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
1970s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Waterloo (1970)

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
Screenwriters: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vittorio Bonicelli, H.A.L. Craig

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Christopher Plummer 1929-2021

Shrugged off by critics and moviegoers when it was released in 1970, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo is nonetheless one of those white elephants of cinema history that today demands a certain awe. A movie where the making of it was damn near as epic an event as the history it depicts, it’s also one of those rare instances where a mega-budget production and genuine directorial vision coincide. Waterloo began life with the ever-ambitious Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis wanting to make a film about the legendary clash that drew a curtain on Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career and an age of European history, originally hiring John Huston to direct it. But De Laurentiis had difficulty raising the necessary budget for such a monumental undertaking, even at a time when large-scale international co-productions were becoming fairly common. When he did eventually find production partners it came from an unusual direction. The Soviet Union’s state film production company Mosfilm agreed to join forces with De Laurentiis, helping stage the battle scenes in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, and supplying the largest number of extras ever assembled for a film. 17,000 Red Army soldiers played the clashing forces, whilst army engineers laboured to alter a stretch of Ukrainian farmland into a better approximation of the Belgian farmland that served as the battlefield. The film finished up rivalling in costs what was then the most expensive film ever made, 1963’s Cleopatra.

Waterloo’s eventual director Bondarchuk was a Ukrainian actor who had been a popular and lauded leading man in Soviet cinema from the 1940s, and established himself as a talented filmmaker with his feature directing debut, Fate of a Man (1959). Bondarchuk was and remains best known outside Russia for both directing and starring in a colossal seven-hour adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, released in instalments through 1965-7. That work was realised through vast amounts of money and resources poured into it by the Soviet government in its determination to outdo the 1956 King Vidor version and make waves on the international cinema scene. The immense vision of that film saw Bondarchuk prove himself a master of handling colossal surveys of manpower and infrastructure, as well sufficiently intelligent and fine in touch to put across the human drama as well, although given the running time Tolstoy’s drama was surprisingly often muted in favour of sheer spectacle. Waterloo allowed Bondarchuk to at least provide a kind of historical sequel. Waterloo’s script was chiefly credited to the Irish former journalist and critic H.A.L. Craig, who had worked for De Laurentiis before including for the odd, interesting war film Anzio (1968), although others including Bondarchuk made contributions at different points in development.

Making a film about one of the most legendary and pivotal moments in history and two of its most powerful personalities in Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, is one of those challenges cinema’s maximalist creative talents can hardly resist but rarely get to tackle. Indeed, at the time of its release Stanley Kubrick was deeply involved in developing his own film about Napoleon, only for Waterloo’s box office failure to help foil it. To play the leads De Laurentiis hired two actors it’s hard to imagine being more different in performing style and screen presence whilst still being major stars and regarded talents. The Method-trained Rod Steiger, just passing the zenith of his movie career after winning an Oscar for In The Heat of The Night (1967) and gravitating increasingly to appearing in European films, was hired to play Napoleon, and the Shakespearean-schooled Christopher Plummer as Wellington. Steiger’s Napoleon dominates the film initially, offered as a tragic antihero pushed again and again to try and recapture lost glory. The opening scene finds Napoleon’s Marshals, including Ney (Dan O’Herlihy), Soult (Ivo Garrani), and Grouchy (Charles Millot), stalking their way purposefully through the corridors of a palace where Napoleon is trying to conduct his final, desperate resistance against the invading allied armies, their boots rapping on the tiles like a drumbeat of portent.

Bondarchuk’s genuine creative touch as a director is plain from this moment, deftly diagramming the game of tense confrontation that unfolds between the Emperor and his Marshals, matched to Steiger’s performance with its fast alternations of affect. Napoleon moves with speed through brief flare-ups of his old fighting pith, world-weary exasperation, tight-wound contempt, and eruptions of violent declamation. “You know what the throne is, Ney?” he laughingly asks the Marshal when the cavalry leader tells him he has to give it up, “The throne is an over-decorated piece of furniture. It’s what’s behind the throne that counts.” Claiming it’s his genius and will that has put them all where they are, he starts mocking the Marshals: “You all stand before me waving a piece of paper, crying ‘abdicate, abdicate’,” before bellowing with window-rattling vehemence, “I will not!” over and over, his genuine, force-of-nature strength of will and streak of childish tantrum-throwing revealed at once. As he settles in a chair by a fireplace an officer enters and whispers to him, and Bondarchuk moves in for an intimate, shadowy close-up of Napoleon’s eyes as his voice questions in a whisper, “All his men?” Clearly he’s just been delivered awful news that finally deflates the will he so loudly espouses, and he silently stands, signs his abdication and walks out. The officer explains that another Marshal has just surrendered with the last of his armies, “his last hope.” The Marshals all suddenly turn as if stung and see Napoleon looking back through the doors at them with glowering resentment mixed with bone-deep pain and defeat.

Napoleon heads out into the courtyard where the members of his old Imperial Guard are at attention, and he gives a final, grand bit of theatre to them as he calls them “My children…my sons!” and wipes away his tears on the regimental flag. Finally he climbs into his carriage and rolls away to exile on Elba, seen as a hazy blotch of land in the distance under the opening credits. Soon titles inform us Napoleon escapes the island and lands on the mainland with a thousand men. The restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, played in a brief but effective cameo by Orson Welles, is presented as a languid, balloon-bodied humpty-dumpty in fancy clothes, barely stirred by the news his arch-enemy has escaped. After Ney, who like most of the other Marshals has kept his rank in the restoration, promises to bring his former master back “in an iron cage,” Louis mutters in quiet disdain: “How they exaggerate, all these – these soldiers…Nobody asked for that.” Ney sets out with an army division to intercept Napoleon but when the two forces square off, Napoleon, with a calculated but also genuine show of bravery, waves down his own men and marches up to Ney and his, offering himself as target. After a silent, jittery stand-off, one soldier feints, breaking the spell, and Napoleon is joyously swept up by his former soldiers. Ney throws down his sword to Napoleon, who gives it back to him and, after a few needling comments, accepts him again as his penitent disciple.

Soon enough Napoleon, vowing to displace “that fat King,” is swept into the Tuileries Palace after Louis flees it by a mob of Parisians, and he sets to work with what seems to be all his old energy and brilliance. And yet the Napoleon Steiger provides is not the romantic young culture hero of Jacques-Louis David’s paintings, if he ever existed, or even Abel Gance’s, but a middle-aged, portly, sickening man whose one great weapon is his multivalent brain, which might not be coupled to true instincts anymore. Bondarchuk includes a lengthy scene of Napoleon dictating several letters at once to various secretaries, segueing from subject to subject with breakneck speed but with a certain commonality of argument accruing, as he angrily ripostes to one letter from a prince accusing him of usurping the crown that he found it in a gutter and the people put it on his head, whilst also consoling the mother of a soldier accidentally killed and his begging his wife, now returned to her native Austria, to return his young son to him.

Napoleon’s last spur to regaining his former grandeur and fighting battles, the film suggests as it unfolds, it his desire to leave something more to his son than simply an onerous last name. As he asks one of his men late in the film what they’ll say about him in the future, the officer replies, “They will say you extended the limits of glory.” “Is that what I’m going to leave my son?” Napoleon queries, “The limits of glory?” This quest keeps driving him on even as he perceives, “My body is dying…but my brain is still good.” Soon Napoleon learns that the heads of his allied enemies have declared personal war on him despite his overtures for peace. He knows by this point who his first two adversaries are likely to be: Wellington, the English general whose name has a totemic import for his Marshals because he steadily skinned them in Spain and Portugal, a measure of inspired dread Napoleon registers but dismisses, and the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher (Sergo Zakariadze), whose armies are poised in Belgium. Receiving news that the two armies have separated whilst in the bath, Napoleon moves swiftly to take advantage.

Plummer’s Wellington is finally, first glimpsed entering the famous ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond (Virginia McKenna) in Brussels that finished up becoming the scene for the General and his senior officers learning of Napoleon’s hard and fast drive in their direction. Contrasting the fleshy, brilliant, but going-to-seed Napoleon, Wellington seems a man exactly in his prime, every inch the aristocratic warrior and an accomplished social animal, charming the Duchess and amusing her daughter Sarah (Susan Wood) with the most hyperbolic stories of Bony as a monster who drinks blood. He soon however revels one trait in common with Napoleon in possessing a pithy, unsentimental wit in regards to the business of being powerful. He describes to the Duchess his men as “Scum. Nothing but beggars and scoundrels, all of them. Gin is the spirit of their patriotism,” and only murmuring “Umm-hmm,” when the Duchess asks whether he still expects them to die for him. Wellington’s crew of stalwart warriors, most of them veterans of his long Peninsula War campaigns, are present, including the Duchess’s uncle the Duke of Gordon (Rupert Davies), commander of the famous Highland regiment, Wellington’s second-in-command the Earl of Uxbridge (Terence Alexander), quartermaster Colonel De Lancey (Ian Ogilvy), archetypal young cavalier Lord Hay (Peter Davies), and Sir William Ponsonby (Michael Wilding), commander of the Scots Greys cavalry division.

And there’s the eccentric, hard-bitten infantry commander Thomas Picton (Jack Hawkins), who presents a figure well out of place amongst all the dashing young officers and their ladies. Picton gruffly schools Lord Hay, who tries to impress Sarah by promising to bring her back a cuirassier’s breastplate, with the promise he’ll learn how to fight from the French, only to earn some sharp teasing right back from Sarah. Her mother confesses to being “a little bit of a Bonapartist” in her admiration for Napoleon’s vigour. Meanwhile, in a clever bit of directing, Bondarchuk depicts Wellington’s thoughts turning out into the stormy night beyond the gilt-framed windows in his attempts to mentally anticipate Napoleon’s moves, only for images of Napoleon’s army on the movie to resolve out of the murk. Bondarchuk turns the ball sequence into a dreamy moment of high romanticism, as Hay and Susan and De Lancey and his wife Magdalene (Veronica De Laurentiis) make splendid couples amidst the many on the dance floor. The ballroom is a space of appropriate splendour with its manifold candles, chandeliers, and mirrored walls, rather more baroquely beautiful than the actual scene of the ball, but underscoring Bondarchuk’s offering of this as a pure moment of period idealisation, the cavalier dream enjoying a brief flower before hell opens up again, grazing a Jane Austen world of glittering young things honouring Eros before the inevitable orgy of Thanatos.

Bondarchuk offers a slow-motion image of Hay and Susan with expressions of stricken intensity, candle flames in the foreground reaching into the frame encapsulating the brief burning spell of life in the moment even as fate has literally come calling, in the form of Müffling (John Savident), Blücher’s envoy. The dirty, harried Müffling, who the Duchess spots and comments, “That man will spoil the dancing,” arrives to tell Wellington that Napoleon is on the move and has already seized a strategic advantage. The dance goes on whilst Wellington and his generals retire to another room to quickly forge a strategy, Wellington quickly deducing the basic shape of what must now happen. Napoleon hits and drives back Blücher’s force from the crossroads of Quatre Bras, but Blücher expertly manages to keep his army together and says he can come when Wellington begs for the Prussians to rendezvous with him outside the town of Waterloo, as he means to stand and fight with his army, a blend of British, Dutch, and German soldiers.

Many great military conflicts of history can be awkward affairs to coherently and cohesively capture on film, but Waterloo quite literally had everything required for great storytelling. The inherent drama of Müffling’s arrival during the ball, shattering the frivolity with news of something imminent and awesome. The two polar-opposite yet gravity-locked military heroes squaring off. The race against time that helps decide the battle. Component skirmishes filled with enough drama to serve as films in themselves, like the defence of the farmhouse Hougoumont, the grand but doomed cavalry charges by both sides, and the collapse of the French Imperial Guard. Moreover, Waterloo became hopelessly wound in with nationalistic legend and culture in Britain, France, and beyond. One of the more niggling aspects of Waterloo as a film is a common one amongst the international co-productions from the era: for an event so strongly rooted in such culturally specific legend, the smaller roles are discomfortingly crammed with Italian and Russian actors who needed to be awkwardly dubbed, sapping it, at least for an Anglophonic audience, of the kind of emblematic chauvinistic power that, say, Zulu (1964) achieved. But that said, it’s keen to the cultural apparatus and memory in play throughout.

Casting Steiger and Welles, and O’Herlihy who does a kind of clipped American accent, is a gesture that almost gives a certain clever cohesion to the French side of things, trying to suggest the brash energy of the revolutionary French by equating it with the American version. But the supporting players filling out his Marshals and officers have a hodgepodge of accents. On the British side, Hawkins had been severely limited through an operation for throat cancer that left his once-mellifluous voice a hoarse croak, and was usually dubbed by other actors in his later roles: here the post-synched voice often barely matches his lips. A small price to pay, perhaps, for a film that also displays many of the best qualities of the filmmaking in its era, with the fearsome attention to detail and mise-en-scene that distinguished both the Italian and Russian film industries on display. Everything has a uniquely palpable immediacy, a grittiness, even before we get to the monumental battle scenes. Even the posh revelry of the ball has an earthy lustre.

The scale of the recreation of the battle is an awe-inspiring apex of pre-CGI staging in cinema, and moreover Bondarchuk wields it with an actual sense of artistic purpose, unlike some lesser battle movies, like the endless B-roll footage of historical recreationists tramping around farmland filling out the back half of Gettysburg (1991). As the two armies square off Bondarchuk films Wellington’s forces from Napoleon’s point of view in a breathtaking survey. The staging of scenes like Napoleon’s riotous return to the halls of power in Paris, borne aloft by a joyous crowd, aim to capture the overflowing liveliness of historical genre painting, and indeed Bondarchuk recreates many such paintings throughout. Bondarchuk’s melancholy romanticism in the ball room is later mirrored in the most astoundingly epic fashion as he shoots the famous charge of the Scots Greys cavalry, recreating the painting Scotland Forever! and adopting a languorous, dreamlike slow-motion as the great steeds pound across muddy ground, Nino Rota’s score offering a sonorous pastiche of the ballroom music, turning the thunderous charge into another wistful waltz for what is both the climax of and the doom of a warrior creed and way.

Before the battle begins, however, Wellington and Napoleon spend a long, dark, rainy night pensively failing to rest as they reside in farmhouses on opposite sides of the prospective battlefield, Napoleon trying urgently to understand why Wellington has taken up position in a place that looks poor to his eye, whilst Wellington has already explained to his people why the position is actually ideal, having seen it a year earlier and kept it in mind. Bonaparte suffers a bout of illness that causes concern in his Marshals, whilst Wellington is driven to distraction by the question of whether Blücher can give aid to his outnumbered force, with Blücher himself being chased by a detached portion of the French army under Grouchy. Certainly because it helps amplify the drama, the film rolls with disputed reports from some witnesses that Napoleon was debilitated at points throughout the campaign and at crucial points of the battle by attacks of severe pain – he almost certainly was already ill with the stomach cancer that would kill him six years later – as well as constantly suggested foreboding that wars with his most customary habits of decisive energy and resolve, his confident belief that he has no equal and so can only be undone by his own weaknesses.

Steiger hardly seems at first glance like obvious casting as a stocky American playing the eternally energetic Corsican-born Emperor. And yet he gives one of his best screen performances, revelling in playing a character that perfectly suits his galvanic, sometimes borderline hambone acting style, moving with musical skill between the poles of Napoleon overboiling character. Plummer, on the other hand, seems very obviously cast, and also gives one of his best performances, expertly flicking off Wellington’s turns of wit and finding the vulnerable streak and the ticking intelligence under the Iron Duke’s veneer of haughty confidence. Compared to Napoleon’s mercurial talents Wellington is taciturn in command and circumspect about revealing any limitations, commenting, “If I thought my hair knew what my brain was thinking, I’d shave it off and wear a wig.” Notably, where the film grants access to Napoleon’s thinking through a voiceover that explicates his thought processes, Wellington remains sealed off until the very end, although he’s obviously rattled as he keeps losing friends during the fight. When Gordon offers him some of the beans he’s munching on for energy with the assurance they’re good, Wellington responds with peerless honesty in being confounded, “If there is one thing about which I know positively nothing, it is agriculture,” a line that always cracks me up specifically because of Plummer’s delivery. Or when he barks at a buglist to stop uselessly blowing his horn in an attempt to call back the Scots Greys, only to then console him, “You’ll strain yourself.”

The two generals are offered as avatars of radically different societies, the once-revolutionary Napoleon who now reclines amidst the captured grandeur of a deposed nobility speaking sniffily of “this English aristocrat” whist the once-penurious Wellington, reborn a crisply tasteful man of import, comments of his foe, “On a field of battle his hat is worth fifty thousand men, but he’s not a gentleman.” He disdains the sight of Napoleon riding by on his famous white horse, noting sceptically, “I don’t need a white horse to puff me up, by god.” When one of his men asks permission to try taking him out with a cannon shot, an appalled Wellington responds, “Certainly not!…Commanders of armies have better things to do than to fire at each-other.” As an Irishman Craig’s script naturally focuses on a selection of the rankers of the Enniskillen regiment as representative shitkickers amidst the great horde under Wellington, as the also-Irish-born Duke notes “I hang and flog more of them than the rest of the army put together.” When he encounters one of the Irish privates, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly), having just stolen a piglet from a farmhouse for food, Wellington eventually laughs at O’Connor’s desperate attempts at explaining himself, claiming to me merely seeking the unfortunate piglet’s home.

Rather than punishing O’Connor, Wellington has him promoted to Corporal because he knows “how to defend a hopeless position,” an amusing vignette if one somewhat contrary to Wellington’s famously stern approach to preventing pillaging. O’Connor adapts to rank uneasily as he sneaks a look into an officer’s shaving mirror to make sure his new stripes are sewn correctly, much to the officer’s annoyance. Bondarchuk also reserves an amused eye for the rituals of the two squared-off armies as the English soldiers begin singing a mocking song about how “Bony fought the Roo-shee-ans!” whilst Wellington and his officers drink a toast to “Today’s fox” in reading for a hunt. The British soldiers, like Picton who insists on dressing like a well-dressed man-about-town rather than a soldier, have a quality of individualism that is an odd strength and proves fateful compared to the way Napoleon’s people hero-worship their singular leader. Wellington is inclined to indulge everything that “wastes time” to give Blücher a chance to reach them, whilst Napoleon and his Marshals realise the ground, left muddy from the previous night’s downpour, has to dry before they can move their cannons and manoeuvre effectively.

Both the strength of Waterloo as a film and some of its frustrating aspects are connected. The film was reportedly heavily edited before release, excising a great amount of material. But concentrating on Napoleon and Wellington and perceiving the sturm-und-drang of the battle as a manifestation of their warring personalities was a good idea, contrasting the usual sprawl of historical epics with their mix of fiction and fact, helping it to play out as tightly focused and realistic, almost to the point of sometimes resembling a docudrama, less like Gone With The Wind (1939) or Doctor Zhivago (1960) and more like a far more expensive and expansive version of what directors like Peter Watkins and Gillo Pontecorvo were making around the same time. Apart from the sidelong glances at the Enniskillen and vignettes during the ball, there’s no distraction by subplots and romances. It takes the idea of portraying inherently dramatic history as for the most part sufficient in itself. Craig’s script draws a lot of dialogue directly from the real people if from the expanse of their careers rather than the specific moment, like Napoleon commenting, “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake,” whilst watching Wellington’s army form. Apart from a few dashes of historical licence – Hay, portrayed in the film as the essence of doomed youth, was killed two days before the battle, and the version of Gordon in the film is a composite of several members of the family – it’s also closely attuned to historical fact for the most part.

This however does to a certain extent limit the film’s capacity to dramatise some of the battle’s vignettes, like the struggle over Hougoumont, which is seen as a selection of random shots of attack and defence. The film does make space for Ponsonby sharing snuff with Uxbridge and reminiscing about the sorry circumstances of his father’s death at the hands of French Lancers, before suffering exactly the same fate himself when the charge of the Scots Greys becomes a route and Ponsonby is caught in the mud. Ponsonby manages to hand on his watch to one of his men with the order to take it to his son, only for the other horseman to also be caught and killed. Bondarchuk zeroes in on the watch with its painted case still in the dead man’s grasp in a muddy pool, a potent little image of delicate civilisation amidst the filth and carnage of war, a lost token of a genteel world about to be swept away. Ponsonby’s story about his father is fictional, but it helps create an odd sense of time stuck in a loop in the foreshadowng, an evocation of war as unending, claiming generation upon generation. This touch works better than a more emphatic sop to the antiwar feelings of a 1970 youth audience later in the film, as a flaxen-haired young soldier, Tomlinson (Oleg Vidov), who O’Connor’s taken under his wing, suddenly freaks out during the attack on the Allied army by Ney’s cavalry and wanders out amidst the galloping horses and gunfire screaming, “We’ve never seen each-other – how can we kill each-other?”

Whilst this touch is a bit much, Bondarchuk still makes it work for him when he films Ney’s charge, which the volatile cavalry leader unleashes whilst Napoleon is having a bout of pain and Ney assumes Wellington is retreating when he’s just trying to shelter his men from artillery. The Allied soldiers form into defensive squares, leaving the cavalry reeling about them, a stand-off that quickly degenerates into a madcap bloodbath. This sequence is filmed in astounding aerial shots, picking out the ragged geometry of the defences and the squiggles of the charging horsemen as seen from a godlike perspective, contrasted with the hellish furore on ground level, in a sequence of truly gobsmacking effect. Tomlinson’s protesting cries echo on the soundtrack as the camera speeds over the battle, Rota’s sadly elegant violin theme on sound underscoring the constant refrain of Bondarchuk’s vision of the battle as a dance of death. There’s virtually nothing like this sequence anywhere else in cinema, and the film’s acknowledged impact on the way Peter Jackson shot the battle sequences in his Tolkien adaptations is plain. Bondarchuk weaves in moments of effective battlefield horror, like Picton getting struck by a shard of shrapnel through his signature top hat and slowly falling dead from his horse, and Wellington watching helplessly as De Lancey is also struck by shrapnel, his back grotesquely torn, and collapses whilst the wind and smoke drives down upon him and his fellows. Hay is cut down crying to the soldiers he stands with to “Think of England, men!”, perhaps the closest the film comes to nudging the more overtly cynical attitude of something like Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

There’s also a nice bit of humour as Gordon’s Highlanders are sent into battle, bagpipes blasting and kilts flicking about their knees, provoking Napoleon, watching them through a telescope, to query, “Has Wellington nothing to offer me but these Amazons?” The later scenes of the battle gain an increasingly apocalyptic edge as Bondarchuk has a strong wind arise and the scene become a stygian place of whipping smoke and dust, like some distant spiritual anticipation of the atomic bomb is being unleashed. Napoleon bellows frantic commands to his men through the din, whilst the Prussian columns appear on the horizon, forcing Napoleon to try and win the battle as quickly as possible, and for a moment seems to have the battle in his grasp as he captures one of the farmhouses anchoring Wellington’s position. Perhaps understandably for a Soviet artist who had lived through World War II, Bondarchuk offers the not-so-faint suggestion throughout the film that with both Napoleon and Wellington granted their measure of sympathy, the real villains as the Prussians, who of course represent the rising power of the Germanic states. Whenever Blücher and his army are seen Rota menacingly plays “Deutschland Über Alles” anachronistically on the soundtrack, and when he finally gets his force close enough to strike, Blücher bellows: “No pity! I’ll shoot any man who has pity in him!” “I made one mistake in my life,” Napoleon comments, “I should’ve burnt Berlin.”

Only here does Bondarchuk really lose grip on the illustrative sense of the battle’s ebb and flow in his desire to portray the French collapse as a chaotic rush, and loses the potential impact of the battle’s famous climactic moment, the breaking of the Imperial Guard, which had never before run from the field, in an ambush by the British Foot Guards. Still, Bondarchuk notably continues his theme of modern warfare nesting inside the seemingly more heroically idealised historical brand as he dubs in the sound of machine gun fire when the Guards fire on their French enemies, ripping them to pieces, who, with enemies front and behind, finally crack and flee. The anecdote of Uxbridge getting his leg blown off, a vignette that became part of the odd folklore attached to the battle, allows another great moment for Plummer as the Duke registers his friend’s injury with both a note of shock and distress whilst also maintaining a veneer of the kind of English understatement and stoicism that became mythical. As the French collapse with two armies suddenly closing a vice on them, one of Wellignton’s aides comments, “We’re doing murder, your grace.” The battle ends with the nobly pathetic sight of the last French survivors, cornered and bedraggled, refusing to surrender – “Merde!” an officer shouts in response to the English entreaty to lay down arms – and so are blown to smithereens by cannons.

Bondarchuk offers a coda that suggests the influence of the post-battle scenes of Alexander Nevsky (1938) as, far from offering a sense of triumph, he has Wellington ride across the battlefield surveying the entirely inglorious results. Thousands of bodies, including Tomlinson, lie sprawled on the ground, picked over by thieves in the dying murk of the day, the limits of glory well and truly defined. Wellington’s later comment that the saddest thing other than a battle lost is a battle won is heard in voiceover, before the Duke rides off towards his future, one which will bring him to no more battlefields. Meanwhile the bloodied, mad-looking Ney watches as a gutted and dazed Napoleon flails in the rain, allowing the Marshal a flourish of poetic force as his thoughts are heard, making reckoning of his commander’s fate: “They’ll chain you, like Prometheus, to a rock, where the memory of your own greatness will gnaw you.” Napoleon climbs into his carriage and rides off into the gathering murk and rain, a final note surprisingly anticipatory of the very end of Apocalypse Now (1979), a film which can be seen as the end-of-the-1970s-zeitgeist bookend to Waterloo’s vision of warfare and titanic ego devolving into the mud. Waterloo is an imperfect film certainly, but it has flashes of real greatness, and demands more regard.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Fantasy, Historical

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

Conan the Cimmerian was created by Robert E. Howard, a Texan writer who committed suicide at a young age after writing a string of stories about his ancient warrior hero, mostly published by the fabled pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930s. Howard took inspiration from the rugged landscapes of his native state, particularly around the Rio Grande, whilst his vision of a primal champion in Conan was synthesised from a stew of classical and scholarly sources and anthropological theories of dubious worth and validity. His Conan roamed the vast spaces of Eurasia in an epoch, as the memorable opening narration of the film puts it in slightly paraphrasing Howard, “between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas,” battling not just other warriors but also monsters, sorcerers, sacrificial cults, and many a tyrannical ruler. Rising from an obscure background as the son of a village blacksmith to become a famed pirate and mercenary and eventually capturing his own kingdom, Howard’s Conan was nonetheless also an intelligent and chivalrous figure, a figure who, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, condensed both stubbornly evinced humanity and instinctive natural potency into a singular frame, inhabiting two zones of being at once.

Howard’s stories retained a cultish following amongst sci-fi and fantasy writers, with talents like Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan, and L. Sprague de Camp all writing their own stories featuring the character. The famous cover art Frank Frazetta supplied for such extensions to the mythos helped keep the cult alive, soon backed up by comic books in the 1970s. The success of Star Wars (1977), which fused science fiction with fantasy and captured the imagination of a generation, sparked a brief moment when producers and studios became interested in fantasy films again. This resulted in some lovably cheap and inventive emulations like Terry Marcel’s Hawk the Slayer (1980) and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster (1982), and a pair of truly great entries in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, the most notoriously eccentric, intense, and intransigent member of the Movie Brat director generation, chose to take on the challenge of bringing Conan to the big screen after shooting his plaintive surfing tale Big Wednesday (1978), and he talked entrepreneur-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the rights owner Edward R. Pressman into joining forces to produce it. An equally intense and wilful, if politically rather dissimilar young Hollywood talent in Oliver Stone, fresh off his breakthrough success writing Midnight Express (1978), had written a script for Pressman. But his purportedly post-apocalyptic take was potentially far too expensive, and Milius fought to revise it.

When it came to who should play the lead, the filmmakers faced the problem of finding someone who could physically inhabit the role of a brawny ancient warrior and act well enough to carry the film. Pressman had kept one man in mind since watching the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1978), an Austrian immigrant who had taken out the Mister Universe title four times, and projected unique charisma despite his thick accent and mouthful of a name – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, a big hit on first release that soon spawned its own wave of imitations and rip-offs, has retained despite critical sniffiness its own, special, seemingly ever-growing cult status. One particular, elusive aspect of Conan the Barbarian’s appeal is the way what seems to be its faults prove eventually to be part of its unique power. Rather than offering a straightforwardly action-packed, campy fantasy-adventure, Milius set out to create a movie that plays essentially as a fantastical bildungsroman, an attempt to encompass a hero’s growth from small boy to a man gaining full maturity in the sense not only of physical strength but also mental freedom and moral choice.

This puts Conan the Barbarian in a zone with other great works of fantastical metaphor, like Tolkien’s alternating visions of individual and communal questing and the original Star Wars trilogy’s portrait of adolescence giving way to adulthood: Conan the Barbarian has a very similar motif, but goes further in following its protagonist into the consequences of that adulthood. Milius was certainly assimilating aspects of his friend George Lucas’ hit, borrowing the voice of Darth Vader James Earl Jones to play another dark father figure to his emerging hero, albeit one tweaked to Milius’ sensibility. One accidentally self-imposed hurdle Conan the Barbarian has to surmount is that its early scenes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic evocation of prehistoric lore and drama the rest has a hard time living up to them. The opening narration, voiced by Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), later revealed as a wizard and eventual helpmate of Conan’s, makes like an ancient storyteller with his throaty voice heard over a field of pitch black, beginning his account of the great hero’s life in “the days of high adventure.”

The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ designedly awesome main theme “The Anvil of Crom,” portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on and help work the billows, in a scene bathed in the light of furnace flames and molten metal. The glowing blade is doused in snow at dawn and the last artisanal features added to complete a masterpiece of craftsmanship, at least by the standards of Conan’s Cimmerian tribe living snowy folds under soaring mountains: the sword is creation not merely of martial artistry but a nexus of cultural and communal expression, implement and totem, tool and artwork. One rite gives way to another as father imparts the lore of their tribe’s god Crom and the Riddle of Steel to his son as they sit on a mountain peak, boiling clouds rushing overhead. The Riddle of Steel, supposedly a piece of arcane wisdom left on the battlefields of ancient gods after some grand Titanomachy, actually has nothing to do with metallurgy and everything to do with humanity, and grasping the answer is the process of a lifetime, immediately setting the terms of Conan’s life, even as his father advises the only thing he can ultimately trust is a good sword.

This lesson proves timely as Conan is about to lose all contact with his roots. A band of mounted raiders, led by the mysterious warlord Thulsa Doom (Jones) and his henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen), riding out of the wintry forests and attack the Cimmerian village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father, mauled to death by dogs after being wounded in the battle. Conan’s mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his oddly limpid, empathetic-seductive mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is taken in chains with the rest of the village children and sold into slavery, driven across the frigid landscape and into a vast, craggy desert region where they’re chained to a huge wheel driving a millstone and forced to keep it turning day in and day out. Milius simply and brilliantly conveys the passage of time in montage as the number of slaves pushing the wheel depletes, whether dying from exhaustion or sold off, but Conan remains and grows, ironically refashioned from a small orphaned boy into a hulking, powerful man through his captors’ cruelties, until he’s pushing the wheel alone.

Here we gain our first glimpse of Schwarzenegger, lifting his shaggy-maned head as he stoically pushes the machine. Conan is bought by a gladiator trainer, Red Beard (Luis Barboo), who pitches him into death matches with vicious duellists for the pleasure of raving audiences. Conan’s great strength and instinctive fighting talent quickly turns him from combat grist to beloved champion, but Conan lacks any sense of his existence beyond the pleasure of victory and the crowd’s cheers. Soon Red Beard takes him east to be trained in swordcraft, and there he’s also introduced to less immediately practical aspects of life, including reading and being given slave girls to impregnate. Conan seems to be forged into the perfect weapon for service to other warriors, glimpsed sitting chained and cross-legged in the camp of some Mongol warlords, a tamed beast perfectly annunciating a blunt and brutal warrior credo. But Red Beard soon takes him out of camp and sets him free, for reasons Akiro in voiceover can only speculate over, as if his owner sensed something untamed, despite his pet status, residing yet in Conan, demanding freedom even without knowing it.

Fleeing wild dogs across the wilderness, Conan falls into a hidden pit and finds himself in an underground chamber, part of some lost ruin of a fallen civilisation, possibly Atlantis, where a long-dead king still sits on his throne, patches of skin and bone still attached to dusty bones. Conan takes the king’s sword and finds it, despite its caking of dirt and age, far superior to any other sword he’s seen, able to cut the shackles still on his ankles away. This long introduction, taking a half-hour to unfold, is particularly notable in managing to convey Conan’s stages of early life whilst playing almost as a silent film. Only a few scattered lines of dialogue and passages of Akiro’s narration are heard, and even those are essentially unnecessary. Milius displays total mastery over cinematic storytelling, creating the mystique of Conan and his family and conveying the nature of the tragedy that comes upon them on an iconographic level, everything rendered larger-than-life and classically vivid. The spur of Thulsa’s raid, his desire for steel weapons, registers in the crucial gesture of Rexor gifting him the sword Conan’s father died wielding, the same one he was forging at the start, whilst his gifts of supernatural power are evinced in his act of murderous mesmerism. Conan’s growth on the wheel and schooling in a cruel, combative life in the gladiator pits is as close to perfect as visual exposition gets.

Whilst the simultaneous emergence of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter films made finally made fantasy film a powerful pop culture mode befitting the age of blockbusters and prestige television, it was long a notoriously difficult genre to sell. Ever since the monumental sets, huge battles, and amazing steam-puppet dragon featured in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), it was plainly a genre fit for expansive cinematic visions armed with big budgets and significant production values. But fantasy was also a fairly esoteric genre rarely embraced with great passion by mainstream cinema audiences to a degree where producers and studios felt much confidence in making such epics. Occasionally major works like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) were made, whilst scattered international entries drew on various local mythic traditions like Alexander Ptushko’s versions of Russia folklore and Japanese films like The Birth of Japan (1958), but for decades Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion movies drawn from legends and the Italian peplum genre offered one, epitomised by Mario Bava’s Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1961), with fervently colourful visions achieved on low budgets, were the only regular examples seen by mass audiences. But this sustenance came at a price, ghettoising the genre for a long time as a zone of wooden musclemen, cheap sets, and tacky monsters, made chiefly for very young audiences.

Conan the Barbarian stood for a long time as one of the few, true examples of a well-produced, highly ambitious fantasy film, and one that represented a rather more mature, or at least more pubescent, wing of the genre at that. Where on the page works like Tolkien’s great sprawls of mythopoeic imagination, built on the example of writers like Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, epitomised the loftiest reaches of the High Fantasy style, Howard’s early Conan stories helped codify a fierce, weird, violent and sexually aware variation, the so-called “Sword and Sorcery” style. That style would eventually inspire eccentric riffs like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné tales, and birth more recent, sophisticated and morally complex works like Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher cycle and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, with their emphasis on vast world-building, cruel realism mixed with familiar tropes, and slatherings of sex, violence, and satirical humour. With Conan the Barbarian Milius managed to perfectly reproduce and amplify the visual lore of the early Sword and Sorcery style presented through illustrations from the likes of Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, one where scantily-clad musclemen and amazons clad with glowing bronze skin battle dragons in strange and teeming landscapes, amidst a mythical past replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism.

Milius and Stone’s efforts with their script nonetheless took Conan some distance from Howard’s original concept. Some characters are amalgamations of those found in the stories, like Valeria, who assimilates many aspects of the pirate queen Bêlit, and Thulsa Doom was borrowed from another of Howard’s properties, the King Kull stories. Howard’s Conan was never enslaved and maintained his liberty jealously, whereas the film essentially concerns itself with Conan relearning a sense of his own identity and mission after being schooled in ruthlessly pragmatic things. Milius’ portrayal of Conan as sometimes callow and crude, essentially an overgrown boy on an emotional level, once he’s actually let loose in the world, sits somewhat at odds with the character’s gallant and sophisticated streak in the books. There is a creative reason for this in terms of the film’s overall design, of course, as the journey towards full manhood is Milius’ subject here: Conan is becoming himself, complete as a fantasy projection as a certain ideal of elemental manhood. Milius remakes Conan in the image of his own protagonists, including the hero of his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), who thrives beyond civilisation and learns to survive terrible losses, and the surfers of Big Wednesday, who similarly discover the pain of aging is necessary as they leave behind their immature traits and rise to the state of mystic kings in their battle with nature. As in Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan embarks on a mission to bring down a self-appointed messiah. Like the title character of Dillinger (1973) and Sheikh Raisuli of The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan becomes at once outlaw and a momentary manifestation of the eternal romantic hero, creations out of time that only manifest when history and societies have entered a state of flux.

Conan’s path begins to take shape when he comes across the hut of a solitary witch who seems to promise knowledge that can guide him, demanding her price of having sex with her. This seemingly easy price proves rather more steep when at the point of orgasm she transforms into a vampiric creature: Conan manages to hurl her into the hearth, whereupon she becomes a fireball that flees into the night, her cackling laugh heard all the while. Before her transformation she directs him to the city of Zamora, “crossroads of the world.” In the morning Conan finds a man chained up behind her hut, Subotai (Perry Lopez), who claims to be a great warrior but fell for the same trap as Conan. The two men are fast friends and allies, becoming thieves to live whilst Conan pursues his quest to track down Thulsa Doom through his twinned snake symbol. Eventually he learns this is now the emblem of the Snake Cult of Set, a rapidly spreading religious cult attracting young adherents but with a reputation for foul rituals and nocturnal murder. Conan and Subotai decide to break into one of the cult’s towers hoping to rob the jewels kept within, and meet up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief, and they quickly make an alliance. The trio successfully rob the sect’s treasures whilst one of the female cultists is prepared for sacrifice to a huge snake living in the tower’s basement, which, unknown to Conan, is supervised by Rexor. Conan is forced to kill the snake rites before he and Subotai flee whilst Valeria runs interference, with Conan pausing to snatch a medallion emblazoned with the cult’s symbol. After escaping, Conan and Valeria become lovers.

Woven in amongst the high and elemental drama are flourishes of humour that keep the film from becoming too onerous whilst resisting feeling shoehorned or removed from the rest of its finite texture. One of Conan’s swordmasters, after slapping his face in censure for a poor move, suddenly swivelling and kicking another trainee in the testicles for grinning at Conan’s humiliation. Later, Conan and Subotai wander about Zamora, stoned on “black lotus,” recalling the heroes of Big Wednesday in their foolish-innocent exploration of the world, and in a gag pinched from Cat Ballou (1965) Conan groggily punches out a camel. “Success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary,” Akiro dryly notes in narrating as the three thieves use their riches to indulge hedonism until Conan faints face-first in his soup, a jokey moment that nonetheless reasserts the basic preoccupation with Conan’s story as a journey through life. More immediately, indulgence robs their keen edge, leaving them easy targets when some guards sent by the King of Zamora, Osric, come to round them up. Osric, played in in a peach of a seriocomic cameo by Max von Sydow, seems to be berating the captive trio but actually wants to congratulate them: Osric loathes the snake cult and is happy the thieves have offended its mysterious leader and his minions. With his own daughter (Valérie Quennessen) recently seduced into the cult’s ranks and their assassins sowing havoc, Osric offers Conan and company his fortune simply to travel to the cult’s base, the Mountain of Power, and kidnap his daughter back. Valeria and Subotai want to run away with their riches, but Conan sets out alone in the belief he will find his nemeses. And sure enough, he does: quickly found out as he tries to infiltrate the cult, Conan is brutalised and brought before his foe.

The intoxicating fantasy allure of Conan and his world is, of course, the dream of unfettered freedom and perfect self-reliance. Milius’ shots of Conan and Subotai running cross vast landscapes, driven on from locale to exotic locale by the sweep of the photography and Poledouris’ romantic strains combine to create the kinds of cinematic visions it’s easy to want to live within. Similarly, Milius distils Conan and Valeria’s love affair into a series of wordless shots that see them moving from first gestures of tenderness – Conan caresses her palm with a huge jewel stolen from the temple – to sexual pleasure, happy companionship, and finally a crucial image of Valeria gathering Conan’s head to her chest, making it perfectly plain that they’ve fallen deeply in love through her look commingling ardour and shock, the surprise of two lonely, hardened souls finding each-other, a moment counterbalanced by the forlorn sight of Valeria awakening to find Conan gone. The quality of warmth and good-humour connects Conan and his small but growing band, and imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential isolation of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital.

If The Terminator (1984) would fully cement Schwarzenegger as a movie star by cleverly exploiting his formidable and alien side, Conan the Barbarian nonetheless gave him his starring break. Whereas in The Terminator the façade of Schwarzenegger’s body would be peeled to reveal steel and mechanics, an illusory construct betraying the breakdown of natural reference points in a specifically modern fashion, Conan the Barbarian shows us rather the perfect body being built, woven in muscle and sinew, as the product of subjugation and adversity, a fantasy ideal of masculinity beheld in its primal cradle. And yet Schwarzenegger’s casting was most canny in comprehending his potential appeal was based not simply in his honed physique and stature but in the almost childlike aspect to his persona. The boyish enthusiasm he expressed even in talking about adult things in Pumping Iron, and which would later make him beloved to young fans for which he represented a sort of cartoon vision of their own ideals of adulthood, informs his Conan on a fundamental level. The character retains a quality of innocence amidst bloodshed and depravity, the violence of his severing from his roots and the segregation of his life from the common run in maturing leaving him bewildered by the world at large, his driving need for revenge long defined by the distraught and immoderate quality of an orphaned boy.

The potentially discomforting scene when Conan is given a slave girl to breed with by the swordmasters is marked by Conan’s appeasing gentleness in calming the fearful girl and wrapping her in a blanket, a gentlemanly act that ironically makes her entirely pliable, and Conan’s expression of curiosity slowly becoming lust reveals some of Schwarzenegger’s nascent skill in gestural acting. The quality of innocence returns at crucial intervals, particularly during his affair with Valeria, plain in that key moment of mutual recognition and also in Valeria’s sorry appeal to Conan not to go after Thulsa, confessing all her feelings of longing whilst surviving alone: despite their strength and guile as survivors, they’re both eternal exiles. Conan gains another oddball friend when he encounters the wizard Akiro (who wouldn’t be named on screen until the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, 1984), living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans on a stretch of coastal plain. Conan and Akiro’s point of bonding is found when the wizard tries to ward off his hulking visitor with warnings of his supernatural power, only to earn Conan’s sceptical laughter, and they connect in their mutually sarcastic sense of the absurd.

Akiro explains he keeps the spirits inhabiting the mounds company with his mystic arts in exchange for the peace and solicitude he gains from living in a taboo spot where even Thulsa Doom won’t bother him. When Conan takes leave of him, he poses as one of the cultists heading to the Mountain of Power. Here Milius indulges some satire on hippiedom and religion in general with the dippy, flower child-like cultists and empty mysticism. “What do you see?” one monk asks him he as she directs him to look into a sacred pool: “Err – eternity!” Conan replies, to the monk’s slightly bewildered approval. An uglier edge to the satire manifests as a male monk tries to seduce Conan under the cover of spiritual ministry. This vignette courts homophobia, but also makes a lucid point about exploiters and abusers hiding within officially benign and beneficent organisations like churches. This idea is reiterated on a more ambitious and crucial scale as Thulsa Doom emerges as the head of the cult, preaching an embracing but apocalyptically cleansing faith to the young cultists he attracts, whilst actually practising foul and egomaniacal arts behind the scenes.

The cult of Set is revealed to be an apparatus designed to snare vast amounts of wealth, power, sexual partners for his core enclave of followers including Rexor and Thorgrim, and human foodstuff for Thulsa who proves something not exactly human. In this portion of the story Milius nods to his steeping in noir sources, including something Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, in presenting the cult as opportunistic gangster sleazes, mixed with likeness to manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan and friends’ rugged individualism and practicality provides the only firm counterbalance. Milius opens the film with a popular quote from Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – which might be gilding the lily a tad, but it’s also an idea it certainly weaves into its texture, most literally in the mill wheel montage and connecting the rest of the story and its characters. The Riddle of Steel, as Thulsa eventually explains it when he and Conan finally meet again, is connected to this: “Steel isn’t strong, boy – flesh is stronger…What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” Thulsa illustrates his point by encouraging one of his slavish adherents to jump from a cliff face to her death, the power of the mind to convince itself that reality isn’t real when gripped by a powerful idea from without, exposing the deepest nerve of Conan’s formative trauma and the ultimate end goal of his journey as gaining sufficient strength of mind to threw off Thulsa’s mesmeric control, and the things it represents.

The vignettes within the film, which gift titles to Poledouris’ compositions, have a symbolic specificity that signals a sense of the stages of life enacted through Conan’s journey. The wheel of pain. The gift of fury. The tree of woe. Wifeing. All feel like places we’ve all visited from time to time – tiring labour to survive, spurs to strive, pains to be shed, intimate happiness to be gained. Thulsa nominates himself for the role of Conan’s true, spiritual father and Darwinian mentor in forcing him to grow into a powerful man. Thulsa, finally coming into proper focus during his confrontation with Conan after his capture, gives Jones his chance to deploy satanic majesty in the character’s outsized charisma and air of enigmatic potency, shifting with musical precision from note to note as he admonishes Conan like a teacher chastising a naughty student, beams in conspiratorial glee at Conan when he proposes answering the riddle of steel and then exulting in his own strength as a controller of minds and bodies, before finally condemning Conan to be crucified. Jones’ voice, muffled in his famous work as Darth Vader, here gets to resound in all its plangent dimensions: who else could pronounce the words “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe” so well? Conan’s ordeal on the tree, which sees him snapping a vulture’s neck with his teeth when it stars gnawing on him, is a desperate passage that almost costs him his life, stranded on the twisted bough on a stark and baking plain. Finally he’s saved by Milius’ love for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), that is, by Subotai appearing in the distance and nearing at a run that still feels painfully slow, and Conan starts a febrile laugh that conks out as he falls unconscious, at the very limit of his reserves.

Like all his Movie Brat alumni, Milius had a private roster of beloved movies he would repeatedly reference, wound deep into the texture of his films. This aspect of Conan the Barbarian is particularly notable as Milius tries to create a film sustaining the same self-mythologising texture as certain outsized and legendary epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). The millwheel sequence nods to Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), another film preoccupied with the nexus of physical and moral strength. Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) with its intensely rhythmic and stylised evocation of the past is also repeatedly nodded to (Prokofiev’s score for the film was actually used in Conan the Barbarian’s teaser trailer), and Milius directly recreates some shots from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) whilst taking licence from its basic plot of a sundry band of outsiders battling a malignant army with modest but lethal craft. Of course there’s also the assimilated legacy of every sword-and-sandal flick ever made, as well as many a Western, Sergio Leone in particular.

Another, less expected but insistently referenced touchstone is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Whilst Kobayashi’s stylised and artificial approach to evoking the past was contrary to Milius’ attempts to conjure a vivid and three-dimensional world, nonetheless something of the same aesthetic runs right through Conan the Barbarian, most specifically in the way Milius shoots Conan’s encounter with the witch woman, signalling transformation in the same way as the “Yukionna” chapter with a shift to a cold blue light, and more direct reference comes later when Akiro paints Conan’s body all over with sacred symbols a la the “Hoichi the Earless” chapter. Some part of Conan the Barbarian’s more singular achievement lies is Milius’ rigour in trying to convey a sense of landscape and setting as concrete and palpable, almost a living thing in its own right, delivering in a manner fantasy cinema had long deserved but never quite received before. The film was shot in Spain by Jeremiah Johnson’s cinematographer Duke Callaghan (with some work by Gilbert Taylor, who dropped out of the production), a cliché locale to film fantasy and historical landscapes by that point, and yet Milius managed to make it feel unfamiliar, a place ripped out of some dark Jungian bole.

From the jagged, snowy mountains of the opening to the sun-baked plains and zoom shots across a wind-tossed sea into the setting sun, Milius made great use of Spanish locations, where ancient Roman and Moorish structures readily supplied Cyclopean ruins, helping deliver the ambience of a world perched between an unknowable legendary past and something more familiar, an ambience that is fascinatingly crucial in much fantasy fiction because past civilisations so often felt just as haunted by their ancestors as we do ours. Conan the Barbarian’s sense of grandeur and galvanising physicality is worked through Milius’ visual language, mostly purveyed through wide and master shots so as to better drink in the athleticism of his actors, with little of the kind of cheat editing used today to make actors look like great fighters. And to give them context in their surrounds, both the locations and the detail and solidity of Ron Cobb’s sets, with a sequence like the heroes’ crashing Thulsa’s orgy unfolding in a painterly fashion, replete with odd, did-I-really-see-that? touches. Watching the film back in the days of VHS and TV-cropped prints was always to lose something because of Milius and Callaghan’s use of deep-focus, widescreen framing.

One of the few others films I can think of to conjure such a rarefied sense of a fantasy landscape as Milius’ film is Ronald Moore’s The Silent Flute (1979), which was adapted from a project begun by Bruce Lee trying to illustrate spiritual concepts inherent in the kind of Zen philosophy attached to martial arts. Milius’ themes are of course earthier, his rugged individualist and Libertarian ideals illustrated in the only kind of setting where they’re vaguely tenable. Part of Conan’s journey is learning how necessary his allies are after his obsessiveness almost gets him killed, saved by Subotai because he and Valeria followed him, and Akiro does his best to keep his soul and body together with mystic healing, whilst warning that the powerful spirits living amidst the mounds will try to claim Conan. Valeria and Subotai literally fight off death in the form of the creepy animated spirits that flock around Conan and try to make off with his body, until his eyes flicker open in the dawn light after a long, dark night of magic and terror. Valeria’s promise to Akiro that she will pay the toll for keeping Conan alive to the spirits later prove to have very real consequences.

Milius chose his lead performers because the film needed physical types, including Davidson and Thorsen who were taller than Schwarzenegger and looked intimidating enough to be threats to him. Bergman, a dancer who had appeared in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), earned a few more fantasy roles thanks to her part here, including the villain of Red Sonja (1985) and the title character in the bizarre She (1985). Her acting limitations quickly became clear, but she’s still nonetheless one of the great elements of Conan the Barbarian, first appearing out of the shadows and squaring off against Conan and Subotai with a sinuous sense of the sword and immediately presenting a potent, female kind of toughness linked with a depth of feeling that’s still rather rare-feeling in movies. She saunters through the rest with her virile physicality, bouncing off walls during sword fights and leaping from the top of the Tower of Set with a laughing cry of joy in impudent survival, and eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother. Despite a couple of flat line readings she’s mostly excellent at inhabiting Valeria as a character, with her unconventional, lived-in beauty and expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes, her flashes of deep passion and fearfulness running under the warrior. Lopez, a professional surfer and pal of Milius, was saddled with having much of his dialogue as Subotai dubbed by another actor to stilted effect, a touch that ironically helps the film keep touch with its peplum and spaghetti western forebears, and also unnecessary as his real, not inapt voice can be heard in a crucial late scene.

As with many of Milius’ works it’s easy to fetishize the many instances of bluff machismo: lines like Conan’s statement about what is best in life to the Mongol warlords (actually a variation on a historical quote from Genghis Khan) have achieved a free-floating life in the annals of awesome cherished by fans with varying degrees of irony. But also as ever in Milius’ work there’s also a uniquely elegiac streak, flashes of intensely romantic poetic feeling throughout. Of course, the outstanding support he gets throughout comes from Poledouris’ score, which is one of the best ever composed for a film. Poledouris was another surfing buddy of Milius’ and one who had studied under Miklos Rosza. He rose to the challenge of providing Milius with a score to provide the connective tissue for his dialogue-light film. His big, Rosza-esque score is wound deeply into the film’s intensely rhythmic structure, like the two long sequences where Conan, Valeria, and Subotai infiltrate enemy lairs with sneaky art before all hell breaks loose, and the incredible twinned sequences of the raid on Conan’s village and the build to the final fight.

Conan’s recovery from his ordeal is signalled when he returns to exercising with his sword, and soon he and his friends prepare to snatch away the Princess, who has become Thulsa’s glaze-eyed and monomaniacal priestess, officiating at his ceremonies with hands wrapped in snakes a la ancient Minoan art. Sneaking into the underground lair beneath the Mountain of Power, they witness scenes of gleeful depravity and sleaze: Thulsa’s henchmen lounge in an orgy pit amidst acres of pliable, slavish flesh, whilst the acolytes are served up stew filled with body parts, whilst Thulsa, the Princess seated at his feet, transforms into a serpentine creature as if all the better to lord over the mortals and indulge his appetites. Milius and Poledouris turn this scene into an odd kind of dance number with the actors moving in choreographed fashion as Conan, Valeria, and Subotai nimbly creep round the edges of this spectacle before attacking, whilst the scoring provides a bolero-esque rhythm offsetting the sick glamour of the bad guys doing bad guy things. When the time finally comes the invaders hack up guards and grab the Princess, Thulsa in snake form slithering away before Conan can attack him. The heroes fight their way out successfully, but Thulsa, using one of the snakes he has such mystical affinity with as an arrow (!), manages to plant one in Valeria, and she dies in Conan’s arms.

As if in recognition and salute, the spirits of the mounds allow Conan to light a fire where usually none can burn for Valeria’s funeral pyre, the pyre erupting in a spectacular fireball that signifies Valeria’s annunciation even as it certainly also gives away their location to Thulsa, so Conan, Subotai, and Akiro begin preparing for the inevitable fight when Thulsa and his warriors come for them. Valeria’s death and funeral, channelling Bêlit’s in the stories, also echoes the death of Jeremiah Johnson’s wife as a moment of crucial loss that signifies Milius’ hero is condemned to forge ahead alone on the most fundamental level but still retaining her memory as a source of strength, signified most literally in the climax when Valeria appears as a glittering Valkyrie long enough to save Conan from Rexor who almost overwhelms him. Anticipation mounts as the heroes build their traps and defences around the mounds, smartly mediated with a meditative pause as Conan and Subotai muse on their exiled, rootless, violent lives and Conan recalls the fresh wind of spring in his homeland.

Poledouris’ music surges to ridiculously awesome heights in a sequence patterned after the charge of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, as Thulsa’s mounted raiders appear on the horizon and charge in for battle, their looming, steel-clad forms and thundering steeds intercut with Conan making a memorably pithy appeal to Crom to grant him revenge: “All that matters is that two stood against many…and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” Fortunately, Crom seems to be the kind of god who helps those who help themselves. The waiting Conan and Subotai, with some clumsy but effective aid from Akiro, manage to evade and bring down most of the henchmen in a bloody tumult, Thorgrim finishing up skewered upon a mantrap and Rexor finally broken, along with Conan’s father’s sword which is still his weapon of choice, by Conan with the Atlanetean steel, after that timely interruption by Valeria’s shade.

Thulsa, standing off from the fight manages to lose not only his best men but his most loyal adherent when he tries to kill the Princess with one of his snake-arrows only for Subotai to stave off the shot. Her faith dashed, the Princess allies with Conan to lead him into the Mountain of Power and help him cut his way through what’s left of Thulsa’s guards. The ending is anticlimactic in a way in lacking any further explosion of action, but it deals a subtler kind of power in stripping Thulsa’s aura of power, rather than offering a last blast of action, whilst also sharpening to a point the story’s similarities to Apocalypse Now and setting the seal on Conan’s journey as he must destroy a wicked priest-king who’s set himself up in a zone of atavistic non-reality, and resist the temptation to supplant him. He sneaks up on the evil sorcerer just as Thulsa is ordering his adherents to go back to the world and unleashed an orgy of self-sacrificial destruction and slaughter, a touch extending the interesting likeness to known cultish dynamics.

Thulsa attempts to stall Conan’s revenge by arresting him with his mesmeric power and appealing to him as his spiritual son, only for Conan to catch himself on the brink of falling under his spell and immediately hacking Thulsa’s head off, tossing it down amongst his followers like so much garbage, finally breaking the grip of awe Thulsa had on him from childhood. Whereupon the cult disbands, tossing their candles into the mystic pool, leaving Conan and the Princess alone. The Princess bows down to him, ready to accept him as replacement god. Conan elects instead to burn down Thulsa’s temple as a final statement not simply in destroying Thulsa’s legacy but in claiming agency for humankind. The final glimpse of Conan anticipates his canonical ascension to kingship in his own right, “destined to wear the jewelled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow,” in his future, a fated end that also signals his eventual shift into the second and most burdensome part of his life journey, something like fatherhood.

Standard
1940s, British cinema, Drama, Horror/Eerie, Religious, Thriller

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directors / Screenwriters: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

By Roderick Heath

The incredible string of great films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced in the 1940s was charged with a quality resembling proof of faith. Throughout the war the films the duo made, from the relatively straightforward rhetorical counterpoints of The 49th Parallel (1941) through to the epic historical and cultural surveys knitted into The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), they fought on just about every conceivable level to articulate what about their society was worthwhile and worth fighting for, counting small, individual experiences and epiphanies, even perversities, just as worthy expressions of that worthiness as ancient buildings and grand principles, in contrast to the pulverising fantasies of totalitarian projects. Powell and Pressburger, who had formed their legendary The Archers production outfit and begun officially collaborating as directing partners on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), got in trouble with Winston Churchill for portraying a decent German and also acknowledging the dark side of certain aspects of English history in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as well as finding a shocking level of sympathy for their outmoded and old-fashioned hero. To them, Clive Wynne-Candy’s ridiculous and antiquated streak was the essence of everything worth defending about their world.

Both the cost and necessities of fighting the war with Nazism, and the aesthetic dynamism and textured humanism The Archers packed into their movies in this face were created as and intended to serve as cultural arguments. After the war, Powell and Pressburger inevitably wrestled with the question of what all that grim and sadomasochistic commitment had cost, but through distorting lenses: Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (1948) presented female protagonists who give themselves up to lives of extraordinary dedication only to run into problems of distracting passion on the way to facing a crack-up. Powell himself came close to identifying the peculiar motive inherent in the two films when he noted of The Red Shoes’ success that after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, that film told people to go out and die for art: the only coherent answer to years of dedication to war was to dedicate equally to the passions of peace. The Small Back Room (1949) finally dealt more directly with the war experienced as existential exhaustion, a last way-station before the 1950s began and the Archers hit bumpy road in trying to understand a very different zeitgeist start with the vastly underrated Gone To Earth (1950).

Black Narcissus is far more than just a metaphor for post-war psychic and moral fatigue, of course. The basis was a book by Rumer Godden, a dance teacher and novelist born in Sussex but who had spent most of her life in India. Her books often contended with the uneasy meeting of east and west in the physical space of India, a space teeming with sensual potency. Black Narcissus, her first bestseller, handed Powell and Pressburger a lucid metaphor for the great moment of dismantling of Empire just beginning for Britain, and a mythopoeic account of a battle between the sacred and profaning urges, as well as simply purveying a vivid human drama. Most revealing: the essential humanity Powell and Pressburger celebrated in their wartime films here begins rebelling, not consciously or controllably but in process that begins as termiting and concludes with another matter of life and death. Black Narcissus commences with a scene that can be read as a lampoon of the kind of war movies where a team of talents is assembled for a dangerous mission in enemy territory: Powell and Pressburger even punctiliously note the location with an onscreen title as in many such movies, with the Reverend Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta calling in Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to give her mission and assigning her a team comprised of different strengths to back her up.

Such assets are notably different to wartime heroes, of course: Dorothea surveys the nuns in the convent dining hall and apportions members of the team according precepts including strength, in the hale and hearty Sister Briony (Judith Furse), popularity in the good-humoured Sister Blanche (Jenny Laird), called Sister Honey by her fellows, and a green thumb in Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), ingenious and stoic cultivator. The Reverend Mother also assigns to her retinue Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), absent from the dining table, to Clodagh’s immediate protest that “she’s ill,” but the Reverend Mother wants Ruth included not to benefit the team but be benefited from being on it, noting “She badly wants importance.” The Reverend Mother readily tells Clodagh that she doesn’t think she’s ready for the job she’s been given, seemingly by other powers in the Church, and advises her, “The superior of all is a servant of all.” The seeds for the failure of the mission are sowed right at the outset. Clodagh senses being saddled with Ruth is a mistake and the Reverend Mother correctly senses Clodagh does not yet have the skills for nurturing required to head off such an end.

The actual assignment Clodagh must fulfil is to head to the principality of Mopu, situated at the edge of the Himalayas’ highest regions, and set up a convent to be called St Faith’s in a building donated by General Toda Rai (Carl Esmond), ruler of the locale. The building, the Palace of Mopu, was built specifically by the General’s father as a home for his concubines, long since cleared out leaving the palace a draft-scored husk cared for by Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), a crone who longs for the return of the old, sensual thrills of the past, and is instead dismayed to be obliged to help the nuns set up their convent, which the General wants installed so the nuns can offer schooling and medicine to his citizens. Some monks, Clodagh learns quickly enough, previously tried the same thing and fled. The General, his English expatriate agent Mr Dean (David Farrar), and the bellyaching Ayah prepare for the nun’s arrival, with the General announcing with businesslike simplicity when Ayah demands to know what to feed them as he points to some crates he’s had brought in for the purpose: “Sausages…Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.” The cultural joke here is also an ever so faintly phallic one, rhyming with all the ripe and pulchritudinous figures painted on the walls of the palace, decorating halls and corridors where the incessant wind, gusting from the vivid white shoulders of the great neighbouring mountain called The Bare Goddess, stirs the old curtains and the dust, and the air never settles in a semblance of tranquillity.

Powell and Pressburger’s penchant for unusual rhythms of storytelling and discursive narrative gestures evinces itself early on as Clodagh’s reading of Dean’s explanatory letter to the Reverend Mother becomes narration and the hot, ordered confines of her office gives way to conjured visions of Mopu, its people, and the palace itself where Ayah stalks alone save for the many caged birds she keeps and mimics, a sort of devolved version of the harem she used to oversee. Clodagh’s mission immediately feels haunted by the looming presence of the palace, its environs, and the people connected to it. The soaring ice-clad peak opposite and the deep green folds of the valley are glimpsed, the interior of the palace with its empty halls: place is imbued with the boding knowledge of a person. Dean himself is also characterised through the wording of his letter as well as the intonations of Farrar’s voiceover: “It’s not the first time he has had such ideas,” he says of the General, hinting at his wry and cynical awareness, as well as a touch of poetic insight, saying of Ayah that “she lives there alone with the ghosts of bygone days.” The ghosts are loaned voice by Ayah’s caged birds chanting her name. Dean’s sociology is minimal but contains hints of his worldly perspective and promise-shading-into-warning for the approaching do-gooders: “The men are men. The women are women. The children, children.” Only after this conjured survey does the film return to the Reverend Mother and Clodagh as they begin selecting her team.

The nuns the Reverend Mother gives Clodagh form a collection of traits that could be said to symbolise the ideal balance of traits in her own personality, even Ruth with her need for importance, with the Reverend Mother advising Clodagh to “spare her some of your own.” It’s signalled here that Ruth is Clodagh’s dark side, her daemon, the side of herself still tormented by earthly needs. Into the high and rugged place the sisters of St Faith’s march with confidence: Clodagh with her clipboard instantly becomes the eminent cliché of a British tendency to take charge and put things in order regardless of whether they want to be. She immediately finds the landscape replete with perturbing phenomena. There’s Mr Dean himself, swanning about in shorts and often bared chest, refusing to bend at all to pious authority but rather making constant, barbed innuendos, as when he comments that “You’ll be doing me a very great favour, teaching the local girls English.” Dean soon brings a young woman named Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a penniless but pretty waif who’s been hanging around his house on the hunt for a husband, to be employed and hopefully segregated from other prospective males until proper match can be made.

There’s also the old and wizened mystic encamped above the palace on a perpetual vigil on levels far beyond the apparent, bastion of an alternative kind of faith both in the scriptural sense as a Hindu and in a more immediate one, offsetting the sisters who belong to an “order of workers,” the ancient schism inherent in religious tendency exposed on several strata. Despite his immobile and apparently disengaged state, the ancient mystic holds an authority over the local people the nuns find intimidating, even, as Dean puts it, worrying the General at all times of day with the feeling he should do the same. Indeed, the swami is his uncle, a former warrior and man of great education, but who has cast off all the affectations of the world and reduced himself to a nerve of metaphysical communion. The mystic continues his unwavering vigil, lending the night something like a benevolent but disinterested consciousness, from the mountain top even as the sudden cessation of the pulse-like drums in the valley indicates that the General’s elder son and heir has died of the fever he’s been suffering from.

This vignette shifts the cultural gravity of the locale, as the General’s second son Dilip Rai (Sabu) now inherits the unofficial but consequential title of “Young General” and is called back from his Cambridge education. The Young General hopes to continue learning with the nuns, and despite her rules and misgivings Clodagh concedes to taking him in. Farrar’s Dean is presented as the male equivalent of a femme fatale from the noir films of the same time, a physically, morally, and mentally provocative being. Dean teases the scruples of the nuns and ultimately provokes, however inadvertently, acts of madness and murder. Dean hasn’t exactly gone native in the old parlance but he does seem to like his life far away from the mores and morals the sisters insistently embody, seemingly a natural and committed pagan if not entirely lacking nostalgic affection for the paraphernalia of Christianity. Immediate provoked by Clodagh’s imperious piety and challenging glare, Dean plays soothsayer of failure (“I’ll give you ‘til the rains break.”) but also starts lending a hand, called out by Philippa when she finds him trying to install plumbing for their much-needed convenience.

Dean’s allure is concrete: he knows the lay of the land, is sufficient in forms of practical enterprise the nuns aren’t, and he seems to feel drawn to help them out through some rarefied sympathy which could also be connected with the definite sparks he strikes with Clodagh from the first, attraction that must register as antipathy because of their polarised identities. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you’re dying to ask me?” Dean questions Clodagh with sly import when he brings Kanchi to her threshold. The arc manifests more agreeably in a flash of shared humour over Briony’s professed but dubious coffee-making talents, lending an almost conspiratorial quality to the reluctant reliance Clodagh must seek from Dean. Later, when Dean is fetched back in a moment crisis despite being coldly chased away on his previous visit, he comes in this time shirtless as if in a deliberately provocative gesture, and Powell and Pressburger allow Ruth to slowly lean into the frame with him with woozily hungry glances at his torso, not that far from a Friz Freleng caricature of lust.

Dean’s willingness to help the nuns and their increasing reliance on him comes to an ugly halt when he turns up to their Christmas mass, lending his hearty baritone to the carols and momentarily giving Clodagh the thrill of seemingly having brought him back into the fold, only for him to prove rather drunk and still full of sardonic comments. Clodagh’s infuriated accosting has a charge of personal offence that seems sourced in her equally double-edged memory from a Christmas of yore, whilst Dean’s affectation of blasé receipt masking a deftly expressed edge of offence and wounding that hint he’s used to such accosting, says much of how Clodagh willingly incarnates despite herself everything he’s fled in the lowlands. His provoking revenge is to start his way down the mountain warbling a bawdy ditty declaring, “No I cannot be a nun! For I am too fond of pleasure!” The setting of Black Narcissus is certainly a predominate character in the drama. Powell and Pressburger, their production designer Alfred Junge, and cinematographer expended all their ingenuity on realising the setting thousands of miles from the actual Himalayas.

Cardiff’s brilliantly diffused lighting helps render the set looking completely real and exterior even as the lushly hued matte paintings create the landscape of Mopu with a flavour of the near-dreamlike, particularly the famously dizzying vantage of the palace campanile, perched right on the edge of a soaring precipice, fervent jungle and sheer rock below: the nuns using this bell as their signal and call to prayer must negotiate with the infinite, the fear and temptation, every time they ring it (honestly, folks, nail on a bloody rail). The cavernous, draft-ridden halls of the palace with the fading glories of royal décor and teasing, ghostly forms of semi-naked women festooning the halls, has a strong touch of the dream like to it, a feeling exacerbated when Powell and Pressburger shoot Simmons’ Kanchi dancing through the halls in a rough draft for the fantasias of space and movement in The Red Shoes.

Powell’s fascination with isolated communities and discreet local cultures predated his partnership with Pressburger, already apparent in some of his early B movies like The Phantom Light (1936) and The Edge of the World (1937), and burgeoned as the war wound down again with I Know Where I’m Going!, where the filmmakers noted that the corners of the British Isles themselves were as foreign and strange to Londoners as India. This was also a natural viewpoint for the transplanted Austrian Pressburger, whose simultaneous romanticisation and observant criticality of his adopted culture intensified Powell’s. Acts of journeying correlate to changes within for characters, naturally. A Canterbury Tale rendered that idea in echoing the Chaucerian theme of pilgrimage ironically rearranged for an age at once more profane and more urgent in its need and seeking. Black Narcissus is in part a revision of I Know Where I’m Going! in again tracking a heroine dedicated to a project journeying to “the back of beyond,” colliding with unexpected attraction, albeit with wry romantic comedy and gentle sublimation into a new way of life swapped out for seething neurosis and cross-cultural incoherence. The sisters of St Faith’s bring in foreign religions, not only Christianity but also scientific, medical, and cultural, strange and exotic and incoherent in themselves without being aware of it.

But the great project of Empire and colonialism rather attempts to resist such correlation: instead it aims to act more like a great act of inoculation, inserting alien DNA into other cultures. The sisters are soon perturbed to learn the great turn-out for their infirmary and school is because the General is paying his citizens to attend, overcoming their disinterest. The General hopes, as Dean spells it out, to make it a ritual or custom for people whose lives tick by according to rhythms entirely imposed by nature in place where one must “either ignore it or give yourself up to it,” a line that doubles as a commentary on the Raj where the ruling English maintained themselves as a transported pocket, unable to countenance adjusting to other values and so expelling them altogether. Soon the sisters are lying awake at night as the cold wind wafts in through the palace windows and their skin breaks out in blotches denoting not disease but a startling and unfamiliar level of purity, as if civilisation is a disease they will expiate from their flesh whether they want to or not. Attempts at meditation and sublimation are soon enough recolonised by their suppressed worldly selves. Philippa shows off the callouses on her hands, worked raw in trying to escape her reveries even as if compelled she plants the palace terraces with riotous alternations of flowers rather than vegetables, a creative and decorative urge bursting out in ignorance of the practical.

Seeds of a poisonous breakdown are meanwhile sown when Ruth dashes into a meeting Clodagh is having with Dean and Briony, her white habit stained red with blood, excitedly reporting that she managed to stop an injured local from bleeding to death after much struggle. Rather than praising her and elevating her struggling sense of self-worth, as the Reverend Mother wanted Clodagh wanted her to, Clodagh angrily retorts that she should have called in the more medically experienced Briony. Clodagh isn’t wrong, but her instinctive sense of what her authority is immediately proves the Reverend Mother’s point about her own unreadiness, reacting more like a bossy, know-it-all older sister to Ruth’s flailing need for validation and pride in achievement and unable to concede that sometimes risks need to be taken to help anyone mature. Dean instead casually spares Ruth a kind word in registering the moment of crucially dashed pride, a flash of recognition that gives Ruth’s psyche something to cling to, if less like a flowering orchid than a parasitic vine. The attentiveness of the film’s designers registers in the stiff, almost tentlike habits of the nuns, contrasted violently by the red of Dean’s shirt and the mottled gore on Ruth’s habit: the stain of blood is spreading, Dean and Ruth’s moment of sympathy marked by fate.

Not that Clodagh is unwarranted in her testiness with Ruth, whose internal tension and need to feel superior sometimes makes her intolerant and mean-spirited, calling the locals stupid-looking and, after catching a whiff of the Young General’s handkerchief doused with the eponymous scent of Black Narcissus, an exotic fragrance ironically bought from the Army and Navy Store in London, deciding the perfume’s name is apt for the man too. Moments like Clodagh’s connection with Dean over Briony’s bad coffee similarly deny the popular cliché of the surprisingly good-humoured and earthy religious figure, the kind Bing Crosby had just won an Oscar playing in Going My Way (1944). Clodagh’s lack of ease signalled by her incapacity to bend in that direction in any way. Clodagh’s drifts into personal reverie during prayer present biography in fragments mixed with deeply sensual associations, the cold water of a lake she once fished in, the thrilling rush of riding a horse in a fox hunt, the chill of snow and the glow of lantern light on Christmas Eve in singing with carollers.

Clodagh’s memories crowd into her head even as she leads her fellow nuns in prayer in the convent chapel, recollections of such thrills filling in for any hoped-for divine ecstasy. Such memories are connected with her long and finally ill-fated romance with a son of the same clique of landed gentry in Ireland, Con (Shaun Noble), who Dean plainly reminds her of as another lanky, tauntingly ambivalent rooster, a man who chafed at being expected to play prospective lord of the manor rather than make a career in America like his brother. Clodagh’s lips twist up ever so slightly in sardonic awareness as she remembers protesting her desire to live just in the place she comes from forever, and yet here she is.

Black Narcissus nudges aspects of both the haunted house movie and the slasher flick even as it holds itself aloof from any sure genre identity: the film is also a comedy of manners, a romantic melodrama, character study, satire, and parable. I’m often struck by the similarities between Black Narcissus and the Mark Robson-directed, Val Lewton-produced horror film Isle of the Dead (1945). Both films are set in old, isolated buildings where psyches fray and conclude with a maddened woman falling to her death after a bout of homicidal intent, walk a fine line between psychological narrative and entering a more irrational and symbolic zone, and are replete with shared images, atmospherics, and an ingrained subtext contending with the moral fallout of war and awareness of mortality. Hard to know if Powell and Pressburger ever saw the other film, of course, but the similarities are pronounced enough to signal commonalities of thought. Powell had lampooned a certain kind of spooky tale early in his career with The Phantom Light, but also laid down precepts for this film, the fascination with the bastion of mystery and the mystified interloper.

Black Narcissus might also have had a notable influence on horror films that followed it, including the “nunsploitation” subgenre and more deeply on the Hammer Horror aesthetic, and anticipates Powell’s shift in a horror direction for Peeping Tom (1960). Of course, its progeny rank far and wide, echoes in everything from Powell’s former mentor Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) to his generational alumnus David Lean’s globetrotting dramas of searcher heroes flailing amidst social and historical fluxes, and eventual acolyte Martin Scorsese’s entire oeuvre. Black Narcissus initially charts seemingly basic binary entities – man/woman, east/west, sensualism/asceticism, religion/unbeliever, sex/chastity – and tests them until their common roots lie exposed, each reflex, instinct, custom, and construction sourced in twinned relation to its opposite. The ideal of pious, sexless world-love the nuns practice is purposely against nature, that being its very point, and can sour into a kind of narcissism, but obeying nature brings no-one great happiness either.

Cynical as the film trends in regards to virtuous ideals, the film never really stoops to any kind of Buñuel-esque anti-clericism but regards the avatars of religion as merely, painfully human: “Yes, we’re all human aren’t we,” Clodagh comments sadly in response to Dean’s comment, meant as praise, that she’s become moreso since her arrival. Also avoids is any kind of ecumenical openness of religious experience, writing that off as a fantasy ignoring how much religious precepts are grown in native soil. The story ultimately states that no system of belief or practice can successfully deny nature without resulting in schizoid self-destruction, it also allows that it’s also a most human thing to resist descending to a level of insensate and primal appetite to fuck and kill. Such a fate ultimately consumes Ruth, just as she is the mere inversion of the old mystic, who has cleaved himself out of the physical world. Everyone else subsists on the scale on between. The abashed Young General, after his experience with Kanchi, abandons his desire to prove himself a fit citizen of a new era and decides to give himself up to the old order and expectations of his creed: it’s simpler and requires less personal moral and intellectual bravery. He’s not alone. Everyone in the film essentially finishes up foiled on some level, their attempts to transcend themselves failed, finding some comfort in their essential creeds.

The film’s commentary on the clash between eastern and western sensibilities contrasts many such stories of its time in plying the contrast mostly for dry satire and gentle comedy that only slowly shades towards darker, more confronting episodes. Rather than climaxing with some sort of outbreak of war or violence, crisis on this level is precipitated when Briony disregards Dean’s advice and treats a badly sick child who then dies, but despite Dean’s warnings of potential violent consequences this doesn’t result in riot of murder, simply the end of the locals’ trust and interest in the interlopers, leaving them without clientele and students. By the tale’s end it is rather the faultlines within the heads and hearts of the interlopers that results in tragedy. Until that point the film drolly charts incidents like Kanchi’s and the Young General’s initiation into the school, as well as the appointment of an official translator in the form of Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley Jr.), son of the General’s cook and one of the few bilingual people bout, a boy who estimates his age as between six and ten. Joseph Anthony’s sly glances around at the vignettes unfolding about him even as he coaches his fellow local urchins in fastidious pronunciation of the names of weapons and flowers, as when he notices Ruth staring down at Dean speaking to Clodagh through a lattice from the schoolroom, anoint him as young but quick-study incarnation of artistic observation and subversive intent.

The film’s anti-generic form contributes to what might be its only real fault, that it sometimes threatens to dissolve into a series of vignettes: it’s chiefly Powell and Pressburger’s overwhelming sense of style that gives it form until the key psychodrama finally erupts. Black Narcissus nods to familiar elements and clichés of the kinds of exotic melodrama popular back in the day, with visions of drum-beating Mopuris in the jungle night (The drums! Don’t they ever stop?!). Even as it takes care to place such things in a steadily evolving sense of context – the drums have a specific cultural and religious function to the Mopuris – they take on a different, more fervent and obsessive meaning for the nuns. We have passed through a veil into a zone where the psyche expands to fill the universe and everything becomes a function of the overheated inner life. The teasing games of erotic sparking and quelling that play out between the nuns and Dean are given their contorted reflection in Kanchi’s furtive attempts to catch the Young General’s eye, whilst the Young General himself taunts Ruth’s nose in the classroom with Black Narcissus.

Sabu’s terrific semi-comic turn as the Young General presents a lad enthusiastic to learn about the world, trotting up to the school with a programme for his education that contains unwitting double entendre and prophecy: “One PM to three PM, French and Russian with the French and Russian sisters, if any; three PM to four PM, physics with the physical sister.” Kanchi volunteers as the physical sister, looming sylph-like over lattices and under desks as the incarnation of enticing pulchritude, true to Dean’s comment that she’s surely heard the folk tale “The Prince and the Beggar Maid” and has the stuff to alchemise legend into reality. Eventually Kanchi and the Young General run away together, an incident which, along with the child’s death and Ruth’s decision to not retake her annual vows, seems to signal the complete collapse of the convent’s efforts. As well as speaking of the breakdown of imperialist projects in the face of different cultural norms and general human nature, there are overtones of satire in the film that might be aimed closer to home: the Old General’s determination to make his citizens care about things like ringworm can be read as a send-up of the post-war positivism and reformism being foisted in Britain and elsewhere, the challenge to old orders and the difficulty in shifting them noted.

Tempting to see autobiographical qualities encoded in the film, too, Powell and Pressburger’s more sarcastic anticipation of Fellini’s harem in (1963), the storage place of every real affair and masturbatory fantasy. Powell was making a film with his ex-wife Kerr, was married to Pamela Brown whom he had left her for, and commenced an affair with Byron during the shoot. The on-screen bevy are all save Kanchi nonetheless defined by their nominal untouchable status, the ever-teasing disparity in the idea of the sexy nun given a self-castigating gloss. Dean makes for an ironic projection for Powell’s masculine self-image, less a playboy despite his affectations of wolfish assuredness and more a kind of unwitting fetish object. “I don’t love anybody!” Dean finally bellows to Ruth when she tries to seduce him, a moment of denial that also feels like an unwitting self-exposure: Dean’s self-sufficient aspect, his air of male independence to the nth degree, is also the ultimate incapacity to give himself to anyone or anything. His sexual detachment gives an ironic dimension to his impersonation of the detached Englishman, subsisting within another culture but never at one with it.

Ruth, who leaves the order and dons a red dress she’s ordered by mail, recreates herself as the antithesis of what she was, playing Hyde to Clodagh’s Jekyll, and conceives of them both engaged in a war, at first psychic but eventually quite mortal, to possess Dean. Ruth’s rebellion against the army she belongs to and enterprise she represents results is ultimately self-defeating, but at least it most definitely is rebellion. Black Narcissus embraces its lexicon of religious images and concepts even as it tests them to the limit, eventually playing out as a no-holds-barred battle of the assailed sacred and the consuming profane. Much of Black Narcissus’ still-potent appeal for film lovers lies as much or more in sheer, lustrous quality as a piece of visual filmmaking as well as its dramatic richness. Movies had made great and artistically worthy use of Technicolor before Black Narcissus of course, but Cardiff’s work on the film might well have been the first work in the medium to prove a film shot in colour could be richly, subtly textured and flexible in expressive palette in the same way great black-and-white photography could.

Cardiff manages to create a style that matches Powell and Pressburger’s unique ability to be realistic and stylised, palpable and fairy tale-like all at once. The shooting style bears the imprint of Expressionism, particularly in the film’s last third as the visuals become increasingly shadow-riddled and split into multiple hues and shades of light and colour, the far mountains, sky and cloud in shades of blue and white, the crystalline amber hues of light from lamps and fires, and the slow spread of infernal reds, betrays an aesthetic sensibility created with unique care. One shot of the lantern-carrying nuns congregating in the forecourt of the convent after trying and failing to track down Ruth is particularly great, their lights jiggling and casting pale light of fire on the cobbles, recalls academic-mythological paintings of the Pleiades searching for their missing sister, whilst also evoking the metaphysical and psychological struggle before them, trying to keep the lamps of their faith alight in a vast and crushing night.

Dean singing his bawdy, calculatedly insulting song as he departs the Christmas mass is filmed sarcastically as a most perfect Christmas scene, a man on a mule lit in a precious lantern field, moving slowly down through a snow-caked landscape. Ultimately the camera zeroes in on sections of Byron’s physiognomy as Ruth’s lunacy hatches out and her identity fragments even as her body becomes ritualistically exalted. Close-ups of Ruth as she first challenges Clodagh see the lower half of her face in shadow whilst her eyes blare out with feral pleasure. Later, she delivers another calculated insult and repudiation to Clodagh by making her watch as she daubs her lips in red lipstick, an act that Ruth seems to think is an act of war and defiance but instead sees what’s left of her personality subsumed by the daemonic impulse. Finally Ruth’s mad, red-rimmed eyes fill frames, blazing out from the shadows at her objects of lust and hatred, reducing her from person to a kind of malevolent entity inhabiting the convent, flitting up steps as a shadowy, barely-glimpsed wraith.

Ruth’s venture through the jungle to reach Dean’s house becomes its own, brief waltz through a Freudian id-zone, guttural sounds possibly from tigers echoing through the bamboo. Still time for some observational fillips, as Ruth pauses to don thick and sturdy hide boots that somewhat despoil the image she tries to present, at once the ardently desirous mate and the red-draped, fire-lipped succubus. The war of gazes reaches a climax where at last the camera takes on Ruth’s point of view as Ruth chants Clodagh’s name in fury and the screen is literally flushed crimson as Ruth sees red. Ruth’s show of clenched calm after fainting before Dean is more alarming than her brittle hysterics, and sure enough when she climbs back up to the convent she assaults Clodagh as she rings the bell for morning prayers. Ruth’s savagery extends to not just trying to push Clodagh off the cliff’s edge but picking her fingers off the bell rope to which she desperately clings. Clodagh’s will to live drives her to regain footing even as Ruth unbalances and falls into oblivion, Clodagh’s horrified gaze driving down into the shadows, before the film resumes an indirect method and Ruth’s striking the valley floor far below is signalled by the flapping of some alarmed birds and the cessation of the thundering drums.

As a climax this more than fulfils the essential requirements of the film’s many levels of narrative, good and evil in a deadly grapple, the segments of a psychotic culture trying desperately to find resolve, and the sorry sight of a priggish but essentially decent woman fighting a victim of mental illness for her life. The melancholy of the coda scenes, as Clodagh encounters the chastened Young General and then Dean as she departs expecting demotion and ignominy, becomes a reckoning with lost illusions and cruel tutelage, even as the tacit connection between her and Dean finally achieves something close to authentic mutual understanding and sympathy. Clodagh charges Dean with the responsibility of tending Ruth’s grave and gives him her hand as a final gesture of affection. Dean’s sad and salutary gaze after Clodagh as she and her escorts vanish into the curtains of rain just starting to fall evokes an extraordinary pathos, Dean finally learning to miss something but also left with a kind of treasure in his hand, evidence that once something and someone meant something to him. And that’s ultimately the deepest and most resonant theme in Black Narcissus as it takes stock of the inevitable age of disillusionment after the one of mortal struggle and contemplates a new era where the old structures will be dismantled. Some lessons are not just hard but truly wounding, but whatever is left after them can be called the truth.

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, War

Starship Troopers (1997)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Starship Troopers suffered from a serious case of bad timing. Starship Troopers saw Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, the creative hands behind RoboCop (1987), one of the signal cult hits of the 1980s, reteaming for another trip to the same well of genre thrills blended with high concept satire. Verhoeven had followed RoboCop’s success with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), two more big, disreputable hits, but hit a career reef with the failure of Showgirls (1995), an attempt to marry acidic camp satire and exploitation movie precepts. Starship Troopers was supposed to reverse Verhoeven’s fortunes but finished up compounding his problems by also bombing at the box office, bewildering an audience expecting something more familiar and straightforwardly fun. RoboCop had nailed down the fetid mood of the late Reaganite era’s strange blend of conservatism and hedonism, and its spiky humour added zest to a classical tale of the hero triumphing over the corrupt and profane. But the mood of the late 1990s was at odds with Verhoeven’s new gambit in satirising war movies and militarism, a time of general peace and prosperity for much of the western world as well as eddying uncertainty, the paradigms that had shaped collective thinking for nearly a century suddenly irrelevant. Verhoeven’s sardonic call-backs to the gung-ho stylistics of World War II propaganda films and posters, a very retro-style frame, blended with violent, flashy contemporaneous filmmaking offered a strange and unstable aesthetic clue. At the time the burgeoning internet was still seen as a great new portal with a generally progressive application, whereas Verhoeven presented it as a new mode for propaganda and curated worldview manipulation.

The film’s chief relevance to its moment seemed to be in smartly identifying the general frustration for a lot of ‘90s youth that they’d never been given a great generation-defining task like war or, as for many of their parents, resistance to one, even whilst provoking with the warning to be careful what you wish for. It didn’t take long however for Starship Troopers to reveal its wicked prognosticative edge as the War on Terror commenced, when the narcotic-like addiction to macho imagery applied to great patriotic use became an entire political paradigm, the slow and painful weaning from which we’ve seen acted out in gruesome detail these past few years. Starship Troopers also came out at a moment when the kinds of social and political assumptions contained in a lot of classic Science Fiction as a genre was being investigated and critiqued by critics and scholars. The film’s approach to Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning source novel, published in 1959 and intended as a blood-and-thunder yarn for younger readers, was entirely in synch with this movement, and counted in itself as a radical act of genre criticism. The film also recognised the subtext in popularity for movies like Star Wars (1977), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1986) in refashioning the narrative patterns of old war movies and westerns for a new age absent any obvious and immediate geopolitical enemies to render as villains, and made sport of it.

Heinlein was long a leading sci-fi writer and one who wielded some sway as a thinker, particularly thanks to his novel Stranger In A Strange Land which served as a strong influence on the counterculture movement of the 1960s with its theme of an alien-raised human who returns to Earth and sets about remaking its culture. Heinlein had started off as a liberal but became a staunch libertarian, and his writing was often preoccupied by exploring social ideas. But his writing also represented a mishmash of political repercussions through articulating a need, commonly worked through in sci-fi, to celebrate a kind of transformative individualism. Starship Troopers told the story of some young heroes in a futuristic Earth society that’s become politically united but also reverted to a kind of Spartan state structure where citizenship is attendant on military participation, and prospective citizens are trained to the limit to become warriors resisting a war of species pitting humans against extra-terrestrial arachnids. In many ways Heinlein’s novel simply did what sci-fi is supposed to do: create a coherent vision not simply of dramatic events and technological concepts but to think through ideas of what society looks like it does and what form it takes in other situations. Heinlein had the then still-recent experience of mass mobilisation and indoctrination of World War II to draw on. But his vision was troubling regardless, and the fascistic undercurrent to the vision he and some other early sci-fi heroes often wielded had been noted and artistically reacted to by a subsequent generation of genre writers.

One aspect of the novel Verhoeven and Neumeier didn’t bother transferring, perhaps to avoid potential special effects difficulties or, more likely, so Verhoeven could sell his WW2 movie lampoon more easily, was abandoning his concept of mechanised armoured suits worn by his future soldiers, today a common trope and one Heinlein is generally seen as having popularised. Verhoeven rather makes the mismatch of the seemingly fearsome but actually insufficient machine guns his space warriors carry and their monster foes part of his own commentary on fascist precepts: a person in uniform with a mass-produced gun is at once the most cynically expendable and rhetorically exalted phenomenon in human society. That, or firing off “nukes” that provoke enormous and indiscriminate destruction. Verhoeven’s take on Heinlein becomes something of a moveable feast encompassing a multiplicity of genre mockeries that relentlessly disassemble their nominal purpose. Early scenes evoke the glossy glory of movies mythologising a high school experience, presenting good-looking young folk who play American Football (albeit some kind of weird, future indoor variety) and go to proms, highlighting a not-so-secret motive behind this mythology that goes back to the unadorned ambitions behind the founding of the Olympic Games: training a warrior generation through sports and competition. Then the film into an extended, extremist riff on films like Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) where some raw recruits are given harsh training and where eventually they emerge not only battle-readied, but intellectually persuaded of the rightness of their cause and duty, the once-dubious protagonist entirely indoctrinated into following in the footsteps of his hard mentor.

Where RoboCop had helped create context and weave in satire with the recurring motif of TV news reports, Starship Troopers commences and returns regularly to a kind of internet site on the “Federal Network” proffering clips of state-provided informercials and news stories that give insight to both the political and social moment, and punctuated by the recurring phrase, “Do you want to know more?” by the announcer (John Cunningham), which, notably, the person nominally surfing the site never does. Some clips offer seemingly benign factoids whilst another reassures the viewer with the vignette of a murderer “caught this morning and tried this afternoon,” with his execution scheduled for live viewing. The tone of the clips often segues within a blink from the broad and shiny tone of community service advertising and unadorned bloodlust-stoking. The opening recruiting commercial for the Mobile Infantry features ranks of soldiers, modelled after shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), broken up by the sight of a pint-sized moppet gaining laughs from the soldiers when he claims, “I’m doing my part too!” The dig here at a very recognisable kind of cutesey-poo from advertising and TV is withering. Later Verhoeven offers the sight of kids stamping on more familiar insects in a ritual of patriotic involvement and killing, the words “Do Your Part!” flashing on screen whilst a mother cheers the kids on in hysterical fashion, in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes in mainstream cinema.

These jolts of sleazy suggestion about the brutal and repressive underpinnings of the future society are given more dimension as the film’s central figure Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his girlfriend Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards) are properly introduced, in a high school class being lectured by their teacher Mr Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaching civics. Rasczak proudly shows off the curtailed arm he received in military service and explains the basic philosophical presumptions of their world, including “Something given has no value” and “Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor.” As in the novel, the characters are from Buenos Aires, and yet their modes of speech and culture have been entirely subsumed into caricatured all-Americanness, whilst the one-world government, the United Citizen Federation, restricts citizenship to only those who have served in the military. Humans have colonised much of the galaxy but are coming up against a truly ferocious enemy in the form of a society formed by multiple species of giant arachnid, or bugs as they’re usually called, whose apparent lack of higher intelligence doesn’t prevent them pursuing the same intergalactic habits of colonisation and territorial expansion.

The film’s opening proper after the first web break depicts an attempt by human soldiers to invade the bugs’ home planet of Klendathu as seen through the lens of a new crew for the Federation web service, a blur of bloodshed and mayhem as the soldiers seem to be routed by the rampaging monsters. Johnny is glimpsed as one of the soldiers being terribly wounded by one, collapsing before the dropped camera of the dead photographer, screaming him pain. This scene seems to have had an immediate impact on the subsequent burgeoning of the found-footage movie style, containing all its essential motifs as well as style. The shift into flashback explains what brought Johnny to such a fate, as he resolves to join the Federation mobile infantry in part to please Carmen, who has her heart set on joining the Federation space fleet to gain citizenship, but he can’t follow her there because his math skills are too lame. Nor can he kick along with his best friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), whose psychic talents lead him towards becoming a senior tactician.

Johnny’s decision to join the infantry stirs his parents’ (Christopher Curry and Lenore Kasdorf) concerns and he finds himself in a struggle to assert his independence, going through with joining up despite being cut off by his angry father. In Mobile Infantry boot camp he gains friends and allies in his training squad, including the brash Ace Levy (Jake Busey), ‘Kitten’ Smith (Matt Levin), Breckinridge (Eric Bruskotter), Katrina (Blake Lindsley), and Shujimi (Anthony Ruivivar). His former quarterback from high school football, Isabelle ‘Dizzy’ Flores (Dina Meyer) also enters the squad, and Johnny thinks she’s followed him into his training unit because of her long-unrequited crush. The squad must face the harsh, bordering on cruel, training methods utilised by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), which include impaling Ace’s hand with a knife and almost throttling Dizzy when she and he have a bout to test his recruits’ hand-to-hand skills. Johnny is left depressed and unsure of what he’s doing when he gets a video message from Carmen telling him she loves the space fleet life so much she’s joining up for life. His physical prowess allows him, with some help from Dizzy, to shine during training. Johnny is made Squad Commander, but then a fatal accident during training gets one of his people killed and another drummed out. Johnny elects to take “administrative punishment” of ten public lashes, only to then decide to quit, but before he can go home Buenos Aires is destroyed by a meteorite propelled by the bugs, and the Mobile Infantry are mobilised for the Klendathu assault.

Verhoeven’s fork-tongued wit applies itself as much through style as storytelling detail. Part of his peculiar cachet as a director, the source of both his moments of great success and his ultimate failure in Hollywood, stemmed from the gusto with which he set out to nominally give audiences what they seemingly want, but piled on with a reckless excess quickly annexing camp and subversion. I’ve often felt that aspect of Verhoeven’s sensibility hampered the intelligent edge of Total Recall to a great extent, but it’s perfectly deployed here. Starship Troopers comes on with violence, gore, action, sex, nudity, piled up to the point of obviously becoming camp, whilst still working on a basic genre film level. Early scenes with their bright, glossy cinematography applied to handsomely angular young stars ape the broad tone of TV teen soap operas. Jokes nod to standard TV broadness, like Carmen vomiting as she and Johnny do some dissection for biology class, except Verhoeven distorts through excess, as they’re dissecting a bug carcass with Johnny enthusiastically dumping piles of innards into Carmen’s hands. Casting Harris at that time was a particularly dry touch, as he was still chiefly known for his show Doogie Howser M.D. , and soon enough Verhoeven has him swanning about in a kind of generic brand SS uniform. Rue McClanahan, star of the jolly, saccharine sitcom The Golden Girls, appears as a weird and haughty biology teacher who saunters about like some ballet grande dame with sunglasses and walking stick whilst instructing her students on the superiority of the bugs as a species. Meanwhile Van Dien and Richards suck face they look like they’re in danger of cutting each-other with their jutting facial features.

A football contest between Johnny and Dizzy’s high school team and some visitor present Johnny with a rival in both sport and love in the form of Lt Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who has chemistry with Carmen and soon turns out to be her flight supervisor when she’s assigned as pilot to a space warship, the Rodger Young, commanded by Captain Deladier (Brenda Strong). When Johnny finally encounters them as a couple just before the assault on Klendathu, the two men have a brawl in a shipboard common room and are finally dragged apart by their respective service chums. The attack on Klendathu, seen again now from a familiar cinematic vantage, is revealed to be a total disaster where the humans are ambushed on the ground by hordes of the fearsome soldier arachnids and the fleet is badly damaged by the gigantic globules of superheated plasma huge bugs are able to fire into space: so effective is the bug response that people begin to theorise the arachnids have an intelligent caste of “brain bugs.” Johnny’s unit is wiped out save Ace and Dizzy, whilst Johnny takes a terrible wound that is repaired whilst he’s immersed in a stasis pod, mechanical arms stitching him fibre by fibre. After his recovery, the three are reassigned to a new unit whose fearsome commander is infamous but also saved their lives on Klendathu. This proves to be none other than Rasczak, who leads “Rasczak’s Roughnecks” with both a literal and metaphorical iron hand, and soon Johnny and his pals begin to find their feet as warriors, with Johnny promoted repeatedly by Rasczak for his displays of prowess whilst the people he replaces die.

Verhoeven’s formative experiences, as a child of World War II and someone who fell in love with movies in the 1950s, are apparent throughout Starship Troopers. The film contends with superficial jauntiness and a deeper level of queasiness with the matter of militarism, trying to understand the appeal of something that had laid waste to the world Verhoeven had grown up in. The movie influences are fonder, with many nods to the films of Byron Haskin, most obviously the infernal hues of The War of the Worlds (1953), and also his The Naked Jungle (1953) with its marauding insect hordes and Conquest of Space (1955), with a similar scene of the Rodger Young dodging a colossal meteor. Beyond those, a plethora of war and sci-fi movies. The hyperbolic recreation of a zillion movies about recruits being trained for combat pushes familiar motifs to ridiculous limits, climaxing in near-pornographic style with Johnny’s lashing, beefcake body spreadeagled in a frame and bloody trails carved in his back. When Johnny is inducted, a veteran lacking both legs and an arm processes his request, commenting that “the Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!”, a scene close to one in All Quiet On The Western Front where the officer overseeing training is similarly war-mangled.

Such noble clichés as the chicken officer who freaks out, the commander who orders his subordinate to shoot him if he’s badly wounded, the key lines of patented tough talk handed on from one generation to another, and the soldier who dies heroically blowing himself up in a rear-guard battle make the grade, are purveyed with such intensity they become new again. Verhoeven also keeps intact from more generic WWII flicks the motif of the motley, multiracial gang of recruits, with the added twist that the Mobile Infantry unblinkingly includes women, leading to such odd sights as a group shower where everyone’s buck naked and chatting casually about their reasons for joining up. One quality that’s particularly shrewd about Starship Troopers in this fashion is that where a tinnier satire might avoid complicating its portrait, this one presents its future fascist-tinted state as one that’s also utopian in a lot of ways, lacking gender and racial prejudice, obliging a more ambivalent response that lies at the root of why the film made as many viewers uncomfortable as those who got the joke. Utopias are an old and ever-controversial subject of intellectual reverie and it’s a particular provenance for sci-fi as its creators can dream them up and pull them apart at whim. What’s particularly odd here is that in the 1990s and through today dystopias are, pop culture-wise, much more popular in sci-fi, dark portraits of glamorously decayed societies.

Starship Troopers actually tries to get at why such suspicion lingers, baiting the viewer with a shiny, inclusive, gutsy future world as if actively seeking to make people ache for such a world whilst constantly signalling its dark, cruel, iniquitous side: it offers a vision of such a society as that society would like to see itself, which is indeed what an awful lot of mainstream art provides. Of course, to be a human being in any society at any time means accepting as normal things that other humans in other times and societies might consider barbaric and evil. Whilst it’s hardly a direct parody, Starship Troopers can be described as Star Trek’s evil twin, with its vision of a future Federation conducting gunboat diplomacy in space, egalitarian in social make-up and yet conveniently unfolding in a setting still defined by militaristic hierarchy (although the Gene Roddenberry TV show might have been borrowing some ideas from Heinlein in the first place). In Starship Troopers a white Sky Marshall (Bruce Gray) takes the blame for the Klendathu disaster and resigns to be replaced by an African woman (Denise Dowse). The female characters in the film are strong and strident figures, particularly Dizzy, a top athlete and good soldier whose only foil is the torch she carries for Johnny. Meyer, who might rightly have expected have had a much better career after this, is terrific as Dizzy, able to be at once ferocious and smoulderingly sexual all at once in a manner few movie heroines have ever been allowed to be, as if Verhoeven was trying to conscientiously recreate the femme fatale figures Sharon Stone had played for him in Total Recall and Basic Instinct as a positive figure.

Nonetheless, perhaps with tongues in their cheek, Verhoeven and Neumeier said on their audio commentary for the film’s DVD release that they ultimately had Carmen survive and Dizzy die, despite a general audience sentiment preferring her, to be “good feminists.” The crucial difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers lies ultimately in the attitude to the central characters and their relationship with their society. Whilst RoboCop presents the title character as a literal corporate construct and mercilessly teases its futuristic landscape, the storyline ultimately affirms Alex Murphy’s regaining of self, in tension with the powers that create him, standing up for a set of values that exist distinct from an increasingly debased society. Whereas in Starship Troopers there’s no such reassuring message cutting across the grain of the invented society’s mores. Rather on the contrary, Johnny, Carmen, Carl and others all learn how to become better conformists as the story unfolds. They fully embody undoubtedly heroic traits of bravery, self-sacrifice, fervent camaraderie, and leadership, but these are ultimately streamlined to the Federation’s needs, as they’re served up as claw fodder. Carl berates Johnny and Carmen for being appalled at his cynicism when it’s revealed he sent the Roughnecks into danger to lure out the brain bugs, countered with “You don’t approve? Well too bad. We’re in this for the species, girls and boys!”

Meanwhile Ironside, who had done good villain work for Verohoven in Total Recall after graduating from David Cronenberg’s Canadian films, gives an inspired performance that works on a level not that dissimilar to all those old B-movie faces in Airplane! (1980), somehow managing to utter a line like “They sucked his brains out!” in all seriousness but with the finest thread of camp knowing attached. Rasczak amusingly transfers authority from the classroom into the real world, merely amplifying the mix of brutality and pedagogy he wielded in the former setting once unleashed as a commander in the field. The bloodcurdling tenor to the violence as Verhoeven presents humans ripped to shreds by arachnids and having the flesh burned off their bones by their plasma expulsions is alternatively amusingly gross and properly horrifying. What’s notable here is Verhoeven takes advantage of the fantastical-absurd context to confront physical horror as often elided in war movies, as well as trying to animate the cringe-inducing possibilities of warfare with an inherently different survey of species. These range from the soldier arachnids with their huge, torso-bifurcating mandibles to flying bugs with lance-like limbs and the huge plasma-spraying tanker bugs, one of which Johnny manages to take out singlehandedly by leaping onto its back, penetrating its armour with his machine gun, and throwing a grenade into the wound that blows it to pieces. This act of warrior grit marks the beginning of Johnny’s rehabilitation and ascent up the ranks.

Part of what makes Starship Troopers still work as entertainment despite its insidious subtexts and satirical nudges is the way Verhoeven invests even the most absurdly cliché character moments with a weird seriousness. Such moments range from Johnny’s father betraying his ultimate pride in his son despite all his objections – just before being annihilated by the Buenos Aires meteor – by asking over a video link where his uniform is, to Johnny’s register of offence when he sees Carmen and Zander as a couple, and Rasczak’s earnest advice to Johnny never to pass up a good thing when he notices Dizzy’s ongoing flirtation with him. The portrayal of the young soldiers as a community full of cheeky good-humour recalls the respect Verhoeven gave the police in RoboCop as the human edge of the corrupt wedge, as when they mercilessly tease Johnny as he records a video message to Carmen. The Roughnecks’ celebration after a battle offers the oddly delightful sight of Rasczak handing out beer and sports equipment to his soldiers who immediately improvise a kegger-hoedown. Ace happily sawing away on an electric violin to regale his comrades, tipping a hat to the Western genre roots of so much space opera fare whilst giving it all a space-age sheen. The party sees Johnny and Dizzy finally hooking up in one of Verhoeven’s patented sex scenes, notable for their being actually sexy, as here when the two kiss passionately with Dizzy’s shirt pulled halfway up over her face. They’re interrupted by Rasczak who tells them they have to mobilise again in ten minutes, only to extend it to twenty minutes to give them time to get down to it.

The subtler but pervasive aspect of this whole sequence is how smartly Verhoeven nails down the tenor of adolescent fantasy as most essentially one of belonging, Verhoeven’s highly mobile camerawork and the careful weaving of the actors in choreography helping create the impression of group unity and high spirits as well as the kindling at last of good old-fashioned sexual energy. That appeal, to the need to belong, to be embraced by community, is key to both the consumption of much popular entertainment and also to political propaganda, and it’s a correlation Verhoeven strikes insistently. Ultimately arriving too early to catch the wave of new affection for hunky leading men, Van Dien nonetheless expertly conveyed the right spirit Verhoeven required here, playing Johnny in an old-fashioned manner, never less than the perfect budding Aryan superman in looks but still struggling to overcome character flaws before finally arriving as a leader figure filled with sardonic stoicism. Busey’s angular gregariousness as Ace, with his grin like the xenomorph queen in Aliens, provides a likeably eccentric counterpoint as Ace, ambitious at first but happy to simply serve after fouling up as squad leader on Klendathu.

When they’re next deployed on Planet ‘P’ the Roughnecks investigate an outpost that sent out a distress signal and find their fortified position has been overrun and everyone slaughtered except for a General (Marshall Bell) who escaped by hiding in a freezer, and raves about the insects getting inside people’s heads and forcing them to send the distress signal, a grotesque possibility that seems born out when the Roughnecks find corpses with punctured and emptied skulls. Rasczak realises they’ve been lured into a trap and the Roughnecks fight a desperate battle against an overwhelming arachnid attack. Both Rasczak and Dizzy are fatally wounded – Johnny has to shoot his commander and has a mangled and gore-spurting Dizzy die in his arms confessing her gratitude they were together at the end, leaving Johnny the Roughnecks’ commander after he and the scant other survivors are rescued by Carmen and Zander. The Roughnecks’ battle in the fort plainly references many a Western forebear as the bugs come swarming out and over the ramparts, unleashing a giddy massacre of severed heads, punctured bodies, roasted flesh, and blasted bug parts. After barely being rescued the team is then sent back to Planet P to locate the malignant intelligence that set up the ambush Carl believes is present there: a brain bug.

Not the least quality of Starship Troopers is the still amazing special effects work, with input from Industrial Light and Magic and former stop motion animation wizard Phil Tippet, offering a then-cutting-edge fusion of model work, digital effects, and puppetry. Over twenty years later a lot of this still looks incredibly good, better indeed than most of the digital sludge in blockbusters, and working equally well in the contrasting visions of space fleets and rampaging animals, the latter reaching an apogee when the Roughnecks behold a seeming sea of rampaging bugs charging the fort. The quality of the effects matches Verhoeven’s familiar shooting style with its bright palette and forcefully mobile camera, knitting a comic book-like graphic clarity throughout, at odds with the oncoming style of heavily edited action and visual gimmickry just coming into vogue thanks to directors like Michael Bay but certainly not antiquated-seeming. Verhoeven and his effects team offer startlingly great action scenes almost casually, like Johnny’s Ahab-like ride on the tanker bug’s back in trying to kill it, and the destruction of the Rodger Young amidst a fusillade of plasma spurts, slicing the great spaceship in half, a sequence that stands readily with anything seen in the Star Wars movies. The edge of blackly comic excess is never far away though, as Verhoeven has Deladier get crushed under a sliding bulkhead in another vignette of gory, heroic hyperbole, commander still bawling out orders in concern for her crew even as she’s cut in two.

The climax sees Carmen and Zander managing to escape the Rodger Young only to crash-land on P and find themselves at the mercy of the monstrous, many-eyed, vaguely penile brain bug and its horde of helpers, whilst Johnny, unknowingly given psychic nudges where to find them by Carl, leads Ace and fellow Roughneck Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam) to track them down. Here Starship Troopers notably collapses any sense of ironic distance between the travails of the individual characters and their function as members of a militarised society, a final dissolution made explicit by Zander as, just before he has his brains gruesomely imbibed by the brain bug. He declares, “Someday someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race,” a line of bravado that signifies humans achieving the same negation of individual identity as the bugs. Carmen manages to hack off the brain bug’s brain-sucking organ and Johnny arrives to fend it off by threatening to let off a nuke blast before Watkins, fatally wounded, lets off the nuke in his last stand. Finally, in a final nod to the material’s B-movie roots, Zim is hailed as a hero having reduced himself to a Private’s rank to get in on the fighting and finally captures the brain bug as it tries to escape.

For all the heroic sturm-und-drang of this battle for pure survival, Verhoeven returns to sounding queasy absurdism. Carl swans in with his increasingly Nazi-like uniform and uses his psychic powers to diagnose the captured brain bug as finally having learned fear of the humans, and exultantly announces it to the cheering assembly of troops, a moment of pure fascist sentiment. Carmen, despite having a colossal bug claw in her body a few minutes earlier, cheerily embraces Johnny and Carl. Despite making the brain bug utterly horrendous in appearance and behaviour, Verhoeven nonetheless obliges a level of sympathy for it in allowing the special effects artists to make it register as much or more emotion as the humans in its quivering vulnerability once stripped of its fellow arachnids, with final glimpses of the cringing creature being mercilessly tortured by human scientists under the guise of research. In a return to the propaganda reel style of the opening, our heroes are finally glimpsed riding out to battle again, with the last titles announcing confidently, “They’ll Keep Fighting — And They’ll Win!” It’s certainly tempting to say that by this point Starship Troopers has become what it countenances. But that neglects what’s ultimately most pertinent about its form and function, trying to articulate something a more earnest take would miss: indeed, would be obliged to miss. The sliver of black diamond deep in its cold, evil heart knows well the narcotic appeal of such things, and refuses to let us off the hook.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Dirty Harry (1971)

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Director: Don Siegel
Screenwriters: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner, Terrence Malick (uncredited), John Milius (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Fifty years since the film’s release, the opening moments of Dirty Harry still pack a wallop, a potent aesthetic unit promising cruel and jagged thrills. Director Don Siegel surveys the names of policemen killed in the line of duty carved on a memorial are scanned as church bells chime on the soundtrack with an insistently ethereal overtone, before fading to a shot of a rifle in a man’s grasp, barrel and silencer looming huge and deadly, death from above rendered intimate and literal. A lovely young woman (Diana Davidson) is glimpsed diving into a swimming pool on the roof of a San Francisco skyscraper to swim a few laps. The man with the gun is watching the girl, his telescopic sight zeroing in whilst the camera shot zooms back to confirm the woman’s oblivious link to the man’s bleak intent, space, distance, and height gripped and distorted by the camera lens and the homicidal purpose of the assassin. Composer Lalo Schifrin’s music, an unsettling blend of skittish, pulsing drum riffs, spacy drones and creepy female vocalisations, weave a paranoid and threatening mood.

The pull towards godlike judgement is irresistible, predestined: the killer pulls the trigger in obedience, his existence only gaining meaning through the erasure of what he’s looking at, the despoiling of what seems to live in the world’s heart. The vantage suddenly becomes more dreadfully intimate, bullet hole exploding in the girl’s back, her hollow, water-sucking breaths heard as she sinks into the brine and black blood spasms in blue water. The thrill of power worked at deistic remove crashes headlong into the immediacy of hideous brutality worked upon a hapless body, death rendered a palpable and awful thing to a degree even Siegel’s former protégé Sam Peckinpah had not yet quite countenanced in his spectacles of bloodshed.

The anointed agent of retribution is swift to appear: Siegel cuts immediately to the entrance of his hero, such as he is, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), called onto the rooftops to survey the carnage of this new foe. Clad in grey suit and sunglasses that look like they might deflect such high-velocity bullets, Harry has the quality of a specially bred tracking animal released from his cage the moment his particular talents are required. Schifrin’s jazz-funk theme tags Harry with a jittery but propulsive metre as he ascends into the neighbouring building and collects his foe’s spoor-like leavings: a discarded shell, a pinned note, items left behind specifically by the killer to announce his coming to the powers that be and tease his inevitable pursuer. Siegel’s long-evinced obsession with landscapes of soaring heights and sprawling flats and their connection to the straits of his characters is immediately in play here. The great sprawl of San Francisco is laid out below as the stadium for the oncoming corrida between cop and killer, the gaze of the camera conjoined with the will to countenance such extremes of moral drama.

The killer calls himself Scorpio, and his letter draws a single, totemic groan of “Jesus” as he reads it pinned to an aerial and comprehends that he’s not dealing with just any old nut. Cut to the city mayor (John Vernon) reading out the letter in his office, unable to read out the racial slur Scorpio uses in the letter as he declares “my next pleasure will be to kill a Catholic Priest or a nigger” if he’s not paid a $100,000 ransom. Scorpio’s declared motive is money but he is also, in modern parlance, a troll, one who delights in assaulting social norms and provoking consensus with acts of calculated despoiling, an iconoclast who seems to care less about being caught than about getting to play his game out to the end. Harry, called into a meeting with the Mayor, the Chief of Police (John Larch), and his superintendent Al Bressler (Harry Guardino), senses such motives instinctively and declares a conviction that playing along with Scorpio is asking for trouble. But the Mayor wants him mollified long enough to set up a surveillance net over the city and get the operation to catch him up and running. Harry’s suggestion, that he find a way to meet him, is dismissed out of hand, and his listless attempts to explain basic police work are cut off by Bressler, more experienced in this sort of thing in offering quick, clipped, impressive-sounding measures to mollify the sternly questioning Mayor.

On his way out the door, the Mayor tells Harry that he doesn’t want any more bad headline-making actions “like we had last year in the Fillmore district”, leading to Harry’s serious if wryly pitched retort that “when a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” A promissory note for Harry’s way of dealing with clear and present danger. And yet in the next scene, when Harry sits down for a lunchtime hotdog at a downtown diner even as he’s noticed the distinct probability a bank robbery is being committed across the street, his first response is to get the cook to call in other cops and “wait for the cavalry to arrive.” But the peal of alarms tells him he has to go to work. He strides out into the street and barks at one of the emerging robbers to halt through a mouth full of chewed hotdog. Rather than desist of course the robber fires at Harry, who brings his signature weapon, a massive Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, to bear and takes out the thieves with a precision that isn’t quite surgical, given their getaway car crashes into fire hydrant and topples a florist stand. Only after the battle is over does Harry glance down and notice the shotgun pellet wounds riddling his leg. Seeing one robber (Albert Popwell) is only wounded and seems to be contemplating grabbing his gun, Harry advances on him and gives a well-polished speech of challenge just about every movie lover know by rote.

Harry Callahan is immediately inscribed as a near-mythical figure, armoured knight or western gunslinger transposed into the contemporary scene, his Magnum his Excalibur capable of extraordinary feats. Or is it less Excalibur and more Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer, the cursed sword of the equally antiheroic Elric, feeding on souls and entrapping its wielder ever more deeply the more he uses it for however righteous ends? What’s particularly interesting about this scene, aside from how it gives the audience true introduction to Harry’s prowess under fire and his ritualistic dominance of his felled opponents, is the way he’s also characterised as a working stiff, trying to avoid being pulled into a gunfight during his lunch, lacking any gung-ho drive to put himself in harm’s way but committing fully once obliged. Treated by a police surgeon Steve (Marc Hertsens) who sets about plucking the shot from his leg, Harry insists on removing his pricey trousers rather than let the doctor cut them off: “For $29.50, let it hurt.” This touch serves a nimble game in the way Harry is characterised, allowing him to be a reasonably well-dressed hero but also one for whom it comes with a hole in his bank balance. There’s also the first hint dropped regarding Harry’s loss of his wife, as Steve unthinkingly tells Harry to get his wife to check his wounds, before remembering and apologising.

Whilst taking over a mythic role in his social function and a movie part designed to transpose the cinematic persona he was carrying over from his roles for Sergio Leone, Eastwood-as-Harry himself stands at a remove from the stony titans of the wastes he played in those films, forced to operate in the real world. Harry soon finds himself presented with an encumbrance to his usual preferred way of working, when he’s assigned a Latino partner newly promoted, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). Dirty Harry has long been a loaded film to contemplate despite being a popular classic and a foundational work of modern Hollywood film style. The film didn’t invent the figure of the cop driven by his own peculiar motives to play a rough game by his own rules, which had precursors in movies like Beast of the City (1932) and The Big Heat (1953), and some of Siegel’s own earlier works, whilst of course also anatomising a couple of millennia’s worth of duellist dramas going back The Iliad. But Dirty Harry certainly drew up a fresh blueprint for use in infinite variations over the next few decades in movies and TV shows.

Siegel’s film can count movies as disparate as Death Wish (1974), Assault on Precinct 13, Taxi Driver (both 1976), Lethal Weapon, Robocop (both 1987), Die Hard (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Se7en (1996) amongst its errant and quarrelsome children. Michael Mann’s films owe a vast amount to Siegel’s imprint. Even the concept of Batman and The Joker offered in Batman (1989) and doubled-down on in The Dark Knight (2008) as glowering vigilante versus mocking anarchist owe everything to Harry and Scorpio: Andy Robinson’s clownish leer and crazed laugh already trend very Joker-like. Siegel expected a lashing from liberal critics and viewers and got it at a moment in a time when, amidst the wane of the Counterculture moment which he and Eastwood had parodied on their earlier collaboration Coogan’s Bluff (1968), a reactionary spasm was manifesting. Concerns over street crime and social breakdown and the possible necessity, even desirability of vigilante action were on the boil and questions about police ethics and limitations were being vigorously debated from all corners just as they are today. Dirty Harry is still often caricatured as a fascist-vigilante mission statement. Still, moviegoers embraced the film to such a degree Eastwood was finally, firmly established as a major Hollywood star, and he returned to the title role four times.

Whilst both films owed much to the success of Bullitt (1968), a movie that did for the modern detective what James Bond did for spies in crystallising the idea of a cool cop, Dirty Harry and its slightly more reputable and thus Oscar-garlanded companion The French Connection gave the cop drama a hard, grim, violent gloss and reinstalled it as a vehicle of gritty entertainment in pop culture. The film had immediate real-life roots in the mythos of the conspicuously uncaught Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror over San Francisco in the late 1960s (and like Bullitt drew on real-life detective Dave Toschi as a model), although analogue Scorpio has a rather different modus operandi, and a few other murder cases were drawn on too. The film’s complex development saw the script, initially penned by husband-and-wife screenwriting team Harold and Rita Fink and then given rewrites by a credited Dean Riesner, a very experienced writer for TV westerns (and former child actor), and uncredited young talents Terrence Malick and John Milius. Milius, as well as introducing the totemic sense of gun lore, took Akira Kurosawa’s crime movies like Stray Dog (1949) as a model in defining Harry as an isolated man and doppelganger to the killer he’s chasing, whilst Malick’s take was used as the basis for the first sequel, Magnum Force (1973). A battery of major stars turned down the role, and in the end it was Eastwood who took on the project with his own fledgling production company Malpaso.

Eastwood had since The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966) been looking for the right vehicle to cement the stardom he gained in Spaghetti Westerns as legitimate in the Hollywood sense, and after a couple of straight Westerns including Siegel’s turn to the Italianate with Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) and the ill-advised turn to musical comedy in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Dirty Harry finally presented him the ideal chance to graft his squinty, taciturn gunslinger act onto a contemporary scene, and the much-mimicked familiarity of the character’s various catchphrases – “You’ve got to ask yourself one question – ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya punk?”, later giving way to the pithier “Go ahead, make my day,” from Sudden Impact (1983) – depend on the near-symbiotic perception of Eastwood’s presence in the role and the role itself. And yet there’s an offbeat quality to Eastwood performance despite its seeming familiarity. Eastwood never plays Harry as particularly physically dominant or cocksure, often seeming a beat or two out of alignment with the world around him, as if tired and wired all at once. His clenched, oddly undulating drawl conveys hints of ennui and contempt as well as the struggle he has day in and day out keeping his behaviour and reactions on an even keel.

More crucially, Siegel, who began his career as a studio artisan prized for his montage work and had to fight to be given a shot at directing, Siegel, whose feature directing career had nearly ground to a halt in the mid-1960s like many other Old Hollywood talents, confirmed his comeback after auteurist-minded critics had kept candles burning for him with a movie that looked and sounding almost super-modern. Siegel had been wrestling with his ambivalent feelings about justice and policing since his debut feature The Verdict (1946). That film set in play many ideas and images repeated in Dirty Harry, from the opening bell chimes to the soaring vantages and the central figure of a policeman who commits to his own ideal of justice. Siegel returned to the theme later of a cop battling political pressure as well as some of the same imagery in Edge of Eternity (1959). Siegel’s temperamental drift towards film noir and thrillers saw him often offering criminals and ne’er-do-wells as protagonists as often as cops and traditional hero figures.

Siegel’s natural sympathy for outsiders fighting for their lives and identities could be applied to victimised innocents like the luckless humans of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the Native American foundling-turned-avenger of Flaming Star (1960), and the doomed proto-beatnik soldier of Hell Is For Heroes (1962), through to brutal and destructive and but existentially beleaguered criminals as in films like Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957), The Lineup (1958), and The Killers (1964). Siegel’s immediate acolytes included Eastwood, Peckinpah, and Ida Lupino who co-wrote and starred in Private Hell 36, and just about everyone to take on a modern cop and urban action movie lies under his influence. Dirty Harry allowed Siegel to set up these two essential types of character in direct warfare and played at extremes, Scorpio’s truly anarchic spirit and Harry’s increasingly maniacal response operating as schismatic halves of the same personality, Siegel’s own. Siegel had displayed with Two Mules For Sister Sara readiness to draw on the Italian Western template, and Dirty Harry, like the same year’s Klute, suggests the influence of Italian giallo film also creeping into Hollywood, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in particular, what with Siegel’s emphasis on voyeurisitic points of view matched to Schifrin’s score which betrays evident similarities to Ennio Morricone’s for Argento with the eerie female vocals and outbreaks of dissonant jazz.

At the same time, Siegel’s own stylistics were cutting-edge for the time, working with his great cinematographer Bruce Surtees in utilising inventive and sweeping use of wide-angle lenses to distort space and invert relationships, particularly evident in the opening shots of Scorpio and his vantage, the use of much handheld camerawork, and allowing the usually hard-edged texture of Hollywood cinematography to dissolve into semi-abstraction in the use of ambient light and long zoom and telephoto lens shots. As he had already done in The Lineup, Siegel uses the very geography of San Francisco and its spaghetti sprawl of new highway passes and ramps to present the idea of landscape as a trap as well as a mimeograph for the psychic and moral exigencies of the battle. This is particularly crucial in the climax, where Harry exploits certain knowledge about how to ambush Scorpio, but also propels much of the narrative, including the long central sequence where Scorpio forces Harry to run all over town in his attempt to pay the ransom, in order to make sure he’s not being followed – not counting on Harry and Chico being cleverer in arranging for a radio link – and informs the more sociological dimension of the story. Harry and Chico’s nocturnal excursions become epic journeys through the intestines of a modern American city, encountering lovers, hookers, muggers, gays, and would-be suicides, small fry at swim amidst neon blooming like ocean coral all looking for their own personal oblivion, behaving in ways that would have been kept hidden away just a decade before. Only cops like Harry and Chico have to engage with such a world in a spirit of obligation.

The Mayor’s hope of buying “breathing space” by answering his demand for money with a personal column missive pleading “be patient” proves exactly the wrong move as the smirking Scorpio is seen properly for the first time, tearing up the newspaper page and unpacking his rifle for another killing, this time taking aim at a gay couple having a date in a park. Luckily one of the patrolling helicopters spots him before he can shoot, forcing him to flee. Harry and Chico, patrolling in their car, cruise the district as the sun goes down and Chico spots a man carrying a suitcase the same colour as what Scorpio was carrying: investigating Harry finds it’s not their man and gets beaten up by some neighbourhood brawlers who take him for a peeping tom: Chico intervenes but Harry insists on letting them go, taking it as an occupational hazard. Called in to intervene as a man (Bill Couch) threatens to leap from his death from a rooftop, Harry lifted on a fire hoist and instead of playing placatory with the man provoking him into lashing out so Harry can knock him and bring him back to the ground.

These vignettes flesh out both Harry’s approach to policing and the society around him, trying to portray policing as an unceasing stream of crises unnoticed when they’re resolved but all too loudly wailed about when they don’t, in a world filled with people caught in their own little algorithms of perverse behaviour. Harry’s bemused response to them. “These loonies, they oughta throw a net over the whole bunch of ‘em,” he quips to Chico. But he knows he’s just another one: being attacked as a peeping tom prefigures the later stakeout scene, where Harry finds himself fascinated by the human scenes, Rear Window-like (1954), he spies through windows. Scenes glimpsed include a wife chewing out her husband and a hooker stripping down to her birthday suit and meeting a swinger couple, obliging Harry to comment, “You owe it to yourself to live a little, Harry.” Harry’s isolation, signalled early on in his conversation with Steve, stems from the death of his wife in an accident caused by a drunk driver, a tragic turn Harry later explains with a note of intense world-weariness to Chico’s wife Norma (Lynn Edgington). Earlier in the film, Harry and his long-time colleague and pal Frank De Georgio (John Mitchum), as De Georgio responds to Chico’s question on why they call him ‘Dirty’ Harry by noting that Harry “hates everybody”, listing ethnic epithets for everyone, with Harry rounding out the rollcall with “especially spicks.”

Eastwood might well have been remembering this scene for his own Gran Torino (2008) decades later, with its meditations on how working class culture revolves around the giving and taking of insults as a sort of totem of authenticity and ironic fellowship. In context it serves more as a sort of sarcastic piece of trolling in its own right, mocking expectations of Harry’s (and by implications cops in general) as racist and reactionary assholes, whilst also sketching Harry’s outsider quality: his misanthropy is shtick but his real attitude to society is nebulous even to himself. The guy who “hates everybody” is also the guy who defends everybody on the social ramparts, and the mediating figure who ushers people representing outsider groups – Chico in this film, a female partner in The Enforcer (1976) – into his zone and ethos, and the ultimate fates of such figures underline Harry’s sense of his fate to remain alone. Harry’s relations with the Chief and Brenner, played by the marvellously hangdog Guardino, have their own conversant climate, neither man forced to play the hard-ass boss cliché with him, but rather portrayed as men who have experienced the same moral and psychic exhaustion as Harry but retained something he doesn’t have, for better and worse. “It’s disgusting that a police officer should know how yo use a weapon like that,” Brenner notes queasily as he watches Harry scotch tape a switchblade knife to his leg in case of a close encounter, but it’s a disgusting world.

In the morning after their night-time patrol Harry and Chico are called to the sight of what quickly proves to be another successful Scorpio killing, leaving a black teenager gruesomely killed. On the theory that Scorpio will return to the same building he was spotted on earlier, Harry and Chico set up an armed stakeout to ambush him, resulting in a shootout: Scorpio again manages to flee and kills a cop dashing to intervene. Siegel’s carbolic sense of humour manifests as the two men set up their station under a huge rotating sign spelling out “Jesus Saves” in big neon letters, whilst Scorpio himself is offered a juicy target in the form of a Catholic priest who, as Harry tells Chico, volunteered to be bait. The eruption of violence here, as Scorpio proves armed not with his precise and artful rifle but a machine gun, turns the gunfight into an episode of urban warfare. Scorpio’s next ploy is to kidnap a teenage girl, Ann Mary Deacon, and double his ransom demand for her life, claiming to have buried her alive with a depleting oxygen supply. He rings Harry from public payphones and forces him to crisscross the city becomes an agonising comedy of encounters that underline his journey through the city as an exploration of the night.

Harry is forced to fend off some muggers who attack him a dark tunnel by brandishing his ferocious firearm, is momentarily plunged into despair after some random old codger answers one of Scorpio’s calls before he can get to the phone and Scorpio hangs up, and contends with a young gay man (David Gilliam) he encounters in Mount Davidson Park who mistakenly thinks he’s cruising, a vignette that highlights Harry’s barbed sensibility as essentially acquiescent to such wings of human peculiarity (“If you’re Vice, I’ll kill myself.” “Well, do it at home.”). The park has a colossal, looming crucifix as a monument at its heart, where Harry is ordered to meet Scorpio at last: Scorpio has an appropriately vivid sense of moral irony in forcing Harry to seek out such a symbol as the moral crux of the world only to turn it into an arena of cruelty as Scorpio makes Harry toss aside his gun (“My,” Scorpio drawls, instantly making Freudian links, “That’s a big one.”) before beating him to a pulp whilst announcing he’s going to let the kidnapped girl die, and is only kept from executing Harry by Chico’s timely arrival. Chico is shot in the ensuing battle but Harry manages to stab Scorpio with the secreted switchblade, sending the killer scurrying off with a severe injury and without his ransom money.

The ferocity of this movement strays close to the surreal, with Siegel building to matching low and high angles, from high above on the cross as Scorpio closes in on Harry from behind, and a point-of-view shot from Harry himself looking up the cross’s height; all lit with an edge of garish brightness that transforms a public monument into a manifestation of mockingly unattainable divine grace. The steady whisper-scream build of tension reaching its peak as Siegel briefly cuts away to the near-forgotten Chico dashing to the rescue and the jagged, pain-inducing cut from Harry plunging the knife into Scorpio to the killer’s shrieking mouth yawing in the circle of his balaclava’s mouth hole. Despite the seemingly vast disparity in setting and story, there’s certainly anticipation in all this of Siegel’s deeper drop into the dreamlike and the fetidly neurotic in his previous film and perverse companion piece, The Beguiled. The visual intensity and edge of the surreal returns when Harry, now working with De Georgio, tracks Scorpio to Kezar Stadium because a clinic doctor who stitched up his leg recognised him: as Harry chases the assassin De Georgio turns on the lights that arrest Scorpio midfield, brilliant lights freezing the fugitive mid-field and reversing his and Harry’s role as Harry guns him down and starts jamming his shoe into his wound to extract the location of the kidnapped girl.

This scene is of course endlessly disturbing and frightening but also perhaps the height of Siegel’s career, the queasy close-ups of Harry’s obsessive fury and Scorpio’s pathetic attempts to ward him off, all the more enraging to the cop as the killer keeps on trying to maintain the game of obfuscation and deflection in demanding a lawyer and declaring his rights, giving way to an awesome aerial shot as Siegel’s camera, as if retreating in horror and also with a certain discretion, flies back and up into the night, leaving cop and killer stranded in hell on earth in a moment of gruelling squalor and pain whilst the arena of light about them dissolves into darkness. The raw sturm-und-drang of this vision gives way to its sorry immediate aftermath. Having extracted the girl’s location, Harry watches as her naked, bedraggled corpse is dragged out of a pit in a park overlooking Golden Gate Bridge, Harry silhouetted against the sickly dawn light and looking across the bridge in utter solitude, failed in his mission and debased as a man even if he still thinks he’s done the right thing. It’s one of the saddest and most poetic shots in cinema, with Schifrin’s eerie scoring fitting the imagery perfectly.

Harry’s mission to catch Scorpio is defined by the desperate attempt to define that sliver of difference between him and the killer: he might do terrible things but at least has a force majeure motive to claim. Harry works for a society and a motive he believes in but feels increasingly frustrated by its niceties; Scorpio wages war on the same society and uses those niceties against it with calculated will. The film’s sequels set out to shade and moderate some of Harry’s characteristics and build on his more positive and complex ones. Magnum Force set Harry in deadly conflict with a gang of genuine, organised vigilante cops. The Enforcer had him forging respect and amity with his new female partner and finding unusual common ground with a black revolutionary. Sudden Impact saw him romancing a woman engaged in a vendetta wiping out the men who raped her. The Dead Pool (1987), a goofy and very ‘80s retread, sported a vignette where he tried to find a non-violent and non-indulgent solution to a hooligan trying to play to television cameras. Such variations on a theme were worked whilst maintaining Harry’s badass quotient, and they helped make the Dirty Harry series oddly engaging on a human level although they never risked going as far as French Connection II (1974) in deconstructing their prickly cop lead, and the price paid for such shading was Harry changed from a proper antihero into something more safe and familiar. Unforgiven, the film often interpreted as Eastwood’s mea culpa for his violent movie past, really actually exists on a continuum of provocation and questioning in his career leading back to Dirty Harry.

Harry’s subsequent, bruising encounters with legal authority, represented by District Attorney Rothko (Josef Sommer), sees the detective gobsmacked by the DA’s harsh upbraiding and refusal to prosecute the case against Scorpio because Harry’s actions have tainted the evidence. This scene is the crux of the film in one regard as an angry portrait of legal bullshit getting in the road of putting away an obvious malefactor, and its most facetious, for a cop of Harry’s experience would certainly not be so surprised at Rothko’s points. That said, it’s not so bluntly one-eyed as it’s often painted, as both sides are at least allowed to sound with duelling notes of righteous anger: “What about Ann Mary Deacon, what about her?” Harry questions at maximum growl-slur, “Who speaks for her?” “The District Attorney’s office, if you’ll let us,” Rothko retorts. Of course, the film weights the apparent morality in its hero’s favour because the audience understands what a monster Scorpio is and is obliged to agree with Harry’s verdicts. But this identification is double-edged, as Harry does some despicable and dangerous things that go far beyond the pale but also implicate the viewer: if you were in the same situation and felt the same level of personal and professional responsibility, Siegel ultimately states, you’d act the same way.

Perhaps, for Siegel, it’s a quality lying at the innermost core of being human, the eternal tension between animalistic will and evolved conscience, and beneath the deep underlying root where the two fuse into a base instinct for violence that can provoke and be provoked, a problem the very concept of justice attempts to reconcile. Scorpio uses crime to make himself godlike, and forces Harry in turn to embrace the brutish. Harry’s battles with authority are his inner battles with his own superego, the side of him that knows well what’s right and proper but can’t avoid playing the game by Scorpio’s rules, even as the gamester villain changes the rules when it suits him. Meanwhile Harry, happy to have Chico carry on as his partner once he recovers from his wounds, instead has to deal with Chico’s admission that he intends to leave the force, a decision Harry tells Norma is the right one for them as the two have a moment of quiet reflection on their mutual torments, Harry telling the story of his wife’s death and Norma meditating bitterly on the stream of abuse turned on her husband for being a cop, and asking Harry why he puts up with it, his only comment is “I don’t know. I really don’t.”

The portion of Dirty Harry after Scorpio’s release relieves much of the film’s fixated tension and narrative flow, with Harry reduced to following Scorpio around town, even as the tension resets on a slow burn and the air of malignancy gains new substance. Scorpio thinks up a ploy to fend him off, and plan he takes to the extreme of hiring a Black tough guy (Raymond Johnson) to beat him to a bloody pulp so he can then claim Harry did it and make appeal to the protest crowd. Scorpio provokes the heavy with a racial insult to ensure the beating is particularly convincing, and gets more than he asked for, in a scene laced with grotesque undercurrents, including what seems Scorpio’s perverse delight in in ugly provocations and suffering. Scorpio is a peculiar villain in his lack of any specific identity, presented as a Charles Manson-esque figure in seeming like a renegade from the eternal underclass of human flotsam who has evolved his own crazed philosophy that seems to fit the cynical times. Like Manson, despite his hippie-ish affectations, he’s actually a virulent reactionary, racist, homophobic, and greedy, trying constantly to convert his willingness to give and receive violence into multiple forms of profit, with humiliating policemen like Harry (“Don’t you pass out of me yet, you rotten oinker!”) just as much money in the bank as any ransom cash.

The beating at least gets the result he was hoping for: after telling journalists Harry assaulted him, the cop is forcibly ordered by the Chief to stay well away from Scorpio although there isn’t enough evidence to discipline him, which Harry warns him is exactly what Scorpio wants. Harry is of course right, as Scorpio cleverly attains a gun by assaulting a liquor store owner known for defending his store with his pistol, and uses this to hijack a school bus full of kids on their way home along with their terrified driver (Ruth Kobart), and renews his ransom demand. The film’s maniacal edge resurges as Scorpio forces the trapped children to sing schoolyard songs with increasingly crazed and abusive fervour. Meanwhile Harry finally refuses to be involved in yet another attempt to buy the killer off when the Mayor offers him the task. This time instead, knowing Scorpio is heading for the airport, Harry waits on a railway bridge over the road and leaps upon the roof of the bus as it passes underneath.

Siegel builds to Scorpio’s first glimpse of Harry on the bridge, coming right after Scorpio has freaked out all the kids as the embodiment of a childhood nightmare, as an iconic moment of imminent comeuppance to be delivered by a resurgent and purposeful hero, echoing back to the first sighting of John Wayne in Stagecoach: however tarnished, Harry is finally restored as the heir to the gunslinger tradition, and a few shots later Siegel has Harry walk out of a cloud of swirling dust in reference this time to Eastwood’s famous appearance at the final duel in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Siegel is giving a miniature genre film lesson here as well drawing parallels. The subsequent battle is very restrained by modern action movie standards, as Harry tries to keep his purchase despite speed and Scorpio’s bullets, before he is hurled from the bus roof as the vehicle swerves and crashes to a halt before a rock quarry. Scorpio and Harry have a running gunfight around the quarry, a setting that again underlines the neo-Western feel whilst also encompassing Siegel’s penchant for industrial settings a la Edge of Eternity, before Scorpio snatches up a young boy fishing to use as a human shield.

This time, of course, Harry isn’t to be turned, knowing his foe’s tricks too well, seeming to drop his weapon only to lift it again and knock Scorpio on his ass with a well-aimed shot to the shoulder. That still isn’t the end, as Harry delivers the same challenge to test luck to Scorpio – “Did he fire six shots or only five?” – and Scorpio, being who he is, takes his chance. Which proves his last mistake. Harry’s concluding act of throwing away his Inspector’s star badge is still an ambiguous gesture, one probably inspired by Gary Cooper’s Will Kane doing the same at the end of High Noon (1952). Eastwood was afraid doing it here meant the audience would think Harry was quitting the police force, whilst Siegel argued it was simply a gesture meaning he was throwing away bureaucratic limitations, and Pauline Kael took that further to mean he was becoming a vigilante. Personally, I’ve always found it rhymes with the gesture in High Noon, where Kane, whilst still a dedicated believer in justice, signalled nonetheless in the brusquest manner possible he would no longer be the patsy of a community that did not support him. Harry’s gesture similarly signals the same meaning, only aimed at his superiors.

What is certain about this last shot, zooming out to an on-high remove again as the paltry plop of the star hitting the water is heard and Harry turns and heads back towards the bus with a stiff, grave march, with Schifrin’s gently mournful music on sound, is that the victory brings no particularly great satisfaction because many have died, even if the necessary act of shooting the mad dog is done. The great and perpetual problem is that however much we fantasise at being the upright avenger, the hero on the range, the duellist in the dust, such a solution only ever comes too late, after the crime. And Dirty Harry, whilst delivering on that primal and eternal duel, is ultimately most memorable because it keeps that sorry truth in mind.

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2020s

Confessions of a Film Freak 2020

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By Roderick Heath

Well. That was interesting.

This year those of us lucky to survive spent much time hunkered down in physical and psychological siege. For me, as for just about everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct impact on how I watched the movies of this year. Mostly by curtailing my watching them at all. Movie theatres closed down and then reopened without major films to fill screens. The sudden, colossal public demand for internet bandwidth made streaming somewhat difficult for me through much of the year. So my best alternative for viewing new movies was, ironically, the DVD vending machine in my local supermarket. This year, perhaps for good, some barriers between cinema and TV collapsed, but the only thing that’s definitely true for now is that things are in a state of flux. The vigorous mix of trends and styles we usually get in the course of any given movie year was choked off, precious few expansive entertainments and movies of mature and well-honed expression making it under the boom, leaving us mostly with a mealy stream of dumped studio refuse, dour low- and mid-budget dramas, and callow indie movies. For a time I lost interest almost entirely. I wasn’t entirely unhappy with this, as I had an excuse to get off the treadmill of currency and dig into my DVD and blu-ray collection for an epic rewatch of classics and newer movies I hadn’t seen since first release. Good for my head, not so good for this annual Confession.

But my viewings still piled up, and so too did the number of interesting movies and quite a few films that would be great in any year. Given how relatively few of these I’ve written up in the course of the year I’ll be writing more on the films on my favourites list than usual.

Unhinged

2020 felt like debts accrued these past few years coming due, societies at large paying the price for the blindness and incompetence of chosen leaders. So it’s appropriate, if not at all consoling, that a lot of the films that came out this year tended to be grim, savage, punitive in outlook. Many dealt with sexism and racism on manifold levels, along with monstrous greed and malfeasance. Horror movies proliferated and often purveyed a bleak and nightmarish tone. Sadomasochistic psychedelia and surrealism bloomed in films like Possessor, She Dies Tomorrow, Capone, Color Out Of Space, The New Mutants, Tenet, and Shirley. Psychos like the loony avenger in Unhinged, the transparent husband of The Invisible Man, the unseen boss in The Assistant, and the plutocrat husband from hell in Tenet made lives hell for women who offended their egos. People fought for space to release expression and gain fellowship in movies like Night of the Kings, Birds of Prey, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; A Rainy Day In New York, Mank, Lovers Rock, First Cow, The New Mutants, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Emma, Sonic the Hedgehog, On The Rocks, and Mulan. Others battled to simply claw their way out of deadly abysses and provide proof of their own existence, as in Underwater, Above Suspicion, Capone, Extraction, The Midnight Sky, Greyhound, Rogue, The Outpost, 12 Hour Shift, The Rhythm Section, Ava, Kajillionaire, Escape From Pretoria, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Bacurau, Palm Springs, Ammonite, I’m Your Woman, and VFW.

Greyhound

The time-slipping warriors of Tenet went to war with the future, with fate, itself. The young folk of The Vast of Night discovered how flimsy the substance of their stolid reality was and slipped through the cracks into realms unknown. Others faced the collapse of their personalities in the face of stronger ones or vortexes of confusion caused by destabilising reference points of body and mind, like the brainjacking antiheroine of Possessor, the constantly rebooted hero forced to re-experience his deepest trauma in Bloodshot, and the innocent abroad perverted out of shape in Shirley. Delroy Lindo’s shambolic ‘Nam vet in Da 5 Bloods seemed like the incarnation of the moment in his fervent, volatile, desperate need to express something chokingly inexpressible whilst feeling like spear-points levelled all around. Characters faced with endemic, even universal corruption and inequity in films like Da 5 Bloods, The Whistlers, Bad Hair, 12 Hour Shift, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Wild Goose Lake reacted by endangering themselves and their identities for what they judged the worthwhile risk of slicing off a piece of the pie; antiheroes in the likes of Capone and Greed felt the same urge even in the lap of luxury as age and the world’s repudiation starts whittling them down. Tyrannical regimes ascended and demanded resistance and familiar systems crumbled into anarchy in films like Bacurau, New Order, Night of the Kings, Escape From Pretoria, and Tenet.

The Rhythm Section

In further irony the wing of cinema most usually ubiquitous was the one almost entirely muted for most of the year: Hollywood superhero blockbusters. One of the few to see release was Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, which proved a last gasp for the familiar X-Men franchise even though intended as a new beginning, doomed to sit on the shelf for a couple of years amidst the tumult of 20th Century Fox’s purchase by Disney and then be dumped by its new owner to drum up some streaming revenue with a sigh of expedience. The film took a refreshingly indirect path towards the familiar mutant spectacle in portraying a quintet of adolescents being held in a near-deserted and fancifully segregated gothic hospital, contending with Alice Braga’s manipulative therapist and the mysterious and frightening talents for conjuring terrors the latest inductee seems to wield. The film courted the YA crowd in hiring The Fault In Our Stars director Boone, who made sure to keep including clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the rec room TV to let us know what his touchstone was, as well as nudging everything from The Breakfast Club to Girl, Interrupted. The film was largely trashed by both genre fans and critics, but it didn’t really deserve to be, sporting a lot of overlap with M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass but not nearly so affected. A solidly creepy, horror movie-lite tone was wedded to a straightforward take on the series’ driving urge to link teenage angst to superhuman traits with some decent performances, and sporting a refreshingly gentle queer romance at its centre.

Bloodshot

Derrick Borte’s Unhinged offered a merging of Duel and TV movie psycho stalker tale, as Caren Pisotorius’ listless divorcee was forced to fight for her life and the people she loves when she crosses paths in a heated moment on the road with Russell Crowe’s psychotic creep, who sets about avenging a minor infraction with a campaign of terrorism and murder. The result was a fun, tense throwback to an earlier age of down-to-earth, pulse-pumping thriller fare, but its ultimate impact was foiled by constant resorting to idiot logic as well as oddly wasting Crowe in a straightforward monster role, when the film could have tapped him for a stranger and more discomforting portrait of frustration and rage. David S.F. Wilson’s Bloodshot was a slick modern B-movie with a plotline that came across like a bit of a throwback to the days of weird grow-your-own-superhero flicks like Darkman, sporting Vin Diesel as a man brought back from the dead and imbued with incredible powers by nanotechnology and employed as a super assassin by the inevitably cast Guy Pearce. A good mid-film plot twist and some peculiarly lyrical visuals made the watching vaguely worthwhile, although the script was ultimately far too unambitious, and a strong cast, rounded out by Eiza Gonzalez and Sam Heughen, went almost sadistically wasted.

The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man picked at an interesting loose thread in blending the Wellsian concept of a scientific genius who makes himself invisible and uses it to evil ends, and the everyday psychological anxiety of spousal abuse and mental cruelty, the idea of the malevolent person close to you deconstructing your sense of reality. So Whannel’s inventor was also an abusive creep bent on using his invisibility device to torment and ultimately destroy his former partner, played by an inevitably cast Elisabeth Moss, in a slow-mounting campaign of harassment and victimisation. An interesting idea, one that ultimately wasn’t really developed much beyond the obvious, with Whannell just a little too eager to conflate his own showmanship with his villain’s. He relieved the psychological tension too soon, his story played out in an unconvincing milieu, and his plot kept offering huge holes in logic for a movie trying to offer relatively believable sci-fi excitement, particularly the superficially clever ending.

Possessor

David Cronenberg’s son Brandon made a bold gambit to anoint himself heir to his father’s unique cinematic kingdom with Possessor, exploring similar realms of body horror, conspiracy, and psychic disruption. Cronenberg the Younger cast the ever-valiant Andrea Riseborough as a fraying woman with unique aptitude for the latest realm in corporate warfare, having her consciousness plugged into the minds of luckless people chosen to commit assassinations, only to find herself trapped inside her latest mark and experiencing bizarre new zones of identity on the way to a bloody consummation. Cronenberg employed a fascinating premise and occasionally lighted upon a striking image in offering a surreal flux of style and story in portraying any sure sense of physical and mental reality dissolving. But as the film droned on it became a dull and oppressive chore punctuated by blunt, witless gore, the ideas lost amongst the overbearing style, and by the end the young pretender seemed practically interchangeable with any number of his father’s legions of imitators in film schools and music videos.

Bad Hair

Dear White People director Justin Simien seemed to develop good-humoured ambitions to get in on some of that sweet Jordan Peele money by making his own horror movie revolving around racial paranoia with Bad Hair. Set in 1989, Simien’s film portrayed a young woman, well-played by newcomer Elle Lorraine, beset by unruly hair, who chooses to get a radical new weave for the sake of making the leap from the production staff at a Black audience-aimed cable TV staff to on-camera star, only to find her lovely fake tresses have a vampiric life of her their own and will take over her mind entirely if she doesn’t fight it. With an eye to introducing an aspect of cultural anthropology rather than only nostalgic callbacks (but those too), Simien offered wittily exact recreations of the era’s music videos and would-be streetwise pop culture. Likewise he nailed the tone of a lot of low-budget horror cinema from the same era whilst giving the template a racially conscious makeover, and managed to make the most awkward of monstrous threats work. He also made great use of a cast full of old-school faces including Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. Only towards the end did the film lose some control, letting the climax turn goofy and trying a little too hard to ram a message home.

Da 5 Bloods

Meanwhile Spike Lee, the now-venerable yet ever-restless dean of African-American cinema, returned with Da 5 Bloods, one of many films of late to offer homage-cum-variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This one focused on four aging survivors of a tight-knit gang of Black Vietnam War soldiers who return to the former warzone to retrieve a stolen horde of gold and the body of a lamented comrade, but find themselves fighting thieves and each-other with equal ferocity for the prize. Lee still hadn’t lost any of his ambition, trying to blend rich humanity, in depicting his shambolic heroes and the hapless people they draw into their madness, with fluorescent melodrama and agitprop signposting. Lee’s script, despite many nods to other movies (the Apocalypse Now-themed dance club in modern Ho Chi Minh City was some kind of evil genius), was another work along the lines of Get On The Bus (1996) and He Got Game (1999), in presenting a situational portrait of a gamut of Black experience and dealing with generational as well as racial and national incomprehension. Delroy Lindo, as the most reactionary and damaged of the team, gave a near-Olympian performance, and the late Chadwick Boseman had a salutary cameo as the fallen comrade who served as the team’s political conscience, feeling between the two of them like the psychic poles of Lee’s aesthetic sensibility. The film was ultimately hampered by Lee’s familiar failings in not knowing when and how to quit nor nail a cohesive tone (I counted down to the moment when a character would “shockingly” step on a landmine), eventually taking recourse in tired twists and an ungainly last act. To be honest, nothing in it threatened to displace Dead Presidents in portraying the Black Vietnam experience.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

August Wilson’s lauded play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was brought to screens by Tony-winning stage director George C. Wolfe, handing career-capping parts to Viola Davis as the legendary chanteuse and “mother of the blues” and Chadwick Boseman in his last role as her aggressively ambitious but psychologically fraying trumpeter who finds his sustaining fantasies fatally endangered, in a story charting a mounting sense of crisis in the course of a hot Chicago day in a recording studio. Wilson’s theatrical architecture and lacerating perspective on the two main characters’ attempts to gain, wield, and show power in a culture that ritualises denying it to you according were largely transferred intact and made voluble by the potent, if unabashedly large, performances from the whole cast. Wolfe’s direction was slick and showy, however, with an overly-stylised recreation of the period milieu that lacked the crackle of verisimilitude to properly offset the balletic force of the dialogue, to really communicate the mounting furore and fetid mood and give a space to the telling: everything, including the actors, felt buffed and shiny and well-arranged. Some moments, like the start of Boseman’s epic central monologue, seemed more like filmed theatre than film. Still, no movie that records such vital drama is negligible.

The King of Staten Island

Judd Apatow tried to do for Saturday Night Live player Pete Davidson what he did for a battery of rising comedy stars back in his ‘00s heyday, and forge him an iconic star vehicle with The King of Staten Island. This took the interesting route of presenting Davidson not in some hyped-up farce but in an autobiographical comedy-drama drawn from his own experience as the son of a firefighter who died on the job: Davidson’s shambolic alter ego Scott Carlin had struggled well into adulthood with mental health problems and a general habit of weed-huffing ennui. Apatow drew low-key humour and feels from the character’s plight as he’s forced to come to terms with the past and head into the world after his mother finally gets another boyfriend, also a firefighter. The film finished up foiling itself on several levels despite Apatow’s talent for enabling vibrant acting. The cliché story arc felt at odds with its attempt to explore the fallout of grief and dislocation whilst the everyone-talks-like-an-improv-star style of verbal humour leeched the realism. Apatow ruined the story’s argument that Scott had worthy talent for some cheap laughs, and Apatow’s tendency to ramble on was particularly pronounced to no greatly enriching end. Supporting performances, including Marisa Tomei as Davidson’s mother and Bill Burr as her new love, tended to overshadow Davidson’s modestly appealing but one-note characterisation.

Palm Springs

Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs took up Harold Ramis’ beloved Groundhog Day and gave it a contemporary spin, that is by grafting on a very lead character type to The King of Staten Island, casting Andy Samberg as a young man caught in a time loop that dooms him to repeat the same day in the title locale, thanks to a freaky geological-quantum physical event and so exists in a state of wilful, lackadaisical disconnection, only to be eventually joined by an angry coot (J.K. Simmons) and a young woman (Cristin Milioti). The former constantly kills him whilst he finds himself falling for the latter, demanding a true reckoning with their situation that involves both achieving a level of maturity and purpose alien to them so far. Barbakow tried to augment the core theme of Ramis’ film, the futility of life lived without love, by confronting the hero with his female foil and making them reckon with their failings in terms of other people. But ultimately the film tried and failed to blend absurdist humour and earnestness, without many great jokes, and failing to really develop their journey into anything particularly memorable, aiming for a note of emotional crescendo in the final confrontation with mortal risk but ultimately remaining jammed in a gear of hipster self-satisfaction.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Andrew Pattinson’s The Vast of Night was subtler and more truly disconcerting in presenting a destabilisation of reality that also encompassed a fledgling romantic relationship faced with the difficulty of escaping the stolid, whilst also harkening back to the glory days of science fiction fandom and a newly weird evocation of 1950s American society. Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog tried to wrangle a coherent plot out of the beloved vintage video game, presenting the title character as an interdimensional exile hunted by government agents led by the arrogant Dr Robotnik and protected by a small town cop. The movie was tolerable but also as numbingly bland and ambition-free as last year’s Pokemon movie. It did have a fun performance from Jim Carrey as Robotnik, particularly the extraneous yet delightful scene where he combined bad guy business and workout by dancing to “Evil Grows In the Dark,” the kind of moment that reminds how you how much a real comic actor can be worth amidst a sea of boring CGI.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

I hadn’t seen any work by Giuseppe Capotondi since his interesting The Double Hour back in 2011, so was intrigued to take a look at his The Burnt Orange Heresy, an adaptation of a well-received novel depicting a disgraced art critic and historian, who, just after commencing an affair with an enigmatic young woman, is handed a chance to revive his career when a tycoon (played by a wittily-cast Mick Jagger) offers to get him an interview with a reclusive and legendary artist if he’ll steal one of his unseen trove of artworks for his collection. What seemed set to be a posh thriller about skulduggery in well-decorated rooms proved eventually to instead be a rather noirish study in self-destructive characters and creative and moral bankruptcy. A clever subtext ironically dramatized the often inverted stereotype role of host and parasite in art and criticism, as well as the misogyny subsisting in the modern art world. The acting, particularly from Elizabeth Debicki as a doomed adventurer and Donald Sutherland as the artist with all his hard-won wisdom, helped impose cohesion on a plot that required to some forced-feeling twists to occur.

Above Suspicion

Similar in its ultimate focus and upshot, despite a radically different setting, was Philip Noyce’s true crime drama Above Suspicion, focusing on a notorious incident from the late 1980s involving the fallout of a clandestine affair between a go-getting FBI agent assigned to an Appalachian backwater and drift into an affair with the much-abused young woman who becomes his key informant in her desire to escape a den of lowlifes and drug abuse. Emilia Clarke’s surprisingly strong turn as the angry, wilful, infuriating antiheroine, seemingly cursed to a daisy-chain existence of succumbing to her own flaws as well as the weakness of the men in her life, gave the film enough juice to keep it watchable. But Noyce’s direction eventually lost its way, and delivered what should have been a grimly compelling last-act study in personal and institutional hypocrisy in a rushed and slipshod manner. Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake was another, specifically localised spin on genre movie clichés and with a similar structure in confronting a young woman repeatedly with the bloody debris of crime and justice, taking on a classic style of noir tale, the man being hunted by authorities, and using it to anatomise the social landscape of modern China.

Mulan

Amongst the deluge of girl-power narratives this year, Niki Caro’s live-action remake for Disney of their 1990s hit Mulan again recounted the popular Chinese myth of a young woman who defies norms and dresses as a man to go to war for the sake of the family name. This finished up one of the more perplexing if not worthless misfires of the year. Caro’s filming looked good in a chintzy fashion, but the flimsy script swapped out the original film’s celebration of its heroine’s cleverness and competence for a cod-Star Wars narrative depicting the title character as a wondrous phenomenon who needs to reclaim her femininity to achieve her potential, but playing awkward games in trying to reconcile the model’s celebration of eruptive individualism with respectful traditionalism for the sake of making inroads with the Chinese market. Humour and music were discarded, too, in favour of a string of expensive but half-hearted action scenes. Given the large number of authentic wu xia films with kick-ass female heroes and villains going back decades in films made with much more elan, Hollywood trying to sell its own confusion with such things back to the Chinese was definitely trying to teach grandma to suck eggs.

Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Another tale of a young woman weathering a world of criminals was Julia Hart’s slow-burn and realistic I’m Your Woman. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn took a different tack, wielding a waggish sense of humour in presenting a gang of crime-fighting female frenemies as drawn from the DC Comics universe, led after a fashion by Margot Robbie’s semi-reformed gangster’s moll and general-purpose nutjob, in a would-be jaunty and colourful distaff edition of the Deadpool and Kick-Ass movies. Yan displayed an occasionally striking eye in sporadic neo-psychedelic visuals, but the film proved a teeth-gritting experience for the most part, with a script that felt like a mishmash of strategies, incompetent in trying to reconcile the divergent projects of providing a Robbie star vehicle whilst also introducing the titular team, who didn’t even meet up until the film’s climactic scenes and lacked any sign of group chemistry when they did. Plus the fact that, well, its comedy wasn’t really that funny and the action sporadic and lumpen, a nasty and bullying streak failing to mesh with the frivolity. Only newcomer Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead gave flashes of the right stuff, whilst Ewan McGregor gave the worst performance of his career as the bad guy.

Ava

Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section and Tate Taylor’s Ava both offered stories revolving around that much-fetishised modern archetype, the female assassin, the former charting the steady transformation of Blake Lively’s debased trauma victim into a cool and purposeful killer, the latter casting Jessica Chastain as one in the prime of her career but feeling the constant tug of old weaknesses and emotional ties. Of the two films The Rhythm Section was initially the more interesting, with Morano suggesting a feel for action and atmosphere as well as a patient touch for the essential character drama, the process of rebuilding a shattered self in dealing with an intriguingly (if ultimately excessively) closed-off and unsentimental protagonist: a lot of movies this year mistook blank unreadableness for stoic strength. The film eventually fell apart, the story trickling out in some terribly anticlimactic scenes. The reliably awful Taylor meanwhile applied clumsy, cheap-looking style to Ava, and Chastain, strong as ever on an acting level, never quite convinced as a lethal creature of balletic motion. The script tried to say something interesting about addiction and reckoning with damage left in its wake, at least, almost to the point of displacing the flimsy genre story, and the cast, particularly Colin Farrell as the villain, did their best to play up the modicum of substance.

Escape From Pretoria

Francis Anann’s Escape From Pretoria offered up a good old-fashioned, based-on-fact escape-from-prison tale, depicting the efforts by some white South African anti-apartheid campaigners (including one played by Daniel Radcliffe), railroaded for lengthy prisons stretches, who set about breaking free by taking advantage of the small but consequential security lapses of their arrogant but dim-witted guardians. Anann handled the suspense sequences and the minutiae of the escapees’ method with attentive skill, but the film never escaped prison movie canards or truly investigated its characters and their plight beyond the superficial, and so remained only a modestly gripping diversion. Tom Hanks returned to a World War II milieu for Greyhound, based on a C.S. Forester novel, with Hanks playing the inexperienced but quick-study captain of a destroyer on his first convoy escort mission during the Battle of the Atlantic, battling a rapacious U-boat pack and heavy weather with a cool head and a sense of religious duty. Director Aaron Schneider handled the high seas action very well, with a palpable sense of the setting and maintaining a high-pressure mood throughout, really nailing the feeling of being locked in a duel with utterly remorseless enemies. But, again, the film’s nods towards human drama were barely sufficient, including a stiff and unconvincing prologue sporting Elizabeth Shue as Hanks’ girlfriend, and it would certainly have been better spurning that stuff altogether and keeping focus purely on the business at hand.

The Outpost

Rod Lurie’s The Outpost was another warzone plunge, depicting the true story of a small US Marines garrison in a remote Afghani valley in 2009, a seemingly cursed locale that keeps losing COs. Eventually the outpost becomes the object of a large, committed Taliban assault in what became known as the Battle of Kamdesh, resulting in the first ever awarding of two Medals of Honor for a single action. Lurie tried to delve into the dynamics of the garrison and its personnel in a more restrained and realistic manner than a lot of recent War on Terror-age movies with less blustery machismo and some attention devoted to the uncomfortable tilts at outreach and community-building defining the soldiers’ relationships with their local hosts before everything goes to shit, trying to earn comparisons with precursors like Zulu and Pork Chop Hill. Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry-Jones anchored the film effectively as the two rather different types of hero, but somehow the other soldiers remained not terribly well-delineated as a collective of personalities or even faces, and Lurie’s constantly moving camera was often aggravating and confusing rather than intensifying, badly hampering the intended sense of intimacy even if did convey toey entrapment.

Extraction

Extraction tried to install Chris Hemsworth in an action movie role worthy of an icon of the genre, casting him as a mercenary hired against his misgivings and the wind drag of background pain to rescue the kidnapped son of a drug mogul from his even nastier rival, finding himself trapped on the ground in an Indian city and forced to fight his way out with the lad. The film delivered the requisite dose of shooting, punching, running, and jumping in a year starved of such basic cinematic pleasures. It was also an uneasy attempt to blend a gritty, old-school style of action-thriller with slick, hyped-up, John Wick-derived gun-fu business, two modes which to me can’t really be reconciled, and the wall-to-wall fisticuffs and spasmodic plot crowded out interesting elements, like Golshifteh Farahani’s equally proficient and vengeful partner.

Rogue

M.J. Barrett’s Rogue offered a version of the same basic plot only done on the cheap and with some killer lions thrown into the mix. Barrett cast Megan Fox as the appointed rescuer with a team of fellow badasses sent in to save some kidnapped schoolgirls from a vicious extremist group in an unnamed African nation. The unconvincing CGI lions and air of low-budget waywardness almost foiled the film, and Fox, trying to get gritty and de-glammed, didn’t convince despite offering a decent performance. As a whole, though, Rogue was a moderately engaging mixture of the ungainly and the likeable, trying to offer many of its characters moments to make them specific and empathetic, and sell itself as a message movie wrapped in a shoot-’em-up.

VFW

Joe Begos’ VFW was a similarly, self-consciously and happily trashy throwback B-movie, offering up a wonderful collection of aging but still potent genre movie faces including Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and William Sadler, as a gang of war veterans hanging around one of the titular watering holes who find themselves fighting off an army of brain-dead addicts and punk gangsters. The official style guide was early period John Carpenter with George Romero gore and some nods to Neil Marshall as well, the story a bare-faced if honest rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13. The cast interacted well, including young ringer Sierra McCormick as the truculent cause of the battle who proves every bit as ornery as the old coots, and the film provided some solid, grimy fun. The directing was jittery and clumsy when it came to action, however, and the script was sketchy, lacking the kind of casual wit and feel for character its models wielded, so it didn’t add up to anything more than a fun-sick diversion.

Underwater

William Eubank’s Underwater, released early in the year after sitting on the shelf for a while, blended disaster and monster movie and tried, like VFW and a score of recent movies, to sustain something like traditional dramatic values whilst also playing out a high-pressure situational thriller, shearing off the first act and cutting to the chase. Eubank started with everything going to hell and followed his emergent heroes as they try to survive an attack by a Lovecraftian monstrosity on their deep-sea drilling structure. The film also tried something interesting in making Kristen Stewart’s hardy protagonist, schooled well by grief in struggling through terror and darkness, provide the undertone of emotional evanescence investing the story. The result was, again, watchable and modestly entertaining, and yet failed to develop any aspect of itself enough to really count, never really scary or exciting or engaging sufficiently with its characters, even Stewart’s, to make the film truly thrilling or memorable. Plus the elaborate but murky special effects were trying.

Color Out Of Space

Veteran genre freak and pariah Richard Stanley finally returned to feature directing a quarter-century after his infamous sacking from The Island of Dr. Moreau, with another tilt at adapting a classic sci-fi/horror story. This was H.P. Lovecraft’s already twice-filmed Color Out Of Space, the story of a small New England farming family, here recast from Lovecraft’s eccent yokels to very modern folk, unlucky enough to have an unnatural meteorite land on their farm and begin affecting flora, fauna, and themselves in increasingly disturbing fashion. Stanley made sure to present his story and sketch atmosphere with a thankfully old-fashioned approach as well as good-looking photography, whilst his reading of Lovecraft’s story tried to turn it into a barbed portrait of family identity and the cruelty of time and nature working upon it. His approach to the body horror aspect of the story was strongly indebted to John Carpenter’s The Thing, whilst trying for an appropriately disquieting new edge of intimacy. Despite real initial promise, however, Stanley lost control quite badly, the build-up to insanity breaking out spasmodic and unconvincing when it arrived, the horror derivative, and most frustratingly, the characterisations never cohered. Altogether the experience was largely depressing.

Tenet

Christopher Nolan tried and largely failed to revive the year’s cinema-going mojo when he decided to release his latest opus Tenet in theatres, and those who did see it were often mixed in their feelings. So of course I liked this crossbreed of action and sci-fi more than most of his films to date, appreciating his stabs at giving some urgency to his characters and their plights, in a tale of a secret organisation in the present day battling a mysterious cabal in the future who, per some of Nolan’s weapons-grade gobbledygook, send people and objects back in a reversed time flow with an ultimate aim to reverse-colonising the past. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson did fun work as the uneasily partnered heroes and Elizabeth Debicki was affecting as the wife of Kenneth Branagh’s vicious Russian arms dealer who has his own motives for aiding the future enemy. As usual for Nolan, however, the conceptual gymnastics eventually displaced the personal drama and his ham-fisted visual style often foiled the thrills.

The Midnight Sky

George Clooney offered The Midnight Sky, casting himself as a brilliant but emotionally distant and deathly ill astronomer residing in an Arctic research station. His theory that a newly discovered Jovian moon has life-supporting potential has just been confirmed by an exploratory mission, including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler, now journeying back to Earth in their massive spaceship. But an unspecified apocalyptic event devastates the Earth, leaving polar regions temporarily untouched and the scientist marooned with a young girl who seems to have been accidentally left behind. The story counterpoints the two groups as the scientist and girl make a desperate journey across the Greenland wastes to reach a base with a large enough satellite dish to warn off the spacefarers, who have their own problems. Clooney set up an initially compelling set of situations and tried to weave a rarefied mood of blasted but lingering humanism, whilst offering some of his most visually accomplished filmmaking to date, including an excellent spacewalk sequence and ensuing crisis. None of that stopped the film proving an embarrassingly hackneyed disaster, with climactic revelations that reduced the whole film to a painful gimmick enabled with absurd coincidence, and themes illustrated with head-slapping obviousness. It’s the sort of movie that makes you hiss and shake your head for hours afterwards.

Emma

Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks and Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York shared both a level of ardour for New York as a seat of wistful dreams and comforting alienation whilst confronting different stages in life, youthful floundering in the latter, middle-aged fear and aging regret in the former. Experienced music video director Autumn de Wilde made her feature debut by getting into the Jane Austen adaptation business with Emma because, well, apparently enough time had passed since the Gwyneth Paltrow version. 2020’s most employed new star Anya Taylor-Joy was cast as Austen’s self-satirising heroine, artful arranger of domestic bliss who must contend with her own perturbing love-life. De Wilde followed Whit Stillman’s example in adopting a highly affected style, complete with arch performances designed to mimic the crisply ordered flow of Austenian prose but instead locking into a frieze of affectation, a strategy I found initially very hard to take. The film began to work, that said, when it started to relax in its second half and allowed the characters and their reactions to deepen.

Ammonite

Francis Lee’s Ammonite was a radically different take on the period romance mode, and depicted an interesting and neglected female figure of history, in this case working class paleontological pioneer Mary Anning. Whilst many compared it to last year’s Portrait of a Woman on Fire really Ammonite was closer to faux-Mike Leigh, with Lee weaving a remarkably immediate sense of her windswept stomping grounds on the English coastline and the tight, tense world of regional life in the 19th century. But without much if anything to say about the interest that was the driving obsession of Anning’s life, Lee decided to invent a lesbian romance for her on the thinnest pretext so as to sell it to a current audience for PC brownie points. Said romance, between Kate Winslet’s dour, impenetrable impersonation and Saoirse Ronan as the grieving young mother she’s saddled with by her distractible nerd husband, was modestly engaging and sported a pivotal sex scene that was at least more realistic and less diagrammatic than many such recent set-pieces of queer passion. But the film still never penetrated Anning’s mind beyond the self-evident, indeed leaving her as mostly the same lugubrious bore it presented her as at the start, in the sort of narrative that wants to be celebratory and liberating but was actually subtly sexist.

Shirley

Josephine Decker’s Shirley united several aesthetic strands of the year’s cinema, blending biopic, semi-surrealist mind-bending, quasi-feminist cultural anthropology, and psychological narrative. The nominal focal point was the beloved master of discomforting fiction Shirley Jackson, incarnated by a tic-ridden Elisabeth Moss, contending with the tantalising disparity between the writer’s bizarre and fecund artistic sensibility and her life as a housebound, cripplingly neurotic wife to a minor teaching star in the midst of stolid academia. The film divested the couple of their real-life children and invented a young couple, all the better to filch from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, invited to lodge with them only to be manipulated and finally subsumed into the creative process and the cult of personality. Decker’s style grew high-handed very quickly, offering scene after scene of Sapphic-tinged witchypoo nonsense between Jackson and her young female protégé/victim filmed in excessive close-up, in a desperate attempt to create an unstable and ambiguous mood, even if the narrative ultimately boiled down to some trite and vague statements about the relationship between life and creativity. Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson’s alternately insufferable and understanding mate was, when all was said and done, the best reason to watch; Moss, despite working really hard, was oddly wasted.

Capone

Josh Trank’s Capone, pitched as his comeback after the evil fate that befell his Fantastic Four, took a similar approach to the basic chore of the biopic. Trank tried to capture the state of mind of the legendary gangster in his last year by reproducing the garbled, ghost-filled perceptions of a brain eaten out by syphilis, with Capone desperately trying to hold on to his sanity long enough to aid his family and fend off a still-dogging government. Capone seemed to have everything going for it, with a major star in Tom Hardy tackling an inherently interesting historical figure. But the film was a squalid disaster, completely failing to make any element of its plot or strained stabs at emotional catharsis mean anything and wasting an excellent cast. Trank instead offered indigestible wads of fake Lynchian strangeness and corny CGI visions, and with Hardy chewing the scenery, furniture, and fellow actors with a flatly grotesque performance.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

By contrast Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 took a more traditional approach to recreating a historical moment and its antagonists, applying slick theatricality in invoking the heady days of the 1960s antiwar movement and the facetious prosecution of protest leaders to make them shoulder the blame for the riots around the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sorkin’s script took many liberties with events and characterisations, and his ultimate intellectual project, despite all the invited likenesses between the Nixon and Trump regimes and period and current activism, was actually looking at internal style conflicts on the left and the tension between Sorkin’s preferred brand of institutional-minded reformer and the boogeyman of genuine social rebels, obliging Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman to become his duelling puppets in this. Sorkin’s still a rather basic director in many ways and his primly loquacious politicking was almost amusingly wrong for dealing with the wild and shambolic energy of its topic, but his cross-cutting style helped keep things propulsive, with Frank Langella delivering a peach of a scary-funny performance the trial’s fossilised judge.

Incitement

Incitement saw Israeli director Yaron Zilberman dealing with a topic that must have taken some nerve to tackle, given the way it still echoes through Middle East politics: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a law student and fixated ultranationalist. The young killer’s journey to the fateful moment was charted with a rigorous sense of both psychological and political context, including the right-wing Rabbis who urged him on, and the political figures who benefited from the stoked, fervent deploring of Rabin’s peace moves. Zilberman’s intense, intimate handling and deft mixture of recreation and news footage helped make the time and place palpable, and the script was smart in contending with the tensions within the Israeli social make-up rarely noted by outsiders. Zilberman’s accusatory thesis set out to depict radicalisation as a process of intellectual seduction and mental colonisation from specialists in rhetoric who would like to create a certain outcome but not perform it themselves, relying on double-edged statements and seeking out amanuenses smart enough to join the dots and compelled by their own interior needs. This aspect gave Incitement relevance transcending the specifics of the story it tackles, even if perhaps its psychology was a bit too straightforward.

Mank

David Fincher returned for his first feature in six years with Mank, a biopic inevitably close to his heart, written as it was by his father Jack. Mank proposed to tell the story of screenwriter extraordinaire Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman. Fincher the elder’s script took the ever-controversial writing of Citizen Kane as a framing device but looked more to the acerbic and decent but also sadly alcoholic Mankiewicz’s immersion in the Hollywood of its day and his encounters with the plutocratic power of William Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and others. The Finchers’ desire to “take the writer’s side,” as they had a character put it, had an honourable purpose in celebrating people often under the heel of old Hollywood’s hierarchy. But even putting aside the extremely debatable portrayal of Kane‘s development, I found the film was an intensely aggravating and ultimately dire experience for several reasons. The imitation of Kane‘s structure was scattershot, the script far too in love with its approximations of Mankiewicz’s Algonquin wit deployed in drawn-out but not terribly illuminating sequences, and yet never quite managed to be genuinely funny or ironic, littered with fudged facts and anachronisms. Fincher’s familiar tendency to foil his undoubted technical prowess with flat, fidgety visuals, trying desperately to look retro-classy, was rendered particularly trying by Erik Messerschmidt’s occasionally well-composed but too often drab-looking, blow-out-happy black-and-white photography. Only Amanda Seyfried’s excellent Marion Davies was a good reason to watch.

The Gentlemen

For a rather more interesting and bloodcurdling exploration of the connection between power and storytelling, Philippe Lacôte tried to explore the schismatic mind of post-colonial Africa in Night of the Kings through the fetid microcosm of a prison where ancient tribal rituals and strange social compacts reign, but the thrill of both individual and communal expression still has meaning. Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock tackled some similar ideas and images but in a more familiar context. Trying to earn back a little of his street cred after the cinematic autotune of Aladdin and the punishingly empty spectacle of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie returned again to his roots in the Cockney gangland flick with The Gentlemen. Matthew McConaughey was deftly cast as a transplanted ganja kingpin battling off both enemies and supposed friends long enough to sell his business, in a narrative that proved good as a black comedy-thriller and better as a free-form satire contending with Brexit-era Britain as a prospective haven for all kinds of scamps, ruled by a venal press, a waned and cashless aristocracy, and a shaken Pax Americana, spiced up with a deal of meta play. Neat performances, particularly from Michelle Dockery as McConaughey’s stiletto-clad, derringer wielding “Cockney Cleopatra,” helped a lot. As with all of Ritchie’s films the result was patchy in its levels of invention and wit and purveyed all at the same volume, but it had a droll and flavourful texture overall and sufficient jolts of seriousness when required.

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow saw writer-director Amy Seimetz trying to dramatise a rarefied and difficult subject, the feeling of dread and despair in confronting mortality, in portraying a metastasising epidemic amongst a group of acquaintances who all become convinced, through some enigmatic influence, that they’re going to die the following day. The theme is certainly always worth tackling and indeed for some effectively represented the experience of 2020 in specific, but Seimitz’s chosen method was impenetrably pretentious and pseudo-experimental. Michel Franco’s New Order confronted straits just as nightmarish but with a far more immediate method, portraying a klepto-fascist regime taking control of Mexico using an underclass revolt as a pretext, with conclusions that were difficult to stomach but certainly valid in invoking pockets of recent world history. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau played an inverse game in depicting determined resistance to fascistic thuggery in a Latin American context, this time Brazil, via a loopy semi-futuristic parable. Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers was an equally eccentric but likewise dug into the problem of retaining your autonomy and humanity, and indeed your life, in a country where corruption and political malfeasance are a way of life and even decent people can be forced to countenance dangerous acts.

Kajillionaire

Reigning queen of American indie oddball Miranda July presented Kajillionaire, an initially intriguing, bizarre tale depicting a drop-out couple and their androgynous, clever, but socially maladroit daughter, dedicated to living off the grid in the concrete forest of LA and subsisting through petty crimes and scams, or what the father calls “skimming.” Their tight-knit unit began disintegrating once another young woman comes into their orbit, slowly drawing the daughter towards something resembling normality. Parts of this were ingenious, like a central sequence where the gang invaded a dying old man’s house and found themselves pressganged into recreating familial sounds to help him pass on, fulfilling his need for the illusion of domesticity even as they parody it according to their distaste for such things. July’s point, the difficulty for children of nonconformist families to orientate themselves in the world at large, came through in the deliberate exaggeration, and the excellence of the cast, with Wood giving a witty, physical, quietly pathos-ridden performance and Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger both amusing and excruciating, did a lot to keep the movie going. Still, July’s eccentric flourishes felt contrived and artificial as often as they worked, and the characters never felt real enough for their plights, and affections, to convince.

The Nest

Sean Durkin’s The Nest played as a tonal and situational inversion of Kajillionaire and yet was preoccupied by the same ideas: the perversity of family and the illusory nature of prosperity versus the necessity of rooting in the world. Durkin cast Jude Law and Carrie Coon (both quite excellent) as a 1980s couple with two kids who move from the US back to the husband’s homeland in England so he can take a job in a share trading firm he used to work in. The family soon face a slow-tightening gyre of anxiety and anger as the husband, driven by personal demons, tries to push big deals that won’t come to fund his fantasy lifestyle victory, including renting a huge, creepy country house, whilst the rest become increasingly aware of their tenuous position. As with his Martha Marcy May Marlene but with less justification, Durkin blended what was ultimately a story preoccupied by material (and materialist) truths with stylistic flourishes borrowed from horror movies to build tension and dread, constantly suggesting a haunted house with miscuing visual flourishes only to reveal – gasp! – the only ghosts are in the characters’ heads. Such devices, as well as the more literal one involving a dead horse, got in the way of a drama that, whilst straining at points to indict aspirational entitlement and entrepreneurial smokescreens, had substance and needling accuracy in depicting mounting familial crisis, and the last shot captured exhausted catharsis and ceded power like the release of a breath held for nearly two hours.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, despite its very different setting and style, told a not-so-dissimilar story in depicting characters taking too many risks to cut themselves off a slice of the capitalist dream. Reichardt told the story of two outsiders in a stretch of frontier forest somewhere in the American northwest in the early 1800s, who become friends and partners in commerce and find themselves a hit when one man’s talent for baking earns them the custom of people desperate for real cooking, only with the caveat that their successful wares depend upon milk taken at night from the one cow in the district, belonging to Toby Jones’ local bigwig. Reichardt avoided repeating ideas from Meek’s Cut-Off, her previous blend of deflated Western mythology and ultrarealist moodiness, and her calm, determinedly unhurried style drank in time and place, the visual exposition clean, some real elegance to the evocation of a constant edge of the absurd to life in such a place. The lead characters however remained flat and dull (despite Orion Lee’s class as one of the men, a well-travelled Chinese sailor), and the film took two hours to reach a predestined point, the upshot far too obvious. Reichardt is almost certainly the most talented of the ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers and yet she’s now butting against the limits of such a recessive, exterior style. Casting René Auberjonois in one of his last roles acknowledged the debt to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the comparison with Altman’s jostling, fecund, detailed take on similar material wasn’t that flattering.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Kitty Green’s The Assistant and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always both dealt with very young women traversing the isolating climes of New York and contending with the dismaying spectre of systematic domination, the former depicting an aspiring producer working as a mogul’s tirelessly labouring factotum who begins to suspect her boss is exploiting women who come into his orbit, the latter tracking a teenage girl who sets out on an interstate odyssey to obtain an abortion in secret with her cousin’s aid. Green’s film was fascinatingly cryptic, totally submerging the viewer in a state of existence almost totally severed from any world beyond and where gravity bends to unseen masses. Hittman’s film was a more classical brand of indie-realist drama, detailing her characters’ travails with a painfully precise feel for the minutiae of such a venture. The film was strong as both a caustic portrait of a social issue and a vision of people who are barely adults trying to weather a waking nightmare. The characterisations were a bit sparse, however, hinting at mysteries and distresses motivating the central character left undeveloped, and the film’s urge to keep the screws on felt a bit forced.

Greed

Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela explored the grief and anger of a woman at the opposite end of life, coming to Portugal to confront her husband decades after he left her behind, and becoming ensconced in a community of fellow immigrants trapped in a zone on the fringes of society. Michael Winterbottom and Steven Coogan finally got back to work after several The Trip series to make Greed, a film that pointedly sports an act of bloody revolt by a young female employee against her creep boss, climaxing an occasionally biting (that’s a pun) satire. Coogan was customarily good as a fashion tycoon Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie on the build-up to his orgiastic 60th birthday party, with David Mitchell playing his official biographer who soon begins comprehending how much his business success is based on conartistry and exploitation. Greed was deliberately heavy-handed in mixing consciousness-raising fable and black comedy, but it settled for skimming the surface for the most part, despite nods to Barry Lyndon and Lindsay Anderson as points of inspiration, with the comedy not quite strong enough to compensate. Some great supporting performances from Isla Fisher as McCreadie’s symbiotic ex-wife and Shirley Henderson as his ancient but still-pithy Irish mother helped keep things bouncy.

Eurovison Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a comedy with rather less on its mind, perhaps to its ultimate credit. Will Ferrell played another of his signature boy-man roles, this time a middle-aged loser from a small Icelandic town whose singular obsession with winning the eponymous music competition, forged after a transformative childhood glimpse of ABBA, distracts him from everything else, including the love of his talented performing partner, played by Rachel McAdams at her most ridiculously winning. When seemingly absurd fate allows them to actually make the contest, the duo are tested by temptation and their own seemingly endless capacity for self-sabotage. The storyline, even as a pretext for silliness, hit beats and covered ground Ferrell had already worn ragged. And yet Dobkin and the cast, also including Dan Stevens as a campy Russian star and Pierce Brosnan as Ferrell’s disappointed dad, put it across with enough conviction to make it work. The general high spirits and good-natured sensibility, where even the nominal villains were ultimately likeable, were a balm in a year filled with so many glum, mean movies. The lampoons of Eurovision fare also managed to be both affectionate and craftily dead-on.

12 Hour Shift

Brea Grant’s black comedy/thriller 12 Hour Shift offered another hellish workplace with indie horror star Angela Bettis smartly cast as Mandy, a life-battered, drug-addicted hospital nurse involved in a scam purloining organs from the recently deceased and who sometimes gives the dying a little push along to make the process run more smoothly. Her night on a double shift is made intolerably complicated when her dimwit living-Barbie in-law Regina (Chloe Farnworth), acting as her courier, loses the latest harvested kidney, and is pushed by their gangster connection to get a replacement on the pain of donating one herself. This sets in motion mounting chaos on the wards, with both women pushed to acts far beyond the pale. What made the film interesting was the way it charted a gyring sense of random and lethal abnormality with segues into both outright farce and straight genre film, whilst working coherently as a metaphor for the cynical headspace of its wired, overworked, grief-stunned antiheroine. Ultimately the film would have been better – even great – if it had been a bit more disciplined in terms of how far it pushed its cruelly absurd edge and stylistic quirks, as the script kept threatening to lose its grounding, particularly once Regina turned into an absurdly stupid killer. But the actors forced their characters to work, and as the film gained momentum it delivered some delightfully sick twists.

Performances Of Note

Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman
Emilia Clarke, Above Suspicion
Steve Coogan, Greed
Carrie Coon, The Nest
Gail Cronauer, The Vast of Night
Elizabeth Debicki, The Burnt Orange Heresy ; Tenet
Frankie Faison, I’m Your Woman
Chloe Farnworth, 12 Hour Shift
Sidney Flanagan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Julia Garner, The Assistant
Shirley Henderson, Greed
Rashida Jones, On The Rocks
Udo Kier, Bacurau
Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Jude Law, The Nest
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Elle Lorraine, Bad Hair
Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Matthew MacFadyen, The Assistant
Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night ; VFW
Bill Murray, On The Rocks
Naian González Norvind, New Order
Donald Sutherland, The Burnt Orange Heresy
Marisa Tomei, The King of Staten Island
Vitalina Varela, Vitalina Varela
Ensemble: The Gentlemen
Ensemble: Lovers Rock
Ensemble: Night of the Kings
Ensemble: A Rainy Day In New York
Ensemble: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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Favourite Films of 2020

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

In abstract this film threatened to be a dubious exercise in tabloid exploitation or a tinny talking-point drama a la last year’s crummy Bombshell: a tale of workplace abuse inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. The Weinstein figure was rendered here as an unnamed, unseen movie company executive whose shows of wrath and prerogative register through emails and phone calls like the tremors of the tyrannosaurus’ footfall in Jurassic Park. The situation was explored through the viewpoint of his young, still relatively green, hardworking assistant Jane, who in trying to pay her dues on the way to becoming a documentary producer, has the job of literally cleaning up the mess left by his casting couch adventures amongst myriad other duties beginning before dawn and ending at night. But Green’s feature debut did something very smart in tackling such subject matter. Green put the minutiae of Jane’s day front and centre with a sense of workaday routine perhaps derived from Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, unfolding in an office space where the sombre, intense atmosphere and the constant work has an embracing, almost homey mystique, one easy to imagine could sustain Jane through the gruelling and alienating entry-level days in the industry.

Except this was revealed with pitiless concision to conceal the constant knife-edge of threatened disruption lest the boss’s evil temper register, the parade of young lovelies waiting to go into the office perhaps just potential talent or willing supplicants or meal for a hungry ogre, whilst Jane’s submergence in her work at once makes her privy to signs of sleaziness but also allows her to retain an envelope of plausible deniability to let herself keep her job. The most frightening scene in any movie of the year came when Jane did finally work up the nerve to approach the company’s HR boss, beautifully played at maximum sucker-punch smarm by Matthew MacFadyen, only to have him fend off her concerns with expert soft bullying and then find everyone already knows about her foray when she returns to the office. The film relied on the audience to connect portrayed events with what we know about the Weinstein case, but what made it really worthwhile was the way that to a certain extent all that was rendered ambiguous, even supernal, to the exploration of the crushing weight of factotum solitude and powerlessness experienced by its heroine as only a slightly more urgent version of that experienced day in and day out by others like her.

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Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonca Filho)

Evoking the traditions of Latin American magic realism and its fascination with peculiar communities and fluxes of time and identity, as well as the Western movie genre, Bacurau can also be described a cleverly nasty inversion of familiar horror movie tropes. You know, those movies where hapless tourists stumble into malignant locales full of people, often in sleazy, degraded backwaters, and have to fight for survival. Here Dornelles and Filho define the people of a small, far-flung town out in the Brazilian boondocks as a collective defined by mutual trust and identity, a proud sense of both tradition and openness to the world in a movie set in the very near future. The droll early scenes depict the locals reacting to the death of a matriarch and the communal rejection of a patronising politician, tapping elements like the politician’s rolling campaign show for slyly deceptive comedy, came with sidelong hints of what’s coming as coffins are left scattered all over the road to town, empty at this point, and a teacher schooling local children is bemused when the town seems to vanish from online maps. Talk about cancel culture.

Those very communal strengths play a part in why they’re earmarked for eradication for reasons connected to local power structures whilst also equipping them to resist it. The actual agents of suppression are sourced, in a twist of sublime if incredibly harsh wit, through another potential future industry: murder tourism, bloodlusting internationals come to indulge lethal fantasies. The swerve towards ugly violence after the gentle absurdism of the first half serves a definite purpose as the racism and entitlement of the invaders is contrasted with the ordinariness of the locals, save the scattered criminals used to making their own impotent tilts at the world but who find their special talents needed to help the town fight back, the weirdness and wildness suddenly becoming weapons. It helped that the directors didn’t abandon their profoundly odd sense of humour even as war erupts, including an elderly couple whose choice of nakedness fools their opponents and also seems to contain some primal sensibility. Udo Kier, bringing the film cred in linking it to that horror movie tradition, was cunningly cast as the tour guide/assassin boss whose air of flinty command doesn’t quite conceal a bloodthirsty mania that gains the most fitting, and frightening, of comeuppances.

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I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart)

Last year Julia Hart’s Fast Color intrigued me with its blend of fantasy, fable, and dry realism, an unusual and interesting mixture that suggested where the superhero genre might find some artistic growth, foiled only by a rather too stringent budget and a poky tone. Hart’s return with I’m Your Woman wielded a similar interest in characters exiled both in the world and within themselves, and proved one of the year’s quietest successes in trying to present a feminist twist on the well-trod routes of the retro gangland drama. Rachel Brosnahan gave a terrific lead performance as Jean, the trophy wife to a gangster forced to go on the run with their mysteriously acquired adopted son for reasons she has no real understanding of, only slowly learning the truth whilst meanwhile forced to witness and do terrible things in the name of survival. Hart had to negotiate a dramatic difficulty in the central character’s blindsided passivity through much of the film – the gangster genre’s been beset by too many blankly reactive viewpoint characters in recent years.

Hart turned this into a dramatic strength in the space of bewilderment and hermetic detachment woven about Jean, her feelings of being at once deserted and besieged exacerbating her already confused and detached perspective on her existence, presented at the outset as a domestic fantasy, life in constant showroom readiness, wrapped in breathless plastic. Soon she’s on the road as the uneasy charge of one of her husband’s colleagues, a black man who barely knows more than her and proves to have a ruthless side despite seeming decent, and finds herself taken under the wing of his family, where she has to contend with the secrets compelling their assistance as well as try to find a way out of limbo. The mixture of character drama and tension had rigour, and if the film’s slight over-length did make me wonder what some 1940s noir-style on the story might have looked like, perhaps with a less naïve heroine and a pithier telling, ultimately Hart’s firm control and purpose paid off with several riveting suspense sequences. Most of these scenes were unusual, too, in dealing with characters who tend to stumble upon the results of others’ actions or get caught up in the furore. Jean’s breakdown in a Laundromat, swathed in sodden disco finery, was a marvellous vision of total pathos, precursor to the inevitable pivot as she matured into someone capable of protecting not only herself but others.

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Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Part of a five-episode string of thematically related movies detailing black British life from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, grouped under the heading Small Axe, Lovers Rock saw Steve McQueen doing something, on the surface at least, rather different to what he’s done to date in cinema, in choosing to depict joy and celebration. Stepping back from the kind of explicit portraits of psychological and social torment he purveyed in fare like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Year a Slave, and recovering from the sluggish disappointment of his commercial foray Widows, McQueen set about recreating, with a precise sense of both personal nostalgia and anthropological import, the sights and sounds of a house party in a black London neighbourhood circa 1979, from early scenes noting the DJs setting up and cooks preparing and young women choosing their battle dress, to giddy dance moves executed to “Kung Fu Fighting.” McQueen avoided inserting any traditional comic antics or big dramatic gestures to mythologise the event, or even nodding to any larger socio-political context beyond what he can grazingly suggest. Instead, he kept to his brief of simply watching people at a moment in time celebrating within the embrace of their fellows, a hermetic cultural experience at once in reaction to and ignorance of racism and incomprehension without.

In its way as maniacally focused and radical a piece of formalism as Hunger, Lovers Rock obliged the viewer to shift into a slightly different headspace to enjoy it. Some flashes of complication were introduced. A jolt of racist harassment from some white louts. A near-sexual assault by a pushy dandy, and the show of female solidarity that fends it off. One woman leaves in fear of intimacy, one tests out glimmerings of same-sex attraction, one seems to find the love of her life and rides off with him into the sunrise and beyond. But McQueen, to the point of risking patience at points, keeps his focus on the communal experience of dancing to music that invokes group identity, building to a rhapsodic eruption from the dance floor-lording young men, laced with political meaning as well as the insensate quality of authentic shared ecstasy, as the DJs play The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub,” suburban party suddenly become ancient rite of belonging and defiance, achieving the kind of mesmeric frenzy of body and mind so often sought and so rarely, truly gained. The coming of daylight brings the familiar flow of little, stinging insults and defeats but also the burgeoning of new hopes. Plus; given 2020’s feeling of isolation and besiegement, the film provided something close to a virtual reality simulator for the socially deprived.

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New Order (Michel Franco)

The bleak and unflinching flipside to Bacurau‘s prophecy of resisting exploitative power and oppression in a Latin American context, New Order ruthlessly charts its own socio-political thesis, proposing that very often the threat of class warfare usually finishes up benefiting reactionaries and opportunists far more than the masses, and illustrates it in truly effective ways. Disorientating flashes of revolt and totems of political transformation give way to a skittishly realistic portrait of economic disparity, as a former employee of a very rich family comes to ask to borrow money to help his sickly wife during a wedding party. The alternations of patronisation, outright rudeness, and actual charity from the good-nature bride amidst a show of dynastic ziplocking are pointed but believable, until purely by evil chance a revolution breaks out, people from the bottom of society climbing over fences and activating agents within.

Swiftian parable takes over: the military called into the streets to put down the revolt soon become agents of their own and their bosses’ enrichment, the rich are kidnapped and ransomed back to their families and the poor made to look responsible. Franco’s vision was by the end hard to take, but moved towards that end with remorseless energy and a vision of mounting horror brilliantly executed with a thriller’s tension, with its cruelly victimised heroine used in every way possible despite (and because) her being the most conscientious and likeable figure in the film, who finishes up in the deepest shit imaginable whilst setting out to do a good deed – not that staying within the castle walls would have spared her. Ghastly visions like a mass pansexual rape of the prisoners were mixed with a sourly detailed depiction of the nuts and bolts of repression under the guise of security, choking off easy communication and enabling disorientation, and concluding with brutish taciturnity with shots of the hangman’s ropes. Amidst all the phantoms of paranoia and appropriate anxiety thriving in 2020’s politics, New Order provided a cold reminder of what real tyranny looks like, provoking any sensible person to ask just what holds it off.

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Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Ivory Coast director Lacôte set his Night of the Kings in that country’s huge, forest-girded MACA prison, a community nominally controlled by the agents of the state but actually ruled over by an anointed kingpin whose command over the prison, in a pointed echo of old tribal law, depends on retaining his virility: when he gets too old or too sick he must die. Trying to fend off fate for one more day as he’s stricken by illness, the chieftain uses one technicality in his arsenal, appointing a young and naïve hoodlum just arrived in the prison to become the Roman or storyteller, tasked with telling the inmates a story through a long night with the Scheherazadian twist that if he finishes before dawn he’ll be put to death. The storyteller’s vigil becomes a communal theatrical event as the inmates invent dances and physically mimic the events he speaks of, whilst the storyteller himself tries desperately to synthesise his scanty and pathetic experiences as the lieutenant of a minor gang lord into a Homeric epic of national identity and magic-realist history.

Lacôte’s vision managed, in the course of a curt running time – it might well have been the only film of 2020 that could stand to be longer – to evoke both the specific cultural and historical experience of the Ivory Coast and the entire human experience of art as a communal event, people rearranging their minds and bodies to make sense of existence and the craving for narrative, for heroes, for psychic landscapes that knit the one into the whole, the spasms of interpretive dance and role-play the audience apply to the story giving it shared life and vitality. Tabloid violence and ancient myth bleed into each-other, the Roman connecting the contemporary folk hero with a suitably legendary backstory, so that the grimy and oppressive present gains the lustre of something deep-rooted. The young Roman’s night of testing is also an event with specific political purpose, an attempt to buy more time for a teetering regime, as lurking factions wait to invade the stage, including the watching, fraying eye of the armed yet besieged guards, one of whom finally shoots down into the arena to deliver random death, fending off, at least for another night, the moment where the jailed become masters.

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A Rainy Day in New York (Woody Allen) / On The Rocks (Sofia Coppola)

I’m counting these two together as connected evocations of a melancholically romantic New York, and whilst flawed they balanced each-other in gesture and impulse. Allen’s film loitered in fantasies of being young, rich, and free in his native city, at both his most off-hand and his most crisply directed and scripted in a long time. Coppola’s was a martini-dry deconstruction of fantasies both cinematic and personal, turning the tension between its relentlessly limited purview, in dealing with niggling psychic anxiety and uncertainty and the song of issues that seem long suppressed and yet need resolution, and the seemingly necessary largesse of cinematic expression, into its driving concern.

I didn’t expect Allen to deliver a film as blithely charming as A Rainy Day In New York at this point in his career, especially given that I’ve never been a fan, but it was the kind of sublime doodle late careers sometime offer, sporting ingenious comic performances from Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning as a mismatched young couple whose adventures in Manhattan provoke maturation and self-understanding, whilst contending with an array of farce trope characters and mood-piece havens. It’s the sort of movie an artist might only make when they’ve allowed themselves to relax on some fundamental level, simply existing within a way of seeing and feeling.

Coppola by contrast seemed to be in conflict with her own career to date, pulling apart the elements of her early signature success Lost In Translation and refashioning them in a more self-conscious and probing thesis, casting Bill Murray as an aging roué whose transgressions and failings are charted with a more precise sense of what they cost his daughter, played by Rashida Jones, even as his approach to life, laced in movie-fit postures, seems irresistible. If the key tension in artistically ambitious recent indie American cinema of late has been being sticking to a realm of low-key and hyper-realist authenticity at the expense of sacrificing bigger dreams and styles like weaning itself off a sugar rush, Coppola seemed to be trying to make this her very theme.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

An inventively crafted tribute to bygone dreams mediated by more modern insights and paranoias, The Vast of Night offered itself as a purported episode of some Twilight Zone-ish TV show from the black-and-white era, only to shift into full-colour, long-take, steadicam-enabled contemporary style. Two ordinary young people, the gabby, nerdy telephone operator Fay (Sierra McCormack) and the wannabe cool cat DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), connect over a tape recorder test whilst walking through the streets of their small, flat, close-knit home town in the Texas boondocks, a certain arc of fledgling attraction manifesting in their shared status as people with minds flung out far beyond the city limits even as she spills her enthusiasms and he plays aloof hipster. They soon find themselves draw together more urgently as strange phenomena begin manifesting, weird signals on the wires, lights in the sky, and callers testifying to universe-reshaping events. Patterson underlined his fascination, bordering on fetishism, for backdated technology and the accompanying mystique of past entertainment – the fertile, deftly minimalist palette of radio drama and the threadbare expressionist sketches of early television, the savoured fervour stoked in a time when expressions of nerdy obsession had to await the mailman bringing a magazine packed full of mind-expanding concepts and thrilling wonder stories.

Patterson’s more blatant cinematic gimmicks, his unblinking takes and roving camerawork, doesn’t simply seek to offer impressive technique but actively work to maintain the same sense of dramatic intensity and unity that such models wielded. Patterson’s eye and ear for the place and time was genuinely admirable, his actors precise in nailing period mannerisms and speech patterns. Patterson alternated shows of camera dynamism, including an astounding travelling shot that seems to travel from one side of town to the other, with passages of deadpan minimalism, so neither felt strained. The key influence here was ultimately less Rod Serling or George Pal or even Steven Spielberg than David Lynch, quoting his estranged depictions of ‘50s small town environs with a destabilising event forcing the two protagonists to face hidden truths social, as one caller explores the racist use of African-Americans in cleaning up an apparent UFO crash, and historical, as an aged recluse recounts to them tales of such events going back to the Old West with an enigmatic influence at work. Amongst the many Lynch acolytes emerging this year, Patterson was the best because he used the influence most subtly. Only in his climax did he spurn his theatre-of-the-mind aesthetic and offer a glimpse of something straining for the startling and awesome but not quite landing it. Nonetheless his final shots reverted to a haunting tone and suggested the price for getting out of Nowheresville can be steep.

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Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

Given how many movies are made these days by directors who scarcely seem to have any concept of framing and staging, it’s a bit of a shock to watch a movie that consists of nothing less than perfectly crafted pictures, composed in depth and with care in lighting that turns a nominally gritty location and subject and location into the stuff of Renaissance art. The latest film from sporadic Portuguese director Pedro Costa unfolds in a dreamlike key, shot in a Portuguese shanty town filled with immigrants in a manner that makes it look like warren of menace out of a Val Lewton or Marcel Carne film, but the only ghosts and crimes are banal in scope, if never feeling so to those who have suffered them. The title character, played in neorealist fashion by a non-actor woman of the same name, arrives in Portugal from her home in Cape Verde to confront her dying husband, the man who abandoned her decades earlier, only to find he’s passed just before her arrival. Vitalina is left alone in his crumbling, sloppily-built house, eddying in a space of grief commingled with rage.

Costa’s films are known for their severe façades and themes of an unquiet past, mixed with empathy for the underclass. The film’s political undertow, meditating on the false quest for prosperity for immigrants, a siren song strong enough to sunder the most idyllic unions, meshes in a particularly lucid but unforced way with Vitalina’s experience, her own recollections of constructive partnership from the early days of her marriage contrasted with evidence of phthisic will and shrivelled personal passion, a contrast illustrated by two different houses. Costa richly humanises and endows palpable, even epic eminence upon his outsider protagonist, Vitalina granted the blazing-eyed stature of a Greek tragic heroine whose ancient wounds hurt no less for their age. She’s also tormented not simply for being left behind but because she’s fed herself on her hurt, her nursed grievance a source of strength and still-stinging bewilderment, frustrated that she cannot gain the confrontation and catharsis she deserved. Meanwhile she comes into contact with an aged, haggard priest consumed by his own lode of guilt and evil memory. Costa truly nails down the experience of grief, the aimless desire to wrestle with phantoms, the long nights of grinding, inchoate feeling, as well as the slow coming of healing, a process Vitalina forces along with customary rituals even when they seem utterly false. Some of Costa’s images, like Vitalina trying to seal up her roof during a storm, had a visual power barely seen in cinema since the heyday of expressionism.

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The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Corneliu Porumboiu is generally known for his dark, tough, stringent dramas about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The Whistlers was a sharp change of pace for him, insofar that it’s a dark, tough, off-beat, often funny post-genre film about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The plot had a uniquely clever point of departure, as Cristi, a corrupt policeman, is sent to the Canary Islands to learn from the locals their time-honoured art of communicating through whistling, so that he and his accomplices in a drug-dealing operation can communicate in a manner incomprehensible to surveillance. Along the way he’s thrown into the company of a beautiful femme fatale aptly named Gilda, forced to negotiate for their lives with clashing factions and dodge plots involving his confederates and even his own opportunist boss. Poromboiu had the gall to sell a bent cop enmeshed with some real scumbags as a protagonist on the understanding that in a bottomlessly corrupt society all bets are off.

Cristi is the hangdog embodiment of moral and mental exhaustion, the son of a former Communist party official who never benefited from his father’s honesty but everyone assumes he did anyway, left excruciatingly exposed when his mother finds his stash of illegal cash and gives it to the church. Porumboiu taps the constant experience of surveillance and intrusion for both dark humour and tension, in a film that walked the line between satire and straight-faced, sharp-edged crime drama, with evident political dimensions: his gang of dangerous and diversely motivated criminals becomes stand-ins for a dissident element. The early encounter between Cristi and Catrinel Marlon’s smoky beauty Gilda, which sees them forced to have sex to satisfy hidden cameras, is a quietly hilarious game of deception and misdirection through sexual illusion Brian De Palma might have been proud of, whilst the sarcastic nods to Western films throughout leads to a shoot-out in a movie set and a curtailed gunslinging match between the two major female characters. Eventually all the hero is left with is his new, peculiar language, but that proves to be the key to a happy ending where his one good deed gains a just reward.

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The Wild Goose Lake (Yi’nan Diao)

Like The Whistlers, The Wild Goose Lake used film noir conventions to anatomise a society in a moment of painful and dislocating transformation, in this case the grim and gritty zones of China’s developing but iniquitous cityscapes – Wuhan, no less – where money is the only motive that keeps its value but evanescent connections keep people tethered to each-other with a host of needling motives. The Wild Goose Lake certainly fits in with a plethora of excellent recent Chinese films with similar preoccupations. Director Yi’nan Diao’s vision was certainly its own, particular thing, however, utilising the traditional noir theme of a manhunt, following a strong but dim gangster from an outfit specialising in stealing motor scooters, who kills a cop after a battle with rivals in his own gang. When a large reward is put out for his capture by the barely competent local police force and seeing no real way out, he tries to remain free long enough to contrive a way of making sure the reward money can go to the wife he abandoned years earlier. He finds himself thrust into the company of a deadpan and enigmatic young prostitute, who describes herself as his wife’s friend and emissary.

Diao’s woozy, fluid style avoided some of the more outright surreal touches offered by the likes of Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan in their ventures down this mean street, and yet he painted the story with flashes of electric strangeness, from the hooker washing off the antihero’s jism from her hand in lake water, to a young woman providing a sideshow attraction as a disembodied head in a box, and a gang of policemen converging on a felled gangster whilst all wearing fluorescent shoes glowing hallucinatory in the night. Such sights not only gave the movie its punch-drunk texture but also effectively described Diao’s thesis about modern China as a place filled with human rubble and where life and death have a perverse, almost acausal rhythm. Moments of bleak and gnawing irony, like a union meeting voting to see who gets sacked from a factory that mimics the conclave of hoods assigning turf from earlier in the film, rubbed against episodes of black comedy and vivid physical action John Woo might have been proud of, including one astonishing moment involving a creatively used umbrella. Underlying all this was an authentically noir sense of blasted solitude and tenuous human connection, building to a final revelation about the prostitute’s motives that finally drew the film’s serpentine emotional landscape as well as plot together. Vied with Vitalina Varela as the best-shot film of the year, too.

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Added to 2020 Favourites List after 1/1/2021

To be announced

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Honourable Mention

12 Hour Shift (Brea Grant)
Incitement (Yaron Zilberman)
The Nest (Sean Durkin)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

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Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Bad Hair (Justin Simien)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Greed (Michael Winterbottom)
Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins)

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Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ammonite (Francis Lee)
Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan)
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow)
Mank (David Fincher)
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
Tenet (Christopher Nolan)
Shirley (Josephine Decker)

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Crap

Capone (Josh Trank)
The Midnight Sky (George Clooney)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)

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Unseen

∙ Another Round ∙ Bad Boys 4 Life ∙ Beanpole ∙ Bill and Ted Face the Music ∙ Black Bear ∙ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ∙ Butt Boy ∙ Cuties ∙ Deerskin ∙ Driveways ∙ The Father ∙ The Forty-Year-Old Version ∙ Fourteen ∙ Hillbilly Elegy ∙ The Hunt ∙ I Was at Home, But… ∙ I’m Thinking of Ending Things ∙ Let Them All Talk ∙ The Lodge ∙ Mangrove ∙ Martin Eden ∙ Minari ∙ Miss Juneteenth ∙ News of the World ∙ Nomadland ∙ The Old Guard ∙ The Personal History of David Copperfield ∙ Promising Young Woman ∙ Relic ∙ Saint Maud ∙ Soul ∙ Sound of Metal ∙ Swallow ∙ Tesla ∙ The Trip to Greece ∙ Tommaso ∙ True History of the Kelly Gang ∙ The Twentieth Century ∙ The Wolf House ∙ Wolfwalkers ∙

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The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2020

Deluge (Felix E. Feist)
I Married A Witch (Rene Clair)
On The Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
Phase IV (Saul Bass)
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini)

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In Memoriam

∙ Orson Bean ∙ Honor Blackman ∙ Chadwick Boseman ∙ Wilfred Brimley ∙ Tim Brooke-Taylor ∙ Earl Cameron ∙ Sean Connery ∙ Gene Corman ∙ Linda Cristal ∙ Abby Dalton ∙ Sonia Darrin ∙ Olivia de Havilland ∙ Brian Dennehy ∙ Kirk Douglas ∙ Mort Drucker ∙ Rhonda Fleming ∙ Derek Fowlds ∙ Stuart Gordon ∙ Buck Henry ∙ Ian Holm ∙ Terry Jones ∙ Hugh Keays-Byrne ∙ Shirley Knight ∙ John Le Carre ∙ Michael Lonsdale ∙ Vera Lynn ∙ Ennio Morricone ∙ Daria Nicolodi ∙ Geoffrey Palmer ∙ David Prowse ∙ Helen Reddy ∙ Carl Reiner ∙ Little Richard ∙ Diana Rigg ∙ Kenny Rogers ∙ John Saxon ∙ Joel Schumacher ∙ John Shrapnel ∙ Jerry Stiller ∙ Max von Sydow ∙ Stuart Whitman ∙ Fred Willard ∙ Barbara Windsor ∙

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy, Drama

On The Rocks (2020)

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Director / Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…well, sort of

Sofia Coppola’s latest film obviously harkens back to her breakthrough success with Lost in Translation (2003) in reuniting her with Bill Murray and casting him again as the well-lived father figure to a woman experiencing a tailspin of life purpose. But On The Rocks is far from just a sequel-cum-revision or an attempt to recapture old magic. Coppola’s seventh feature is an oddity. On one level I felt like it was another of the films she’s made in the past decade that hasn’t lived up to her potential and seems at first glance conspicuously unambitious; and yet at the same time it’s another that works some kind of extra-dimensional emotional kung fu on the attentive viewer. This simultaneous feeling, that Coppola is at once an underachiever and a remarkable film artist on a finite level, has kept me both wary of and engaged in her cinema. The spry, elegant, cultural tourist mode she explored in Lost in Translation and the post-modern historical pageant of Marie Antoinette (2006), still my favourites of her films, has nonetheless given way appropriately to attempts to ask more questions of scenarios involving characters on the losing end of situations defined by an excess of options and indulgences for others, and how they rebel.

On The Rocks is also the second film by a major director this year, after Woody Allen’s A Rain Day in New York, to chase what could be described as the cinematic equivalent of a Chet Baker vocal performance, jazzy in a dry, minimalist way, loping in intonation and self-deprecatingly melancholy: Coppola even opens the film with Baker singing “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” On The Rocks revolves around Laura (Rashida Jones), who at the outset is seen having just married Dean (Marlon Wayans), two good-looking young people on the cusp of great undertakings who duck out from their own reception and sneak through the halls of a palatial hotel. Finding a swimming pool fringed by brass statues and clinging ivy, Laura jumps in still wearing her veil to join Dean in the water, leaving a trail of her stripped bridal finery behind her. A lush and witty little vignette that nods to the high life fantasias of Coppola’s early films and her intrigued delight in the accoutrement of female sensuality, as well as offering a thumbnail for Laura and Dean’s early relationship, depicting an Edenic state they must inevitably fall from.

Cut to several years later: Laura is a writer with two kids, glimpsed after the title is flashed treading her way gingerly cross a floor littered with rubbish and picking it up with parental diligence. Dean is an entrepreneur, whose blurrily defined business is beginning to grow very successful and chew up more of his time, obliging him to jet off to locales like London and Mexico for “big deal” conferences and meetings. Laura, stuck in the domestic role despite having her own career purely by dint of being the one working from home, is stricken with writer’s block as she’s trying to work on a book she’s sold but not written, sitting at her computer but mostly staring out the window of their spacious Manhattan apartment. When Dean returns from a business trip to London, he finds her in bed and kisses her, only to retreat, seemingly surprised or disorientated by some aspect of the reunion. Disturbed, Laura begins to theorise that in his jetlagged state he thought she was someone else, someone he’s been having an affair with.

On The Rocks sees Coppola shifting from the Hollywood scenester mirth of Lost in Translation, Somewhere (2010), and The Bling Ring (2013), to the tonier climes of New York, a move that ironically threatens to rob her work of its specificity, great as she has been at describing the absurdities of celebrity culture whilst constantly noting something more ambivalent and pathos-charged behind it – the rich and famous are people too, you know. Whereas here Coppola incidentally moves into a stratum of American cinema that’s been growing of late set amidst the haute bourgeoisie of New York as practised by directors including Noah Baumbach, Tamara Jenkins, and Azazel Jacobs, directors laying claim to being Allen’s heirs as observational artists hovering in that specific milieu of the creative and pretentious and making movies blending drama and comedy. Unlike most of that breed Coppola doesn’t have a penchant for theatrically loquacious characters and has too elegant a filmic touch for the mumblecore crowd. Laura’s status as a generic, well-educated, arty-lefty type who could readily fit into such movies is part of the point here: she knows what a cliché she’s threatening to become, and moreover she has to be the stuck-in-the-mud counterpoint to Murray’s bon vivant.

Coppola’s deftly observational and satirical eye and ear are still fine-tuned enough to let her spin a movie out of a minimum of dramatic elements. Coppola wryly indicts Laura as the type who’s married to a swashbuckling black capitalist and has stickers for Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams on her apartment door. Early scenes depict Laura moving through a roundelay of big city mothers’ play groups and schools, and efficiently paint a phase of life as inevitable for most people as it is alternatively a joy and a chore, when one’s own wont is submerged in the business of corralling kids. In a recurring role reminiscent of Anna Faris and Leslie Mann’s hilarious character turns for Coppola, Jones’ former costar in the sitcom Parks and Recreation Jenny Slate appears as Laura’s acquaintance from such settings, Vanessa, who insists on narrating her dating life to Laura in such situations as cueing in school corridors: the whole arc of her latest, absurd relationship is charted in fragments. The crucial early scene of Dean’s suspiciously alien kiss is given a strong charge by the way Coppola films it, capturing the mood of somnolent and spacy intimacy, and then the lack of it: the key point of uncertainty that dogs Laura after this is whether Dean through he was kissing someone else or rather that he realised he wasn’t kissing the same person in Laura herself, that she is growing into someone she isn’t entirely sure she recognises.

Laura’s simmering anxieties are raised a few degrees when she lunches with her grandmother (Barbara Bain), her mother (Alva Chinn), and her sister (Juliana Canfield), who ask pointed questions about Dean travelling with his “new assistant”, actually his account manager, the posh and glamorous Fiona (Jessica Henwick). This potential liaison seems to gain some credibility when Laura finds a bag of Fiona’s stuff in his suitcase, which he claims she asked him to carry because her luggage was full. Later Laura attends a birthday party thrown for Dean at his workplace where she registers the discomfort of some of the women who work with him in meeting her, whilst Fiona presents Dean with his birthday cake. Laura rings her father, Felix (Murray), an art dealer by profession, gadfly and roué by habit, to ask him for his opinion: he unreservedly agrees with her suspicion, and dashes to New York to offer emotional support and investigate at the absolute faintest sign of interest, arriving outside her building in a town car with his stoic chauffeur Musto (Musto Pelinkovicci) behind the wheel.

Laura’s struggle with the fate of being inserted into the domestic realm echoes the theme of young women cocooned from the flow of life in The Virgin Suicides (1999) for whom self-destruction is ultimately their only gesture of self-actualisation. On The Rocks avoids such melodramatic gestures, preferring to posit itself as a tribute to jauntier old movies like George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient (1964), Blake Edwards’ farces, her own father’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1967), and the gadabout chic of ‘60s Italian cinema, in unleashing its dynamic father and daughter duo in a comedic romp around New York and, later, Mexico, trying to prove Dean’s perfidy. But On The Rocks ultimately isn’t that kind of movie: indeed it can be described as a movie about people who want to live in that kind of movie. Felix’s choice of roadster, a vintage red Ferrari, underlines the lineage, and for a few brief moments when Felix hits the accelerator and gives chase to Dean and Fiona in a taxi through the streets of Manhattan the fantasy becomes enveloping. Ultimately On The Rocks’ palette is more ironic and realistic. Felix is rich and cunning enough in handling people to live out such fantasies to an extent, but even he finds himself subject to consequences. That exhilarating cross-city chase ends abruptly when Felix is pulled over for speeding.

The film’s first dialogue, heard in voiceover over the black screen, presents Felix as laying perpetual claim to his daughter even as she’s about to marry. Two watches given as presents signify Laura’s dual fealties to father and husband. The elephant in the room when it comes to On The Rocks of course is the temptation to take it as a self-analytic struggle with being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and perhaps also her relationships with some famous beaux like Spike Jonze and Quentin Tarantino, high-powered male artists all. Sofia had dealt with the feeling of living in the shadow of a father whose very presence shifts the gravity of the world around him more allusively in earlier films but here directly contends with the theme of trying to forge a separate identity from a man who’s a genius at charming and dealing, whose ethos is extraordinarily hard to reject because it’s so blithely attractive on many levels. Coppola doesn’t however designate Felix as an artist, but rather a merchant of culture, so his adventures are immediately rendered less epic, despite his plain sense of pride and achievement as he recalls selling his first major artwork. Felix’s method of talking his way out of a speeding ticket, cleverly creating a sense of familiarity and intimacy between him and one of the cops through pretending to have known his father, depends on a certain roguish confidence that he can wriggle his way out of many a situation lesser mortals will be consumed by. “It must be very nice to be you,” Laura comments with sour amusement.

Laura’s conversations with Felix are regularly punctuated by his flirtations with waitresses and strongly charged encounters with some of his female buying clients as well as one of Laura’s fellow moms despite his advancing age. Laura is irked as she perceives how adroitly he weaves webs of contacts that allow him to sell artworks even whilst helping her out. Felix is a show that doesn’t stop, leading to the perhaps inevitable moment where Murray-as-Felix sings, regaling a crowd of tourists with a rendition of “Mexicali Rose” that walks along the edge of absurdity and yet keeps its footing. Of course, Coppola is also satiating the audience’s presumed desire to hang about with Murray, relaxing within the electron field of his dryly witty, pseudo-blasé persona whilst also harnessing it to make a deeper point about Laura’s journey. Felix’s skill with keeping people and children entertained is repeatedly evinced, including one shot where Coppola captures him sprawled like an Orientalist painting’s harem girl on the floor of Laura and Dean’s apartment with their kids in trying to teach them to play cards, completely relaxed in his personal bubble. Meanwhile he regales Laura with his opinions on the impossibility of sexual monogamy for men with facetious bravura: “That’s hardwiring. Keeping the species alive. The woman passes through an emotional filter. Man doesn’t pass through the emotional part. It goes directly from the eyes to the ass.”

Of course, as the film unfolds the self-serving edge to Felix’s rhetoric is gradually unwound, more about justifying his own appetites and lapses than arriving at some deep truth about human sense and sexuality. He likes reciting the kinds of scientific theories about sex and evolution Sunday newspaper editors love (“When we finally stood up two legs, it was the women with the rounded breasts that mirrored the haunches that were most exciting to the males.”) His advice on how to avoid losing a man to Laura is to retain her own sense of sexual worth and charisma, advice that Laura of course is having a small crisis in not being able to follow. In Lost in Translation Coppola’s avatar was similarly suffering through worrying about her husband’s fidelity and the problems of being subsumed into a marriage, but where there Murray provided a liquid-state all-purpose celebrity pal /father figure/boyfriend here Felix is a more specific dramatic creation, one reminiscent of the role Jim Jarmusch gave him as the aging lothario in Broken Flowers (2005). Laura’s decision to contact Felix after being weirded out by Dean proves more consequential than she suspects as he, actually rather lonely and bored, is all too happy to jet in from Paris to the rescue to energise and upset his daughter’s life, but what’s really in play is a story where father and daughter slowly work their way towards a reckoning that’s been a long time coming.

On The Rocks tries to deal with some states of mind and being that are by and large difficult to make movies about, something Coppola has managed before, achieved in such striking and sinuous contrast to her father’s grandiose visions of society and history as achieved in epics like The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (1979), but not so far from some of Francis’ personal films like The Rain People (1969) or One From The Heart (1981). Sofia rejects even the stylistic grandeur of such movies: Coppola chases singular, crystalline portraits of emotional and psychological straits. More exasperatingly, On The Rocks faces a particular problem in that its core theme doesn’t feel fresh: in fact, it lies well over the border in a realm of the hoary. Tales about the offended offspring of carelessly priapic papas have been a dime a dozen from Gen X writers and directors, constantly avenging the allure of the missed sexual revolution with their latchkey kid angsts. What makes the film work, and partly if not entirely escape the scent of mould, is the way Coppola goes about telling it. Setting up the investigation theme almost inevitably proves to actually be a chance for father and daughter to come to terms with each-other and to reach a moment of catharsis, both characters projecting their neurotic impulses onto Dean who proceeds oblivious to the whole enterprise, and indeed emerges from the whole exercise smelling like a rose.

On The Rocks is a difficult film to pin down in giving an overall verdict because I both liked what it managed to pull off, whilst also wishing Coppola had developed it more. Laura’s emotional journey doesn’t compel as much as it might because it ultimately affirms her choices to an almost hermetic degree. On the other hand, it does manage to chart the mood of frazzled emotional tension and mental exhaustion that’s pretty accurate to the moment. It’s a movie that manages at once to be a break of escapism and one of piercing pragmatism. As a work of emotional autobiography the film feels at once like an addendum to her woozy remake of The Beguiled (2017), a film which didn’t work for me overall but certainly conveyed Coppola’s choice to leave behind the perma-adolescence that afflicted many of her earlier characters and contend, through the viewpoint of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed spinster losing the bloom of youth aroused and then terribly spurned by the fox in the henhouse, with the pains of getting older and losing what gave you hope without yet having gained what you need. On The Rocks pursues a similar evocation of questioned sexual self-worth whilst also wrestling with Laura’s sense of poisoned expectations of marriage.

Such expectations ultimately stem from Felix’s infidelity and break-up with her mother, and their conversations throughout the film zero in on this topic with increasingly revealing and truthful layers. Murray’s restrained but still potent showmanship dominates, but it’s Jones who has to stitch the film’s human drama together. Part of what hampers On The Rocks is that Laura isn’t a particularly entertaining or vital character: she’s a writer but her profession feels a bit too much like one of those jobs sitcom characters have, and too often Coppola uses her as the sounding board for Murray-as-Felix’s monologues. To be fair, that’s part of the point: I’ve known some wilted progeny of high-powered, egocentric personalities. Jones’ excellence, stuck with playing the potentially thankless role, forces it into focus. Jones expertly counters Murray in their game of acting chess with subtle body language, as in the way she stiffens and takes on a languid air of indulgence when Felix first starts off on one of his sexual theorems, and registering Laura’s air of forlorn panic as when Felix informs her that his sources have told him Dean bought something from Cartier’s, the sensation of her borderline irrational fantasies suddenly becoming more tangible and her face stretching out ever so finely as if all the blood in her body just fled down to her feet and nearly dragged her expression with it.

Laura registers Felix’s past actions as specific crimes against her sense of familial security whereas Felix describes them as the result of a simple parting of the ways between himself and her mother in terms of where their lives were heading, before noting with finite heartbreak that the woman he left her mother for, his former assistant and an artist, died earlier in the year, and becomes clear that Felix has reconnected with Laura because he desperately needs someone around to help ease his own sense of panic in mortality. It’s this steady, refined, almost imperceptible accumulation of personal and emotional detail that makes On The Rocks work. Coppola winnows the film’s emotional texture down to one astounding shot of one of Laura’s tears falling into her martini in languorous slow motion whilst Baker’s version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” murmurs on sound. This is close to Coppola’s finest, most exactingly crafted bit of directing to date.

The air of forlornly romantic desolation connects with the general adoration of New York as a physical and psychological space, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd as a great bauble of glass and metal and colour, hovering always in promise and also alienation, much as Coppola filmed Tokyo and Versailles. Eventually Laura and Felix follow Dean to a Mexican seaside resort where they hope to catch him with Fiona, a place where Felix seems in his element regaling tourists with songs, casually arranging potential big sales, and calling greetings to new friends from the hot tub, whilst Laura sits locked in a Hopper composition in her bedroom, stewing in disquiet and detachment from the phony conviviality. The actual climax of father and daughter’s quest is gained in comedic diminuendo as Laura receives a cell phone call from Dean, who’s had to dash back to New York, just as she and Felix sneak up on his booked room where they’ve glimpsed Fiona swanning about. The film comes close to another major cliché in this sort of thing insofar as the film doesn’t quite reveal Fiona to be a lesbian, although she introduces Laura and Felix to her “friend” in equivocal manner.

But again Coppola rescues things by delivering a sly punch. The sting of humiliating self-revelation here proves perhaps worse than uncovering infidelity, as it shows Laura that her own neurosis and Felix’s glib propulsion have brought her to such an end. Laura soon unloads on Felix for taking things over and encouraging her worst impulses, and dresses him down for his many failings. “You can say it to my face now,” Felix says, in a brilliant little bit of acting from Murray, twitching ever so slightly as you see Felix forcing himself to turn off any temptation to retort or defend himself and withstand Laura’s upbraiding. “What happened to you?” Felix eventually does comment with a sad, isolated gaze: “You used to be fun.” Which might indeed be Coppola’s way of defusing that question of her own artistry: growing up is always a prickly, often joyless process. This sequence is also superbly shot by Le Sourd, capturing the strobing of lightning out to sea and the sparks of beachfront bonfires, wind-twisted curtains and jutting agave plants, touristy affectations of the picturesque accumulating genuine dreamlike beauty. Laura finally falls asleep on the waterfront and awakens in the bleary morning, forced to accept herself for company. The script doesn’t finally paint Felix as any sort of villain; quite the contrary, his confessions throughout eventually indicate that his rhetoric is a way of shielding himself from still-bewildering cruxes of behaviour where the real pain lies in the way he can’t quite see how they couldn’t have happened, even if he’s not exactly let off the hook. Ultimately, frankly, his pathos ultimately feels more substantial and intriguing than Laura’s.

The ultimate frustration of On The Rocks is that in spite of its quality and honesty you’re still left with the feeling Coppola could and perhaps should have done more with the themes and actors she has in play: too much of the film left me with the feeling of Murray and Jones caged when they should have been unleashed, the nods to exploiting their talents as farceurs left as just that, nods. Some of On The Rocks’ concluding shorthand gestures feel a bit obvious and vestigial, too. We know when Laura complains that she can’t whistle since giving birth she will be whistling very well by film’s end and it never stops feeling like a device. The symbolism of the swapping of watches, Felix’s vintage gift boxed away in favour of Dean’s flashy Cartier present, reminded me of the rather clunky opening of Somewhere that showed its hero literally going in circles: for a subtle artist Coppola can try a too hard. It could also be said that Dean ultimately never feels like a particularly convincing character. Wayans plays him well enough, broadcasting on a low-wattage frequency of affection for Laura that makes it difficult to take seriously the idea he’s really having an affair, but he’s still something akin to Schrodinger’s Husband. Dean could be revealed to be loyal or adulterous and either way it wouldn’t give him much defining characteristic and Laura is ultimately willing to think he’s unfaithful because otherwise he’s a bit too good to be true. The note of romantic mystery sounded at the outset, the arc of bewilderment and seeking sounded in that fateful kiss between husband and wife that opens up gulfs of identity to be explored, suggests possibilities that the film ultimately swerves around. Perhaps that’s a field of exploration for Coppola’s next film.

Standard
2000s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: David Koepp

By Roderick Heath

Orson Welles never completed the film adaptation of Don Quixote he embarked upon in the late 1950s, but he long harboured the perfect ending for it. Confronting Cervantes’ trio of eternal symbolic heroes with the terrors of the modern world, he intended to show them walking out of an atomic bomb blast unharmed. Faced with the prospect of updating their beloved adventurer Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Jr into the 1950s and ushering him through the same gate of apocalyptic potential, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had to face down the same looming threat of impersonal and indiscriminate power utterly alien to the essence of their mock-cavalier hero, even with his greater proximity to the nightmares of the mid-twentieth century, and came up with the same solution. Nineteen years after their third Indiana Jones film, Spielberg and Lucas brought their beloved hero back to movie screens for another dance around the world.

The new film came about after a lengthy, torturous development including multiple scripts by the likes of Jeb Stuart, Frank Darabont, and Jeff Nathanson, sported a leading man in his sixties with the former wunderkind filmmakers not far behind. Lucas, coming off his hugely successful but divisive Star Wars prequel trilogy, already knew the dangers in revisiting such totemic works, whilst Spielberg had largely resisted the temptation to rake over old ground. Hollywood had changed greatly in the intervening years. The rollercoaster-paced, vividly entertaining ideal for a certain kind of immensely popular genre cinema, a style Spielberg and Lucas essentially invented, had since colonised the Dream Factory and taken it over. Stakes had been raised, popular mythologies had supposedly evolved, and the kind of old-fashioned, epic-scaled, physically arduous production style Spielberg and Lucas had once been so adept at had given way to an era of CGI shortcuts and plasticised action enforced by more punitive censorship regimes. Where Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) had brazenly summarised several decades of pulp cinema and serial shenanigans, for many young viewers it was itself the archetype of that style. The new film was a big hit, but again received by many as a failure, even a disgrace, despite Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s emulation of a familiar approach as opposed to the attempt to create a more rarefied style for the Star Wars prequels.

The failure of the new Star Wars and Indiana Jones films to gain much favour with so many aficionados who had grown up with the sturdy early models perhaps pointed to the problems of trying to recapture the spark of youth. This is, ironically, a major theme of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a rare entry in the action-adventure genre, in that it contemplates the notion of the adventurer getting older, and finding himself an almost accidental paterfamilias where once he was the devil-may-care buck, in one of the most keenly personal and resonant variations on that common theme of Spielberg’s. When I first saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I liked whilst finding it awkward in certain aspects. The unwieldy title signals something of the long development and a piling up of ideas and elements reflected in the storyline left over from all those drafts. The movie also seemed to struggle with the strong temptation to revisit the material in a manner akin to a greatest hits collection in regards to the previous entries’ established formula, a temptation which, love them or hate them, the Star Wars prequels had for the most part avoided.

Since that first viewing however I’ve kept returning to and thinking about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and now it looks increasingly like not just the key film of Spielberg’s late oeuvre, but close to profound as a work of popular, blockbuster filmmaking. Fittingly, the first act of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is something of an act of archaeology in itself, both for its hero and the filmmakers. The eventual script was written by David Koepp, who had written Jurassic Park (1992) and War of the Worlds (2005) for Spielberg. The opening sequences immediately propose how personal the film will be as it presents the heady confluence of the original film’s pulp forebears with the youth culture burgeoning when Spielberg and Lucas were themselves children. Where Indy and the Boy Scout troop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) slowly traversed the Fordian American landscape on horseback, the fastest thing around was the train. Next, a horse. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s opening moments offer a ’50s hotrod ripping across the dusty west at high speed, scored to Elvis Presley blaring ‘Hound Dog.’ Post-war youth culture has arrived, speed with it, things moving faster than sense.

The opening credit gag-fade that turned the Paramount logo into a real mountain in Raiders of the Lost Ark here is recapitulated as self-satire as the mountain this time becomes a gopher mound, small cute critters who respond to speeding vehicles much as the humans respond to atomic bombs and alien spaceships. Signs that the nuclear age has arrived already haunt the landscape: a rusting neon sign reading Atomic Café, which provided the title for an Oscar-winning, disturbing retrospective of the era in 1982, stands a blackly humorous shibboleth overlooking the desert. A Russian soldier pretending to be an American soldier driving the lead car of the convoy gives in gleefully to the temptation of racing the teenaged hotrodders, signalling the eventual anticlimactic breakdown of this geopolitical schism already even as it’s reconstructed. The undercover Soviets soon reach a remote air force base, revealed to be the ever-mythologised Area 51, where they kill the guards. Spielberg has the Russians best their Yankee imperialist running dog foes through a framing joke, gun-wielding Commies lined up behind their commandant Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) and stepping out into view to shoot, like a cold mockery of the lined-up dancers at the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

The Russians break open a colossal hanger that anyone who’s seen Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately recognises as the same abode of redacted secrets the Ark of the Covenant was hidden away in at the end of that film. The lore of the Indiana Jones series is invoked but also teased in a manner that confirms a shift in focus: when the Ark is glimpsed peeking out of its broken box it’s left behind as just another relic, as the dramatic horizon has moved on from the awesomely atavistic to the awesomely futuristic. The wrath of Jehovah unleashed in Raiders of the Lost Ark now finds its human-hand analogue in the boiling fire of atomic bomb. One of Indy’s first lines of dialogue, in contemplating how he’s going to escape from a seemingly impossible jam, points up the crucial disparity immediately: when his friend and fellow former wartime spy George ‘Mac’ Michale (Ray Winstone), taken captive along with him whilst digging for relics in Mexico, notes in surveying the Russian soldiers bearing machine guns all around him that an escape won’t be easy, Indy admits, “Not as easy as it used to be.”

Of course, such an admission is immediately dispelled by a display of prowess from this most accomplished of survivors. Captured at the behest of psychic researcher and the late Josef Stalin’s “fair-haired girl” Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), Indy is forced to locate nothing so arcane as the Ark but a casket containing the sealed remains of what seems to be an alien. Indy is one of the few people who knows anything substantial about the contents of the casket because he was one of the experts called upon to inspect it after the Roswell crash in 1947. Indy, with characteristic smarts and sly method, at once seems to serve his captors in tracking down the highly magnetic casket whilst also literally disarming them by convincing them to use their gunpowder to seek it out, plucking out just enough of their teeth to give him a fighting chance to escape. Indy is shocked when Mac proves to be in league with the Soviets and foils his gambit, protesting that “I’m a capitalist, and they pay.” Indy manages to flee anyway, making for what appears to be a nearby town, but instead proves to be a fake suburb built for an atomic bomb test about to go off.

The first half of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is deliberate in ticking off reference points rooted in the era of pop culture it engages as well as its own series lore. The series always subtextually linked its own surveys of and steals from a panoply of old movies and novels with Indy’s search for buried treasure, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had spun its alloy out of commenting on the young Movie Brats’ quests in tricking money out of monolithic and decaying old studios, outsiders becoming adept at playing insider games. Over the years however Indy slowly grew from a cheeky fantasy projection of masculine self-confidence and independence from some rather less than rugged young nerds to a character who has become Spielberg’s essential autobiographical figure, contending in his four adventures with the difficulties of being a son and a father, gaining a social conscience, battling fascism, and celebrating cultural inheritance. Each entry in the series gave something new to Indy: an adopted son in Temple of Doom, an estranged father in The Last Crusade, and finally in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a wife and a son of his loins. Initially in this film Indy is presented as a bit of a relic who’s recently lost his father and his former boss and best friend Marcus Brody in the last two years, and faces the betrayal of his other loyal pal Mac, whose actions not only sour the memories of his wartime heroism but put his patriotism under question as he’s grilled by a pair of obnoxious FBI agents (Joel Stoffer and Neil Flynn).

Indy’s battle to escape the Soviets sees him and Dovchenko fight in the first of repeat clashes throughout the film, only to both find themselves launched out into the desert night aboard a sled propelled by an experimental jet engine. The nuclear test village takes the film’s conflation of cliffhanger thrills and ironic self-assessment to a logical and almost cruelly sardonic extreme. Indy stumbles into a simulacrum of the suburban world Spielberg, Lucas, and much of the rest of their generation grew up in, and to which they pitched their movies, without ever quite fitting in. Indy finds himself in an illusory netherworld of friendly postmen and beaming housewives and Howdy Doody on the TV, confronted by the ideal nuclear family on a couch before the TV only to realise they’re mannequins, a Potemkin Village of post-war prosperity built to be incinerated. The homey perfection is plastic and insubstantial, erected in the desert, Spielberg’s ironically personalised and genre-revised take on the same joke in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), the American Dream realised just in time to be mightily wiped clean by the wrath of the god plutonium. It’s also a bogus version of a world that mocks Indy, an outsider in this settled, forcibly becalmed, conformist zone, a survivor from ye olde swashbuckling days, Greatest Generation hero forced to confront a world he’s missed sliding into, for better and for worse, even as the bite of some of his life choices is starting to sting. The bomb blows it all to smithereens, Indy saved only by packing himself into a refrigerator in another sly gag nodding to common urban scaremongering about lead-lined fridges and children getting themselves locked in them: death-trap hiding in plain sight becomes vessel of survival. The fridge is hurled clear across the desert even as the hellfire swallows up some of the Soviets who fled leaving him behind.

This sequence proved a focal point for fan complaint afterwards, accusing it of betraying the series’ relatively believable mould. Whilst indeed the series had offered glimpses of supernatural power and might burning through the substance of coarse reality, these displays were portrayed as something distinct from what the mere humans do, in a series that resisted the colossal spectacle of Lucas’ Star Wars films and instead wrung its thrills out of stuntmen hanging off vintage trucks. On the other hand, the series had also exhibited a rather post-modern edge to its understanding of the interaction between audience and disbelief, most famously the witty elision of the question as to just how Indy manages to hitch a ride on the U-Boat in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as the deep influence of silent movie stars who mixed slapstick with action like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Indy’s hilarious survival is offered as an episode of high slapstick comedy with an underside of absurdist meaning, more reminiscent in method of Richard Lester or Jerry Lewis. No, Indy should not survive an atomic blast, especially not in a fridge. Nevertheless. Spielberg acknowledges at once Indy’s smallness in the atomic age but also his persistence even in the face of such awful power: the world-spirit he represents and incarnates still lurches forth. Indy crawls out of the fridge relatively intact only to be confronted with the mushroom cloud billowing up into the sky, the power of suns now wielded by politicians, bureaucrats, and military men. This image finds its echo at the climax of the film in an example of Lucas’ “rhyming” ideal for mythic storytelling, as the image of technology as death gives way to the image of renewed awe, mystery, and hope.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull demanded Spielberg return to the kind of the filmmaker he had been in the ‘80s, not that anyone doubted he had lost his knack for it. But Spielberg was just coming off the most generally dark and fretful run of his career: Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds, and Munich (2006) all wrestled with the angst of protecting and losing children in social contexts variably fascistic and anarchic, only partly relieved by the politically slanted screwball comedy of The Terminal (2003) and the superficially fun but actually deeply anxious Catch Me If You Can (2002). The latter allowed a sidelong self-portrait of Spielberg in its young, wandering genius-shyster hero, who finishes up gazing in on an excluding mockery of his own home-restoring ideals, much as Indy encounters something similar in the nuclear village, whilst Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) takes on the mantle of confused young man trying to forge himself an identity. Spielberg tellingly uses Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to telescope the concerns of those movies and set something of a seal on his long-running theme of a family either found on the run or reforged through adversity. Likewise the film signals Spielberg’s shift to studies in post-war history and contemplation of Cold War-age vicissitudes in Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017), as well as the more historically remote but just as inquisitive Lincoln (2012), with their contemplation of different kinds of civic duty and the problems of how to avoid in resisting monsters becoming them.

The version of Indy presented here is at once instantly recognisable, his signature hat appearing on screen before he does, but also quite different to the iteration first glimpsed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sly, readily violent young rogue who somehow inhabited both bespectacled teacher and rugged soldier-of-fortune without cognitive dissonance, a man called a mercenary and a grave robber, has been supplanted by a wiser elder affirmed in his patriotic credentials, an Ike-liking war hero who now seems much less strange amidst the climes of Ivy League academia, but whose killer and professorial instincts can kick in at odd and apposite moments. Time mellows us all, apparently, but this all also signals that Indy’s life has certainly added up, that he has become something at the expense of losing other things. Stanforth notes with gravity, whilst Indy glances at photos of Brody and his father, that they seem to have “reached the age when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” Naturally, the rest of the film dedicates itself to disputing that proposal.

Most intriguingly, Indy’s maturation has made him more aware and open to transcendental experience than he ever was when young: where Indy did not dare to look at the open Ark and risk Jevohah’s judgement, he keeps his eyes and his mind wide open for the grand and transformative here. Acknowledgement of shifted geopolitics is casually tossed in, as now Indy considers going to teach in Leipzig after he’s fired for political reasons in the good old USA. Indy’s success in escaping his Commie captors to alert the government nonetheless sees him become the object of suspicion in a Reds-under-the-bed age, with even the intervention of General Scott (Alan Dale), a former commander, insufficient to ward off the spectre of blacklisting. Indy finds himself suspended from teaching and only retaining pay thanks to the valiant self-sacrifice of Brody’s successor as Dean of Indy’s workplace Marshall College, Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), who admits to resigning to swing it. Before Indy can leave on a train, he’s chased down by Mutt, a greaser riding a motorcycle, introduced in a shot carefully patterned after Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). Another pop culture archetype in the mix, this one the devolved but still potent echo in the post-war rebel of the old frontier dream.

Mutt wants Indy to help him find his missing mother Mary and her friend Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), a former pal and colleague of Indy’s: Mary went missing seeking Ox, but managed to send Mutt a letter filled with incomprehensible scrawlings and quotations connected with Ox’s supposed discovery of a crystal skull resembling other Pre-Columbian artefacts. Soon enough Indy realises they’re being shadowed by KGB agents who chase them through the campus, but fail to stop them flying south and following Ox’s garbled instructions. These lead them to an ancient cemetery above the Nazca Desert where Indy unearths the crystal skull, buried with the remains of the fabled conquistador Francisco de Orellana, whose obsession with gold led him to search for a lost city called Akator: the skull seems to have been brought with de Oellano and his men from the city. But locating and retrieving the skull proves only to be what Spalko had hoped for, as Mac and Dovchenko take Indy and Mutt prisoner and spirit them to Spalko’s encampment in the Amazon jungle. There they find Ox captive in an apparently lunatic state, along with Mutt’s mother who, not too surprisingly, turns out to be Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s old flame.

The Indiana Jones series stands as both an exemplar of popular movie entertainment but also one that suffered to a degree in being scared of itself. Whilst Raiders of the Lost Ark is the more perfect movie, with its lean, mean, virtuosic sense of narrative motive joined to thrill-mongering, the series surely reached its height in the second half of Temple of Doom with its total, fervent, almost lunatic embrace of tapping childhood ideals and fears in relation to a parental image. Indy veers from subordinated villain to messianic hero, as his dark side is ritually cleansed in a manner that also resembles a child’s bewilderment when they perceive a parent’s dark side for the first time, before the action unleashed becomes a compulsive battle of good and evil. This was played out in an Arabian Nights fantasia built from an unstable blend of imperialist adventure tropes, Hammer horror imagery, and old Hollywood B-movie chic, all bashed into a coherent shape by Spielberg’s all-pervading sense of cinematic spectacle. There was also the first glimmerings of his interest in social conscience and subjugation-liberation themes, which would lead on to movies like Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), and Indy’s journey in the film also reflects the maturation from a seeker of “fortune and glory” to a man with a potent sense of righteous anger. Some complaints, that it revived racist clichés and offered too frightening a stew for a young audience, had a valid aspect, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that in denying the film’s dangerous, antisocial edge Spielberg and Lucas were denying a vital streak in their creativity for the sake of remaining acceptable.

When Raiders of the Lost Ark plundered hoary old stories and movies the filmmakers felt confident their audience would take such backdated tropes as camp, but ironically such recognition grew less sure over time. The complaints unleashed obliged Spielberg and Lucas to file down the franchise’s teeth for The Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: the latter, the filmmakers readily admitted, patterns itself more after the The Last Crusade than the first two films. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finally accrues a tone closer to a Jules Vernian adventure along the lines of Captain Grant’s Children than to the serial movie mould that initially defined the series as a tale of globetrotting and reunion, and film versions of Verne like Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), which is directly quoted at the end. Douglas Slocombe, who had filmed the first three films for Spielberg with a signature look balancing almost expressionistic effects with shadow and light with rich colour palettes, had retired, so Spielberg’s favoured new cinematographic collaborator Janusz Kaminski, whose shooting style usually quelled and mediated colour effects, offered his own, lushly textured variation. The animated camerawork nonetheless also often keeps its distance from events and actors, with Spielberg working through a fascination for master shots containing multiple planes of arrangement for actors, carefully setting the scene for when action erupts along horizontal lines of pursuit.

Whilst it has problems in terms of pacing its plot, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is on a deeper level a master class in how to directorially pace more fundamental business, to pack a movie with curlicues of humour and context-enriching flourishes. The film is close to relaxed in places, suborning action-adventure thrills to letting its heroes and villains work through their various obsessions, and yet there’s scarcely a second wasted in making some sort of point about them as well as the genre and historical setting they inhabit. The scene of Mutt’s development of something like rapport with Indy plays out in a diner adjoining the college where young collegians and greasers, is abound with deft bits of business as Mutt’s forced shows of attitude and condescension as an avatar of a cocky new generation contends with Indy’s sanguine cool and sense of paternalistic propriety. Spielberg quotes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as Mutt tries to steal a beer surreptitiously from a waitress only for Indy to replace it, even as their conversation on other matters unfolds. Mutt keeps his obsessively maintained pompadour rigid by dipping his comb in some luckless student’s Coke.

The attempt by KGB agents to take them prisoner obliges some quick thinking, as Indy gets Mutt to thump a “Joe College” and spark a brawl between collegians and greasers to give them a chance at a getaway. The idea of staging an action sequence around the environs of Indy’s workplace is so great it’s a wonder the series never found a way of working one in before, with Indy and Mutt riding his motorcycle, battling and outrunning the pursuing goons and finishing up sliding across the floor of the college library to the consternation of students. This scene is again flecked with an astounding number of throwaway yet substantial touches. Mutt’s punch sparks a schism between the two camps of youth culture, squares and rebels, which allows another struggle, with all its geopolitical and culture war overtones, to unfold unhindered. The chasers careen through an anti-Communist demonstration, a last gasp of cultural centrism on campus before the oppositional tilt kicking in in the 1960s. One of the chasing KGB teams finishes up foiled by the decapitated head from a statue of Brody, and the sequence finishes in a comic-heroic diminuendo with Indy advising preferred historical models to one of his students before advising him to get out of the library even as he and Mutt ride the motorcycle out the door.

The journey to Chile in following Ox’s clues sees Indy and Mutt generating a tentative working partnership, Indy bewildered by Mutt’s worshipful treatment of his motorcycle, Mutt slowly working up a level of respect for the guy he first calls “old man” as Indy recounts adventures with Pancho Villa as a youth (allowing one priceless bit of character business as Indy remembers to spit on the ground after mentioning the name of Victoriano Huerta). Their arrival at the ancient cemetery sees them set upon by mask-wearing, martial arts-adept natives who try killing them with poisoned darts, leading Indy to surprise one by blowing the dart back up his pipe into the assassin’s mouth. Indy and Mutt’s penetration of the tomb sees Indy dealing expertly with problems familiar to him that still terrify Mutt. But Mutt displays his own edge of diligence as he successfully shames Indy for purloining a knife from one of the dead conquistadors in a manner quite reminiscent of old, cavalier approach to such things. When the duo finally do find de Orellana and his men, buried in preserving grave wrappings in a Mayan style, they also find the crystal skull Ox hid away, a confounding object impossible to manufacture and possessed of bewildering magnetic properties towards all metals. Indy deduces that Ox discovered the tomb and the skull, and returned the skull in a desperate attempt to mollify its powerful but inchoate, to him at least, psychic demands.

The elastic snap between frivolity and melodrama, character byplay and plot service throughout much of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might well represent that closest Spielberg has come since Jaws (1975) to truly honouring his cinema’s precursors in Ford and Howard Hawks, particularly those filmmakers’ loosely-structured, Shakespearean Pastoral-like late films like Hatari! (1962), Donovan’s Reef (1963), and El Dorado (1966). Indeed, whilst auteurist critics eventually rescued those films from the dustbin of regard and recognised their richness, they too were largely dismissed initially as shabby throwaways by titans slipping towards senescence. Such movies follow their characters in exploring a contest of personalities at once fractious but also fused together by bonds of camaraderie and codes of honour, driven out to contend in the wilderness but in search of a homecoming. El Dorado most crucially dealt similarly with aging heroes who find themselves commanding a ragged band of young surrogates and new partners. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and such models is that Spielberg tries to mate their ambling, barely narrative form with the rolling set-piece structure the Indiana Jones films took from classic serials, not the easiest styles to blend.

This might partly explain the relative awkwardness of the film’s middle act, which keeps seeming to build to new eruptions of action, as Indy and Mutt delve into de Orellana’s grave and attempt escape from the Soviet jungle camp, but both situations end with frustration, the latter devolving into farce as Indy and Marion stray into a quicksand pit and the deranged Ox, sent for help, fetches the Russians. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its forebear Raiders of the Lost Ark lies in precisely this disparity. Where once Spielberg and Lucas had their hero crawl under a truck specifically because it was a cool thing to do, and Indy was invented entirely to be a figure who did such things, the action scenes in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull instead serve largely the opposite purpose, deployed to draw out the characters, to dramatize and visualise their essence as people and links with each-other. The chase through Marshall and the later pursuit through the jungle are rolling acts of meeting and reconciliation, maturation and discovery. The quicksand scene becomes a moment of crucial revelation as Marion tells Indy Mutt is his son (“Why didn’t you make him stay in school?” Indy demands immediately, after telling Mutt dropping out was fine if it suited him), blended with less momentous but equally felicitous shading as Indy speaks like both a teacher and a man of experience as he contemplates the actual threat level of the sand, and is forced to temper his old phobia as Mutt tries to save his life by using a python as a rope.

The actual storyline is a giddy mishmash of ideas, particularly the ancient astronaut theory mooted by Erich von Daaniken in his 1969 book Chariots of the Gods?, a book that helped kick off a burgeoning fascination with new-age esoterica in subsequent decades. Such notions always had a troublingly racist scepticism over technological and architectural achievements by “primitive” civilisations, but also captured imaginations by suggesting deeper, more fantastical influences and forces at work in history. This is mixed with authentic pieces of modern folklore like Stalin’s interest in psychic research, and contentious artefacts like probably faked crystal skulls “discovered” by various archaeologists including Anna and F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. All this entails a shift away from the vital thread of the earlier films in the series, where religious and mythical truth subsisted like a secret river of wonder. That river flowed under the apparent solidity of Indy’s mythologised 1930s world, hovering as it did between the classical and the properly modern, where Judeo-Christian and Hindu mysticism were place on a level footing and genuine historical quests and enigmas were used as linchpins for the stories. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull nonetheless still invokes the same pattern, taking on the myth-crusted history of de Orellana, who gave the Amazon its name, and his search for cities of gold, the search for raw satiation of greed and the hunt for transcendental wonder not easy to separate. The eventual revelation of an alien influence connects easily with Spielberg’s exploration of divine seeking through the prism of UFO mythology in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spalko theorises that the smaller, less advanced aliens retrieved from the Roswell crash are relatives of the beings who built Akator, and the crystal skull itself contains some remnant of intelligence that retains incredible potency, reducing Ox to apparent lunacy and, when Spalko forcibly exposes Indy to its influence, commanding him to take it to Akator.

Marion’s reappearance in Indy’s life immediately stirs their oldest reflexes of attraction and aggression as their first encounter in decades before a crowd of onlooking Soviet soldiers becomes an instant verbal battle laced with screwball comedy postures, Marion’s fierce declarations that she’s had a “damn good, really good life” charged with protest-too-much electricity. A core pleasure in the film is seeing Allen’s undimmed smile as she feels the old Indy charm again. Substituting Indy’s familiar Nazi enemies for Soviets was a pretty obvious direction to go in, although they just don’t have the same crackle of instant enmity. It’s hinted that Spalko represents a kind of holdout faction of fanatical Stalinists, their commander representing intellectual avarice detached from any kind of social accountability even as she sees herself as a warrior for her political faith, whilst Dovchenko is a straightforward thug who gives Indy plenty of motivation to resist him by casually shooting American soldiers (“I’m sorry – drop dead, Comrade”). That Spielberg can’t quite take his Commies as seriously as villains is still plain as he offers the soldiers dancing the kazatchok around their jungle campfire, perhaps fitting in a movie that’s less about pure evil and more about clashing forces of imperial arrogance and cultural domain in an age defined by moral ambiguity.

Some don’t like her, but to me Spalko presents Indy with his fittest antagonist since Belloq, a strident blend of cerebral and physical honing, a haughty egotist (“Be careful, you might get exactly what you want.” “I usually do.”) supposedly representing egalitarianism whose first insult to Indy is casually kicking aside a handful of relics he and Mac dug up out in the desert: not even Belloq was that barbarian. Spalko seeks out atavistic knowledge purely in the interests of gaining control over the future, spelling out a delightful bullet point of potential uses for harnessing the apparent psychic force of the aliens to “place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders, make your teachers teach the true version of history,” loaning substance to decades of the most deeply paranoid fantasies about Communist infiltration. Spalko resembles Garbo’s Ninotchka reborn as a post-gender dominatrix who hands Mutt his ass on a plate but proves to have her own limits when even she is rendered queasy and terrified by a horde of erupting soldier ants. Blanchett’s elegant, witty performance expertly captures the cartoonish aspect of the character but also fully inhabits her too, equipped as she is with a Louise Brooks-as-Lulu hairdo and a sword on her hip that stands to attention like a mock erection when she gets too close to the alien remains she so eagerly seeks. The edge of vaguely sexual tension between her and Indy is also new, good touch, with Spalko’s sense of imperiousness extending into that realm too as she keeps trying to penetrate his mind with her psychic talents, only to keep meeting his mused disdain. “You’re a hard man to read, Doctor Jones,” she comments whilst giving his face a patronising pat, and later places her hands seductively on his thighs as she again tries to mind-rape him. This moment plays out as something of a sarcastic inversion of Marion’s scenes contending with Belloq’s overtures whilst his prisoner in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Broadbent, Winstone, and Hurt extend Spielberg’s penchant for great British character actors brought in to augment the team, although the actors’ roles don’t really require such talents. Regardless, Hurt is a delight as the crazed Ox, whose communing with the skull has left him a cosmic conduit with the switch stuck on, hands writing complex messages whilst his mouth pours forth babble. It’s fun seeing Winstone in a different kind of part compared to the bruisers he usually plays, as the inherently likeable yet deeply shifty Mac. The character does serve a solid purpose in representing the temptation to surrender to the inherent ambiguity of the age that Indy must resist. But the film trips repeatedly over the problem of what to do with him, his confession to being an undercover CIA agent infiltrating Spalko’s team later proving to be another fraud: “What are you, some kind of triple agent?” “Nah, I just lied about being a double.” Winstone at least plays him cleverly enough so that no matter how duplicitous he gets he still seems more a jovial rogue than a real villain, and when he finally gets his punishment, sucked into a vortex of interdimensional oblivion, there’s the feeling that his last, confident pronouncement that “I’m gonna be all right,” might still turn out true, somewhere, somewhen.

Mutt’s choice of nom-de-guerre is a clever touch in itself, suggesting both sarcastic pride in playing the outlaw bad boy even though he’s actually a private school reject, whilst also nodding to the way Indy preferred his family dog’s name to his own (and its real source in Lucas’ pet dog). Both father and son struggle through realising new dimensions to their identity. LaBeouf had earned a deal of general enmity for his overbearing performances as the whiny shit somehow anointed as galactic hero in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, and it’s fair to say he never makes a convincing inheritor for Ford (who could be?). But LaBeouf is nonetheless actually very good as Mutt, leaving behind junior Woody Allen neuroticism for a deft portrayal of a wannabe rugged type who’s not quite there yet, humiliated occasionally in his efforts to seem up to the task but also making sterling shows of intelligence and gumption whilst also trying to hold character, as when he takes a moment, when Spalko threatens to torture him to make Indy give up information, to make sure his hair is perfect again before inviting her to do her worst. Mutt also has flashes of real concern and pity for Ox, who has served as something of a surrogate father figure for him, that reveal the deeper, maturing man within. Indy’s own, more fractious relationship with Ox is summarised as he tries to get through to him: “You were born in Leeds, England. You and I went to school together at the University of Chicago and you were never this interesting.”

As for Ford himself, his career and reputation had been waning although he was still a top leading man in the late 1990s and early 2000s, from frowning his way through too many lacklustre vehicles. Returning to playing Dr Jones, whilst not entirely free of moments where he strains to hit the same old cocky charm, nonetheless did much to revive him, and the quality of his performances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Blade Runner 2046 (2017) owe much to the way he connected his aging self to his younger here. The sight of a sixty-something rumbling has its silly side and yet fits the character to a certain extent. Indy was always defined by both his durability but also his undeniable physical realism, a man who most definitely felt the pains of his exertions afterwards, whilst here he seems more energised, more angrily potent, the more knocks he tales: grant me an old man’s frenzy indeed. The performance works ultimately because the film allows Indy’s funny side to come to the fore, as Ford is particularly good when Indy struggles through his new family troubles with an amusing blend of outrage and pathos. The worms finally turn as Indy, Mutt, and Marion ride in a Soviet truck as Spalko’s team follow the clues Indy deciphers from Ox’s ravings towards Akator, a road-clearing engine leading a convoy through the depths of the Amazon.

A family argument rages as the trio accost one-another for betrayals and absences, Mutt’s own discovery that Indy is his father comes with its own edge of shock, forced to reconfigure his view of himself as emulating the wild and doomed pattern of his stepfather, a fighter pilot who died during the war, rather than “some teacher.” When the annoyed Dovchenko moves to silence Marion, Indy and Mutt, squabbling tooth and nail a second before, work in perfect concert to knock Dovchenko out and free themselves from their bonds. Indy’s totemic confession to Marion about the other women in his life – “They all had the same problem, they weren’t you, honey” – proves the elusive key to both healing the rift and powering them all up for a battle with the Soviets, Indy blowing up the road engine with a rocket launcher and sparking a frenetic chase through the jungle and down the river to the fringes of Akator. This sequence is one of my favourite action interludes in any movie: god knows how many times I’ve thought of it whilst wading through others with their variably shapeless roundelays of punching and shooting and gibberish editing or lack of any invention in the way the action unfolds.

Whereas here, again, Spielberg offers a master class in how to do this sort of thing, with beautifully coherent lines of action matched to flowing, dashing camera work, the customary fisticuffs packed with humour and flashes of absurdism. Far too much, many carped, but there’s also a madcap ferocity apparent in touches like Spalko firing off a heavy machine she clings to in a desperately messy attempt to take out Marion behind the wheel as they careen through the bush. The two factions try desperately to capture the skull, Indy and Marion using speed and manoeuvring and the jungle cover to foil their enemies’ firepower. Mutt’s mooted talent for fencing is brought to bear as he and Spalko face off standing on the backs of speeding jeeps, turning the fight into a rite of passage for the next generation. Indy grins in fatherly approval; Marion instructs his fencing like a stage mom. Mutt does well but is teased by Spalko for fighting “like a young man – eager to begin, quick to finish,” and gets more literally blue-balled as he keeps getting whacked in the crotch by stems beneath, before Spalko wallops him properly with some expert judo.

Mutt gets his own back swinging through the trees Tarzan-style with a horde of mimicking monkeys, and manages to snatch away the skull, whilst Indy gets into a tooth-and-nail brawl with Dovchenko who finishes up being dragged into a nest of colossal ants after Indy finally knocks him on his ass amongst them. Marion gets her own crazy brainwave and drives the amphibious vehicle she’s commandeered with all her charges off a cliff into a huge tree’s bowers, letting it deliver them gently into the river, only to then plunge over a triple waterfall. Spielberg punctuates with dramatic dolly shots onto Spalko’s face as she realises a fired-up Jones is going to be one hell of a crimp in her plans, matched later as she draws her rapier to do battle with full, murderous commitment to the swashbuckling. John Williams’ scoring is particularly strong in capturing just the right tone in this scene, his familiar heroic strains momentarily interrupted by a lapse into Slavic reels as a nudge in the ribs alert to not just the not-so-secret edge of the pantomime to all this but also the dance-like orchestration of movement. Much complaint was also made about the amount of CGI used to augment aspects of this sequence, which has a valid edge again. But then, the series had never been shy of special effects, nor had its precursors and influences, and the visual texture resembles the matte paintings utilised in earlier films imbued with mobility.

The horde of monstrous ants that torment the heroes and villains alike suggests homage to Byron Haskin’s The Naked Jungle (1953). Whilst Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does play a pretty clean game in terms of gore, compared to the delightfully infamous excesses of the first two films, at least the image of Dovchenko being swallowed up by the critters, like the blowback dart earlier in the film and Spalko’s death by brain fry later in the film, offer a tasty reminder of the Indy’s, and his films’, willingness to play a bit dirty and flirt with horror visuals. The absurdism hits a new height as the heroic team plunge over the waterfalls in a Keatonesque sequence that concludes with the sight of Marion still clinging to the steering wheel of the amphibious vehicle after washing up ashore. After surviving the journey the adventurers enter the surrounds of Akator, where they have to brave the fearsome native trustees who guard it and penetrate its deepest vaults, entering the central pyramid via a gateway opened through releasing sand from underneath a monolith.

It’s only here that I find the film starts to develop a real problem, not because it slows down but rather because it perhaps ought to. Koepp’s script keeps letting his heroes use the skull to unlock barriers, including parting the guarding army of natives, rather than finding new and clever ways through each challenge. The final movement of The Last Crusade retains tremendous affection from its fans for the way it entwines clear and urgent character stakes whilst shifting from swashbuckling to something more subtle, as the quest engages Indy’s learning and mental prowess as well as physical bravery. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more straightforward, lacking surprise and cleverness, except for when Indy works out how to penetrate the pyramid in a touch that again tips its hat to a model, this time to Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955). Otherwise what we get on the approach to what Lucas’ inspiration Joseph Campbell called the innermost cave feels a little too much like one of the series’ video game imitators like Tomb Raider.

When the heroes and villains both penetrate the inner chamber where the collective of alien skeletons still reside and reform into a gestalt projection, Spalko and Mac meet their comeuppances, both foiled by their divergent brands of greed, and the aspect of the series influenced moralistic fairy tale returns. Spalko has her brain burned out by the relentless flow of knowledge the alien collective exudes, a fate wittily mediated by Spalko’s almost erotic revelry as streams of psychic energy pierce her being but eventually, literally blow her mind, her mantra “I want to know!” finally gaining orgasmic climax as flames sprout from her eyes. The parochial quality to the film’s ultimate moral – “Knowledge was their treasure,” Indy declares after realising the aliens were archaeologist like him in collecting artefacts – is at once corny but also fits its surrounds like a glove: the aliens ultimately vindicate Indy’s faith in his metier. And if the immediate scenes preceding lack the feeling of real novelty, Spielberg nonetheless makes up for it and then some, with his crescendo image of the alien craft buried under Akator rising out of the ground. The pyramid and city disintegrate as a churning whirlwind grows, a colossal, silver flying saucer rising amidst flying stony debris before vanishing. Debris falls back to earth when free of the gravity flux in a thunderous rain of stone and the Amazon River is unleashed in a deluge through punctured gaps in fringing hills, slamming down upon the ruins and drowning them.

This is certainly Spielberg’s most direct emulation of one his eternal filmic touchstones, the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). It’s also the counterpoint to the sight of the atomic bomb, with Indy again framed as dwarfed yet determinedly witnessing as the rules of reality are again rewritten, this time opening vast new horizons of experience rather than merely threatening doomsday: the eternal trade-off of modernity encapsulated in one great arc of vision. This shot also resolves the film’s visual language, the recourse to fluid master shots throughout finally gaining ultimate context as Spielberg presents this image of wonder in one, fixated, brilliantly executed shot that binds the cosmic and the human, locating the essence of cinematic spectacle in the direct gaze. The coda resorts to a wryly campy but also fulsome portrayal of homecoming and restoration. Indy is made Associate Dean and marries Marion before approving guests including Mutt, Ox, and Stanforth, Marion kissing her husband with merry lustfulness that startles the old roué. Mutt picks up Indy’s wind-toppled hat from the church floor only for Indy to pluck it from his grasp on his way out. Not quite yet, son. The deep-veined richness of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fact that it really only uses genre thrills to hang its delight with life’s wayward adventure upon, perhaps indicates why it aggravated people seeking more monotone pleasures, but also stands as reason why, like its hero, its best days still wait before it.

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