was almost capsized by a colossal rogue wave. Fittingly, the film’s early scenes were shot on the Queen Mary shortly after its retirement and installation as a floating hotel off Long Beach, California. Allen produced the film on a substantial but relatively restrained budget of $4.7 million at a time when Hollywood was counting its pennies stringently after the deadly days of the late 1960s. Gallico’s novel, despite his somewhat flat characters, tried to articulate a philosophy in portraying their straits when their world is literally turned upside down. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of The Poseidon Adventure as a film is that some of the philosophy actually survives the transfer, and might even have been clarified.

Hackman, stretching his legs for his first bit of Hollywood leading man business after winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971), was cast as Reverend Scott, a strident, charismatic slum priest being deported to an African parish by his superiors. The film fixates on Scott as the angry and rebellious voice of defiance against helplessness and false idols, chiefly authority and illusory comfort, memorably illustrating his conviction the Lord helps those who help themselves: “You can wear off your knees praying for heat in a cold-water flat in February.” In this way The Poseidon Adventure cleverly courts the way the anti-authoritarian mood of the moment as it was being converted into a mode of pop culture shtick. The distrust of certain forms of power is signalled early in the film when Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), Captain of the aging, about-to-be scrapped ocean liner S.S. Poseidon butts heads with the representative of the owners, Linarcos (Fred Sadoff). Linarcos wants the ship delivered on schedule to the wrecking yard and won’t allow any delay to take on more ballast, leaving the ship top-heavy to a degree everyone aboard becomes queasily aware of as the ship rides out heavy weather in the mid-Mediterranean. On New Year’s Eve, many passengers assemble for a party in the first class dining room, but the Captain is called to the bridge when, following reports of an earthquake off Crete, the radar picks up a huge tsunami heading their way.

These scenes introduce key characters, all familiar types, in vignettes mostly striking a humorous note whilst establishing who and what everyone with little subtlety. There’s Mr Manny and Mrs Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), an old Jewish-American couple heading to Israel to see their infant grandson. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a sceptical New York detective travelling with his brassy, high-strung former prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens). James Martin (Red Buttons) is a haberdasher and luckless bachelor preoccupied with his health. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) is a comely young lass resentfully stuck with her overeager, nerdy younger brother Martin (Eric Shea) as they travel to meet up with their parents. Nonny Parry (Carol Lynley) is a sweet and blowsy singer in a band with her brother, employed on the ship for the cruise’s duration and bound for a music festival. And there’s Scott, who forcefully explains his peculiar worldview to the ship’s more conventional if quietly decent Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell) and gives a vigorous guest sermon attended by many of the important characters where he espouses an existential, questing, empowered kind of faith, where he declares God “wants winners, not quitters – if you can’t win then at least try to win!”

The opening vignettes often border on camp, particularly with Stevens’ loud performance as a loud woman (“For chrissakes I know what suppositories are, just get them out of here!” she tells her husband in her seasick eagerness to get rid of the ship’s doctor and nurse) and the theatrical confrontations between the Captain and Linarcos, who’s offered as a kind of slimy Onassis stand-in. Nielsen was later cast in Airplane! in homage to his performance as the doomed captain here, who so memorably mutters in stark solemnity, “Oh my god!” when he spots the wave bearing down upon his ship and makes a last-ditch effort to turn into it. The film clicks into gear in this sequence, as the wave hits whilst the midnight celebrations are in full swing. Neame cuts with shamelessly effective technique between the passengers’ increasingly merry, dizzy, oblivious sing-along to “Auld Lang Syne,” including close-ups of the obviously not celibate Scott carousing with a woman on each arm and young Robin frantically cheery, contrasted with the bridge crew’s stark, horrified awareness of impending disaster. When the colossal wave strikes the ship it rolls over with agonising slowness and finality, wiping out the bridge and tossing the passengers in the dining room about like so much confetti, climaxing with a famous shot of a luckless passenger who managed to cling onto a table losing his grip and plunging a great height into a false skylight.

Scott inevitably greets the disaster as the ultimate challenge to his special brand of muscular Christianity as he begins trying to organise the survivors and follows Robin’s advice thanks to his knowledge of the ship, as the kid suggests they should head for a propeller shaft where the hull is thinnest and most easily cut through by rescuers. Scott immediately finds himself in a shouting match with the ship’s purser (Byron Webster), who recommends staying put and waiting for rescue despite the obvious precariousness of their lot. “That’s not true!” the purser bellows when Scott declares no help is coming, to Scott’s retort, “It is true you pompous ass!” Scott and others appropriated the collapsed steel-framed Christmas tree to use as a ladder to reach a way out, where injured steward Acres (Roddy MacDowall) is stranded. Scott also repeatedly butts heads with Rogo, but the cop and his wife still join the Rosens and the Shelbys in aiding Scott. Martin coaxes the stunned and grief-stricken Nonny, whose brother died in the capsizing, to come with them. The sea breaks into the dining room, starting to flood it just as Scott’s party have ascended, and the ensuing panic causes the Christmas tree to collapse, obliging the agonised Scott to move on with what flock he has. Led by Acres through the formerly civilised but now dangerous obstacle course that is the ship’s interior, including the fiery death-trap of the kitchen and various shafts and stairwells, the survivors make agonising progress, and Acres falls to his death when exploding boilers shake the ship.

Neame, a former cinematographer who had collaborated as producer with David Lean before he moved into directing himself, was an intermittently excellent filmmaker. He sometimes got bogged down in glossy productions like the dull The Million Pound Note (1955) and a string of flat melodramas when he went to Hollywood in the 1960s, but made some terrific films including the underrated thrillers The Golden Salamander (1950), The Man Who Never Was (1956), and Escape From Zahrain (1962), as well as prestigious, well-regarded dramas about prickly, asocial or combative characters including The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The Poseidon Adventure, Neame’s biggest hit and one he later referred to dryly as his favourite work because it made him enough money to retire well on, was nonetheless perfect for him as it allowed him to sustain his interest in dynamic but difficult characters and combative relationships from his dramas in a survival situation close to those he liked in his genre films.

There are touches of gauche Hollywoodism, of course, finding excuses to get Stevens and Martin partly undressed and leaving Winters fully clothed whilst using her plumpness as a source of humour, as when Scott has to push her broad rump up through the spokes of the Christmas tree. Part of the film’s mystique as popular hit was the inclusion of the lilting, syrupy, insidiously catchy song “The Morning After”, nominally warbled by Nonny early in the film during her band’s rehearsal but actually sung by Maureen McGovern, providing an apt note of promise in regards to survival in almost Greek chorus fashion. The song won an Oscar and Allen would recommission McGovern to perform the similar “We May Never Love Like This Again” in The Towering Inferno. Nonetheless The Poseidon Adventure’s tautness once it gets going derives from the relentlessness of both the storyline, the banal yet chaotically defamiliarised setting and the constant flow of obstacles to be surmounted, and the hell of other people, as the survivors contend with each-other in brittle fashion in pinball game of personality.

The script, penned by the talented Hollywood ultra-professional Stirling Silliphant, an Oscar-winner for his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), and Wendell Mayes, buffs down the edges of Gallico’s story a lot, excising a pathetic alcoholic couple as well as Susan and David’s parents from the group. In the novel Robin vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving his parents guilt-ridden and mutually hateful, whilst Susan was sexually assaulted by a panic-stricken young crewman who she then, rather oddly strikes up friendship with, only for him to run off in remorse to presumably die. The film instead places emphasis on the dynamics of the smaller group of survivors in their discovery of hidden resources and mixture of necessity and unease in mutual reliance. Sparks constantly fly as the rival types of alpha masculinity Scott and Rogo represent clash, Scott with his unflinching sense of mission aggravating Rogo’s cynical resistance and tendency to look to other figures of rank for authority. Scott with his turtleneck somehow still manages to look dashing when bedraggled whilst Rogo is a lump of boxy, grimy flesh. Rogo eventually demands to know why Scott is so utterly resistant to other options, as when they encounter another group of survivors being led by the doctor who are intent on heading for the bow rather than stern. Scott on the other hand maintains his utter derision of anything resembling herd mentality and blind obedience to empty promises based in fear and deference to anyone who sounds confident in denial of facts.

In this way, the inner core of surprising seriousness working as a parable about leadership and faith is enacted in the best way, through action and necessity of dramatic flow, whilst Hackman and Borgnine’s big, bristling performances provide the energy. Scott’s behaviour borders on the messianic even as his resolve and sense of purpose keep the others alive, berating the infuriated Rogo for failing to save Acres, whilst Rogo’s own wife constantly mocks his tendency to rely too much on a veneer of authority as meaning in itself. Martin’s gentle, solicitous way with helping Nonny through the disaster reveals his remarkably level head, whilst Lynley is excellent in playing the sort of character everyone tends to dislike because Nonny is the one no-one wants to be, a waifish innocent paralysed with fear at points: I particularly like the way Nonny vows “No, I won’t,” when Martin tells her to not to let go of him, nailing a note of giddy-fretful overemphasis in trying to be brave. Susan meanwhile has a crush on Scott, who treats her with fatherly affection and appreciates her support as he forges ahead despite the friction with Rogo. Her brother is an unusually believable kind of movie kid in his blend of cheek and fervent knowing, cheerily telling Mrs Rosen as he helps heave her up a stairwell he’s experienced in this sort of thing after helping boat a three hundred pound swordfish once, only to later apologise for any comparison.

In a much-beloved and oft-lampooned twist, Mrs Rosen, who constantly frets about her weight and status as an encumbrance, discovers her inner action hero and leaps to the rescue in recalling her glory days as a swimmer when the group must traverse a flooded section of the engine room and Scott gets trapped under a piece of wreckage blazing the trail, saving his life but promptly dying of a heart attack. Belle’s death is registered as the film’s signal moment of authentic tragedy, the passing of a motherly, gutsy figure played by an actress whose presence kept the film tethered to the mythology of old Hollywood. The ugly toll mounts as Linda falls to her death when the survivors seem on the brink of their goal, Rogo unleashing his rage and sorrow on Scott for his own empty promises, whilst the minister is confronted by a leaking steam valve blocking their path, an impediment that almost seems to personify the vindictive forces that seem intent on foiling their efforts to prove their living worth. Scott certainly takes it as such, berating it as the stand-in for the God he’s frustrated with as he makes a dangerous leap to grab the wheel to shut it off and then, as if in self-sacrifice, lets himself drop into the flame-wreathed brine below.

The Poseidon Adventure might well have been the first film I’d ever seen as a small boy where the hero dies, and so inevitably left a deep impact on me in this regard. What’s significant to me now is that the film clearly stands out from the pack of similar films through the way it tries to explore survival not just in a video game-like fashion of surmounting problems and stages but wrestling with its meaning. This theme runs through the movie like a live nerve, probing the worth of Scott’s conviction whilst ultimately validating them, and the way fighting for survival immediately provokes the characters to rise or fall depending on their capacities. The ultimate moment of rescue for the remaining characters is a plaintive, surprisingly muted moment, as they stand watching the cutting torch of rescuers burn through the hull, the answering light of salvation in comparison to the devil of the steam valve. Finally they’re pulled out and learn they’re the only survivors, before they’re ushered onto a helicopter that lifts off, leaving behind the upturned ship. As if by sarcastic design, The Towering Inferno begins with a helicopter in flight bringing its hero into danger: Paul Newman’s genius, playboy architect Doug Roberts, making for San Francisco to behold his masterwork, the 138–floor Glass Tower, rising like a great golden lance above the city.

Allen spent more than three times the budget on The Towering Inferno he had on The Poseidon Adventure, making a film that set out self-consciously to emulate grand old Hollywood extravaganzas like Grand Hotel (1932) with an added edge of apocalyptic drama, and was rewarded with an even bigger hit. Allen again hired Silliphant to write the film, this time melding two different novels with the same basic plot, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, a mating demanded when Allen convinced both Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., who were planning rival films of the two books, to pool resources. This time the director was the Guillermin, who was both admired and hated for his demanding, exacting, even bellicose on-set style. Guillermin worked his way up through weak screen filler in the early 1950s before gaining attention with films including the brilliant neo-western Never Let Go (1960) and the plaintive drama Rapture (1965), and his string of  sardonic, antiheroic war films The Guns of Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). Despite his very real talents, in the ‘70s and ‘80s Guillermin found himself more prized for his ability to corral big budget opuses.

As in The Poseidon Adventure, responsibility for disaster in The Towering Inferno is laid not merely at the door of terrible chance but nefarious and corrupt business dealings. This time the theme is pushed more forcefully, in a movie that also proved uniquely well-suited to the season of Watergate’s last, sclerotic spasms and all the ensuing fear of decline and torpor it generated. Leaving aside any questions as to why someone would want to build the world’s tallest building in an earthquake zone, Doug’s magnum opus required engineering on a demanding scale, but he soon finds the electrical contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), has installed cheap and inadequate wiring and pocketed the money saved. Roger is happy to point out that his father-in-law, Jim Duncan (William Holden), the real estate mogul responsible for financing the build, regularly pushes all his contractors to keep costs down. They soon discover the price for hubris is steep, as electrical fires begin breaking out all over the building on the night of its official opening, with a swanky gala being held in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor and every light in the structure turned on, overloading the frail systems.

The rapidly multiplying blaze, uncontained by sprinklers that won’t work, soon threatens the life of everyone in the building, which is split between residential and business floors. Doug and his chief engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton) try to track down one outbreak, only for Giddings to be fatally burned saving a security guard as the conflagration bursts loose. Like many disaster movies the storyline’s ritual structure courts likeness to the Titanic sinking, with much made of the new building’s seemingly invulnerable façade and nabobs forced to display grace under pressure when things go to hell. Amongst the many characters entrapped by the blaze are Doug’s magazine editor fiancé Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway) and Roger’s wife Patty (Susan Blakely), Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughan), city Mayor Bob Ramsay (Jack Collins) and his wife Paula (Sheila Matthews Allen), Duncan’s PR man Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and his office lover Lorrie (Susan Flannery), and building resident Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) and her date for the night, sweet-talking conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire).

The blaze soon attracts the SF Fire Department en masse, under the leadership of Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who along with his firefighters confronts a blaze that proves impossible to tame by any conventional tactic. Duncan is initially reluctant to halt the party when he thinks they’re only facing a small, localised blaze, and doesn’t begin to evacuate until Mike tells him to in no uncertain terms, but the spreading fire soon cuts off all routes. Doug finds himself tasked with saving Lisolette and the two children (Carlena Gower and Mike Lookinland) of her neighbour she ventured down to fetch, after spotting her over a CCTV camera and dashing to the rescue. High winds make helicopter landings too dangerous – one attempt to brave the gusts causes a chopper crash. With the help of the Navy, the firefighters make recourse to suspending a breeches buoy between the Glass Tower and a neighbouring building and drawing people over one by one, a method that proves painfully slow and perilous as the guests draw lots to escape.

The opening shots of The Towering Inferno track Doug’s helicopter flying down the California coast and bursting out of a fog bank to behold the Golden Gate Bridge and sweeping over the bay in screen-filling vistas. Doug’s ‘70s bachelor cred is fully confirmed he swans in wearing a Safari jacket, beholding his magnificent yet termited creation from the chopper as it barrels over the San Francisco skyline, all set to Williams’ surging, venturesome scoring, immediately declares this film is going to be a thrill ride, as opposed to the tragic ominousness his scoring for the earlier film suggested. The spectacular cinematography by Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc would win one of the film’s several Oscars, despite having some rivals like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown that year with more artistic quality to their shooting, but the Academy seemed to sense a reclamation of Hollywood’s imperial stature apparent in the The Towering Inferno’s technical might and gloss. The quiet early scenes are better than those in The Poseidon Adventure if grazing high class soap opera or bestseller territory – the presence of Flannery, much to later to become a fixture on The Bold and the Beautiful, makes that connection more literal. The percolating social movements of the moment are nudged as Doug and Susan negotiate potential wrinkles in their relationship – Doug wants to retire to a remote ranch and become a rich dropout whilst Susan wants to take a big new job – after enjoying an afternoon shag in his apartment in the Tower.

Other characters go about their lives, with good little touches like Lisolette’s neighbour, mother of the kids she sets out to save, being deaf and so potentially oblivious to alarms. Astaire and Jones provide the regulation shot of old school star power. Astaire, rather astoundingly, gained his first and only Oscar nomination for his performance as the professionally charming, deceitful but essentially good-hearted Harlee. Astaire’s class in his tailor-made role is apparent when Harlee is introduced with a clue he’s busted as he laboriously counts out change to the taxi driver who delivers him to the building, and later confesses his wicked ways to Lisolette: “I brought you up here tonight to sell you a thousand shares in Greater Anaheim Power and Light…There is no Greater Anaheim Power and Light!” His sincerity is signalled when he dashes to cover a burn victim with his tuxedo jacket, a garment Guillermin has already let us know is rented. This detail is noted in an earlier scene that offers a gentle parody of his famous Royal Wedding (1951) hotel room dance scene as he similarly prepares himself for a date only to note the wrinkles on his face and throw down his hands in despair, only to strike a newly confident stance and get down to flimflamming.

The Towering Inferno demanded a lot more special effects work than The Poseidon Adventure, and whilst some of L.B. Abbott’s effects haven’t aged well, like the many rear-projected shots, there’s still some frightening majesty in the exterior surveys of the blazing building, as well as the admirable stunt work throughout. The film is of course replete with strong cliffhanger sequences, like the long scene mid-film where Doug leads Lisolette and the kids to safety finds them traversing a mangled stairwell, forced to climb down a dangling, twisted piece of railing over a bottomless pit. The cute kids are safe in such a movie, but elsewhere the film delights in dealing out death and mayhem. In true morality play/slasher movie fashion Bigelow and Lorrie die when, having snuck away for a quickie, find themselves trapped by the flames and die memorably cruel deaths. Williams’ music surges in grandly tragic refrains as Bigelow tries to make a desperate run for help only to quickly stumble and catch alight, all filmed in gruelling slow motion, whilst Susan accidentally blasts herself into space when she smashes a window and gets struck by the backdraft. When a bunch of party guests cram themselves into an elevator against all warnings and try to descend, the elevator returns soon after and disgorges them all ablaze and charred. Later the film ruthlessly inverts the game of moralistic expectation when Lisolette, the most innocent character in the film, falls to her death after saving a child, a shocking moment even after the umpteenth viewing.

If not as interesting and sustained as the survivalist philosophy in The Poseidon Adventure, the film is also given a level of depth beyond mere pretext in its approach to Doug, Roger, and Duncan and their varying levels of complicity in the disaster. Doug questions, “What do they call it when you kill people?” whilst knocking back stiff drinks mid-crisis. Early in the film Doug’s visit to Roger’s house to rumble him for his cheats leads into a vignette of odd pathos as Roger and Patty graze the void between them – “All I want is the man I thought I married” – that is weirdly similar in tone and undercurrents to Chamberlain’s early eye-catching role in Petulia (1968), and in the same locale to boot, with Chamberlain playing the superficially suave and sleek golden boy who’s actually a mass of furies. Roger is a progenitor of all the spineless creeps who would soon become regulation villain figures in ‘80s genre films, but offered with a deal more complexity, with his blend of guilty, pathetic chagrin and will for self-preservation. He declares his intention to “get quietly drunk” and needles Duncan over his complicity in his own misdeeds, before trying to butt his way into the queue for the breeches buoy, only for his father-in-law to sock him and declare they’ll be the last two out. Roger eventually dies along with Parker and others in a battle to control the buoy during which it collapses. Parker, whilst generally acting like a good guy throughout the drama, is nonetheless introduced being courted by Duncan with a soft bribe involving a case of vintage wine.

The amazing cast extends down to excellent character actors like Don Gordon as Mike’s number two. There’s even O.J. Simpson giving a surprisingly deft and personable performance as the stalwart security chief Jernigan, who saves the deaf mother and later delivers Lisolette’s pet cat to a distraught Harlee. Scott (Felton Perry) and Powers (Ernie Orsatti) are two firemen who are appointed as the representative workaday heroes: Scott groans in distress when he first realises, as they ride atop a fire truck through the city streets amidst the din towards their destination, just where the fire they’re going to is. They find themselves in the centre of the action when they meet up with Doug and his charges and climb to the Promenade Room, having to blow their way through the blocked fire door to reach the guests. Later Powers draws the job of accompanying some guests down in a hotwired elevator that rides along the building exterior, only for a gas blast to knock the elevator off its rails and leave it dangling, causing Lisolette’s fatal fall. Mike has to get himself choppered up to get the elevator hooked so the helicopter can lower it to the ground, with Mike hanging on to Powers after he’s nearly jolted loose during the agonisingly slow journey down. In a spectacular twist on the man falling into the skylight in The Poseidon Adventure, Powers slips from Mike’s grasp still far above the street only to land on an inflatable cushion, in perhaps the film’s greatest moment of spectacle.

The credits notably gave McQueen and Newman equal, staggered billing, a moment of wry triumph for McQueen considering he’d long regarded Newman as both a figure of emulation and his singular rival for a lot of roles. Aptly if ironically, The Towering Inferno eventually becomes a ‘70s buddy movie as Doug and Mike try to work together with their sharply polarised personas but equally professional temperaments, as well as Newman and McQueen’s very different acting styles. Mike doesn’t appear until forty minutes into the film but immediately dominates as McQueen’s signature minimalist, hangdog look of frayed and weathered stoicism where emotion lives only in deep wells behind his lethal blue gaze, is perfect for playing an action hero who’s also a world-weary working stiff. He’s the living embodiment of everything that’s the antithesis of the glossy magazine world represented by the people on the Promenade Room, accepting all the crazy and dangerous jobs the fire demands and quietly but exactly telling Doug off for building death-traps people like him have to risk their lives in: “Now you know there’s no sure way we can fight a fire that’s over the seventh floor. But you guys just keep building them as high as you can.” Later, in a particularly great shot, Guillermin’s camera surveys the building lobby full of the injured and shattered and finds Mike, having performed a great feat of bravery, slumped against the wall and resting, indistinguishable from his fellow fire fighters in exhaustion, only to be called off to action again. Dunaway, like Newman and McQueen at the apex of mid-‘70s star power, is by comparison pretty wasted, although Susan’s early scenes with Doug are interesting in introducing a nascent meditation on emerging feminism obliging new understandings.

The balance between Allen’s investment in human drama as a channel for and manifestation of the politics of Hollywood star power and Guillermin’s fascination for disillusioned romanticism and agonised social climbers lies in the sputtering empathy shown the characters who all have their spurring ambitions that turn into queasy self-owns. It’s telling that despite Duncan’s culpability the film spares him and grants him a level of dignity as a conflicted patriarch whose upright side ultimately wins through as he tries, once the situation becomes plainly urgent, to hold things together and run the evacuation right, even socking Roger when he tries to push his way into the breeches buoy. Perhaps this respect is because Duncan feels most like an avatar for Allen himself, a man of vision and enterprise who nonetheless knew how to get things done in cutting the right corners at the perpetual risk of producing something tony but shoddy, squeezed between the conscientious auteur Doug, the on-the-make young gun Roger, and Mike as the embodiment of all the bills coming due, throwing parties for the rich and famous whose air of glamour and power is mocked by calamity. Harlee, likewise has some resemblance to a down-on-his luck industry player trying to sustain himself between hits through constantly promising a slice of the next big thing.

The Towering Inferno is then a film really about Hollywood, its sense of anxiety and dislocation matching that of the country at large in the mid-1970s moment, surviving on the fumes of former greatness but finally looking to its big new stars to save the day. And save it they do, in both senses. Mike is sent up to take the last chance for saving the remaining guests, dropped onto the Tower’s roof to meet up with Doug and blow open some colossal water tanks in the building’s upper reaches. This unleashes a flood that douses the fire, even if the cure proves nearly as dangerous as the disease, blasts and torrents of water killing several survivors including the Mayor and the affable bartender (Gregory Sierra). The climax is tremendous as Williams cranks up the tension with his music in league with Guillermin’s editing.

The unleashed war of fire and water finally offers an entirely elemental battle, amidst which the humans are reduced to flailing afterthoughts, including one startling shot of Astaire tied to a column with hands over his ears, water crashing upon him. The flood subsides and leaves the survivors to pick themselves up amidst drifting mist with a touch of mystical import, echoing the sea mist at the opening. The coda blends triumph with a tone of exhaustion and forlorn loss, registered most keenly by Harlee as he looks for Lisolette only for Jernigan to plant her cat in his arms, whilst Duncan consoles his widowed daughter. It’s hard to imagine a movie as pricey and popular these days signing off with one of its major protagonists considering leaving his grand creation as a blackened husk as Doug comments, “Maybe they oughta just leave it the way it is – kinda shrine to all the bullshit in the world,” and asking Mike for advice, the fire chief heading off home after another day at the office.

And that’s perhaps the most appealing and potent aspect of Allen’s twin great disaster movies nearly a half-century later – big, brash, and cheesy as they certainly are, they are nonetheless movies that take themselves seriously on the right levels, and offer cinematic spectacle still rooted to the earth and the travails of ordinary people whilst finding biblical-scale drama in eminently possible situations. They convey a lingering sense of existence very fitting for creative hands borne out of Depression and war, the feeling that every now and then, no matter how stable and safe the world is, the bottom can suddenly drop out and demand every particle of a person to survive. Allen’s problem was that having found a good thing he went back to the well too many times, first with The Swarm with its ridiculous tale of a killer bee invasion, and then when that failed essentially remaking The Towering Inferno as When Time Ran Out…. There Allen swapped the Glass Tower for a resort hotel next to an erupting volcano, with Newman and Holden basically playing the same roles whilst offering screen time and sympathy to the film’s Roger equivalent, played by a subbing James Franciscus. Whilst not as a bad as often painted, it was certainly cheap and tacky and represented a formula milked dry, huge success supplanted by try-hard failure. Which is perhaps, the oldest morality play of all, at least in show business.

Standard
1960s, Comedy, Drama, Indian cinema, Religious, Romance

The Holy Man / The Coward (1965)

Mahapurush / Kapurush

Director / Screenwriter: Satyajit Ray

By Roderick Heath

On the international film scene of the mid-Twentieth century, Satyajit Ray represented India in much the same way Ingmar Bergman represented Sweden, Akira Kurosawa Japan, and Federico Fellini Italy. In general perception today Indian cinema is virtually synonymous with the popular ‘Bollywood’ style with its gaudy storytelling, free-form sense of genre, and interpolated song numbers. But there’s been a long tradition of a more traditional dramatic approach in the country’s cinema, and Ray stood for several decades as its preeminent exponent. Ray came from an old and respected Bengali family. His grandfather had been a thinker and the leader of a social and religious movement, whilst his father had been a poet and children’s writer. Young Satyajit would inherit their polymath gifts, and would sustain a career as a writer alongside his more renowned movie career, as well as often writing the scores for his films. Born in Kolkata, then Calcutta, in 1921, Ray lost his father early in life. When he attended university he became interested in art and worked in an English-run advertising firm, and also becoming a designer of book covers, in which capacity he helped put together a children’s’ version of the famed novel Pather Panchali, which would eventually become the basis of his debut feature film.

 

 

Ray helped to found the Calcutta Film Society in 1947, and it became a nexus for British and American servicemen and locals to mingle and share their love of movies amidst the fervent and transformative climes of the independence moment, a zeitgeist Ray’s cinema would soon become a major component of. Ray met Jean Renoir when he came to India to shoot The River in 1951 and helped him scout locations. When he was sent to work in London by the advertising firm Ray encountered Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), and later reported he walked out of the movie theatre determined to become a filmmaker. It took two-and-half-years for Ray and the inexperienced movie crew and amateur cast he put together upon returning to India to film Pather Panchali, mostly through lack of financing. But with some support from John Huston, who hailed a great new talent when Ray showed him an assembled portion of the movie, and a government loan, the film was completed. When released in 1955 it proved an instant and galvanising success, screening for months in its home country, where critics felt it transformed the national cinema, as well as around the world. Pather Panchali also helped introduce the score’s composer Ravi Shankar to international audiences.

 

 

Ray’s blend of unvarnished authenticity and humanist intimacy in depicting the hard luck of young hero Apu and his family gave poetic depth to subject matter that might have proved off-putting for many potential viewers in portraying the threadbare genteel pretences of the Brahmin but broke family. Pather Panchali and its follow-ups forming the so-called Apu trilogy, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), still largely dominates appreciation of Ray, one of those compulsory viewing exercises for cineastes. But Ray continued making movies for another forty years, and where the Apu films concentrated on rural poverty and the uneasy march of India into the modern world in a manner that however well-done also suited a certain external view of the country, Ray’s filmography veered off into all sorts of movies, taking on comedy, romance, adventure, children’s films, and magic-realist fantasy, very often struggling with the tension between cosmopolitanism and traditionalism. He also often studied the psychology of people involved in making movies, and those who watch them, with a fretful sense of the relationship between art and life, image and truth, and the incapacity of such anointed people to transcend weakness in offering simulacra of life, studying a matinee idol in The Hero (1966) and a screenwriter in The Coward

 

 

Ray often portrayed characters from the city who travel into the country and in the tradition of the Shakespearean pastoral find their fates taking jarring twists, a sense of connection strengthened by the prominent glimpse of a volume of Shakespeare in The Holy Man, as well as the local literary tradition. Ray remained throughout his career a prolific adapter, with his last film a transposition of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1991). The Coward and The Holy Man were made as immediate follow-ups to Ray’s Charulata (1964), reportedly his favourite of his own films and generally regarded as a highpoint in his oeuvre. The Coward and The Holy Man are two quite short films, at just over an hour long each, made independently but often exhibited together, their rhyming titles in Bengali helping make them seem well-matched as a diptych of portraits. As films they nonetheless reveal something of the breadth of Ray’s ambitions and talents. Where The Coward is a curt but definite masterpiece portraying frustration, solitude, and heartbreak, The Holy Man is a gently satirical comedy officially making sport of another important facet of Indian life, religion, but really rather examining cultural deference to people who seem to know what they’re talking about, a problem hardly limited to India.

 

 

The Holy Man, adapted from a story by Rajshekhar Basu, is generally regarded as lesser Ray and that may be true enough, but it’s a wry and well-made divertissement that stakes out its basic approach in the opening scene: The Holy Man of the title, the so-called Birinchi Baba (Charuprakash Ghosh), is farewelled at a railway station by a crowd of admirers who cheer for him and crowd close. The Babaji tosses chillies to people in the crowd they swear are blessed with healing properties, before sticking out his big toe for people to touch and gain their blessing as the train pulls out of the station. This is a good visual joke that’s also a perfect example of Ray’s economic style, immediately giving the game away as to Birinchi Baba’s lack of sanctity and the tendency to unthinking and slavish devotion turned towards figures like him. Settling in on the train with his perpetually awestruck-looking disciple Kyabla (Rabi Ghosh), the Baba fascinates a man sharing the compartment with him with his ritual of spinning his fingers in counter-rotations and acting as if he’s managed to will the sun into rising. The witnessing man is Gurupada Mitra (Prasad Mukherjee), a prosperous lawyer travelling with his less than credulous-seeming daughter Buchki (Gitali Roy).

 

 

Mitra is nonetheless fascinated with the Babaji and soon confesses to him his great pain and confusion following his wife’s death, which have made the former arch pragmatist suddenly spiritually curious. Unwittingly, Mitra has placed himself at the mercy of a man who specialises in hooking people like him, and Mitra soon becomes not only his host but his acolyte too. A little while later, Nibaran (Somen Bose), an intellectual, plays host to his little clique of friends, including his perpetual chess opponent, the insurance agent Paramadha, the money-hungry accountant Nitai (Satya Banerjee), and friend Satta (Satindra Bhattacharya). Nibaran knows about Birinchi Baba’s sway over the Mitra house because he is the lifelong friend of Professor Nani (Santosh Dutta), the husband of Mitra’s eldest daughter. Casually making fun of the Babaji’s supposed divine powers, he tells Nitai about how the Babaji specialises in regressing people back in time to 1914 to let them discover troves of scrap iron left over from the war and make a fortune, only for Nitai to be convinced to try his luck with Birinchi. Satta is much less thrilled by Birinchi’s apparent new home and following, because he’s in love with Buchki, and she seems intent on joining the ranks of Birinchi’s followers along with her father.

 

 

Nibaran, a sceptical and distractible hero for the story who proves formidable once roused, feels like an avatar for Ray himself, or rather Ray’s ironic sense of himself as a thinker in a world not always so terribly interested in thinkers, a cigar smoker with his pile of books in many languages and penchant for playing chess, a game Ray himself loved (he’d later make a film called The Chess Masters in 1977), teetering on the fine line between engagement and withdrawal. Nitai spots what is possibly an erotic picture of a woman peeking out from behind a pile of his books, a gently humorous hint of non-intellectual interests furtively lingering behind the learned veneer, but the intrigued Nitai is interrupted before he can reveal the whole picture. When he visits Nani, who has a sideline playing crackpot inventor who’s trying to synthesise a new foodstuff by oxidizing grass, Nibaran becomes increasingly disturbed and appalled when Nani reports to him Birinchi’s absurd pronouncements, and Nani plays a tape recording allowing Nibaran to hear for himself. Birinchi claims to remember all his past lives and has had experiences with great figures through the ages including Jesus, Buddha, and Albert Einstein, whom he claims to have taught the E=mc²  equation, as well as being an internationally regarded peacemaker: “He’s solved a lot of problems in Czechoslovakia.” Nani also explains the idea behind Birinchi’s signature finger-twirling habit, symbolising his concept of the present as the mere, perpetual grazing point of past and future. Nibaran is annoyed Nani didn’t stand up for science when listening to the Babaji’s claptrap, but Nani is far too enamoured with any kind of fascinating jargon to critique it.

 

 

True to the spirit of the Shakespearean pastoral, The Holy Man centres on some good-natured older men trying to help a younger fellow win a girl, in this case Satta and Buchki. The problems of communication between the young lovers echo the integral themes of The Coward, but in a teasing, upbeat fashion. The film’s jests as the expense of the over-educated as well as the gullible and the dishonest skewer the irritable and proud Paramadha, the fuzzy-logic-loving Nani, and Satta, who has attempted to write a marriage proposal to Buchki but his letter was too obscure, filled with bewildering quotations from poets, for her to make sense of. Buchki seems irritated enough with him for such stodgy romancing to make good on plans to become a priestess. Satta is reduced to constantly trying to sneak messages to Buchki, and finally he gets a smuggled note back from her stating she know well that Birinchi is a fraud but cannot defy her father. This aspect of the film, the place of women under patriarchal control, is another connective theme between the two films. Satta reports with good humour to Nibaran after gaining Buchki’s reply, reporting his adventure in sneaking up to the Mitra house to try and deliver one of his notes to Buchki, tossing it to her as she seems to be rapt in one of Birinchi’s mystic rites, in which he waves flaming brands around and seems to invoke a manifestation of Shiva in his holy dancer form Nataraja.

 

 

By this point in his career Ray had moved away from the blend of neorealist starkness and flashes of intense poetic visual metaphor – the flock of birds flurrying away at the moment of the death of Apu’s father in Aparajito always leaps to my mind – found in the Apu movies, towards a style more open-flowing and relaxed in engaging his actors and the space around them, expertly using a widescreen format to enable this approach to filming. The Holy Man pauses for a rather French New Wave-like visual joke as Nibaran’s efforts to explain the knot of character relationships with a graphic aid joining pictures of the various cast members including the gormlessly grinning Satta gazing at Bucki’s picture. The influence of Renoir’s cinema is apparent with the architectural integrity to compositions that are nonetheless allowed to form according to behaviour. A perfect example is the introduction shot for Nibaran and his friends, with Nibaran and Paramadha playing chess on a bed with the moaning Nitai sitting at a remove as the apex of a compositional triangle, literally and figuratively interrupting the game. Ray often refuses to cut unless doing so for a specific purpose, and yet there’s nothing dull or static about his work, preferring subtle camera movements to stop his shots becoming rigid. The Holy Man allows a certain level of indulged theatricality to manifest in Bhattacharya and Rabi Ghosh’s performances, the former marvellously, effetely mocking as he explains how he came to “see Brahma,” the latter eddying in boredom and misfiring energy as he wanders about his and his uncle’s rooms, half-naked and partly wearing his costume for playing the manifested Nataraja.

 

 

Soumendu Roy’s cinematography on both The Holy Man and The Coward offers a deceptively limpid, deep-focus mise-en-scene that can nonetheless suddenly unveil treasures in careful lighting and camera movement. Particularly fun is the scene where Satta spies on Birinchi’s fire invocation, filmed in expressionistic shadow-and-light-play. Birinchi is transformed into an ogrish vision wielding arcane powers before the appearance of the bogus apparition behind him, a sight that drives Mitra to ecstatics, all background to Satta’s industrious attempts to communicate with Bachki. This scene could well double as a touch of lampooning on Ray’s behalf of horror movie imagery as well as portrayals of eastern mysticism in many Hollywood films. Birinchi’s sermons are comic set-pieces entirely relying on Charuprakash Ghosh’s ability to suggest fatuous delight under a veneer of transcendental bonhomie, declaring when asked about her veracity of Jesus, “People say ‘crucifixion’ – I say ‘crucifact’!”, before swerving suddenly into a show of anguish as he claims to have admonished Jesus for contradictory messages only to feel regret after he was put to death. Asked by another seeker whether the path of urge or the path of satisfaction is the better, Birinchi gives a ridiculously convoluted answer involving ancient sages that eventually winds up justifying consumption because “there can be no satisfaction without consumption.” But he refuses to help Nitai when he makes his appeal, bemused by his request and telling him to spend years master his meditation first.

 

 

The Holy Man is often criticised for not being particularly funny, and it generally isn’t in a laugh-out-loud way, more on a level of spry and sardonic sense of flimflam and character as a lodestone for mirth. It’s hard to get across the film’s tone, except to quote a moment like when Nibaran decides to help Satta and resolves to expose the phony sage: “He must be exposed, because if he is not exposed, they will also not be exposed – those who are going and falling at his feet, encouraging him, letting him grow.” Satta replies, immediately fretful at having his clear-cut romantic objective entangled with a quest to reveal truth and exact justice, two things someone Birinchi is an expert at subverting, “You’ve just increased the scope of our work.” When Ray finally offers a glimpse of Birinchi and Kyabla behind the curtain, they’re revealed as a pair of actors who have to live their act, moving like locusts from one feeding ground to another, Birinchi reading H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History to harvest his anecdotal pearls, whilst Kyabla longs to go see a movie. Nibaran is cautious about just how to expose them in his awareness that Birinchi must have formidable memory and improvisational skills to do what he does. Nibaran’s eventual method of exposure involves staging a fake fire during Birinchi’s nightly descent into a supposedly unbreakable divinity-enforced trance, with Nibaran, Satta, and Nitai joining in with the nightly audience at the Babaji’s sermon, teasing the housekeeper acting as doorman with their own little show of uncanny skill and playful promise.

 

 

The climactic moments when the fire is started and Nibaran turns out the lights to increase the confusion and panic gains the desired result as Birinchi immediately awakens from his “trance” and cries out: Ray spares an empathetic close-up for the dazed and appalled Mitra. This scene allows a brief burst of loud filmic technique in blending jump cuts and quick zoom shots to create a sense of chaos, with glimpses of the hilarious sight of Kyabla, caught in the middle of applying make-up for his appearance as Nataraja, suddenly dashing through the darkened house with false arms still strapped to his back. Nibaran grabs the abandoned Birinchi by the feet and wiggles them until Birinchi loudly protests, before telling him to get out and not to try plying his act around his district again. Meanwhile Satta takes up Bucki in his arms and carries her out in an act of “rescue.” It seems like a clear-cut victory for the forces of rationality and good as Nibaran and his friends share a smoke and celebrate their success, but Ray appends a final, mirthful  sting as Birinchi, glimpsed fleeing the Mitra house over a fence, meets up with Kyabla, who has stolen all the wallets and handbags left behind by fleeing guests, some dangling from his fake hands. “Towards the future,” Kyabla advises, “Let’s go.” Birinchi, with a fleeting expression of fatigue quickly replaced by the resolve of a natural survivor, shuffles away with his nephew.

 

 

The Holy Man most obviously connects with Ray’s preoccupation with portraying actors and people who weave fiction for a living. But there’s also a manifestation of interest in the concept of a person with moral and intellectual authority trying to expose chicanery and do people a good they don’t necessarily want done: Nibaran as a protagonist prefigures the embattled truth-teller in Ray’s filming of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1989), albeit winning through here because it’s a comedy. The appeal of fiction, of immersion in an alternate reality of potentials, is an ironic zone existing within and alongside of Ray’s realist streak, a zone loaned particular urgency by the problem of India as a place becoming something, a place that must be invented day to day in the course of patching together its manifold cultural reference points and contradictions. Language is unstable in both The Holy Man and The Coward, characters switching seemingly randomly between Bengali and English, tracing out faultlines not merely in education and social sect but also modes of thought and expression, a counterpoint that bespeaks much about the still-lingering impact of colonialism but also grasps a certain assimilating power.

 

 

Similarly, having worked on the Apu films where Shankar’s strict classical Indian folk style suited the evocation of a communal past but proved difficult to attach to his images, Ray started composing his own scores blending aspects of western and eastern music to create a more cohesive expressive accompaniment for his films. The spare, jazz-inflected scoring of The Coward helps weave a melancholy mood, just as his more sprightly and traditional-sounding score fits well with The Holy Man. The Coward, whilst occupying a very different space in terms of tone and outlook, is nonetheless similar in the basic precept of its central character, Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee), a travelling purveyor of fictions, in his case a screenwriter travelling for research, taken in by a generous host with needs of his own, and contending with over the fate of a woman. Amitabh is travelling rural Bengal and heading for Hashimara where his brother-in-law lives when his car breaks down and is told by the mechanic it will be at least a day before he can fix it. Amitabh accepts the offer of the hospitality of a friendly local tea planter, Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bandopadhyay), who’s making a phone call from the car mechanic’s office and overhears his predicament.

 

 

The Cowards’s opening shot is a sublime example of Ray’s efficiency and simplicity, sustained for over five minutes including the credits, but without any kind of ostentation. Ray simply moves his camera with Amitabh as the mechanic gives him the bad news and then up to the office window, forming a frame within a frame that now includes Gupta as he talks on the phone and Amitabh gets the bad news, and then following the two men as they descend from the office and get into Gupta’s jeep. Gupta is fascinated when Amitabh explains what he does for a living, intrigued by the kind of story he might be writing, but Amitabh isn’t terribly chatty, so the beefy, middle-aged Gupta happily does all the talking. Gupta sets about getting drunk as he hosts Amitabh at dinner and complains about the wearing boredom of being a planter – “It drives you to drink!” – and the limited social circle he’s obliged to keep amongst neighbouring planters, and his general sense of frustration, disdaining Bengali films and claiming that “Bengalis of this present generation have no moral fibre.” He introduces Amitabh to his wife, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), and they have dinner together. Gupta presses Amitabh to drink with him despite Amitabh never having been a drinker: when Karuna asks why he’s insisting, Gupta replies, as if he and Amitabh have entered into some psychic pact involving composing a story, that “the protagonist in his story has his first drink, right?”

 

 

The Coward plays to a certain extent like a theatrical chamber piece, Chekhovian in its blend of dramatic simplicity and emotional complexity, but with the interactions of the actors matched throughout to a subtle yet deeply expressive cinematic approach. Consequential details in dialogue fall by the wayside, with Gupta casually mentioning that Karuna said she knew someone named Amitabha Roy in college when he first mentioned the name of their guest, and Karuna’s biting comment that her husband won’t travel to Calcutta or let her do it either despite his complaints about isolation. It’s the camera that tells the real story waiting to manifest: when the trio speak after dinner with Gupta increasingly sozzled, Ray frames him leaning forward in the frame, his puffy face crowding space with a tiger skin on the wall behind like a captured standard from another age, before Ray shifts to a delicate but endlessly consequential medium close-up of Amitabh, the camera performing a dolly shifting focus from Amitabh to the silent, boding-seeming Karuna: the hitherto only vaguely suggested connection between Amitabh and Karuna, the former’s intense and queasy awareness of the latter despite acting the polite guest, and Karuna’s own, evidently curdled disposition are all immediately established.

 

 

Later Amitabh confronts Karuna when she shows him to their guest bedroom, protesting that he can’t stand her acting so formally and falsely with him. Soon enough the secret drama is spelt out in a flashback as Amitabh collapses in a self-pitying meditation. Karuna was once Amitabh’s sweetheart, and back when he was struggling she came to him with the news her uncle and guardian wanted to move with her to Patna as he was getting a transfer and also, she suspected, to separate her and Amitabh: Karuna gave Amitabh the chance to marry her then and there, but Amitabh was ambivalent in being put on the spot, and so they separated. That’s the smooth description, anyway, of the complex dance of emotions, crossed wires, and quietly raw drama glimpsed when Ray offers this scene in flashback, unfolding in Amitabh’s squalid little apartment. Amitabh’s sense of inadequacy as a potential provider is exposed as he mentions that he knows Karuna is used to comforts, whilst Karuna’s slow-dawning heartbreak as she realises what she thought was a beautiful leap of faith has been met with ambivalence manifests first as teary intensity and then a calcifying removal that becomes in turn maddening for Amitabh. “My house?” Karuna retorts to Karuna’s statement of scruples: “Did you see the person in it?” The fatal kiss-off when Amitabh asked for more time: “What you really need isn’t more time, but something else.”

 

 

The coward of the title is most visibly Amitabh, his failure of nerve before Karuna’s ardent appeal a turn of character that haunts the lives of all three people at the film’s heart, although Gupta never seems entirely cognizant of just why his life is a quagmire he can’t work up the will to escape. Nonetheless the topic of cowardice is woven through the film, from Gupta’s accusation of the lack of “moral fibre” presaging his own confession to being unable and unwilling to disrupt the class barriers bequeathed unto him and his fellow planters by the departed British, to what’s eventually revealed to be Karuna’s method of switching off from reality. Cowardice is a constant aspect of existence, Ray suggests, everyone’s life marked by things they conscientiously ignore, chances untaken, ignorances cultivated, and it’s a state of being that can infect entire populaces, and perhaps not even a bad thing. The choice of making the main character a screenwriter invites a sense of emotional if not literal autobiography, one that resonates on both a metafictional level and a more pragmatic one. As with Bichindi Baba, Amitabh is a professional fantasist, albeit unlike the conman he is gnawed at by his conspicuous compromises.

 

 

The Coward gets at something about the lives of creative people, those who don’t yet or won’t ever have the kind of success that opens up worlds, in observing the constant emotional holding pattern they’re obliged to subsist in, where every potential gesture must be weighed for how it will ultimately impact their professional life, and their interior one, that one that always threatens to take over anyway. The Coward complicates the familiar motif of the struggling artist who loses a lover to a rich person who could uncomplicatedly fulfil worldly needs. Whilst more subtly portrayed than the comic characters in The Holy Man, Gupta is like them as carefully captured type, a man struggling in awareness of his blowhard tendencies and the slow sublimation of his better qualities into a cliché as he overindulges drink. Otherwise he’s a charming and solicitous host who even jokingly states that if Amitabh ever stays with them again he can be the one who talks all the time. It’s easy to feel a certain amount of sympathy for him even as Amitabh justifies plotting to win away his wife by only concentrating on his bad traits.

 

 

At the same time, The Coward also resembles a fiction composed by Amitabh in his mind, roving the countryside and creating a scenario for their reunion involving coincidences and strange meetings from the threads of private preoccupation. Gupta’s invocation of a kind of conspiracy of accord between him and the writer suggests this aspect, whilst the planter and the writer seem to long after a fashion to live each-other’s lives, whilst his jokey reflection on basic plot patterns – “Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl.” – becomes a nagging leitmotif on repeat in Amitabh’s head. After recalling their last meeting, Amitabh awakens in the middle of the night in a muck sweat, and leaves his bedroom. He finds his way into the Guptas’ living room, a space where filtered light from gently swaying curtains plays on the wall like the ghosts rummaging Amitabh’s mind. Amitabh soon makes appeal to Karuna to abandon her joke of a marriage and run off with him, telling her he still loves her and feels utterly desperate at being thrust back into her company again. But Karuna remains aloof and taciturn, refusing to plainly answer his questions about whether she’s happy or not: “Fall in love again,” she comments whilst strictly brushing her hair: “Am I to blame for that?” She gives a practical remedy for his sleeplessness, loaning him a bottle of her sleeping pills. The next morning, Amitabh receives news that his car still isn’t ready, so Gupta and Karuna drive him to the railway station.

 

 

The Coward, whilst articulated with a blend of candour and lightness of touch that’s entirely Ray’s own, suggests Renoir’s influence most keenly, recalling his A Day in the Country (1936) in its brief but concise portrait of romantic disappointment and sense of journeying through both life and physical space. One of Ray’s more interesting formal touches is the way he deploys the flashback vignettes of Amitabh and Karuna’s relationship, starting with the moment of crisis and then later depicting a crucial moment in falling in love, when Amitabh helped out Karuna by buying her a tram ticket back when they were both students: the seeds of the affair’s end are planted when Amitabh jokingly notes it would be a bad thing if she didn’t pay him back: “I study economics – I can’t look at things philosophically like you.” This memory is provoked when Amitabh gazes fixedly at the back of Karuna’s scarf-clad head as he rides with the married couple in the back of their jeep. When he sees her touch Gupta’s shoulder, her finger festooned with a fanciful ring, he recalls one of their dates when he read her palm, an act he admitted he performed purely for the chance to hold her hand.

 

 

Karuna admitted she let him do it for the same reason, and Amitabh went off on a tetchy rant spoken by a million young would-be intellectuals decrying timidity and adherence to outmoded mores, speaking of how couples act in England. Karuna irritably decried, “They take it too far!”, but it’s plain that Amitabh’s boldness of thought was part of his great appeal for her, a boldness that in the end failed at its most crucial hurdle. Moreover this sequence helps give depth to Karuna’s reaction to Amitabh’s failing, highlighting the way she’s caught in an odd situation where she wants to escape her anointed role as obedient female without quite having the courage to escape it without the help of a man, Amitabh anointed in her mind as the man who can allow her to both fulfil an expectation to a degree whilst also defying it. Recollection of such moments when things were still possible are the queasy burden Amitabh keeps a lid on whilst play-acting friendliness with Gupta. When Gupta pulls over on a stretch of road passing through a stretch of forest by a river to get water for the radiator, the trio settle down for a picnic. Amitabh gazes in heartsick longing at Karuna as she sits on a rock watching the cascade whilst Gupta asks of the writer, “How’s the story coming along?” “It’s coming,” Amitabh answers with a thoughtful metre. Ray and Roy’s careful use of deep focus with looming foreground elements giving Gupta an imposing quality reveals its purpose as dramatic strategy in one shot as Amitabh looks towards the snoozing man and sees the cigarette burning down in his fingers, knowing he has a very short time to make his move.

 

 

Once Gupta falls asleep, he pens a note he tosses in her lap when she won’t look at him, saying he will wait at the train station for her to show up until the last possible second if she wants to leave with him. Amitabh, once finally dropped off at the railway station, waits alone until the sun sets. Chatterjee was Ray’s favourite collaborator having played the adult Apu in the second two films of the trilogy, and he’s crucial to the success of The Coward in the way he plays Amitabh’s suffering here: you can almost feel him eating away at his internal organs in his stewing regret and borderline pathetic admission of need. Ray dissolves from a shot of Amitabh sitting on a bench with face in hands to almost exactly the same pose after nightfall, only for Karuna to march into the frame. Amitabh rises to his feet beaming as he thinks she’s come to leave with him, only for his smile to fade as he registers her stern expression, and she states her purpose in coming, to get her sleeping pills back from him. Karuna’s simple words, stating she needs them and requesting, “Let me have them, darling,” gives a cruelly subtle answer to all of Amitabh’s ponderings: no, she’s not happy and yes she still loves him, but choices were made, and must be lived with. Ray leaves off with a close-up of Amitabh’s utterly gutted expression but with his features blurred and out-of-focus, a startling final note of pain and bewilderment. The Coward is damn near perfect in the economy and incision of emotional blows, and for any other director would count as a crowning achievement.

 

Standard
2000s, Auteurs, Chinese cinema, Historical, Romance

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa

ITMoodForLove01

Director / Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

In The Mood For Love offered something so rare and specific amidst the frenetic climes of the millennium’s pivot it had a drug-like appeal for the international film scene. A bathe in a dreamlike evocation of the past, a tale of illicit passion played by pre-sexual revolution rules, a dose of heady exotica ready to go. Wong Kar-Wai’s most acclaimed and beloved film, In The Mood For Love has also proved a creative millstone for its maker, at least in terms of his receptive audience, as everything he did after it was largely doomed to be found wanting, and what he’d done before a mere warm-up. From a slightly longer perspective, In The Mood For Love might well be Wong’s highpoint but, if not exactly an outlier in Wong’s oeuvre, certainly an obsessive distillation of one, singular aspect of it. After his debut with As Tears Go By (1987), a resituating of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) streaked with powerful hints of Wong’s emerging sensibility, the director hit his stride with the first of his studies in romantic eccentricity and ambivalence, Days of Being Wild (1990). Not for the last time in his career, Wong found himself stymied as he tried to get an ambitious work off the ground, as he struggled to make his purposefully eccentric take on martial arts melodrama Ashes of Time (1994), so in the meantime created Chungking Express (1994), a diptych of melancholy romances that gained him significant attention in the west.

ITMoodForLove02

Wong quickly followed those works with Fallen Angels (1995), a darker take on a similar epic of super-modern social fragmentation, evanescent longing, and genre film caricaturing to that glimpsed in Chungking Express. Happy Together (1997) offered a more careful and considered study in a crumbling relationship with a queer twists and an international scope. Wong again found himself unable to make one film, the ambitious embarkation in metafiction 2046, and so developed a project designed to work in tandem with it, one that would ironically see the light of day first. Wong and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, had developed a specific and very influential aesthetic on their ‘90s films that they were already leaving behind on Happy Together, with Doyle’s swimming camerawork and blurred surveys of action and settings evoking a universe in a constant state of flux even as Wong’s refusal to traditionally bracket his sequences rendered the flux perpetually past-tense, at once immediate and anxiously remembered. The calmer style of Happy Together reflected a deepening concern for the pains of coupling, that attempt to fix one’s own nature by mixing it with another, whilst also taking Wong’s fascination for people compelled to wander to an extreme.

ITMoodForLove03

Filming on In The Mood For Love went on for 15 months as Wong laboured to nail down the aesthetic he was chasing, leading to Doyle departing the production and being supplanted by Mark Lee Ping Bin, but the result assimilated them both, and the halting disconuity became an aspect of its style. In The Mood For Love returned to Days of Being Wild’s milieu of the early 1960s in Hong Kong, with Maggie Cheung playing a character with the same name as the one she had in that film, Su Li-zhen. Where in that film the character had been a lovelorn shopgirl who learns wisdom after burning her fingers in a romance with a callow, self-destructive womaniser, the one in In The Mood For Love is married and proper, feeling less like a mature version of that character as a different manifestation. But if there’s one notion that flows through all Wong’s films, it’s fascination for the way a human individual is often many different people in the course of their lives, changing apparel, jobs, roles, aims, lovers, even fates, often entirely reshaped by experience but with some core being unchanged. Taken on face value, In The Mood For Love is a story of romantic longing foiled by manifold forces and principles, but fundamentally, like most of Wong’s works, it’s actually about individuals trying to escape themselves but doomed to only graze against others because of forces both within and without.

ITMoodForLove04

In The Mood For Love has a story, and people who inhabit it, but it’s just as fundamentally a work of incantation, resurrecting not only people but of a specific time and place, the Hong Kong of Wong’s childhood. A humdrum colonial outpost turned by tides of history into a pivot of civilisations and way-station for the dispossessed and yearning. Long before the halogen-lit markets and swooping road tunnels Wong would capture so exactingly with Chungking Express and Fallen Angels arrived, this was a place with streets of peeling paintwork and crumbling plaster, buildings packed to the rafters with human flotsam, people thrust so close together they can barely see each-other. The cheek-by-jowl romanticism of all-night mah-jong matches, basement food courts, and rain pattering on rusty street lampshades, the infestations of period kitsch, sunburst clocks and boss nova albums. The literally translated title original title, The Flowery Years, betrays the sense of nostalgic longing for a time of blooming possibility. Before prosperity would throw up skyscrapers, getting hold of a decent apartment is a matter of deep personal achievement.

ITMoodForLove05

Two married couples move into neighbouring rooms, each sub-leased from the holders of larger apartments. The Chans’ room is in the flat of Mrs Suen (Rebecca Pan) whilst the Chows lives with the Koos, who like getting drunk and playing mah-jong together. We never properly see the other – better? worse? – half of the two couples, leaving us with Mr Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Mrs Chan, aka Su Li-zhen. Their partners become abstractions, variations in an algorithm, cut off from the audience’s knowing except through signs and oblique depictions. Chow’s wife is glimpsed askew manning a lobby desk festooned with postcards, gatekeeper of the world’s promise and seller of cardboard dreams. Li-zhen’s husband has a job that takes him to Japan for unstated reasons whilst she works as the secretary for Mr Ho (Kelly Lai Chen) at a shipping company. Japan is a faraway mystic land of attractive consumer goods, the ironic key to identifying glitches in the system: the goods Su’s husband brings back are shiny and desirable and give away lapses in fidelity.

ITMoodForLove06

In The Mood For Love’s narrative unfolds over a long time period, weeks and months and then years, but Wong’s scene grammar falsifies immediacy and logical connection. Telling moments clipped out of the familiar texture of time and experience and assembled in a manner that makes a sort of sense. Hitchcock’s rule of cinema as life with the boring bits cut out is both cited but also challenged: the action, the big moments of drama, are largely what’s cut out. Recurring patterns, and violations in those patterns, are instead the flesh of In The Mood For Love: “You notice things if you pay attention,” Su states at one point, not long before she subtly warns her boss into changing his tie, one she knows his mistress rather than his wife bought for him. The sensitivity to detail is engrained in the film’s texture: the languorous slow-motion sequences sensitise not just to Wong’s evocation of a lost and melancholically recalled past but also to objects and dress of the period usually dismissed as decoration, but which Wong identifies as the stuff that makes up people’s lives. The consumerist fancies that Mr Chan brings back with him are totems of another, more prosperous world – rice cookers, handbags, fashionable ties – and also lodestones of personal meaning and recognition.

ITMoodForLove07

Whilst Wong never shows Mrs Chow’s face, the film represents her with the recurring sight of the workspace she inhabits, and glimpses of her bobbed hair. At one point, after Su knocks on the Chows’ door when she hears voices and correctly thinks she can hear her husband within their apartment, only for Mrs Chow to stonewall her, a phone conversation between her and Mr Chan is heard as she suggests they not see each-other for a time. Wong then privileges a mysterious, gauzily shot glimpse of Mrs Chow weeping whilst showering in some hotel room. Obsession is a matter of both display and receptivity. Chow (and Wong) is mesmerised Su’s slim form clad in a series of lush cheongsams, whilst she wears them to express stifled desire and boredom as well as her own elegantly correct sense of how to live. Chow’s colleague and pal Ah Ping (Siu Ping Lam) offers comic relief whilst representing a type of human without the same kind of governor mediating between his appetites and impulses that ultimately foils both Chow and Su.

ITMoodForLove08

Ah Ping brings a touch of amoral zaniness to Chow’s life with his misadventures like getting fleeced in betting on a horse and then visiting a whorehouse all after being in hospital (“You were in no shape for sex!” “I thought it would improve my luck.”), whilst his shameless but incompetent ploys in making a play for Su contrast Chow’s more gentlemanly approach but also render him something like his personified id. Ah Ping works with Chow in a newspaper offer touched with the same atmosphere of seedy romanticism as the rest of the locales in the film, a place where tousled, barely functional men work in a miasma of perspiration and cigarette haze. Place, exile, travel, all are major facets of In The Mood For Love despite most of the drama happening within one apartment block. That building itself is a kind of way-station for people who have found a momentary toehold. Chow, Mrs Suen, and others are former residents of Shanghai now crammed on a tight little island, the old Hong Kong soon to be swept away in the mad scramble for real estate in a city-state with a very finite amount of it. Wong had to shoot most of the outdoor scenes in Bangkok for that reason. Wong had gone the other route in Happy Together in portraying its fraying male lovers at loose in the world and also adrift. He would return more ostentatiously with The Grandmaster (2013) to the mythical Hong Kong of his youth as a tide pool where folk heroes and collective memories congregated and went mouldy amidst the project of survival and hybridisation.

ITMoodForLove09

Mr Chan and Mrs Chow both cover their trysts easily because they travel a lot for work, with Chan often going to Japan on errands for his Japanese boss, whilst Mrs Chow’s workstation abuts a rack of postcards. Every place is exotic to some other place, particularly when you’re going nowhere. Wong’s period Hong Kong is mysterious to itself, a mythical place created by the pressures of history and human need, a place where eastern and western sensibilities don’t so much mingle as cohabit as restlessly and energetically as its people. to Wong’s eye it was a place of bygone splendours, nondescript urban architecture with the faintest curlicues of traditional architectural style here and there, the damaged glamour of a glimpse of a cracked wall and a window frame with fading paint and the glimpse into another person’s life-space, inside of which expression blooms in riots of clashing colour and teeming decoration, ringing to a meshed music of laughter and argument and work and soft radio sounds. Wong’s fastidious, usually rigid framing keeps turning portals and passages into frames within frames, with a careful conspiracy between Lim Chung Man’s art direction, William Chang’s production design and costuming, and Doyle and Lee’s cinematography helps create this lush world, half memory, half dream, part Edward Hopper, part Matisse painting, part classical Chinese scroll art. Many shots are filmed in distorted fashion, through fogged glass or using lens effects.

ITMoodForLove10

Other shots are delivered with a dazzling clarity that only renders them stranger, like a shot down a hotel corridor where red curtains gently billow on a draft and the leaves of a potted plant tremble, absent any being and yet vibrating with mysterious life. The obsessive texture is exacerbated by the music cues, alternating composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s languid pizzicato string theme and a vintage Nat King Cole recording version of the Cuban song “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” musical themes that manage to denote both immobility, the sense of arrested time and foiled action, and a dance-like sense of possibilities in play that come and depart before they’re even truly registered. Echoes here of course to one of the restless heroines of Chungking Express whose constantly played leitmotif was The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming” whilst existing within a world of escalators and shoebox apartments and hole-in-the-wall businesses. But whilst there Wong remained outside of the bubble of floating insouciance she used the song to weave about herself, In The Mood For Love is Wong’s entry into and projection of that kind of bubble. Fallen Angels was an insomniac fever-dream about people who try ever more frantically to control life’s formlessness by contriving to dispense that formlessness, trying to live purposefully alienated and rootless lives, but eventually falling victim to gravity regardless.

ITMoodForLove11

In Happy Together the post break-up pains of its lovers is couched not simply in the pain of losing a mate but also in the ultimate personal act for each man in confronting their own specific reactions and quirks of character that degraded the relationship, confronting the limitations and perversities of spirit that foil happiness and turn the wealth of possibility into a debit of rueful waste and costly experience. In The Mood For Love operates as its echo and amplification as well as its inversion: the portrait of characters who maintain discipline and personal integrity sees them even more thoroughly haunted by what wasn’t. Wong’s gestures and stylistics accumulate meaning as In The Mood For Love unfolds, as Chow and Su inhabit the same discreet zone by virtue of both being mostly alone and stricken with an initially confused but increasingly certain sense of wounding and abandonment. They pass each-other in their evening strolls down to the food court, waiting out rainstorms, smoking the odd pensive cigarette, swapping the odd word of greeting.

ITMoodForLove12

Early in development the project that became In The Mood For Love was titled A Story of Food, and it is that, with the food the characters eat – rice, noodles, sesame syrup, steak – made a vital aspect of how their lives, habits, and gestures of affection interact. Chow and Su’s first, and for a long time only, real conversation takes place when Su visits the Koos’ apartment to borrow a newspaper because she’s keeping up with a martial arts serial story, and Chow mentions his liking for the genre, which he once made an abortive attempt to write in. Wong here nods back to Ashes of Time, which had taken on stories by Jin Yong, a real-life Hong Kong journalist-exile turned fiction writer, and translated them into one of Wong’s portraits of drifting, disconsolate people who, when separated from the romantic glamour of their prowess as warriors, are case studies in longing and confusion. The frontier post where the master warriors wait for work in Ashes of Time likewise is a kind of way-station of fate like the apartment building here.

ITMoodForLove13

Part of what distinguished Wong particularly in the 1990s was that Wong was a formalist with a sense of what style could accomplish: In The Mood For Love was perhaps the most accomplished work of high style in narrative film since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and it shares certain nagging fascinations with that film, most particular its sense of dreamy melancholy and portrayal of swarming city life. Wong’s regard for genre writing, however sarcastically reflected through his resolutely slice-of-life tales, engages here with the roots of such storytelling, noting the mid-twentieth century and its wealth of creativity as stemming from people clinging on in such places, dreaming intense dreams, fantasies of power and freedom shot through with reflections of damaged humanity. Wong’s fascination for how people inhabit an urban space together but also entirely separately is here illustrated with an intensity that renders it close to a philosophy of life, depicting people who, for whatever reason, cannot ever quite leap over the divide that separates them as bodies and minds.

ITMoodForLove14

Wong would deromanticise the theme with purpose when he finally got to make 2046 (2004), as he went to the opposite extreme of portraying desperately carnal relationships only to confront the same spectacle of who people who cannot surrender themselves. When Su finally invites Chow to dinner, it’s to try and get to the truth linking them through their partners, a problem that must be approached circuitously, through laughing admissions before direct statements, as when Su final notes that her husband and Chow both have the same tie despite them being bought overseas, proof that Mrs Chow bought them both. Wong’s squared-off shots, engaging both actors in profile within the crystalline perfection of the period setting with studied back-and-forth shots of the two actors heightening the sense of formal games, before a precise violation of the style when Su finally directly queries Chow about what he thinks is going on, Wong moving the camera laterally from behind Chow onto his face, depicting the queasy, blindsiding moment of truth exactly.

ITMoodForLove15

The point of connection between Chow and Su is initially a kind of osmotic attraction in shared romantic desolation and the absence of their partners. The deeper one that forms is creative. Thrown into each-other’s company as people drawn together through a mildly perverse instinct to penetrate the separate psychic and physical world of the people who are supposed to be close to them but have in fact created their own distinct pocket of life, Chow and Su vow “we won’t be like them.” as they’re quickly driven to begin role-playing in answering Su’s pondering of how the affair might have begun. Wong tips the viewer suddenly into momentarily bewildering vignettes where the two flirt and make protestations of love only to then break character because of some detail that seems off or, rather, cruelly accurate, before resuming or restarting. The two set down at dinner, each eating a meal the person they’re standing in for would usually order.

ITMoodForLove16

This presents a kind of method acting offering proxy introduction the tastes and personalities of the missing person for the person filling their role, and also a casting session, seeing how well the other can fit into their assigned role. “You have my husband down pat,” Su comments when Chow uses a line on her, “He’s a real sweet talker.” These odd rituals are nonetheless ones that helps Chow and Su fumble towards understanding, creating a fiction that explains reality, whilst also elucidating Wong’s interest in the similarity, even interchangeableness, of people, the recurring codes of behaviour and the finite variations that constitute individuality. They also lead to the duo beginning to collaborate in trying to write a martial arts story, a collaboration that begins as a panacea against boredom and loneliness but soon becomes a genuine success for Chow that he sometimes privileges over his journalism. Chow’s habit of hiding from life by hanging around the newspaper office at night becomes a portal of escape into dreams of a heroic past. So compelling does this pursuit become that the two consult in Chow’s room only for Mrs Suen and the Koos and other friends to suddenly return from a night out drunk and rowdy and settle down to a marathon mah-jong game that goes on for a night and a day.

ITMoodForLove17

Chow and Su are besieged in their room, afraid for Su to take a chance to dash back to the Koos’ apartment in case she might be seen, so Chow covers for her whilst ducking out to bring back food, and the two keep working on the story: Chow is inspired by the sudden arrival of the blotto Mr Koo to introduce a drunken master into the story. Finally the game breaks up and Su gets to return to her room, where she strips off the high-heels she’s been wearing with palpable relief, hoist on her own well-dressed petard. The chasteness of Chow and Su’s relationship and their toey fear of being apprehended in a compromising scene gives this vignette its irony, as well the old-fashioned brand of sexual tension inherent in their situation as a couple of good-looking people in a small room, the kind that could have fuelled a classic Hollywood romantic comedy, which is indeed one of the many retro things Wong nods to. His plot has the quality of something William Holden and Nancy Olson’s characters in Sunset Blvd. (1950) might have cooked up, or provided a solid premise for a Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle. This misadventure also inspires Chow to rent a hotel room – numbered, with totemic import, 2046 – for a time to try and get the story finished, and also perhaps presenting to Su a locale where they can meet without being found out.

ITMoodForLove18

In The Mood For Love contrasted most of Wong’s previous films insofar as those were mostly tales of characters who can scarcely control an inner drive pushing them into irrational acts, people who are conduits of spasmodic behaviour. Those urges might drive them across the world, to cling to or to cruelly spurn a lover, or face a situation of life and death, in search of something that gives shape to their lives. The torment of being inescapably themselves was often simply intensified rather than cured by gaining what they want. In The Mood For Love is instead the tale of characters who pointedly can control themselves, and yet their actions ultimately come to seem just as deeply rooted in satisfying inchoate need. It’s compulsory with In The Mood For Love to note that it’s a film about a love affair without physical intimacy beyond a moment of hand-holding, at least, not that the audience is privy to. Wong’s venture back in time also accepts the idea of two people with a sense of personal honour, a gesture that feels equally bygone in its idealism and yet still reflects truth: how many of us day in and day out rein in all kinds of impulses?

ITMoodForLove19

The film’s opiated haze of nostalgia, its acceptance of the past as another country, can only be sustained as long as Chow and Su don’t give in to their romantic impulses, because once they do they become of the earth again. The very lack of any momentous significance in their relationship, its everyday and ephemeral texture as light and brief as morning frost, is precisely the quality Wong sets out to celebrate, to hold as vital to the sustenance of the world as any cataclysms. It can also be read as the two lovers sharing a trait with their creator, a dislike of cliché. Chow and Su’s resolve to keep things above board seems as much about their own embarrassment in potentially getting caught being unimaginative as immoral: it would too humiliatingly crass to reproduce their feckless partners’ betrayal, although Wong’s oblique portrayal of that verboten tryst suggest it’s every bit as complex and tortured. More immediately, Wong tries to illustrate without sentiment the fate of falling in love whilst also dealing with heartbreak, leaving his two lovers trapped in a limbo where pleasure is also painful, tender gestures constantly running the risk of mimicking another, and abandoned as they have been by their partners Chow and Su serve as stand-ins for the vanished lover, to be both cherished and also farewelled.

ITMoodForLove20

A montage depicting Chow and Su’s happy writing collaboration, which is also clearly signalled to be the process of their falling in love if all their happy smiles and pleasure in each-other’s company is anything to go by, also sees Wong make a constant refrain of including mirrors, often with more than one facet, in his shots. These split his protagonists into multiple versions, each imprinted with a separate reality, some branching off to become the ones glimpsed in 2046, some uglier, some more perfect. this islet of ease ends when Su gets a lecture from Mrs Suen about being out too often and asking when her husband will return. Despite there being no hint of connection between them, Su still tells Chow they should spend less time together, a moment that despite the vow “not to be like them” nonetheless echoes Mrs Chow’s earlier warning to Mr Chan to stop seeing each-other for a time. The two drift in the course of their days subsequently, Su distracted amidst raucous mah-jong games and Chow gazing out through the newspaper office window, and when the word finally comes to meet up again, Chow comes dashing through a downpour for a confrontation that finally demands the two speak honestly but also makes a choice.

ITMoodForLove21

The choice is made: Chow decides to accept an offer to follow Ah Ping to Singapore. But the catharsis of admission also finally allows shows of feeling, as Su sobs in Chow’s arms and leans on his shoulder as they ride in a taxi together and hold hands, a vignette of perfection to last decades, and Wong would indeed return to it in 2046 with just that meaning. Wong shows Chow and Su on either side of the wall that separates them in their rooms engaged in listless meditation. Finally, Chow retreats back to the hotel room and leaves a message for Su to come join him there if she wants to leave with him. Chow is seen leaving the hotel room with a look of sad but slightly wry acceptance that Su never came and he must head off alone. Su eventually makes a dash to meet him, only to finish up seated on the hotel room bed alone and weeping, suffering the hellish fate in being entrapped by unwitnessed solitude and kitsch décor.

ITMoodForLove22

The film’s last act offers vignettes that refuse to underscore the drama with any kind of dramatic declaration, accumulating instead as a long grace note signalling Chow and Su maintain a long and halting sense of connection, misty-eyed memory of their time together but refusing to violate the seal of perfect imperfection about it. Chow, working in Singapore, is disturbed by something missing in his room, and finds a cigarette with traces of lipstick on it. Soon afterwards Wong offers a sequence, possibly Chow’s imagining or a flashback, depicting Su entering his room and leaving these traces, a glitch in his stable reality. When she actually does call him at his workplace, he answers, but she hangs up after a moment of silence. Later they’re both drawn in turn back to the old building where they once lived. She speak with Mrs Suen, the last of the old crowd still around and herself packing up to move to the United States to help her daughter with her kids. The moment is changing, the mood: Mrs Suen is uneasy about the political situation in Hong Kong, and so is ready to move. Su herself has a son and merrily assures Mrs Suen he’s doing well, but no more is revealed. The old balance has shifted, history’s tides are rolling on. Su chooses a return to a comfortable setting, taking over Mrs Suen’s apartment.

ITMoodForLove23

Chow arrives with a present for the Koos but finds them long gone, and leaves it instead with the new tenant who agreeably lets him look around, turning a wistful glance across to the window of the neighbouring apartment oblivious to the face Su has returned there. The film’s final portion is Wong’s most allusive and subtle, as he briefly interpolates some old newsreel footage of Charles De Gaulle as French President visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1966. A final flourish of postcolonial cordiality, a last glimpse of a vanishing moment of stability. Soon Cambodia will dissolve into anarchy and genocidal tyranny as the Vietnam War spills over its borders and monsters are birthed. Chow seems to be there on assignment, but we only see him visiting Angkor wat, the ancient temple-city: Chow performs a little ritual obedient to an old folk practice he mentioned to Ah Ping, of whispering a secret into some nook and sealing it away to divest one’s self of the past. This he does in a gap in Angkor’s walls and plugs with a sod of earth and grass, before leaving the ruin which accepts all such memories great and petty. Wong ends the film with a series of slow, exhaling shots of Angkor, weaving a powerful sense of the temple as something at once desolated by time but also standing as a perpetual marker of history in a violently changing world, abiding under the early-rising moon in the waning Cambodian day.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director / Screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.

Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.

Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.

The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.

Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.

Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.

There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.

Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.

Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis,  if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.

But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.

This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.

Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.

Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.

Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.

Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.

The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.

Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.

The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.

The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.

Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.

Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.

Standard