1990s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay here or listen to it on the Film Freedonia podcast

…and then there was Tarantino.

Not many movies can lay claim to rewiring the zeitgeist. But Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (1994), mapped a major continent of early 1990s cinema. Tarantino’s trumpet first blew at the Sundance Film Festival and culminated at Cannes. The one-time video store know-it-all turned movie world wannabe had made one attempt at filmmaking, My Best Friend’s Birthday, in the late 1980s, but it never saw release because of a severely damaged last reel. When he emerged properly with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino suddenly became a pop cultural lightning rod, as most everyone who was young and hungry for hard-edged cinema and other permutations of alternative culture in the early 1990s latched onto Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction with fierce and personal fervour. Suddenly every film school student and their dog was making films laced with grungy violence, rapid-fire dialogue, and movie referencing, and a new breed of creator impresario began to emerge. If Jim Jarmusch had staked out the turf for the modern indie film mode and Steven Soderbergh provided the fanfare, Tarantino gave it an adrenalin shot. It was hardly as if Hollywood wasn’t making gritty, violent, smart-aleck thrillers at the time, not with the likes of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) recent memories, and Tarantino emerged in the midst of a revival of film noir laced with retro flavour that kicked off several years earlier.
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But there was of course much more to the Tarantino phenomenon than mere revivalism or swagger. Tarantino’s arrival marked the official dawn of self-conscious postmodernism in Hollywood cinema, replete with fancy-pants notions like intertextuality and death-of-the-author recontextualisation, as well as a non-linear approach to screen narrative of a kind mainstream cinema screens had scarcely deigned to employ since the early 1970s. The ‘90s indie movie craze seems like something of a lost idyll now, particularly since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who fostered much of the movement in large part on the back of Tarantino’s success for the then-respected Miramax Films. Several of Tarantino’s major rivals in the ranks of those often cited as today’s most important American filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, ran with aspects of Tarantino’s example to leverage their own beginnings, with acts of calculatedly ironic nostalgia and pop culture riffing, whilst many of his talented, more earnest contemporaries fell away.
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Tarantino was hardly the first filmmaker to erect his movies in part as Parthenons dedicated to the movie gods. The French New Wave and the ‘70s Movie Brats had already done the same thing. The open secret about classic Hollywood filmmaking was that the vast bulk of movies were remakes and remixes of others. Take the way an esteemed classic like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) leans on a plot quote from one of its screenwriter Jules Furthman’s earlier films, China Seas (1935), whilst Hawks himself happily ripped himself off many times. But Tarantino set about drawing the eye to his, the quotation marks all but neon-lit, his carefully chosen musical cues and references framed with such totemic inference it seemed as if some Ennio Morricone music cue had dragged him out of some deep emotional crisis sometime during his days in the video store. For Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s touchstones, including Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), weren’t just evident but flaunted. But there was still something bizarre and thrilling about this new cinematic voice regardless, one that remains difficult to pin down after a quarter-century of familiarity and endless imitation, relating to how, despite his films’ magpie’s-nest compositing, Tarantino’s touch proved unique.
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The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs still illustrates that touch in all its unruly, arresting confidence. A group of eight men, all dressed in sharp black suits, seated around a table in a diner, gabbling on as they finish off breakfast and prepare for a day’s work: Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Brown (Tarantino), Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). The blankness of identification and dress is in aid of criminal enterprise, as in The Taking of Pelham 123, but has another, more unusual dimension. Here are eight characters well and truly found by their author, out to prove their vitality in the face of an itchy delete button. Dialogue comes on as a frenetic stew of character definition, pop culture theory and excavation, and socio-political argument, good humour and fraternity, laced with macho showmanship and signals of asocial reflexes and simmering aggression. Where a more classical noir film would use such a scene to make a distinct point about the characters as social animals, Tarantino engages them as both creations in a movie and of a movie: there is no longer a sharp divide between observant diagnosis and analysis of generic function. Hollywood had dedicated itself assiduously to trying to stay with it since the late 1960s, but Tarantino’s arrival suddenly declared the arrival of a hip culture happy in sifting through the detritus of mass-produced entertainment.
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Tarantino made sure the audience knew who he was by casting himself as Brown, who delivers his memorable analysis of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” for the edification of his fellows in identifying its covert theme as one of feminine sexual liberation confronted by new experience in encountering a prick colossal enough to cause her pain again. Hell, some might argue that’s a fitting metaphor for Tarantino’s entire relationship with his viewing audience. More cogently, the notion that all entertainment has subtext and can be interrogated until it takes on new form was hardly novel in 1992, but Tarantino found a way here not just to make his audience aware of it but to make it an actual dramatic value. Tarantino was offering American genre film’s revenge on all those smart-aleck New Wavers who collected Hollywood cinematic tropes in their deconstructive tales of Parisian losers. And yet at the same time he was subjecting the genre movie to another perversion, dragging it into the intimate conversational world of indie film. Tarantino disposed of any worry that a film image could sustain a multiplicity of reference points – that any moment could be at once a movie quote, a plot point, a proper dramatic idea, and a meta joke. The dialogue immediately betrays ardour for the twists of American tough guy argot, a tradition going back to the likes of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner. Now the lexicon runs the gamut between frat boy attitude – “This is the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses” – to Muhammad Ali – “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise.”
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The characters who utter these two lines, White and Pink, define themselves immediately by these different cultural lexicons, by generations and by ideals of wit. The amicable breakfast becomes charged with actual tension and disagreement as Pink refuses to contribute to the tip for the waitress, citing personal scruples: “I don’t tip.” White’s sensibility counters Pink’s cynical distaste for being expected to operate according to a social nicety and cough up a dollar. The dynamic the two characters will enact in the oncoming drama is stated, in the clash between White’s empathy and Pink’s suspiciousness, laced with cultural inference. Pink makes excellent points about the arbitrariness and unfairness of rewarding some workers over others in a mostly, thoroughly Darwinian capitalist system. White has the vote of audience sympathy in observing unfairness doesn’t preclude the necessity of the gesture for those benefitting from it regardless. Joe’s gruff decisiveness ends the conversation with the firmness of old-school patriarchy: the rights and wrongs of a social expectation don’t matter nearly so much as the fulfilment of it for its own sake, to maintain an equilibrium which allows them all to operate. This vignette, droll and incisive as incidental characterisation and a dissection of socio-political attitude, also anticipates the crew’s borderline pathetic need for Joe to turn up and play decisive daddy. But we’re also on the countdown towards the moment when the gun will be aimed at Joe, and down daddy goes.
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The opening titles sequence helped cement the film’s mystique. Tarantino individually identifies his actors as an ensemble of handpicked pros, a description that also encompasses the parts they play, strutting in slow motion through the blandest of conceivable LA locales, the George Baker Selection’s jaunty, jangly “Little Green Bag” on the soundtrack. Tarantino’s ironic approach to movie scoring, using upbeat, retro songs and movie score extracts from disreputable wings of pop culture to contrast moments of savage violence and sanguine cool, is now so familiar a movie strategy as to be a cliché, but at the time the greater part of its impact lay in a similar quality to grunge rock’s arrival in pop music: it was a complete rejection of the slick pretences of ‘80s film styles. His visual method, whilst hardly antiquated, similarly cut across the grain of what film style had largely been in the previous decade, instead somehow managing to shoot the interior of the warehouse where most of the tale unfolds as if it’s a wealth of space out of a Western, the physical attitudes of his actors allowed to hold the weight of the compositions just as their mouths carry the weight of the dialogue.
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The violent undercurrent of the opening scene’s jocularity – “I changed my mind, shoot this piece of shit.” – is fully exposed after the title sequence. Perhaps an hour or so later or even less, White is now found driving a car with Orange a bloody mess on the backseat, shot in the belly during the getaway from an armed robbery of a diamond merchant’s building. An incidental detail here proves endlessly consequential, as Orange calls White by his real name, Larry. White’s sense of friendly responsibility for the belly-shot young team member becomes a point of honour overriding White’s other tribal responsibilities. Tarantino obviously understood one essential aspect of classical tragedy: the spiral into all-consuming calamity is not just caused by clashes of character but by a fatal inability to reconcile colliding value systems. The white criminal underclass the crew represents is expertly observed in a way that highlights their tribal behaviour, whilst many of his subsequent films would deal with the interlocution of tribes. They’re loaned a crisp, professionalised glamour by their black-and-white attire, which they certainly wouldn’t possess if they were dressed like telephone repairmen or the like; if Reservoir Dogs is ultimately a tale of faking it ‘til you make it, a legend of show business expressed through crime flick drag, Tarantino reverses the traffic just far enough to lend his cadre of hoods the aura of movie stars.
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Ironic perhaps, given that Reservoir Dogs put together what might have been the best ensemble of actors for a crime movie since The Maltese Falcon (1941). Old pros Keitel and Tierney matched by squirrelly young talents who had gained notice in an odd sprawl of ‘80s movies, as well as crime novelist Bunker with his laidback aura of authenticity, and Tarantino himself, his young, smooth-cheeked visage resembling a pre-transformation portrait of the Joker found in the three-tone prints of old Batman comic books. Keitel helped get the film made, along with another hero from the American New Wave, Monte Hellman. Keitel’s presence linked Reservoir Dogs with Martin Scorsese’s equally showy, gritty early works, whilst Tierney, an actor whose genuine off-screen ferocity and bullishness had foiled his career and was still intimidating Tarantino during the shoot, gave a palpable connection to the days of classic noir. Hellman might well have felt a shock of recognition in the kinship between Tarantino’s project and his takes on the Western, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (both 1966), which similarly subjected genre canards to a deconstructive, vaguely existential whim.
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Tarantino had consciously written a film that could be executed on the smallest budget possible, so the bulk of the movie unfolds in a warehouse somewhere in the LA hinterland, Joe’s base of operations for the heist and rendezvous for the crew. Largely thanks to Keitel’s presence the budget proved big enough to allow punchy episodes of chase and gunplay, in flashback to Pink, White, and Orange’s escapes from pursuing cops, although the actual heist remains only reported in the dialogue. The story, as it proceeds from there, is exceptionally simple, even as the connections and suggestions ripple far. Brown and Blue are dead; Pink, White, Orange, and Blonde make it to the warehouse, although Orange soon passes out. Pink thinks the heist was a disaster because the crew were set up by an informer in their ranks. White is sceptical, and holds Blonde more responsible for unleashing a bloodbath. Blonde has taken a cop, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) captive, and the three men beat him. When Pink and White depart to find the stolen diamonds Pink stashed, Blonde goes much further in cutting off Nash’s ear and planning to set him on fire, but he’s shot dead by the revived Orange, who actually is the informant, and explains that although the warehouse is being watched by police, none will come until Joe shows up. When Joe and Eddie arrive, Eddie kills Nash, and disbelieves Orange’s hastily concocted story that Blonde was planning to rip them off, whilst Joe is now sure Orange is the rat. White shoots Joe and Eddie rather than let them kill his friend, but is mortally wounded himself by Eddie.
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Along the way Tarantino pauses to relate how the various members of the crew were drawn together, with White and Blonde clearly old pals of the Cabot clan and sometime employees, particularly Blonde, real name Vic Vega, who just got through a stint in prison after refusing to turn stoolie on the Cabots when he was arrested in a locale filled with their stolen merchandise. Orange is seen going through a kind of performative boot camp to master the streetwise act required to fool the genuine criminals. The authentic members of the crew can be taken as lampoons of up-by-the-bootstraps capitalism, proud of their know-how and professional ethos and dismissive of concerns that get between them and fulfilment. Notably, Joe and Eddie have names and identity as employers the others cannot afford, as captains of their little industry. Joe’s office, with its wood panelled walls and elephant tusks and maps of Venice on the wall, is a cheerfully vulgar seat of power as signified by eras – tribal, medieval, and Victorian. Pink’s sarcastic commentary – “It would appear that waitresses are just one of the many groups the government fucks in the ass on a regularly basis” – makes a play of seeming rudely sympathetic but is actually shorn of class feeling and filled instead with yuppie arrogance, the looking-out-for-number-one philosophy at a zenith. This is expressed in many ways throughout the narrative, even by White who declares that, “The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherfucker ain’t no choice at all.”
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White is however genuinely shocked and vehement over Blonde’s cold and exacting execution of bystanders and staff in the merchant’s: the rogue psychopath is as much odd man out in the company of professional criminals as the rat, because his purposes have no connection to any rational aim of business. And yet it becomes clear Blonde’s brutality is rooted in the same deep hatred for the forces of justice. The flashback depicting his meeting with Joe and Eddie commences with a joshing session as Eddie gleefully provokes Blonde by suggesting he’s turned queer and black after being raped by black men in prison. This results in the two men wrestling on the office floor, as if they’re ten-year-olds. Blonde’s cobra-like gaze could harbour genuine rage or just a sociopath’s indifference, and possibly Blonde has become a machine for victimising the world in response to the way he feels like he’s been victimised. Tarantino here was taking up an aspect of the gangster film following on from The Godfather films, as this genre depends to a large part on the viewer’s identification with the most palatable choice amongst bastards. White, by comparison, seems comparatively upright, sticking up for friends and operating according to his instincts and experience. The flashback to his and Orange’s flight from the cops reaches its punchline as it’s revealed Orange was shot by an armed woman whose car they try to hijack, and he shot her dead in reflexive response. White’s conviction Orangie is okay is then based not just in guilt or amity, but what he experienced, and what he’s afraid of, knowing full well it could be him slowly bleeding to death.
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The surface interchangeableness of the crew is then steadily contradicted, but they mostly share a very similar identity as white, plebeian criminals, members of the tribe (there might even be a sneaky joke about that in regards to their dress, meant to evoke Jewish diamond buyers) who maintain strict internecine codes and forms of recognition, marked out by brusque contempt for non-members, including of course gross racism. They’re also members of pop cultural camps, however, delighting in yardsticks of cool, toughness, and erotic appeal, many of which cut across traditional borders of social identity, as well as old-fashioned notions of dramatic integrity. White confirms both his age and his ideal when he quotes Muhammad Ali even as he muses contemptuously on the black men he’s known. Orange clearly loves Silver Surfer. They’re all hot for Honey West and Pam Grier characters. Most old-school screenwriters and directors would have portrayed these characters as ignorant on this level, because their terms of reference would have been their own working class parents or friends. Jean-Luc Godard was obsessed with defining the no-man’s-land between his idea of real life and the art forms that obsessed him. Tarantino saw no such space, not anymore: the lens of pop culture is how most people experience the world now, just as they once absorbed national or religious folklores to situate their identities and process emotional experience. And so “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” is discussed with Talmudic intensity and debates about the actors of obscure TV shows sit cheek by jowl with plotting a robbery and personal ruminations on sex and race.
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Superficially, Reservoir Dogs stands with Jackie Brown (1997) as Tarantino’s most quotidian, grounded work, and yet it’s flecked with nascent aspects of surrealism and absurdism. Tarantino’s gore-mongering scruffiness was already laced with distinct hints of hyperbole: the lake of blood that forms about Orange prefigures the outlandish bloodletting seen in the likes of the Kill Bill diptych (2003-4) and Django Unchained (2012). Connections form with Tarantino’s subsequent films – Blonde is the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, White’s ex-lady has the same name as the heroine of True Romance (1993), hinting he could be the older, battle-scarred version of that film’s hero – suggesting a free-floating mythological world in the offing. Pulp Fiction would land as hard as it did in large part because it moved a step beyond Reservoir Dogs in simultaneous celebration and mockery of anatomisation of hipster subcultures and the iconography of a raised-by-TV generation, offering a fictional agora where S&M freaks, hippie dope dealers, beatnik assassins, blaxploitation heavies, bodypiercers, retro freaks, and the by-products of war and suburbia all meet and are diagrammed according to possible usefulness in terms of B-movie storylines. The use of barely-remembered classic rock ditties on the soundtrack, often deployed with a sarcastic invocation that relates to the on-screen drama in a fashion like Greek chorus gone funkalicious, is justified by the characters’ penchant for the radio show K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s. The show’s host is played by the deadpan ‘90s comedy hero Steven Wright, whose fillips of hype and commercialism – the way he pronounces “Behemoth” in an ad for a monster truck rally is an endless delight – feel like broadcasts from another planet.
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One of Tarantino’s less noted precursors was Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Godard’s Breathless, which pulled off a similar feat in transplanting New Wave conceits out of the hypercultural climes of Paris to suburban Los Angeles. Perhaps the least analysed side of Tarantino is the ironic realist: particularly in his first three films, his work was deeply rooted in his feel for LA, his love for its sunstruck streets and the rhythms of its downtown conversations. The film’s deeply cynical contemplation of a criminal underworld as a stand-in for urban bohemianism and the artistic demimonde proved, despite not really focusing on such things, weirdly attuned to the mood of riotous dissent in LA at the time. Tarantino’s later work hinges much more on a dance between aesthetic posture and authentic emotion and experience, as in the Kill Bill films or Death Proof (2007), which moved onto another zone of tribal struggle, in their case concerning female protagonists, before his trilogy of historical incitement, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight (2015), where the narrative centres around historical tribal wars rhymed to different modes of cinema. When Tarantino would to a very great extent remake Reservoir Dogs with The Hateful Eight, the core variance was that with the later film Tarantino would make each character a representative of a different tribe rather than a homogenous group with an odd man out.
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The impact of Tarantino’s directorial approach amounted not just to a scorecard of iconographic flourishes like sharp suits and old tunes. The clear-eyed cinematography Tarantino got from Andrzej Sekula, who would also shoot Pulp Fiction, spurned most of the stylistic reflexes of ‘80s action cinema, with few shallow focal plains and little diffused light or flashy filter work. Tarantino and Sekula instead made heavy use of wide-angle lenses to achieve a more igneous effect, epic even on a small scale. There was a touch of irony in the fact that Tony Scott, a doyen of the ‘80s style of action movie, took on Tarantino’s rewritten script for My Best Friend’s Birthday as the baroquely shot True Romance, which looked good but felt, by comparison, instantly dated, although the likes of Michael Bay would carry over something of that style. Reservoir Dogs wasn’t exactly a work of strict classicism however, and comes on with a visual language both muscular and skittish. Long static shots and standoffish camera placements redolent of Antonioni somehow manage to at once unfetter and trap the energy of his actors, alternated with camera gymnastics betraying the immediate influence of Scorsese and particularly Brian De Palma, as if taking the place of an unseen watching presence thrust in amidst the carnage.
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Reservoir Dogs also established Tarantino’s fondness for circumlocutory structuring, deployed less to evoke, as with filmmakers like Orson Welles or Alain Resnais, vagaries of time and memory, than to engage traditional narrative propulsion in a different fashion. The flashbacks do more than simply explain backstory, but set up each little act in the core drama, resituating expectations and tension. In this regard Tarantino revealed himself as one of the few filmmakers to properly understand the dynamic behind the flashback in Vertigo (1958) and use it as a means of changing the pitch of dramatic intensity. White’s vignette is one of slightly rueful friendliness and straightforward aims and desires. Blonde’s vignette explains his visceral hatred of cops and just about everyone else except for Joe and Eddie. Orange’s doesn’t simply inform us that he’s the interloper or how he got shot but why these two facts are both facets in an extended deed of method acting. Tarantino made no bones about the inherent theatricality of his approach. Many scenes in the warehouse feel like acting exercises. This makes sense, given that the insistent motif in the film is role-playing, and the lurking suggestion what we’re seeing is all a metaphor for Tarantino’s days as a sometime actor and general, would-be Hollywood player. The film quoting is something like the filmmaker’s equivalent of an actor trying out different costumes for different characters, busily donning and shedding guises in the hunt for one that will settle and sell.
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Perhaps the film’s most famous image, of Pink and White pointing guns at each-other in a moment of heated argument, is filmed intimately at first, engaged in the ferocity of the moment. But then Tarantino steps back, shooting them from a remove that strands the men in posturing absurdity, and draws the camera away a few paces to reveal Blonde standing watching them whilst lazily sipping on a milkshake. Blonde is audience, assessing the effectiveness of the performed machismo, and he quickly begins provoking White with his own perfect attitude of supine cool. “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” Blonde comments, nailing down both his and White’s style hero and generic forebear. The chief tripwire of the plot seems to be Orange’s power over White in knowing his name, but this proves to have rather placed him as much in thrall to White. He accepts the rules of his appointed role to the point where he stands around looking anguished and not intervening as White ruthlessly blows away two fellow cops, before Orange shoots a woman and gets himself shot twice for the sake of their friendship. Once he’s wounded, all boundaries between life and pose vanish, and Orange becomes merely a desperate man and White the one trying to get him through it. Fake it ‘til you make it indeed. White’s comment to Joe, “You push that whole woman-man thing too long and it gets to you after a while,” betrays his unease with commitments advisable with his lifestyle, and also offers the slightest hint of homoerotic subtext to his attachment to Orange.
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The longest of the film’s flashbacks revolves around the division between life and art in a way that’s more overt than Tarantino would usually practice in his films. Orange, real name Freddy, wheedles his way into the bandit circle. He sets about mastering, at the behest of his handler Holdaway (Randy Brooks), an “amusing anecdote” for the purposes of furthering his cover. This part of the film might initially seem vaguely extraneous, but it is in truth the very essence of Reservoir Dogs and the mission statement for the rest of Tarantino’s career, as an exploration of the slippery boundaries between act and life, creation and deconstruction. The anecdote relates how Orange supposedly once sweated through a close encounter with cops and a drug sniffer dog in a railway station washroom whilst carrying a large quantity of weed. Holdaway tells him that you have to be “naturalistic, naturalistic as hell” to convince in undercover work. And so Orange’s journey mimics the processes of being an actor – meetings in diners, read-throughs, stagy rehearsals, and finally entering the zone of make-believe so intensely the narrative becomes a mini-movie into which Orange projects himself. The blend of Tarantino’s directing, Roth’s acting, Sekula’s shooting and Sally Menke’s editing is at its most ingenious here, as Orange’s anecdote jumps locales as he works his way through stages of conviction. Finally Orange delivers his highwire monologue before Joe, White, and Eddie, before he is finally glimpsed standing before the cops in his anecdote, recounting it to them.
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The crowning moment of the anecdote sees Orange jab the button on a hand dryer, momentarily drowning the cops’ conversation and drawing their annoyed gaze, including that of their barking dog, but it also seals his victory, both imagined and real: the riskiness of the gesture achieves a perfect simulacrum, and Orange has become so convincing he bends the language of cinematic reality itself. The most notorious portion of Reservoir Dogs, and its initial spur to fame, is the scene of Blonde’s torture of Nash. This scene seems the complete opposite in nature to Orange’s story, as a portrait of authentic and immediate evil. If Orange is the bullshit artist made good, Blonde is cold truth, providing his own soundtrack when he turns on the radio and tunes in for the ‘70s Scottish folk-rock band Steelers Wheel’s song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” with its spry, insidiously catchy tune and refrain of “please” offered as a cruelly deadpan mockery of the cries Nash can’t make with his mouth taped shut. Even here, we’re deep in a zone of performative zeal and competition, as Blonde proves he’s the one with show-stopping moves, the one who gives us what we really want. Blonde’s taunting little dance to the tune as he gets ready to attack Nash with a straight razor suggests he’s having a ball even as he’s nominally the one presenting his literally captive witness with the last word in audience involvement.
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But the most galvanising choice in this scene was to avert the camera’s gaze as Blonde hacks Nash’s ear off, camera again playing bystander who this time has finally found their tolerance limit. The avoidance of bloody pyrotechnics paradoxically makes the moment feel much nastier, partly because it subverts the rules of performance, intimate in refusing to countenance. Tarantino walks the viewer up to the very threshold of unbearable horror, as Blonde’s intention of setting Nash on fire is only avoided by the fusillade of bullets Orange fires at him. This was another superlative piece of sleight-of-hand on Tarantino’s part, as Orange has become virtually forgotten since passing out. Orange’s killing of Blonde feels like a heroic gesture, but it’s one that ultimately costs the lives of nearly everyone left in the crew: Eddie instantly undercuts it when he returns to the warehouse and shoots Nash dead. Much later in his career Tarantino would, in the scene of D’Artagnan’s death by mauling in Django Unchained, walk up to a similar threshold and then shove characters and audience over it. Perhaps it’s the provocateur’s lot to have to constantly ratchet their effects up, but the later film also revises the dynamic seen here with a notable consequence. Django’s self-control makes him in a way party to horror, but also enables his ultimate happy ending; his performance is a matter not just of his own life and death but also for his great love and by extension for all his tribe, where Orange remains to a certain extent a mere dilettante. The relatively green Nash proves to recognise Orange, who doesn’t remember him: his native tribe, that of the police, offers no succour. By breaking character, Orange has doomed himself.
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Except that the film’s very end offers Orange one last way to take his role to the limit, as multiple zones of identity and performance collapse in upon each-other. White’s defence of Orange obliges him threaten to Joe as the old warlord intends to shoot Orange; Eddie aims at White in retaliation, whilst Pink pleads for reason unheeded. Faithfulness works like gravity, drawing people to the most immediate orbit, and the logical end-point of all the macho posturing is reached as the three men gun each-other down, leaving only a shocked and bewildered Pink to look around a stage as littered with corpses as the last act of Hamlet. Pink skedaddles with the diamonds, although the faintly heard sounds from outside suggest he gets cornered and captured by the cops. Orange, now twice shot, confesses to the wounded, gasping, broken White that he’s a cop. By confessing to be a fake, he demands reality, the consequence of that revelation. White cradles his head like a baby and squeals in heartbreak, but seems to deliver the wished-for coup-de-grace, even in defiance of the police who burst in at the last moment and gun him down in turn. By one standard it’s the traditional end of a gangster movie, a portrayal of greed, violence, and treachery on a path to mutually assured destruction. But by another, it’s the ultimate deed of performance. If, as the old canard has it, the only true feat of greatness for an actor is to cross the line into madness, Orange manages the next best thing, to play an outlaw until you die like one.

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1980s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Film Noir, Horror/Eerie, Mystery, Romance

Blue Velvet (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: David Lynch

By Roderick Heath
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David Lynch’s name is synonymous with a creative style close to a genre in itself. His is an outlandish, numinous, discomforting aesthetic, purveyed across several art forms, where the texture of dreams, and nightmares, can suddenly colonise an apparently stable and homey world, where humans peel apart and become separate entities coexisting in different versions of reality. Lynch has purveyed that style since his early short experimental films, and the grotesque and startling debut feature Eraserhead (1976), a film that so impressed Mel Brooks he hired him to direct the Oscar-nominated hit The Elephant Man (1980), where Lynch successfully synthesised his unique imaginative reflexes with more familiar storytelling needs. Lynch has managed to sustain a truly unique status as America’s homespun surrealist, through works like his Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart (1990) and the acclaimed Hollywood fugue Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as the various iterations of the TV show Twin Peaks. That Lynch has managed to pull off such a career against seemingly every current of contemporary fiscal and cultural impulse is in itself an achievement, but it’s also one Lynch has managed with sly concessions to, and annexations of, conventional screen culture. Perhaps the only other voice in modern American film so resolutely self-directed is Terrence Malick, and the two stand in near-perfect polarity: Lynch is as dedicated to trying to charting his sense of the tension between conscious and unconscious as Malick has been in describing his vision of the transcendent.
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As specific and perpetual as a beloved figure of the wilful fringe as Lynch seems now, there was a time in his career when he was a hot property and seemed poised for a relatively ordinary film career. After The Elephant Man he passed on directing Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) to tackle a colossal project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. That project turned out to be dismaying experience for Lynch as it was severely recut and released to poor reviews and paltry box office. And yet the experience of it seemed to have an ultimately positive effect on Lynch, who reoriented himself with newly gained technical expertise, and looked for a new way to express himself on his own terms whilst refusing to retreat back into cinema marginalia. Where Eraserhead had taken place entirely in a dream-state filled with the furniture of Lynch’s deeply private anxieties and associative lodestones, with The Elephant Man and Dune he laboured to articulate his feel for the oneiric in coherent contexts, illustrating the awe of the Victorian bourgeoisie when faced with strangeness through a web of dreams that equated industrial grime with natural travesty in the former, and in the latter depicting the process of the human tuning into the music of the universe perfectly enough to orchestrate it.
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With his next film, Blue Velvet, Lynch began a push back in the other direction, slowly nibbling away at his own carefully falsified notion of normality and subjecting it to the perverting whim of the id, and he managed the mischievous project of remaking a subcontinent of pop culture in his own image. Lynch also pulled off a remarkable feat in relation to Horror cinema, as he found a way of making the form arty and respectable. After the days of high expressionist cinema, when it was the genre most fit for artistic experimentation thanks to the likes of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror (1922), horror films to be accepted as “elevated” horror has to offer a certain level of deconstructed generic impetus and provide carefully parsed and obvious metaphors for various worldly concerns, or apply showy visual touches. Lynch has had a lot of influence on ambitious horror cinema in this mode of late, but in other ways he remains radically at odds with it. Lynch worked to create a charge of disquiet by boiling down a nightmarish lexicon of sights, sounds, and ideas, sometimes but not necessarily desiring to link them to any clear sociological or psychological idea, beyond his certainty that to be human is to be filled with some dank and distressing impulses as well as noble and upright ones. Blue Velvet is the film on which Lynch struggled to articulate the strangely alluring gravity of the dark side, and it remains probably his finest articulation of his obsessions as well as his most controlled.
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Blue Velvet sets images at war with each-other, less any concept of the real world than of inherited ways of seeing it. The film’s acerbically humorous starting point relies on recognition of the paraphernalia of Lynch’s childhood, an idealised sense of small-town Americana, the kind celebrated in ‘50s TV shows and gently tested in beloved texts like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery books, places based around an assumption of a settled and harmonious social system and hierarchy. Lynch sets up his war in the opening scene as he offers languorous shots of well-scrubbed normality – children out of school crossing the street, waving firemen on the back of a fire truck – that aim for a hyperbolic sense of placid, wholesome Americana. A suburban father, idly watering his green lawn, suffers a stroke, collapses in agony on the grass, and lies in a writhing fit, his dog playfully snapping at the spurting hose in his agonised grip. Lynch’s camera descends amongst the grass fronds to study black beetles seething in monstrous reign over this level of existence, under the feet of the soft, pink titans of the higher. The felled patriarch is Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey), and his son Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his home burg of Lumberton on hearing the news.
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Jeffrey is confronted by the grotesque sight of his once-strong and commanding father stuck in a hospital bed with a stern array fixed about his head to keep it still and secure, and the two men weep at the inevitable spectacle of the younger seeing the elder in such a state. Walking back homewards across an empty lot, Jeffrey happens upon a disquieting find: a severed human ear, with ants crawling over it. Lynch’s camera delves into the decaying hunk of flesh, which becomes a world unto itself as the grass did, as if it’s not merely a receiver for sonic vibrations but a source of them, soundtrack filling with echoic reverberations and cavernous drones. Jeffrey coaxes the tattered organ into a paper bag and takes it to a policeman friend of his father’s, Detective Williams (George Dickerson). Jeffrey later goes to Williams’ house to ask him if the investigation is turning up anything up. The cop is politely obfuscating, but Jeffrey then encounters the detective’s beautiful high school senior daughter, Sandy, who reports to him some of the snatches of gossip she’s managed to overhear, talk that suggests a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is somehow mixed up with the sordid business. Jeffrey talks Sandy into helping him infiltrate Dorothy’s apartment, posing as a pest control worker, and he manages to purloin a set of keys and return in the night to feast upon scenes he quickly realises no-one should have to see.
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“I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells Jeffrey as he readies for his adventure, to which he responds with a crooked grin: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” The exchange is hilarious in its own, Mojave-dry fashion as it identifies the blend of bemusement and eccentricity underscoring the two young would-be heroes’ mission to do a good turn: the thrill of becoming has its own strange momentum, already dragging them both along. But the exchange also elucidates Lynch’s general proposition. Jeffrey’s desire to solve a mystery also opens up frontiers of tempting experience and the chance to escape mere voyeurism to become an actor, and quickly learning the cost of complicity such a step demands. Sandy is first a voice speaking from the dark – “Are you the one who found the ear?” she questions Jeffrey from the shadows before stepping into the light as the fresh-minted image of a certain ideal of American beauty, at once stolid and ethereal. Sandy has a football-playing boyfriend, Mike (Ken Stovitz), but she quickly falls under the sway of slightly older, slightly more worldly Jeffrey, who entices her with an adventure into illicit zones but remains plastic-wrapped as the perfect blonde suburban virgin. Dorothy is the eternal contrast, dark and mysterious, breathing out her husky strains in performing her version of Bobby Vinton’s song that give the film its title, beckoning to Jeffrey as the incarnation of mature sexuality and the allure of the forbidden.
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Dorothy hears Jeffrey in his hiding place and drags him out under duress with a kitchen knife in her hand. Dorothy is initially anxious and furious, but that quickly dissipates as she considers the handsome young man in her thrall, and in short order has him strip down, seemingly excited by having a pillar of tall and tender young male flesh at bay. Trouble is, Jeffrey isn’t the only one in thrall to her gravitas. As he hides again in her cupboard, he’s obliged to watch as into Dorothy’s apartment bursts Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), walking incarnation of the id, a violent and thuggish gangster who’s taking over Lumberton’s drug trade but seems more concerned with keeping Dorothy on a short, tight leash. Jeffrey is treated to a brutal spectacle as Frank repeatedly punches Dorothy, stuffs scraps of actual blue velvet in both their mouths, and rapes her on the carpet. Tables are soon turned as Dorothy, left alone again as if the invasion never happened, drags Jeffrey to her bed to be initiated into the nocturnal universe. Soon Jeffrey is her regular lover whilst romancing Sandy in a more familiar daylight fashion. Jeffrey makes the leap from investigator-voyeur to self-cast hero in a dark moral drama, except the morality proves slippery and the drama frightening in ways Jeffrey can’t yet conceive. Dorothy soon demands he start hitting her in bed, out of some virulent strain of masochism infecting her, in a way that erases the first few layers of insulation between Jeffrey and “people like Frank” as he describes them. Jeffrey experiences dreams in which Frank is a roaring beast of the veldt, and the fires of transgressive passion are first a flickering candle and then a roaring curtain as he taps the same vein of visceral sexuality in himself.
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The epic scene of revelation and transgression in Dorothy’s apartment sees Jeffrey dragged through one of the film’s many invisible but palpable barriers of behaviour, seeing him pass from concerned young man to voyeur to active participant in the sick drama with startling speed, and indeed, with little real choice. Lynch conflates Hitchcockian tropes at high speed – the snooping neighbour of Rear Window (1954), the wicked knife of Psycho (1960) – and then moves right past them to actively portray the stew of desire and complicity Hitchcock was usually obliged by censorship and genre parameters to only suggest. The moment where Dorothy strips off her curly wig is both wryly amusing and disquieting, a subtler but in a way more intense illustration of Jeffrey’s violation of her privacy as well as signalling the way Dorothy is forced to live out a kind of drag act, remaking herself in the image of Frank’s (and Jeffrey’s) notion of the feminine mystique. Jeffrey finds himself obliged to dole out brutal force to Dorothy in a way that threatens to upend Jeffrey’s very identity, although it’s Dorothy who later cries out, in pain and ecstasy, that Jeffrey “put his disease inside me,” perhaps the disease of youth and hope, the cruellest infection. It’s cliché to say that heroes and villains are quite often two sides of the same coin; Lynch here studies the edge of the coin. More than that, he approaches drama in a fashion that, although its draws on a panorama of modernist concepts, ultimately reveals itself to work more like ancient myth, its characters talismans for the human condition rather than psychological units unto themselves in the modern manner. Much as Heracles could be cosmic hero and bestial murderer depending on the forces enacted upon him by the universe and fighting all the while to define his true self, Jeffrey contains the seeds of hero and villain within and feels both serpents stirring and uncoiling.
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The drama about him works similarly in a system of sign-play that counts upon the audience recognising Lynch’s codes, but Lynch’s cunning in this regard lies in his understanding how common what he’s conveying is: most everyone shares some version, either personally or inherited through media saturation, of the idyllic landscape of Lumberton. Blue Velvet came out in the waning years of the Reagan presidency, and many took it for a corrosive lampoon on the kind of back-to-the-‘50s false nostalgia Reagan and his ilk propagated and which still lingers in popular discourse. And it certainly is that, although it’s hardly only that. Lynch is genuinely, powerfully fond of that lost idyll even as he seeks to diagnose the forces that make childhood and adulthood such irreconcilable states. Jeffrey is both a player in a highly specific and rarefied story but he’s also any young man who’s been bewildered by the evil at large in the world and startled by the ferocity and kinkiness you can uncover in a lover. Sandy is quick to forgive Jeffrey his transgressions in the name of love, as he acts for her in a similar way that he acts for the audience, the one sent out to report back from the fringes and give loan of vicarious thrills. Meanwhile Lynch writes preparatory sketches for the more volatile dance of the homey and the infernal on Twin Peaks as he notes Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) and chirpy but timorous aunt (Frances Bay) as a perpetually comforting duo about the Beaumont house, and depicts Jeffrey and Sandy sealing their romantic pact in the most traditional manner possible, at a high school dance.
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Part of Lynch’s implication here is that every white picket fence and well-swept porch is a couple forged in a similar furnace of lust and perversity, only cocooned, contained, and finally, slowly dissipated through the carefully contrived paraphernalia of normality. Suburbia is a mechanism designed to drain off and reappropriate erotic energy, like some grand, inverted William Reich invention, keeping extreme passions and lunacies at bay but with the price of leaving its inhabitants crumpling husks like Jeffrey’s father or a tense, cautious sentinel like Williams. The frontier of illicit behaviour, as Jeffrey’s mother warns him, is Lincoln Street, where the tract housing gives way to the urban colonising influence of apartment blocks: when Jeffrey and Sandy do finally stray into that precinct, Angelo Badalamenti’s scoring surges with a melodramatic cue that somehow manages to seem both good-humoured and utterly earnest. Much later in the piece the traffic is reversed, as the petty and quotidian, if by no means unthreatening, encounter between Jeffrey and Mike is cut short by the sudden appearance of Dorothy, stripped naked and covered in bruises, reminiscent of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of “Truth Coming Out Of Her Well” in her appearance as the image of a wraith at once eroticised and ghastly in reporting harsh facts, collapsing into Jeffrey’s arms and sending the Lumberton milksops scurrying for cover. Even an encounter with a guy walking his dog seems charged with strange implication through the way Lynch has the actor stand rigid as if posing for a photo as he looks back at Jeffrey: part of Lynch’s aesthetic lies in the way he seems to be trying to take a perpetual snapshot of the moment when two scarcely reconcilable realities collide.
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Blue Velvet maintains a relatively straightforward storyline and structure by comparison with Lynch’s more overtly dreamlike and associative works. But it also sets up the schismatic souls of his later works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, where the same person can enact a panoply of stories depending on a multiplicity of divergence points for narrative; only here and there does Lynch suddenly open up a perfectly bizarre vantage where the pull of the void seems to be invoked. Lynch’s surrealist allegiances are studiously cited, particularly Luis Buñuel, with all the infesting insect life and violated body parts, and Edward Hopper, in the careful depictions of apparently bland settings stirring with intimations of strange transformations and repressed forces: Dorothy’s apartment, with its mysteriously wafting curtains and uterine-coloured walls implies this influence in particular. Jeffrey’s brief guise as a bug sprayer calls to mind William Burroughs’ alter ego’s job as a pest controller in The Naked Lunch. Lynch betrays a powerful admiration for Hitchcock but also declares less famed allegiances. He makes nods to the likes of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place – Hope Lange, who plays Sandy’s mother, had played one of the younger characters in Mark Robson’s 1956 film of that book – and Vincente Minnelli’s films of Some Came Running (1958) and Home From The Hill (1960).
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There’s also a strong dose of a certain school of drive-in heyday cinema: stuff like Jack Arnold’s sci-fi films where monstrosities roam in disguise in the streets of small towns and shrunken men battle monsters in the basement, and his High School Confidential (1958) and similar efforts by the likes of Roger Corman and Edward L. Cahn, cheapjack myths of high school heroes and debutantes discovering the seamy side of life. Badalamenti’s justly hailed score charts Lynch’s poles expertly, shifting from beatniky jazz to surging Technicolor melodrama cues to shimmering synth-pop tones, befitting the film’s carefully smudged sense of era – the setting is nominally contemporary and yet Lumberton is littered with the paraphernalia of past eras and barely seems to have left the ‘50s. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) had to a great extent beaten Lynch to the punch, conceptually if not in execution, in realising a surrealist aesthetic in a humdrum suburban setting and unleashing destabilising forces upon both that world and the horror-thriller genre as a form. Even the basic situation is the same, a young hero combating a monstrous, barbarically humorous figure come straight out of the collective id to torment and belittle. Meanwhile Lynch seems to be battling his own bruising experience on Dune, remixing images and plot elements from that project into a radical new setting, telling the same essential myth, of a young man who is left rudderless after losing his father and is forced to battle the world’s threat alone. Prophetic dreams play a part in both, as Sandy voices her own augury about the return of robins to Lumberton will spell the end of evil influence.
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Lynch installs some relatively straight-laced thriller twists in the course of the narrative. He introduces Frank’s circle of henchmen and collaborators in capturing Lumberton’s drug trade and singers – and by implication its nocturnal economy of sensual delights. Jeffrey learns that a dark-haired, heavy-set man in a yellow jacket he sees talking with Dorothy and working with Frank is actually one of Williams’ cop colleagues, Detective Gordon (Fred Pickler), who Jeffrey dubs The Yellow Man for his jacket’s colour, with overtones of reference to old weird fiction. Jeffrey’s overgrown Hardy Boy act reaches an apogee as he manages to capture photos of Frank, the Yellow Man, and the rest of the gang associating with a secreted camera. Jeffrey manages to communicate his discoveries to Williams, and after a period of uncertainty as to whether Williams will act upon them, he drops the boom and shoots it out with Frank’s gang in an old-fashioned come-and-get-me-copper shoot-out. Except that Lynch drapes the scene in the languorous romanticism of Ketty Lester’s version of “Love Letters” – love letters having already been described by the ranting Frank as a metaphor for “a bullet from a fuckin’ gun.” This scene manages to both offer a familiar movie convention, the climactic shoot-out, but as with so much of the film subjects it to a bewildering transformation, finding lyrical pathos in the righteous violence, whilst also clearing away all distraction of nominal plot to concentrate on the ultimate confrontation between Frank and Jeffrey.
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Before reaching such an end, Lynch contrives to thrust Jeffrey into Frank’s clutches, caught leaving Dorothy’s apartment just as the gangsters arrive: at once furious and fascinated, Frank steals away the duo for a wild ride in their nocturnal Oz with his goons Raymond (Brad Dourif), Paul (Jack Nance), and Hunter (J. Michael Hunter). They speed around Lumberton’s streets, discovering hidden abodes of bohemian weirdos amongst the hollowed-out shells of the downtown buildings. Frank visits his pal and apparent partner in criminal enterprise Ben (Dean Stockwell), a creature of surface affability and fey calm who nonetheless takes pleasure in casually punching Jeffrey in the gut, and overseeing a bizarre court of riffraff, like a less overtly camp Frank-N-Furter. Ben is a hipster priest stuck away in a corner of small town America, promising silken delights and sadisms, lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” with a mechanics lamp shining on his face, in one of Lynch’s signature sequences of bizarre pantomime and performance. Orbison’s song seems to have a peculiar totemic value for Frank, particularly the image of the “candy-colored clown,” that both salves his fury and stokes it. It seems to wield a similar power for Lynch himself, a perfect iteration of a purely American, entirely commercial paean to surreal values, delivered by one of the most eerily emotive voices in the pop pantheon, transmuted here through the self-conscious artifice.
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Lynch surveys this scene mostly in master shots with his actors arranged in rows in a manner reminiscent of the forced, flat framings of early silent film, or like hauling his cast out for a curtain call before an invisible audience of mocking deities. Old women sit apparently oblivious to the weird in the background, whilst Dorothy’s son is hidden away in a side room, driving her frantic with apparent rejection. Back out into Frank’s car again, to the town’s fringes where machinery and the waste of industry loom, and Frank taunts Jeffrey as if still trying to work out what species he has at bay. Jeffrey obliges him by demanding he leave Dorothy alone and eventually punches him, an act that stokes Frank to a gleeful fury but also impresses him: “You’re like me,” Frank grants before having him pulled from the car by his goons and held at bay whilst Frank beats him senseless. The promised violence awaiting Jeffrey finally arrives, and yet there’s a suggestion his show of pith, as well as confirming the aspects of commonality between Frank and him, saves his life, as he gains an iota of respect. In the morning, Jeffrey awakens on the ground, bruised and batted, demeaned and disillusioned, but still and alive and in one piece, coughed out of hell’s gullet as something just a little too hard to swallow.
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Part of Lynch’s shrewd humour lies in his way of conceptualising evil, no matter how inflated and perverse, as something readily understandable to a young man like Jeffrey. Frank is a school bully inflated to the nth degree, with his coterie of giggling companions, existing purely to dominate and humiliate. At first Frank might seem too wilfully extreme, too bizarre a creation to offer social commentary. But Lynch makes clear when he glimpses Frank watching Dorothy perform and when he adopts his “well-dressed man” disguise he’s capable of acting sufficiently ordinary to move amongst daylight people. Normality is a guise he puts on but for him the pleasure of, and motive for, his criminal activities is the way they allow him to mostly dispense with his own, specific veil of behaviour, the one that stands between the inner, id-driven man-child that operates through whim and appetite and what it wants, alternating cruel tantrums and displays of jarring, fetishistic neediness that manifests in the need to control. His random habit of plucking out a facemask and huffing on some gaseous intoxicant makes him look like in turn vaguely insectoid and cyborg, a creation born in the primal age and just at home in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He casts Dorothy as lover, mother, slave, and psychic ashtray, needing to know only what it takes to make her conform to his will. It’s a siren song Jeffrey experiences too, the shocking mainlining thrill of walloping pretty white flesh and watching it turn purple. Lynch never tries to state whether Dorothy’s masochistic streak is a by-product of guilt and anxiety over her family or if it’s a more intricate aspect of her nature, and perhaps it doesn’t matter; everyone is the by-product of their grazings against other bodies and wills, forming and malformed. In the end Jeffrey seems to be just as compelled to place himself under Frank’s fist as her, as if he senses pain is a profound contract with reality that must be paid one way or another.
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Part of what makes Blue Velvet so potent is Lynch’s disinterest in acting superior to his dark fantasy, as ironic as his method often seems: he really is the still-naïve Jeffrey asking why there’s evil like Frank in the world. MacLachlan does well in purveying both Jeffrey’s boyishness and the fleeting glimpses of a kinky spirit behind his eyes, and Rossellini justly made a splash not simply by stepping into a part that demanded so much exposure of her flesh but also in making the emotional extremes displayed by Dorothy so vivid. Hopper’s performance gives the film much of its unique charge of lunatic comedy, as the actor took hold of his own wild man image and used it with cunning effect, presenting not the frazzled, fry-brained hippie he’d been taken as since the early ‘70s but a kind of reptilian overlord. It’s a performance in a similar key of outsized, purposefully cartoonish spectacle as Kenneth McMillan’s as Harkonen in Dune, but more skilfully modulated, as Hopper, with slicked-back hair and snapping teeth, paints his mouth with lipstick and glares at MacLachlan with hophead eyes semaphoring the raw fury and glee of untrammelled release of the inner predatory beast.
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The film reaches its apotheosis in grotesquery as Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment in seeking sanctuary, only to find the Yellow Man and Dorothy’s husband both present. The husband is tied a chair, dead, a red patch where his severed ear used to be, a tell-tale scrap of blue velvet jammed in his mouth, his brains spread over the wall behind him. The Yellow Man stands upright, still clinging to life but with a chunk of his skull blown away, portion of brain winking out at the world, nervous system twitching in blank-minded confusion. A shattered TV screen emitting buzzing white noise illustrates the utter nullity of moment and the still-firing synapses of the Yellow Man even though the station signal’s gone entirely blank. Much of Lynch’s modus operandi recalls Freddie Jones’ decrepit ringmaster in The Elephant Man, half-momentously, half-shamefully promising to show you sights you’ve never dreamt of seeing, and might wish you hadn’t after getting an eyeful; this here is Lynch’s most gruesome and startling flourish of showmanship, one Jeffrey surveys in shock but also in speedy assimilation. His rapidly evolving survival instincts immediately give him a plan and the tools to accomplish it, in making use of the Yellow Man’s gun and walkie-talkie, although he only just manages to pull himself up in making use of the radio as Frank can surely hear what he’ll be saying on it, only to realise he can use that against his foe too.
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When Jeffrey returns to the closet he was hiding in earlier, it’s no longer to gain a vicarious glimpse but escape the deadly consequences of his foray. Lynch never bothers to explain just what went down with Frank, the Yellow Man, Dorothy, and the husband. Not that it matters, as Jeffrey, like Phil Marlowe, often stumbles upon the wreckage of human activities, beggared by the results of such competing passions. Jeffrey defeats the demon by summoning his own killer instinct, but Lynch grants him the peace and ease of a lawn chair. He’s surrounded by signs of restored stability: Dorothy playing with her son, his propeller hat back on his head, an ear again explored by the camera but this time still safely connected to Jeffrey’s head, and the robins of Sandy’s dream have come to peck away at the chaos-invoking ants. It’s very tempting, and easy, to describe the concluding scenes as Lynch lampooning the notion of a happy ending. But in calling back to the childlike fantasia of falsity found in pantomime theatre in The Elephant Man, Lynch seems to me to be chasing a shrewder point, about the longing for a restoration to innocence that can only be achieved through falsifying its appearance. This falseness, the fakery, is not indicted as bad for being such; in fact Lynch seems to believe that’s what civilisation is, a well-composed system of agreements not to look at certain things, out of wise fear of where they lead.

Standard
1960s, Auteurs, Epic, Romance, War

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt

By Roderick Heath

David Lean had been a respected and heralded director since his debut helping Noel Coward realise his vision on 1943’s World War II classic In Which We Serve. His reputation was burnished with a succession of intimate, shaded, romantically charged dramas including Brief Encounter (1945), The Passionate Friends (1949), and Summertime (1955), sharp-witted, dark-edged comedies like Blithe Spirit (1946) and Hobson’s Choice (1953), and lovingly realised immersions in fictional worlds, with his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). But today mention of Lean’s name still conjures a very specific connotation, an impression of vast landscapes and dwarfed humans, lengthy running times and grand dramatic canvases, the coherence of space and time so vital in the cinema experience wielded with a unique tension between the titanic and the finite. Lean, chafing against the limits of the British film industry and audience of the time, which was already leaving behind some great talents like Michael Powell or obliging others like Carol Reed to oscillate between home and Hollywood, began to think big. When he started collaborating with American impresario Sam Spiegel, the two films they made together, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), proved huge hits, captured Best Picture Oscars, and made Lean perhaps the most prestigious name in cinema.
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On the hunt for a new project of comparable scale and vitality, Lean next chose to work with Italian movie mogul Carlo Ponti on adapting Russian writer Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, whilst continuing his successful collaboration with screenwriter Robert Bolt and his star discovery, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. Despite the pedigree, the film was released to lukewarm reviews and played to empty cinemas for a time: if released today, Doctor Zhivago would have been shuffled off to a streaming service and written off as a concussive flop. But the radio popularity of “Lara’s Theme” from Maurice Jarre’s score, abruptly rescued the film by turning it into a quintessential date movie, and eventually it proved one of the most profitable films ever made. To this day it still works for some with drug-like fervour and leaves others cold, and even as it’s retained popular regard, has never really enjoyed the same level of respect as Lean’s previous two works. The rhapsodic yet ironic approach to adventurous war stories with his two earlier projects had allowed Lean to transmute them into veritable cinematic myth, but such an approach seemed quite distinct from the essence of Pasternak’s 1959 novel, which transposed a semi-autobiographical rumination on one of his love affairs to the midst of the Russian Revolution with all its cruel, transformative drama.
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Pasternak’s work had been met with disapproval in the Soviet Union in its attempt to analyse the place of the artist in such a time, and his attempt to reckon with the frail hopes and looming terrors of the country’s crucible age. Pasternak, whose literary reputation up to that point had been as a poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but forced to turn it down by the Soviet authorities, turning the book into a cause celebre. Filming the novel was always going to be a difficult proposition. Although the stage is history at its most vital, the actual subject is personal, intimate, even subliminal. Pasternak’s poet hero Yuri Zhivago was an onlooker, a bit player in history who nonetheless becomes a titan in that history through art. Pasternak’s book got into trouble precisely because it meditated upon a basic contradiction in regards to Communist thought, the concept of history being driven by impersonal forces but only transmissible through recourse to personal perspective, a perspective often inimical to heroic social narratives. Such a story might also seem entirely out of step with the needs of epic cinema.
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But such a character held attraction for Lean, whose focal figures were so often watchers striving to become heroes of their own stories, people who knew they were at the mercy of forces far more powerful than them and yet striving to find purpose and agency. Such protagonists range from the lovers who find themselves ridiculously unable to realise their passion in Brief Encounter, to the course steered by Pip through life under the urging of unknown gravity in Great Expectations, and the messianic delusions and gutter disillusionment experienced by T.E. Lawrence. Lean’s Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) is a pair of eyes, a sensitive instrument watching his world destroy itself whilst experiencing all its ephemeral grace and brute immediacy, as much or more than he is protagonist, clinging to the people who mean something to him but faced with an age that doesn’t just assail his body but wants to deny him the right of his mind. And yet this suited Lean perfectly on the vital level of his relationship with his medium, who had discovered an argot with Lawrence of Arabia that came close to pure cinema, immediately influencing a host of director heroes like Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, giving them permission with a seemingly spacious but actually intensely rhythmic cinematic design, purveyed through great care in alternating delay and effect.
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A scene late in Lawrence of Arabia depicted the faux-titan hero confronted by a hospital filled with ragged, ruined humans in a Turkish military hospital, and slapped by a British officer decrying the outrageousness of the scene before them. Doctor Zhivago inverts the confrontation, depicting a similar scene in which Zhivago happens upon a hospital flooded with the diseased and mangled victims of war, seen this time through the eyes of the healer who, unlike Lawrence, strives constantly and conscientiously to avoid the eye of history except in the mode of its artistic conscience. The film starts properly in a prologue set decades after the main drama, with Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a potentate in the Soviet regime, his flag-bedecked car drawing the apprehensive glances of workers on a dam construction. Yevgraf is the first thing scene in the film, a living Soviet Realist sculpture but also a living witness to the struggles of a legendary age – “Do you know what it cost?” he asks of the young engineer (Mark Eden) overseeing the project. The film returns to the setting at its end, echoing the circularity of Lawrence of Arabia with a more testimonial quality: the gaps in Yevgraf’s narrative are also the gaps in history into which people vanish. Yevgraf is seeking the long-lost daughter of Yuri and his legendary muse Larissa, usually called Lara (Julie Christie), subject of a beloved sequence of long-suppressed poems.
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Yevgraf believes one of the dam workers (Rita Tushingham, billed only as “The Girl,” although she’s named as Tonya Komarovsky by Yevgraf) is that daughter, although she’s a nervous, anonymous member of the much-vaunted proletariat. Lean’s deep investment in her protagonist becomes clear in an early scene depicting a formative event of Yuri’s youth (played as a boy by Sharif’s real-life son Tarek), the funeral of his mother. This scene becomes a parade of epiphanies that incorporate obsessive motifs of both Yuri’s outlook and Lean’s cinema – the wind-thrashed autumnal trees and branches tapping against the window glass, the lace-wrapped face of Yuri’s mother, imagined within her coffin, the towering mountains charged with spiritual import and plains of Dali-esque flatness where humans stalk in assailed columns. Yuri’s father’s estate has been embezzled and he has a half-brother he’s never met. His one real inheritance is his mother’s balalaika, an instrument she played as a virtuoso. But young Yuri finds fate almost overly generous to him at first, as he’s adopted into the family of his mother’s childhood friend Anna Gromeko (Siobhan McKenna), who’s married to the affluent and affable Alexander Maximovich (Ralph Richardson), and almost from the first Yuri seems destined to marry their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).
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Yuri’s special artistic talent proves to be poetry, an art he gains fame for even as he studies to become a doctor, a calling he feels is connected with the deeply empathic art he creates. Such a connection is acerbically doubted by his tutor, Prof. Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen), who takes Yuri with him to attend the attempted suicide of a pathetic couturier, Amelia Guichard (Adrienne Corri), former mistress of Kurt’s urbane and influential lawyer friend Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Although left no less idealistic by the sight of Amelia’s sweat-sodden and bedraggled body, this visit proves to be a life-changing experience for Yuri, as he first sets eyes upon Lara, the daughter of Amelia: the luminous Lara reclines in teary solitude under Yuri’s gaze. Zhivago witnesses a scene between Lara and Komarovsky that tells him what the audience has already seen: Komarovsky has forcibly seduced Lara and made her his new mistress. Lara is nonetheless engaged to student radical Pavel ‘Pasha’ Antipov (Tom Courtenay), for whose benefit Komarovsky plays the kindly, interested father figure, before he rapes Lara in a spasm of jealous anger.
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Lara writes a confession to Pasha and sets out to kill Komarovsky with a gun Pasha gave her to hide. She wounds Komarovsky in a swank restaurant just as Yuri and Tonya are announcing their engagement: Komarovsky insists she be allowed to leave with Pasha, and they flee to the country. When the Great War breaks out, the disillusioned and unhappy Pasha and the radically committed Yevgraf join the army for their own diverse reasons. Yuri eventually follows to ply his humanitarian trade and meets Lara again in a military hospital as the war effort breaks down, as she’s become an army nurse in hope of locating her missing husband. Yuri and Lara fall in love working together but don’t act on it. When he returns home to Moscow, Yuri finds Anna has passed away and the Bolshevik regime is descending onerously, and a visit from Yevgraf convinces him to take Tonya and Alexander away. They decide to head to the Gromeko country estate outside the town of Yuriatin out in the Steppes on the far side of the Urals, where the war with the Whites is raging, and board a crowded train to make the long journey that takes through landscapes of holy awe and scenes of human devastation. Some of the horror is perpetrated by the roving, mysterious radical warlord Strelnikov, hero of the anti-Bolshevik revolutionaries.
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By contrast with the general admiration for his previous two films, Doctor Zhivago and its follow-up Ryan’s Daughter (1970) were received by some at the time as laborious exercises in brand extension by Lean. From today’s perspective it seems more like Lean was trying to return to the kind of romance-driven films he had often made in the first stage of his career, where Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia had been quite unusual as costly cinema works virtually without women. Doctor Zhivago pointedly revisits many aspects of both Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. Particularly the latter, as Lean revisits many of its key images and ideas, from the vision of a young boy frightened by a seemingly animate landscape, to climactic scenes in an abandoned and decaying house that has likewise come to seem a living entity, a place where that lost childhood must be reckoned with as well as the pains of maturation and the evils of the world. Like Pip, Yuri grows from a timorous boy to a grown man who nonetheless finds himself driven around forces vast and beyond his control, and yet the wandering eye and mind of the poet insistently recreates that world.
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The careful craftsmanship poured into Doctor Zhivago was at once one of its publicised assets and critical negatives: although rendered in a largely realistic fashion, the universe glimpsed in the film represents the exact opposite of verisimilitude, its period Russia completely fabricated in Spain, with added location shooting in Canada. The central set representing downtown Moscow is a vast piece of theatrical setting, a carefully controlled space to allow Lean’s micromanaged sense of cinematic epiphany space to unfold. Such control is evident in the sublimely chilling moment Lara and Komarovsky pass by a silhouetted cavalry officer waiting for a quiet moment to assemble his fellow horse soldiers to attack a protest march led by Pasha: Lean matches one form of violence, intimate and coercive as Komarovsky forces himself on Lara, with another, as the horse soldiers ride down the protestors. The build-up to the attack on the protest is exacting on the level of cutting and generated menace, but Lean then cuts to Yuri’s reaction as witness, relying on the shivering horror on Sharif’s face to convey the impact of violence on his gentle hero rather than indulge the pyrotechnic delight of bloodshed. Pasha is left badly scarred and forced into hiding after the assault, whilst Lara, fobbed off with vague moralisations when she visits a priest continues on uncomfortably as Komarovsky’s mistress.
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One notable irony of Doctor Zhivago is that for a film prized for its romanticism, the romantic element is complex, even grubby, revolving as it does around abuse and infidelity. Yuri, after all, has his great fling with Lara when Tonya is pregnant with his second child. Lara herself is taken advantage of, abandoned, and eventually forced to take up again with the creep who deflowered her. Komarovsky is in many ways the most compelling figure in the film, a man who compares himself to “ignoble Caliban”. He’s expertly played by Steiger, who cunningly brings outsized charisma and urbane authority to the role as well as occasional slips of vulnerability and outright monstrosity, weapons he easily brings to bear in making Lara his lover. Lean signals his nascent erotic interest in her as he playfully drapes one of her mother’s wares, a light silk scarf, about her face, turning her into a houri, and by the time he’s done with her Komarosky has her dressed as a red-clad, teetering tart. Komarovsky embodies the superficial cosmopolitan assurance of Tsarist Russia overlaying brute prerogative and clasping greediness just as surely as the intense, puritanical, neurasthenic personality of Pasha anticipates the oncoming Commissars. “All this is experience of a kind,” Komarovsky retorts to Pasha when they meet and the younger man boasts of his hardscrabble upbringing, with the acidic undercurrent lying in Komarovsky’s certainty the idealistic young hero can’t make a woman orgasm. A note that seems mordantly confirmed later when Yevgraf’s narration describes Pasha’s reasons for joining the army lie in disappointment.
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Meanwhile Yuri weds the lovely, elfin, dutiful Tonya, but falls under Lara’s spell when they’re thrust together in service, in part because like Yuri himself she’s a bereft soul who exists on the fringes of the common psychic landscape. The grace-note quality Lean sounded in the later reels of Lawrence of Arabia here becomes more like a dominant aesthetic as Yuri constantly finds himself stumbling upon human wreckage left by the passages of armies and dogging the tail ends of columns of moving humanity. His introduction to the warzone long with Lara is tending to the mangled men left by their own rebelling soldiers on the road away from the abandoned frontlines. Yuri’s desire to patch together bodies and express the intricacies of the mind are constantly confronted by people who want to do the opposite, to remake themselves as hard and marauding incarnations of a cruel age. Authority, not the false currency of civil authority or mere hierarchical command but the achievement of it through personal fortitude and certitude, was a concept Lean was obsessed with. A revolution is certainly a stage for the genuinely heroic to step forth, as well as the dauntingly monstrous, the insidiously craven, and the snippily officious and small-minded. He rhymes crucial moments when Pasha and Yevgraf part crowds like Moses before the Red Sea and save people close to them purely by dint of a force of charisma and an understanding that the strongest gestures are the simplest. Yevgraf empties out a gang of cackling vultures with a click of his fingers and lets his uniform do the rest of the work.
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Yuri has no authority; his currency as a humanitarian and poet are stolen from him in an age in which others dedicate themselves to unstinting revenge against the rest of their society. Yuri and Lara repeatedly graze against representatives of the new regime, from the Bolshevik soldier who works with them in the hospital and mutters “God rot good men,” in response to another’s praise of Zhivago: Lara’s sharp glance at the soldier bespeaks her recognition that the world is soon going to belong to men like him rather than those like Yuri. Soon Yuri is up against hatchet-faced representatives of the new order in the former Gromeko home who grow timorous and threatening (“Your attitude has been noted!”) when Yuri prods them over suppressing the truth over disease outbreaks and general famine, and feel more at ease trying to strip the Gromekos of the last of their possessions. Political evolution is staked out in evolving iconography. Posters of the Tsar carried by the soldiers marching off to war are soon supplanted by the stylised visages of Lenin and Trotsky looming heroically over the flotsam of the age – hands are outstretched and gesturing in both sets of posters, offering, paternal, inclusive. The very end sees a colossal image of Stalin, his face rendered stark in black and white on a red field, hovering above a drab and featureless urban street, Lara a tiny figure retreating into oblivion in its shadow, perfectly encapsulating the onerousness of the oncoming age of the Great Terror as Yevgraf’s testimony on the soundtrack describes it in his own terms: “A name on a list that was later misplaced.”
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One common criticism tossed at Doctor Zhivago was that it was impossible to make writing a dramatic act, and that the film neglected giving much sense of Yuri as a poet. To look closer at Doctor Zhivago however reveals that Lean actually succeeded in doing something very rare and specific, selling a grandiose work of poetic reverie to a mass audience. Lean doesn’t need to make much of Yuri’s poems in themselves because the entire film has been doing that, purveying a series of landscapes, both elemental and human, charged with totemic meaning. Although the romance between Yuri and Lara looms large in both their lives and the film’s sensibility, it’s easy to forget how little of the film is given over to it, and the couple are left clinging to each-other in large part because they’re forcibly stripped of everything else. Lean had built his cinematic method through his gift for building intensely rhythmic sequences, instilled as an editor but growing as a director to manipulate every element of film to achieve his coups de theatre.
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Doctor Zhivago offered a unique stage to give his visual effects holistic meaning, joining his visual effects to Zhivago’s poetic method, the chains of associated images that become charged with inferred, symbolic import as they accumulate, and also with the relationship of the artistic process with experience, the collecting of such images over the course of a lifetime. The opening scene doesn’t just present the formative images that haunt Yuri and fuel his imagination, but also anticipate his future, the threat of the blasted Siberian wastes Yuri eventually finds himself alone and exposed in. Lean repeats this seer-like element with a dash of humour as Yuri and Lara unknowingly come into contact on a streetcar in downtown Moscow, well before they properly meet: Lean cuts to the sparks on the overhead cable. The slowly wilting sunflowers Lara picks to brighten up the stark hospital space become associated forevermore in Yuri’s mind with the promises of fecund seasons and the specific beauty of Lara herself.
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Lean contends with the idea of cultural memory in part through the textures of his own cinema. Any filmmaker of Lean’s generation, and especially an editor like him, would have gone to school on Sergei Eisenstein’s films. Lean confirms debt and kinship as he nods to Battleship Potemkin (1925) in the demonstration scene – cutaways to children lost in the tumult and brass band instruments kicked along the street by fleeing people – and offers some distinctly Eisensteinian framings, like the shot of sailors saluting Strelnikov’s passing train. Of course, Doctor Zhivago inverts the propagandist tilt of Eisenstein’s famous films, presenting the early years of the Soviet Revolution as a period of glorious slogans and petty, often pathetic or vicious individuals. Lean makes further nods to silent cinema in his lighting, often staking out his actors’ eyes with pencil spots and placing the rest of them in shadow, a technique reminiscent of German expressionism, also kept in mind in shots like one early in the film when the dam workers file out of a brightly lit tunnel, the red star over the tunnel mouth, like they’re emerging from the maw of branded history. The brief scenes depicting the frontline of the war boil down grand, nation-shattering calamity to a few grimly totemic shots of frozen soldiers still manning their posts on the wasteland frontier, like something left over from a primal war. Lean tips his hat to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by quoting Milestone’s signature lateral tracking shot, speeding along the advancing wave of Russian soldiers as they’re cut down by machine gun.
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Cinematographer Freddie Young, whose work is superlative throughout, pulls of one of his best shots as Pasha, respected by his fellow soldiers enough to follow him into the jaws of hell, seems to be killed by a shell blast, his glasses falling to the snow in colossal close-up. Several key passages of the film are played out in a manner reminiscent of the vignettes of silent cinema. Yuri’s first sight of Lara, seated in darkness on the other side of a pane of glass, encapsulates the notion of romantic vision as a cinematic ideal, framed and inviolate, a scarcely liminal vision upon which breaks a miniature dawn, as Komarovsky enters her room with lantern. In the later scene in which Pasha reads her confessional letter, sparking his anger and then forgiveness, the whole scene is shot through a window with a candle slowly burning away the frost on the glass; the shot dramatizes the bleak emotional straits of the characters as well as allowing Lean to stake pure belief in visual storytelling. The scene in which Yuri finally meets Yevgraf, who comes to visit his brother just in time to save him from the wrath of petty commissars over some stolen firewood, utilises Guinness’s voiceover to report his speech rather than have him interact with Sharif and the other actors, an ironic touch that somehow conveys the awful weight of intervening years and the schism between the half-brothers that’s based around totally diverse loyalties but also retains a certain mutual, guttering admiration.
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Lean’s approach to cinema remains fascinatingly indifferent to spectacle on many levels in spite of the infrastructure on hand: his background as an editor, a composer in the dialogue of duration and severance, is plain enough throughout. The long build-up in the tunnel scene to burst out into a grand landscape segues into a jolting edit before anything can be drunk in. The film’s close-ups are just as epic as the landscapes. The way Lean shoots Sharif and Christie reflects their functions as actors inhabiting roles, Christie often nearly facing the camera, caught in reactive moments – particularly the scene in which Yuri breaks off with her, his voice heard but the man unseen, camera instead fixated on Christie’s face with all its tremulous emotion. The camera becomes Yuri overtly here, but has no existence free of Lara’s feeling. The poet is a void without muse. Like many films of the era, whilst there’s nothing outright anachronistic in sight, the quality of Christie’s hairstyles and makeup still often see utterly modish to the mid-’60s, whilst Sharif looks improbably like a bohemian college tutor in black turtleneck. But Christie and Sharif give remarkably good performances considering the fascinatingly diverse demands placed on them by their respective roles. Sharif had to consciously retreat within himself to play a character who observes and absorbs, whilst Christie plays the emotional lodestone, eyes of blue stirring like the ocean as she suffers predations and woundings.
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The train exodus sequence is the centrepiece of the film, where Lean’s cinema is tied most explicitly to Yuri’s perspective in finding sights and sounds of wonder amongst grimy and tawdry circumstances. The train car is packed with fetid bodies, floor littered with straw crusted with shit and piss, food boiled potatoes, but the world without is a parade of alternating natural splendour and human terror. One of Lean’s great coups comes at the segue from the intermission, as he fills the soundtrack with the tumult of the train on the move although the screen remains black, before a point of light grows and suddenly the train bursts from a tunnel amongst soaring, snow-crusted mountains. A pane of ice frozen across the doorway is shattered, revealing a vast landscape of ice-caked lakes and sepulchral forests. The sun burning through morning mist in the trees during a stop distracts Zhivago until he stumbles into danger as he happens upon Strelnikov’s armoured train. Strelnikov has been mentioned breathlessly before, particularly by the chained anarchist zealot (Klaus Kinski, in a small role that nonetheless instantly made him a cinema weirdo of choice) in the passengers’ midst: Lean’s sleight of hand when Strelnikov’s train barrels past theirs is to reveal Strelnikov is Pasha, who might as well be a chill-blooded zombie arisen from the ice, declaring that “The private life is dead,” and musing that he used to admire Yuri as a poet but now feels obliged to find his work petty and trivial.
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Yuri responds by questioning why he attacks and burns villages indiscriminately, and retorts to the proposition that the point must be made, “Your point, their village.” Yuri learns from Strelnikov that Lara is living in Yuriatin, whilst the manor house that was the heart of the Gromeko estate proves to have been claimed and locked up by Bolsheviks. The family instead retreat into a neighbouring cottage and weather out the winter, and Yuri resists the temptation to visit Lara for a time. But when he does finally meet her in the town, their passion finally blossoms. Fate however still has a malicious joke in store for Yuri, as he’s snatched up by a Bolshevik partisan unit engaged in free-roaming warfare against the Whites, who want Yuri’s service as a doctor and pay little heed to his protests as they shanghai him away for a campaign. Lean offers brief but startling visions of guerrilla warfare, in a cavalry charge across a frozen lake on machines guns, with Yuri and the unit’s political officer Razin (Noel Willman) the only members not engaged in battle.
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Razin nonetheless rules the unit as he reminds his fellow soldiers that “all men will be judged politically,” like a secular inquisitor ready to winnow out the unfaithful. Lean’s admiration for John Ford is signalled through in his use of space and landscape (plus Ford had recommended Christie to Lean after directing her on Young Cassidy, 1964) but a scene here in which the unit massacre some White soldiers who turn out to be boys from a military academy pressed into a glorious, pathetic charge, could be seen as darker meditation on a scene Ford offered as a joke in his The Horse Soldiers (1958). “Did you ever love a woman?” Yuri questions Razin when he dismisses the deaths in the face of history. “I once had a wife and two daughters,” the priest of nihilism retorts. The battle in Doctor Zhivago is to remain alive as a thinking, feeling being in the face of such omnipresent horror. It’s a battle Yuri eventually wins, but at the cost of using up his physical body, a candle burnt at both ends. Part of the film’s allure in the day lay in the way it offered a heightened reflection for the idea of a romantic couple fending off such horrors. Yuri abandons the Bolsheviks as they encounter bedraggled survivors who can’t tell the difference between the uniforms tormenting them, and makes his solitary way across the frigid wastes to return to Yuriatin, hoping to return to Tonya and his children. But he’s left with Lara instead, as Tonya and her father have fled the country. Yuri and Lara decide to spend whatever time they have together, and start living in the Varykeno mansion, much of which is filled with sculptural ice.
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The ice palace is one of the film’s most singularly strange and semi-surreal images, echoing back to Miss Havisham’s infested house in Great Expectations as a representation of something bleak and twisted in the psyche and in the world at large, but also with its little annex free of ice, with the table where Yuri learned how to write still intact and well-stocked. Such a little islet of the mind amidst a threatening shell anticipates the image of the family home drifting in space at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), another tale of blighted romance and agonised becoming. Here Yuri scribbles out the Lara poems in feverish activity whilst awaiting whatever knock on the door portends their fate. Of all people, it proves to Komarovsky who does the knocking, the ultimate sophisticate cynic and survivor having successfully reinvented himself as a useful tool of the Soviets offering safe passage to the far east, to escape the coming wrath of the Bolsheviks now that Pasha has abandoned his Strelnikov identity and shot himself rather than face a show trial. Neither Yuri nor Lara want to make any kind of pact with Komarovsky, but Yuri urges Lara to leave with him with a false promise to follow. Yevgraf wraps up his account by describing how Yuri, sickly and taken in hand by his brother after living in obscurity for many years, heads off to work at a hospital only to glimpse Lara from a tram and try to chase after her, only to collapse from a heart attack and die.
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By comparison with the achievement in pacing and image flow that is Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago often feels by comparison a touch rushed and choppy despite its expanse. This is particularly true of the episode depicting Yuri’s service with the partisan band, which is arguably the most interesting part of the narrative and the one that best justifies the film’s epic lustre, and yet which passes by in a few minutes. The evocation of frantic longing and loss in Yuri’s dash to catch a passing glimpse of Lara from the high windows of the ice palace is perfect, despoiled to a certain extent by Lean and Bolt’s choice to turn a full circle with Yuri’s death scene pushes rather too close to a rather more familiar and sentimental kind of romantic drama. The frustration of Doctor Zhivago is also part and parcel with its enormous success: the carefully fashioned, distinctively intimate poetic drama is constantly nudging against the wannabe pop hit. But the diffuseness of the last act is in part a deliberate reflection of the patchiness of history: history is a gaping hole that swallows people, and only lost but talented orphans like young Tonya emerge, and artwork like the Lara poems testifies to the qualities of the lost world. The film’s very end aims for a rhapsodic sense of becoming as Lean surveys the great dam constructed by the workers, the revolutionary project giving birth to its own wonders.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Blaxploitation, Crime/Detective, Thriller, Western

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

In the dark alleys of a modern cityscape, war is brewing. Heavily armed gang members stalk the dark, only to be spotlighted and coldly massacred by policemen, the bringers of death rendered dehumanised figures as the camera elides their faces and concentrates instead on their hands and weapons. In the following hours, the warlords of the gang, a peculiar multiracial confederacy known as Street Thunder, perform a blutbruderschaft rite, pooling their red blood in a bowl. They head out into a blandly shabby suburbia looking for any event, any victim, that will serve as a spark for a snowballing confrontation with authority, and give an excuse for an all-consuming mission of destruction. We’re where The Spook That Sat By The Door (1973) left off, the ghettos armed and battling the official death squads. This time, though, the institutional black man isn’t quite so outmatched. Late afternoon of the following day sees newly promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) of the Highway Patrol assigned to take command at Precinct 5, Division 13, a police station in his own one-time home suburb of Anderson, a notoriously wretched area of Los Angeles.
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The station is closing down, a hollowed-out shell of institutional function with faintly wistful Art Deco curlicues that hint at the ambitions of a different age, left out in the urban wilderness as the tides of civilisation retreat a few blocks. In the station, Bishop encounters the station’s curt departing Captain (James Jeter), and his crew for the shift: weary desk clerk Chaney (Henry Brandon), and office stalwarts Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). None of them are happy about holding the fort for the night, least of all Bishop, whose grimaces give away his frustration at being handed such a chickenshit assignment for his first job as a lieutenant. Two intersecting parties will decide the course of the day and night. A father, Lawson (Martin West), and his young daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) drive into Anderson to pluck his elderly mother from her home in the decaying neighbourhood to come and live with them.
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A busload of prisoners, including a killer headed for Death Row, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is put in the charge of Strayker (Charles Cyphers) to be taken to a state prison. Wilson is an enigma to the lawmen, fending off questions about his motives in some mysterious killings and seemingly ready to proceed to death row with stoic composure. But he’s sure to pay back his abusive jailer (John J. Fox) by contriving to trip him with his chains before boarding the bus. One of the passengers for the big house is sick, obliging Strayker to find a safe harbour long enough to fetch a doctor, so he chooses the Division 13 station to stop at. A hell of a time to make a stop. The warlords of Street Thunder, one white (Frank Doubleday), one Chicano (Gilbert De la Pena), one Oriental (Al Nakauchi), and one black (James Johnson), gather with arms to seek out the right stage for a clarion killing, a ritual that seeks its single, perfect sacrifice.
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Much like his hero Bishop, John Carpenter was a man trying to get somewhere when he made Assault on Precinct 13, one feeling the pinch of frustration. This was to be his second released feature, and his first truly professional effort, following the theatrical release of Dark Star (1974), the film he and fellow film students at UCLA including Dan O’Bannon had pieced together for a pittance. One of its makers later laughingly described the result as the best student movie ever made and the worst theatrical release. Afraid he might never get a shot at directing again Carpenter had set to work busily writing scripts, some of which were produced, including as Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Carpenter was particularly eager to make a Western, like many young filmmakers of the generation pejoratively labelled the Movie Brats, but that genre was entering its long twilight. So Carpenter had the bright idea of making one in a contemporary setting, boiled down to vistas of sun-baked tar and ruddy orange sunsets over a concrete wasteland descending into grainy dark. This wasn’t entirely a new idea. Don Siegel had purveyed the same notion with a straight-arrow import for 1971’s Dirty Harry. Martin Scorsese was thinking the same way about his release of the same year, Taxi Driver (1976), but where his approach was neurotic and interiorised, Carpenter attempted to keep the ritualised form intact and render the modern concerns more implicit.
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Assault on Precinct 13 signalled Carptner’s real arrival as a director of force on the low-budget film scene, although its report would be largely drowned out by the colossal success of his follow-up, Halloween, two years later. Assault on Precinct 13 is however certainly one of Carpenter’s best films, perhaps even the best in a pound-for-pound sense. Not that Carpenter was subtle at this stage of his career about drawing on the influence of films he loved. Much like he’d do with Mario Bava and Dario Argento on Halloween, here he transposed Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) into a modern setting, and mixed in a little of Night of the Living Dead (1968), which some Hitchcock and Sergio Leone references thrown in. Wilson drops quotes from Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) with a teacher who told him he was “something to do with death” and promise to explain what he’s about at the moment of dying. Cicatriz himself is the desk clerk. Bishop’s anecdote about a fateful childhood attempt to scare him straight was borrowed from a story Hitchcock liked to tell about himself. He names his heroine after Leigh Brackett, screenwriter of Rio Bravo and a slew of great films. He cast Stoker as Bishop in emulation of George Romero’s similar ploy, although where Romero had anticipated the nascent Blaxploitation genre, Carpenter was riding the tail end of the wave, contemplating the harsh scene of the post-Civil Rights and liberationist high.
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Carpenter’s attuning of his framing to environment is the stuff of film school classes throughout, from Bishop’s early drive through the streets of Anderson, a zone of horizontals where cars cruise straight flat as trains and there seems to be nowhere to hide from the baking midday sun, the buildings looming as taciturn and isolate as John Ford’s Monument Valley outcrops. Later, when the warlords cruise the same streets, the great, fat, lengthy silencer on a machine gun slides out of the car window and extends right across the widescreen frame, mimicking the horizon. This manages to be at once one of Carpenter’s most menacing shots and one of his most blackly humorous, the threat of militarised death immediately looming over anyone in range note with deadpan calm. Whilst the latter part of the film unfolds like a familiar war movie, this section clearly anticipates the gamesmanship of Halloween: the doped-up warlords are as alien and implacable as Michael Myers and arbitrary in their predations, but also armed with a very specific ideal, a faith that bringing terror and bloodshed to the world will shock it into some new state of awareness. So they drive around the blocks searching for the right moving target. The tense, cagey ice cream man (Peter Bruni) who’s plainly spent a lifetime bringing tinny, jaunty charm and sweets to kids around this neighbourhood even as he knows damn well what sicknesses its adults are cultivating, is wary enough to finger his revolver whenever he sees the warlords’ car drive by.
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Carpenter serves up his central, definitive shock early on. As her daddy tries to use a pay phone to get directions, Kathy walks up the parked ice cream van to make an order. The driver anxiously waits until the warlords’ car is out of sight, before serving her. But the warlords have doubled back, and the white warlord toys with shooting the ice cream man, inserting the barrel of a pistol into his mouth but seeming disappointed by his petrified lack of resistance. Ah, but here comes Kathy doubling back to swap her regular vanilla for vanilla twist; in a moment the white ice cream and golden locks are smeared with brilliant red, and goodnight Kathy. Even in the ruder climes of mid-’70s exploitation film, what balls it took to pull that off. Halloween’s famous punch-line to its opening scene, revealing Michael Myers as a child utterly given over to icy slaughter, and his grown self’s disinterest in killing kids, could well be Carpenter’s fiendish idea of payback as well as a mea culpa to all the shocked grindhouse patrons. Lawson doesn’t know what’s happened, as all the gang’s guns have silencers, until he returns to see his daughter dead and the drier expiring on the tar. The driver manages to tell Lawson about his gun in the van, so Lawson takes the gun and jumps in his car, pursuing the warlords through the streets. Forcing the warlords to pull over, Lawson’s focused rage proves an edge deadlier than the white warlord’s drugged-up berserker disinterest: Lawson guns down the warlord, and flees his comrades in stark terror.
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The closest safe harbour is, of course, Bishop’s new command. Lawson makes it to the station and collapses, gasping out vague explanations before folding up in a catatonic ball. Chaney ventures outside to see what he was running from, only to collapse on the lawn, assumed at first to be a pratfall, only for Bishop to venture out after him and very quickly retreat under a hail of bullets. The siege has begun. Carpenter’s poles of civilisation are blocs of anonymous drones dedicated to conflict, and the rest of the poor bastards caught between them, and he throws into its titular besieged outpost a cubic set of archetypes at war with a relentless, faceless enemy representing unleashed chaos: Cool Outlaw, Tough Woman, Flailing Patriarch, Aspiring Black Man. Street Thunder actualise a boogeyman of common imagining, the underclasses of the urban landscape uniting into a powerful and marauding force: lucky for the world their project is tinged with drug-induced nihilism. The white warlord’s cold, implacable face is a layer of whitewash away from Michael Myers’ incarnation of primal dread. The zombie-like implacability of the gang members also anticipates Carpenter’s radical-edged reconstruction of Hawks’ Thing from another world as a metamorphic gestalt in his 1982 remake, gathering everything into itself. Ripe for a multitude of interpretations, from a commentary on the anonymous quality of poverty and social exclusion to the state of modernity threatening old school hard-won individuality such as Carpenter’s heroes wield.
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Whilst mashing together his own favourite films, Carpenter is also rapidly developing his own private mythos. His uneasy feelings about authority, mediated by making the lawman another form of outsider, his instinctual fascination for the outlaw, complicated an apparent, blithe lack of compunction about working against all civilised rules. Wilson is the blueprint for Escape from New York’s (1981) Snake Plissken and Ghosts of Mars (2001) Desolation Williams, the superlative hard-ass maverick, outside the law, “out of time and out of luck.” Bishop is trying real hard to be the shepherd, but his annoyed grimaces and barely constrained irritation give away his rueful realisation his promotion hasn’t yet rescued him from patronising: “That sure got around fast,” he comments when the departing Captain lets slip he knows it’s Bishop’s first day out with his new insignia. “Black?” Leigh asks him, meaning coffee, but she’s answered with his immortal quip, “For over thirty years.” A couple of years earlier Stoker had appeared in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) where he played the voice of intelligent and conscientious humanity speaking up for itself in the face of disenfranchising; here he’s the guy tolerating every slight for the sake of a project started when, in his own description, he walked out of Anderson by his own volition. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again, as Bishop finds the locals are now packing high velocity weapons.
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Strayker and his menagerie arrive, only to find the station seeming to be quickly going to the dogs as the phones cut out, so Strayker contemptuously decides to move on, only to be cut down along with his underlings by the gang’s bullets. Wilson finishes up trapped under one of his dead prisoner pals and need Bishop to come haul him out. Only Wilson and Wells (Tony Burton) are left from the bus, bundled into holding cells and left to stew whilst Bishop and the two office workers try to work out what the hell’s happening. Sniper bullets start punching through the windows, shattering the glass, only the sound of breaking glass to announce the fusillade, all racket of gunfire perversely lacking, only George Washington’s youthful fetish for the sweet song of the whizzing bullet itself. This is a flourish Carpenter wields with particular cunning, threat without source, deadliness without catharsis, locked in a nightmare zone where the familiar rules of life (and movies) are suspended. Then come the invaders, dark figures in the windows, incarnations of blank threat. Guns are few, ammunition low. The heaviest weapon on hand is a pump-action shotgun the Captain was seen locking up in a chest earlier with import in castrating Bishop.
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The two women almost see to be in a uniform of their own, long skirts, wool sweaters, although character is soon divergent: Leigh is hardy and taciturn, Julie fretful and brittle, soon suggesting they haul Lawson out to please the besiegers and desperately hoping they’re gone when the bullets cease. No, they come breaking in the back door as Leigh goes to check on the two prisoners, a bullet tearing a groove in her upper arm. Leigh stays cool and waits until the gun-wielding thug gets close, then socks him in the face with the cell keys before a kick to the balls. And that’s how the modern action heroine was born, kids. Wilson helps her defeat the next goon, and Bishop manages to pass him the shotgun in time to blast away a few more suckers. Wilson’s eye gleam with ferocious glee as he comprehends the chance gifted him, but immediately unleashes on the next gang members to attack: they’re no friend to him or Wells. It took Seijun Suzuki to make a film called Pistol Opera, but Carpenter made it first, as he turns the central sequence of gunplay, as Bishop, Leigh, Wells, and Wilson battle off their persecutors, into a mischievous piece of near-musical sonic orchestration, the tempo of gunfire speeding up and gaining rhythm.
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Zimmer made only a handful of films before she quit acting, supposedly ill-at-ease in her performances, despite Carpenter’s encouragement. It was a real loss, as her excellence here as the ever-so-cool yet subtly sensitive Leigh readily matches Stoker’s poise and Joston’s squirrely charisma, the water light of extreme world-weariness and fried emotional reflexes in her eyes even as she boots bad guys in the bollocks and swaps charged glances with Wilson as she lights his cigarette. Leigh and Wilson seem magnetically attracted from first glance, a cosmic joke played on them both. Leigh’s coup comes as she talks the antsy Wells out of a planned dash for freedom, taunting him with the certainty of his death as he holds a gun on her, only to realise his gun’s not actually loaded. Julie is already dead, killed without anyone to notice during the furious battle. Wells has a plan – “It’s called ‘Save-Ass’” Soon after Leigh talks him out of it it’s proposed someone try to sneak out of the building via a drainpipe linked to the basement, get to a parked car, and race off to the nearest phone box. “What’s the difference between this and what I was gonna do ten minutes ago?” Wells demands. He and Wilson go head to head in a loaded game of potato to see who’ll be it. Wells expects to lose. He does. Out he goes, and manages to escape the drain and hotwire the car without flaw. He races up the road and halts before the phone box. But one of the gang members has been waiting on the back seat for such a ploy; he sits up and shoots Wells through the head.
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Wells and Julie are the designated victims of course, the ones just little less stoic, a little lacking in sangfroid, although their frailty is of course perfectly human. Part of the specific power of Assault on Precinct 13 lies in the way it meets all criteria for a hard-charging pulp movie but retains a sense of mortality and its meaning for all its characters (save the gang members, but fuck those guys anyway), from Kathy to Julie to Wells, as Bishop and his pick-up posse fight nominally to protect Lawson. There’s real power in the repeated gesture of jackets being draped over the dead Kathy and Julie, pathetic victims of forces brewed on a great scale. Early in the film Kathy proposes to her father they ask directions from a cop because her teacher told her the police are there to help, only to be told by her father that her teacher’s “never taken any big steps outside the sixth grade.” The film’s opening evokes ruthless brutality in the name of state security, but by the end it’s allowed a tacit faith in the ideal of the civic guardian, so long as that guardian is an actual representative of the community he’s policing. Bishop is post-Blaxploitation hero, a man seeking to redefine institutions according to his identity rather than the other way round, whilst still contending with all the compromise, frustration, and occasional terror that comes with such a struggle. Leigh is the Hawksian one-of-the-boys ladies dragged out into the glare of the Women’s Lib sun, hardy, self-sufficient, mature, able to take care of herself as much as anyone in this situation can. By contrast the gang members engage in an act of nihilistic intent, a death-dream invocation.
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Meantime Carpenter records the bristling, protoplasmic mass of the new social landscape in his widescreen frames within the tight, rectilinear assurances of the station architecture, and his own frames, characters huddling together, breaking apart, forming and reforming their alliances. Present straits aren’t so different from the schoolyard, confirmed during Wilson and Wells’ potato bout. Childhood tends to haunt the characters, from Bishop’s recollections of being scared straight to Wilson’s opposite experience of preordained fate: everyone’s the product of something that puts them on a path, and Carpenter’s ultimate, humanist idea is that everyone retains an aspect of the heroic in them, despite the opinion of Bishop’s commander that “there aren’t any heroes anymore,” often suppressed and sometimes honed by circumstance. Assault on Precinct 13 is a way station in Carpenter’s slyly evolving variety of social mindfulness in genre cinema, coming just after Dark Star, which sent up the Domino Theory and the idea of the nuclear deterrent, the Domino Theory, and the technocratic subservience of modern life in general, and long before Escape from L.A. ’s (1997) raw disgust and final push-the-button nihilism. It would be easy to dismiss Street Thunder as a conveniently literalised version of urban angst, except that Carpenter pointedly removes sectarian meaning from their looming vision by making them multiracial, the warlords each designated by specific, cliché modes of dress – the white warlord and his black singlet, the Chicano with his Che-like garb – and their weapons of choice. Urban warfare is a blend of state-of-the-art weaponry and down-and-dirty tribal warfare, cars becoming rolling barricades.
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Two cops spend the night circling around the precinct in disorientation, sent out to chase down the peals of gunfire reported by houses near the station but cannot find. Telephone men have vanished. A black hole might as well have opened in this corner of the city. There’s a great if casual joke in the plight of the cops who can’t find anything wrong in the middle of a warzone, one that Carpenter would parse again in his work, like in The Fog (1981) where the need to keep the news going out is an urgent theme in the midst of a corrupt and oblivious community, and They Live (1988) where the act of actually penetrating a web of distraction to perceive truth is turned into an overtly political act, and the difficulty of piecing together coherent narrative in the face of crisis in Ghosts of Mars. The evocation of paranoid isolation would prove a Carpenter specialty in his early films, where he’d turn his straitened budgets and productions to his advantage in creating precisely described pockets of reality. The absurdist approach to this in Dark Star, where his shaggy astronauts were forced to wander the universe, gave way here to a tighter, less meditative but no less anxious sense of characters dangling on the end of life’s long rope.
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One of my favourite moments in the film comes when Lawson tries to alert the police in a phone booth out in some wasteground after gunning down the white warlord, only to see his fellows marching out of the dark: the confrontation seems to be taking place at the end of the universe, the last survivors of humankind battling for the one bloc of light left. One indelible aspect of the film’s texture is Carpenter’s electronic music score, performed on a bank of early synthesisers with the film’s art director Tommy Lee Wallace, who would become one of Carpenter’s regular collaborators (another, Debra Hill, helped out as an uncredited editor). Carpenter took a lot of licence from Lalo Schifrin’s score for Dirty Harry, but he finished up creating something original enough that it had a deep impact not just on Carpenter’s own film style, but on the emerging forms of electronic music and hip hop. Electronic drones declare the presence and attack of the gang members, thudding drum beats with a woozy groove sustain suspense, synthesiser strains wail in the dark like police sirens and make a repetitive cracking sound like a burst tyre flapping against asphalt. Plaintive declarations from an electric piano evoke Bishop’s survey of his old neighbourhood at sunset and recurs as characters survey the dead and face the fallout of a night of carnage.
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Carpenter finally lands his most definite nod to Hawks as he appropriates Rio Bravo’s famous blood-in-the-glass scene: the two cops pull over in frustration only to hear what might be rain on the roof, only for one to get out and realise the rain is actually dripping blood, trickling down from the dead body of a murdered telephone repairman, hanging with arms splayed a grotesque wind chime. Meanwhile Bishop, Wilson, and Leigh have their backs to the wall, literally. They retreat into the station’s basement for their last hope of standing off a mass charge along with their catatonic charge Lawson. Bishop banks all on his marksmanship, planning a Viking funeral for the gang members by igniting some acetylene tanks whilst the trio shelter behind a broken sign that reads, hilariously, SUPPOR YOUR LOC POLIC. The traditional last gallant ending for siege dramas is raised as Leigh suggests she keep the last two bullets in her gun for herself and Wilson; “Save ‘em for the first two assholes who come through that vent,” Wilson instructs. “There are two things a man should never run from,” he comments, the first being a wounded man and the unspoken second acknowledged only in the long gaze held between him and Leigh.
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The final charge of the gang members sees Bishop rising to the status of classic American hero, Hawkeye, the deadly shot and frontier tamer, uniting two hitherto barely related varieties of American iconography. “Can’t argue with a confident man,” Wilson notes repeatedly and with increasing sarcasm as his shots go wild, but at last one hits and the hallway explodes in boiling flame. The cavalry arrive at last, a squadron of police cars screeching to a halt outside, cops pouring into the desolated station and coming across the three combatants still ready to fight on with any weapon at hand, only for the smoke to slowly clear and reveal nominal allies rather than more foes, our heroes slowly easing out of their defensive postures. Carpenter gives them their moments to walk out of the movie like from a stage, Leigh alone and integral, needing no theatrics of injury despite being battle-wounded. She’s followed by Wilson and Bishop together: “You’re pretty fancy Wilson,” the cop grants. “I have my moments,” Wilson replies, and out they march That’s Carpenter’s notion of Elysium – cop and criminal, black guy and white, grinning at each-other and walking out of hell. He’d stick them both back in there for The Thing and They Live. The urban Nibelungenlied is over, but every myth is told and retold, each time a little differently.

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2010s, Auteurs, Film Noir, Thriller

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Glasgow-born director Lynne Ramsay gained international repute with her impressionistic debut narrative film Ratcatcher in 1999. Ramsay cemented her status as a filmmaker to watch with her portrait of crisis adrift, Morvern Callar, in 2002, and her American film debut, the 2011 adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Ramsay’s cinema is distinguished by her visually dense and allusive approach, applying the style she developed in early experimental shorts to films that try to convey the interior perspective of deeply troubled and alienated characters who subsist within bubbles of disorientation. Ratcatcher was the tale of a poverty-stricken boy who nonetheless sustains an extraordinarily vivid sense of the world about him, alive to fleeting moments of imaginative transformation and eye-catching serendipity. Morvern Callar depicted a young woman eddying in a stab at self-realisation following her author boyfriend’s suicide, her recessive and childlike personality allowing Ramsay a natural zone to annex after her debut, before arriving at the would-be worldly antiheroine of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Morvern Callar was one of the most interesting films of the early 2000s, but I intensely disliked We Need To Talk About Kevin, which struck me as facile and more than vaguely exploitative in its approach to parental guilt and school massacre. It was also the kind of debacle only a director of great talent can conjure, showcasing Ramsay’s visualisations, and its general success greatly raised Ramsay’s profile.
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Ramsay’s career has been marked nearly as much by the projects that have fallen through for her over the years as the ones she’s managed to get on screen. Her attempt to film Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones proved abortive, with the project eventually proving a fiasco for Peter Jackson, and in the past few years Ramsay wasted a good chunk of her new fame in an abortive attempt to work with Natalie Portman on the would-be feminist western Jane Got A Gun, which saw the light in 2016 helmed instead with stultifying lack of imagination by Gavin O’Connor. You Were Never Really Here, an adaptation of Jonathan Ames novella, marks a startlingly vigorous resurgence for Ramsay that also might be counted as a little revenge on her part, conjuring the film Jane Got A Gun might have been, taking on familiar generic canards with a fiercely quirky method and coming up with a hallucinatory neo-western blended with noir drama unfolding in the contemporary New York cityscape. Joaquin Phoenix is cast as central character Joe: he’s a figure perfectly suited to both the actor playing him and his love of playing damaged, semi-articulate screw-ups, and to the director, as another of Ramsay’s lost and childlike protagonists, subsisting in a hall of mirrors generated by his damaged psyche even as he brings potent adult anger and capacity for violence to bear upon the world.
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Ramsay quickly announces her peculiar aesthetic as the film kicks off with a vision of bubbles swirling in dark water and two distinct voices counting down to zero, as well as the ritualised chant Joe recalls from childhood insisting that “I must try to be better.” The film slowly composites into definite form as we’re given peculiar visions – a young boy’s face, a mouth writhing under a sheet of plastic, a burning photo of a girl, a bloodied hammer, possessions on a bed scooped into a bag. Joe exits what appears to be a room in a hotel, and descends to the lobby, only to retreat at the sight of cop cars outside. He exits instead into an alley, where an assailant tries to beat his head in with a blunt object, but Joe shrugs off the blow and easily bests the goon. Joe gets into a cab, the livery of which tells us we’re in Cincinnati, and catches a bus back to New York. He enters a house there, which proves to be his mother’s home. His mother (Judith Roberts) is elderly, infirm, and a little confused, but still can pull off a joke as she pretends to be asleep only to surprise her son. Soon enough Joe is lost again in the minutiae of his idea of a ordinary life, like mopping up the bathroom after his mother, singing along with her whilst polishing silver, or reading books backwards and tearing out pages he doesn’t like, whilst occasionally seeming to debate suicide.
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Joe’s carefully prophylactic work method, we learn, is designed to keep a layer of insulation between his home life and his current profession as hired muscle. He’s so particular about this he uses a grocery store owner, Angel (Frank Pando), as a middle man contact between him and his usual employer John McCleary (John Doman), and he decides to dispense with Angel as contact because his teenage son Moises (Vinicius Damasceno) has seen him entering his house. McCleary himself a mere agent for hiring guys like Joe to pull off nasty jobs, often hiring Joe to rescue girls kidnapped into sexual slavery: when he comes to visit McCleary’s office, Joe finds it filled with flowers sent by the florist parents of the girl he rescued in Cincinnati. McCleary hires Joe for another job, this time one that promises to be very lucrative, as a Senator named Votto (Alex Manette) needs Joe’s special talents. McCleary is happy, boasting he can finally get his yacht out of dry dock and promising to host Joe, but Joe’s too distracted by digging for green jelly beans. Joe meets with Votto, who wants him to rescue his daughter Nina, who’s run off from home and an anonymous tip has told him she’s being kept in a brothel for high-roller paedophiles located in downtown Manhattan.
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Usually when contemporary artists try to complicate the basic template of the lone avenging hero, they choose to load up the hero with quirks and neuroses that muddy up the white armour. Ramsay takes a different approach: although Joe is unstable and possesses a perturbing readiness to unleash punitive ferocity, he’s essentially an innocent, a small boy in a man’s body. Ramsay mimics Joe’s unmoored sense of time and focus with her filmmaking, latching on to random impressions and patinas, odd little details and fleeting spurts of conversation: attention deficit as a cinema aesthetic. Any sight seems charged with some semaphore of fate, like a girl staring at Joe from behind a pillar on the El. The reasons for Joe’s mental state are suggested in spasmodic flash cuts conveying the intrusive memories that can compel him at any moment of the day. A foot twitching in sand, a hazy face in a burka, two soldiers in uniform dancing in the midst of the desert, a candy bar handed over through fencing wire. These prove to be attached to specific, deeply disturbing moments in Joe’s life – one kid shoots another for the candy bar. When Joe is asked by some Asian schoolgirls to take their group picture, Joe recalls a truck filled with asphyxiated corpses of Asian women. The association so upsets Joe he goes to buy the wares of a drug dealer to lose himself in a chemical daze, and socks the guy for arriving late.
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Joe seems to have served as both a soldier and a cop in his life (Ames book makes it clear it was an FBI agent), and the awful sights harvested in such roles have left him damaged, but they’ve also clearly also conjoined with traumatising memories from his childhood. Ramsay offers flash sights of Joe’s childhood efforts to drown out domestic rows between his parents by wrapping his head in plastic – a habit that seems to lie behind his current habit of doing the same thing to control strong emotions. Joe also recalls his mother hiding under a bed and a man, surely his father, sitting in the living room and stalking the house with a hammer. Small wonder Joe is now so protective of his mother, and this slowly past biography also gives grim totemic import to his weapon of choice in dealing with the miscreants his job throws his way, caving in their skulls with a hammer. When Joe sets out on Votto’s mission, he parks outside the old brownstone and waits for a young man who works inside to come out; Joe apprehends him, ties him up, pumps him for information, and then ventures inside.
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Ramsay depicts Joe’s entrance into the den of depravity with the coolest of viewpoints, shooting his marauding through the security cameras around the brothel, in which he appears like a haggard ghoul lurching out of the shadows, smashing in the heads of the brothel’s guardians, leaving their bodies sprawled in his wake. Joe finds Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) on a bed, engaged in the same practice of counting down Joe uses in his anxiety control. Joe takes her in hand and leads her out of the brothel, pausing only with advice to her to close her eyes as he hammers a patron who stumbles into his path – Nina continues to watch with cool regard. Taking refuge in a car park, Joe has claw the girl off him with the assurance “You don’t have to do that anymore,” and then wait for her as she pisses on the bare concrete. Ensconced in a hotel room, Nina turns on the TV only for the news to reveal Votto is dead, supposedly through suicide. But it seems more likely that powerful enemies eliminated Votto for daring to claim his daughter back: two cops appear at the door of Joe and Nina’s room, blow the brains of a hapless bellboy across Joe’s face, and snatch away Nina. Joe manages to tackle one of the cops and kill him before fleeing, but he soon realises everyone in his chain of business contact is in danger. Sure enough, he soon finds McCleary in his office dead, having been viciously tortured until he gave up Angel, and Angel in turn is glimpsed being forced to watch his son being shot to pry Joe’s location out of him.
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The theme of a rogue veteran out to help a sexually exploited girl invites ready comparison to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), complete with cracked hero and invoked junctions of street life and political climes. But Ramsay’s radically odd approach to such a plot better recalls a mode of filmmaking little-seen since the late 1960s and ‘70s, films like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), aggressively deconstructing the usually steely certainties of genre filmmaking, as well as art house benchmarks like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel, or, the Time of Return (1963), that tried to comprehend a sense of personal reality as a liquid state where past and present are always in dialogue, and the post-traumatic transience of mindstates mapped out in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, with its kamikaze cuts to memories of bleak suffering. The emphasis on a hero experiencing the various stations of the cross constituting his life in the midst of exterior action that mimics existential crisis is reminiscent of Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). Ramsay seems to nod to Boorman’s film at one point as Phoenix’s shabby, spacey hero nonetheless gains the impetus of mission and she shoots him marching forth, shoes crunching loudly on gravel, much as Lee Marvin’s Walker strode with purpose towards his reckoning. A scene of Joe pulling out a shattered tooth in nauseating close-up recalls Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997), confirming she’s well aware of the lineage. The atmosphere in You Were Never Really Here is radially paranoid in a fashion that also feels rather fit for that era’s cinema, although it’s also starting to feel very apt again for ours as it contemplates a landscape of greedy potentates and human wreckage.
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But Ramsay has so completely coalesced such influences, as well as the familiar touchstones of a thriller plot – the lone hero, the bad guy in a mansion on the hill – into her own peculiar sensibility that the whole deal emerges not as a compulsive work of suspense and catharsis but as a bad dream from which both the heroes and the viewer are trying to wake. Ramsay joins a body of filmmakers in this who have been essaying what’s starting to feel like a new subgenre, the dreamscape thriller, including Nicolas Winding Refn with Only God Forgives (2013) and Claire Denis on Bastards (2014), where traditional thriller imperatives are diffused through a sense of fractured and punch-drunk perception. There’s also a certain similarity to the works of the Safdie brothers, whose Heaven Knows What (2014) and Good Time (2017) similarly unfold with a quality of delirium and submergence with moments of sharp palpability, although not quite as overtly hallucinatory. Johnny Greenwood’s pulsing electronic score also recalls some of those film, calling to mind another cinematic realm, that of the down-and-dirty ‘80s thriller. Ramsay’s visual textures occasionally flirt with cliché – lots of hosepiping shots of freeways and cityscapes at night – but serve a coherent purpose in reinforcing a sense of bleary, blindsided experience. Ramsay uses Joe’s tale less to recount a traditional good-versus-evil narrative, but to explore the mental processes of the severely traumatised: Joe engages in his worldly action for much the same reason Ramsay takes up his story, searching for immediate avatars and ways of explaining to himself his compulsive and volatile experience.
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Ramsay contemplates a network of insidious evil diffused through a surreally dense layering of perception. Ramsay’s dedication to exploring the mental landscape of her characters overrides familiar impulses here, as Joe’s travails become as much a catalyst for unearthing his own deep lode of distress as a call to arms. Joe and Nina seem to be linked on a subliminal level, threatening indeed to become the same person: although she’s the child and nominal damsel in distress, she’s also like the more coolly functional part of Joe, cleaved off from the great part of his being. This fundamental sense of recognition compels Joe to move beyond his own losses and track down Nina again. Ramsay is clearly fascinated by the close proximity of caring and violent urges contained within Joe, the sense that he’s carefully fashioned himself a lifestyle that allows him to unleash his potential for savagery at a great distance from the one person he cares about. His choice of the hammer as a weapon signals he’s well aware on some level that he’s dogged by the same brutal instincts as his father, who haunts his life, but also that he’s fighting with all his remnant sanity to turn it to a protective purpose, however debased compared to serving as soldier and cop. It’s a question that often compels filmmakers who tackle this kind of fare, feeling out the edges of humanity in extremes and wondering whether the faultlines between the very human states of anger, fear, wrath, revenge, and conditions like psychopathy can be accurately charted. Joe’s overt peculiarity finds its distorted mirror in young Nina, who like him drifts in a dreamy space after her rescue, regarding the rain-smeared windows of the car and the passing lights as if processing everything from a slightly different vantage on reality.
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Whilst Morvern Callar conveyed the clammy sensation of intense grief, it adopted its heroine’s viewpoint rather than tried to describe her rather inaccessible thought processes, perceiving her travels in a state of bemused wonder. The technique Ramsay turned on We Need To Talk About Kevin successfully portrayed the blur of terrible memory dogging its main character. Here Ramsay blends techniques, alternating between Joe as distorting lens upon the world and as catalogue of sensations and recollections. It’s a high-wire act, aesthetically speaking, and yet Ramsay keeps walking that thin line with success just Joe must tread a bleak trail of carnage. The sight of his own blood mixed in with the white milk he pours for his cat sparks an alarm that drives him out to check on McCleary, only to find him dead, and he know soon killers will be at his own house. When Joe gets home and sneaks in through a window, he finds his mother already dead, shot in the face through a pillow. Joe hears the men responsible (they seem to be more cops, this time plainclothes detectives) and ambushes them, swiftly gunning them down. One of the killers (Scott Price) crawls into the kitchen with a bullet wound through his belly; Joe, in a vicious mood, catches him and presses the soul of his boot against the man’s back to wring information from him.
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The killer reveals to Joe the even sicker truth behind the mission Votto sent him on: Votto and political confederate, Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola), shared paedophile tastes and liked to swap favoured girls, with his daughter offered up like some kind of bond-deepening pledge, a pledge Votto decided to pull out of at his peril. Ramsay pulls off perhaps her most bizarre twist on a familiar thriller moment here. Joe can’t really sustain the Dirty Harry act, slipping his bested foe a painkiller to help him die without too much agony, and lying down on the floor beside in him grief and exhaustion. The two men listen to the sounds emerging from his mother’s radio, still playing the chirpy sounds of an easy listening oldies station, and begin to raggedly sing along to, of all things, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me,” whilst holding hands. It’s the sort of scene a director needs a hide of armour plate to pull off, but Ramsay swings it, in very large part because it feels like the essence of the film. The banality of a kitschy old hit is suddenly transmuted into poetic commentary on the knight in cracked armour and the emissary of an evil king both malformed into things they don’t like by life and longing to be children again; it’s Ramsay’s achievement to evoke the quality of empathy nascent in the most sordid situation.
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By comparison, the actual climax of the film is a more muted affair, with Ramsay carefully sabotaging any hint of standard suspense as Joe tracks William to his house. In between, Ramsay follows Joe as he takes his mother’s body out to a lake in the woods, and prepares to sink her into a lake, intending to join her as he fills his pockets with stones. Ramsay turns this scene into her most surreal and gorgeous visual aria as Joe submerges himself in the lake with his mother and then releases her, allowing her willowing form to sink into the darkness, farewelled in a state of pure, liquid diffusion. It’s the most fantastical moment in the film but also the most sharply composed and executed. Joe however fishes the rocks from his pockets and resurfaces, following the shaft of light falling upon him. Why? Because he’s still got a job to do, fired up by the imagined – or psychically shared – scene of Votto serving his daughter up to Williams, and the sight of his mother’s sinking body transforming into Nina’s, a likeness of broken humanity demanding action.
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Joe travels to Williams’ mansion in all its piss-elegant stature, where an eyeless statue hovering in the shadows seems animated by malignancy. You know Joe’s path by the trail of the head, leaving security guards with smashed-in skulls in his wake. Ramsay’s camera zeroes in for the excruciating sight of Nina’s blood-caked hands working polished silver cutlery to pick at food at the dining table, an equally gory razor close by. Nina, Joe finds, has beat him to the honour of slicing Williams’ throat, a discovery that proves cathartic for him in delivering him, ironically, from the need for further violence. Ramsay’s talent for inspecting the aftermath of violence is just as keen as ever here. Only right does Ramsay seem unsure what note to strike. She depicts Joe seeming to shoot himself in a diner after freeing Nina, only to reveal it’s another of his dreams, as Nina comes to wake him up and lead him off to whatever life they can find. There’s a point to this of course, even if the style suddenly feel heavy-handed. Joe will still long for oblivion even as he gains a new responsibility to fend it off, although just who’s taking care of who seems strangely blurred, as if Joe’s mother has been reborn in Nina, in a great chain of incarnation, parent to son to child, fending off the monsters. You Were Never Really Here demands admiration on many levels, for its blithe lack of concern for commercial niceties and ready audience participation, and yet still managing to be perfectly lucid in describing a state of mental and spiritual confusion.

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1950s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

The Searchers (1956)

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Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Frank Nugent

By Roderick Heath

John Ford was hardly lacking in fame and acclaim when he released The Searchers. He’d already captured four Oscars as Best Director, proof he stood for his peers as the most admired of American filmmaking talents. Given how rarely Westerns were given such awards and serious critical interest, Ford seemed to be looking for almost the opposite of acclaim. He was chasing something more elusive, something lodged fast and discomforting, like a thorn under skin or a shard of niggling shrapnel. Ford returned from World War II without quite a few of his cherished illusions, but also nursing some ambitions he set about making realities. He moved to gain a level of independence from the Hollywood studio system by setting himself up as a producer-director for his own Argosy Pictures outfit. Keeping up that kind of freedom was to prove a tall order in the following years, but Ford began to come into his own in terms of how we think of him now, as the man who declared bluntly later in life after a career of diverse movies, “I make Westerns.” That was the genre he had found early success in with The Iron Horse (1926) but scarcely returned to during the 1930s, until Stagecoach (1939), a film that not only provided Ford with a big hit and suddenly earned new critical interest and respect for the genre, but gave a boost to its leading man John Wayne.
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Wayne had been lingering in cheap oatsers since his initial breakthrough The Big Trail (1930) had proved a box office disappointment. During the war Wayne’s star had only grown brighter, leaving him poised to become Hollywood’s biggest draw, but he found himself in conflict with his former pal and mentor Ford, as he’d failed to make good on his promises to join up, leading to tensions on the set of They Were Expendable (1945), Ford’s first civilian film in several years. Ford made good on his desire to make Westerns with My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda and evoking the romanticised version of the OK Corral shootout he claimed to have heard from Wyatt Earp’s own lips decades before. The past seemed to be on Ford’s mind too, as he directed Wayne to mimic his old leading man Harry Carey Snr in some places. Despite their personal differences, Ford and Wayne soon proved the kind of teaming that makes for movie legend in the following few years as Wayne became the sturdy frame Ford hung his Cavalry trilogy – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) – upon. Ford was trying to reprocess the generational experience of the war into terms that could be contained and mediated through the Westerns and tragicomic dramas he liked. His films from this period are filled with sundered but reunited families, bands of soldierly brothers, gatherings of old former comrades, old enemies finding common cause, all trying to get on with nation-building enterprises.
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Native Americans had been provided as cosmic foils in Stagecoach, but whilst they were still often the enemies in the Cavalry trilogy, their situation was no longer so one-dimensional: in Fort Apache they’re provoked by arrogance, treachery, and double-dealing into warfare, in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon they’re neighbours to be disarmed rather than battled, and in Rio Grande a cruel renegade is hunted and surgically taken down. Wayne made one more Western in this phase, Wagon Master (1950), without Wayne, and then took a break from the genre. Ford’s Irish fantasia The Quiet Man (1953) proved his biggest hit to date and gained him his fourth Oscar. But skirmishes with Fonda during the making of Mister Roberts (1955) proved a troubling rupture. Fonda resisted Ford’s desire to follow his usual instinct and scuff up the property, for Fonda wanted to retain the essentially noble spirit of the source play. Frustration eventually, so the legend goes, saw Ford punch his leading man and retreat into a drinking binge that brought on serious illness. To recover, after some forays into TV directing, he looked back to the Western again to find some project that could expiate the poisonous, near-fatal experience. He found the project in a novel by Alan LeMay, who usually wrote scripts for Ford’s rival, and occasional nemesis, Cecil B. DeMille. The Searchers was well-received and successful upon release, but by this time movie and TV screens were so busy with Westerns it was hard to stand out. Only a few years later as Ford became one of the select rank of heralded auteurs in studio cinema, and as young movie lovers grew up and became critics and directors, would it start gaining the reputation it has now as a pinnacle of popular cinema.
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There’s a telling and fascinating conjunction in Ford swinging from a disaster like the Mister Roberts shoot into making his greatest film, and it becomes clearer in concentrating more closely upon the troubled soul of the subsequent film. The Searchers is a study in finding grace in the face of cruelty and hate in large part because it’s coming from a bleak and stymied place. Only cinema, that pool of light between black, rigid fields, offers relief. Small wonder the film starts and ends like it famously does, perfect black broken open and then resealed. The opening, which sees Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returning to family after years away at war, poses the film as the last of Ford’s homecoming-from-war movies. The setting is Texas, 1868, although the location is Monument Valley. Usually Ford’s returning veterans have the benefit of fellowship; Ethan is solitary, embittered, giving away his awards and regalia to kids and negotiating the many psychic eggshells spread about the domicile of his brother Aaron Edwards’ (Walter Coy) frontier homestead. Here also lives Aaron’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and their three children, Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ben (Robert Lyden), and Debbie (Lana Wood), as well as the adopted and raised family member, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a lanky lad with Cherokee heritage (“At least that’s what they tell me”).
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In Ford’s earlier Westerns the wandering men of fortune were usually helping out the people who wanted to put down roots. Here the gulf is muted but unbridgeable, despite Ethan’s seeming desire to reintegrate himself at last, or at least to the extent he’s prepared to be, which isn’t much. He has mysterious wealth in a bag of fresh-minted dollars and still considers himself to be a under oath to the defeated Confederate States. Lucy is the first bobby-soxer, trying to snatch her moments with her beau, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.). Judging by the way she folds Ethan’s coat and swaps a charged look with him, Martha might well have been his lover before Ethan left to fight. Ethan, Martin, and Brad are quickly pressed into helping a posse led by local minister and lawman Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), after some cattle are stolen away, presumably by a roving Native American band. But when they find the cattle dead, Ethan realises the purpose was to lure away defenders from the ranches, for a “murder raid” of punitive action against settlers.
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By the time Ethan and Martin return, they find the Edwards homestead ablaze, Lucy and Debbie missing, and the other three killed. Clayton’s posse continues after the Indian band, who prove to be a tribe of Comanche under the glowering leadership of Chief Scar or Cicatriz (Henry Brandon). After barely escaping an ambush by their quarries, the posse breaks up and heads home, leaving only Ethan, Martin, and Brad to keep up the pursuit. When Ethan finds Lucy’s dead body, discarded by the Comanche, Brad gets killed riding into their camp in a mad charge, and the other two lose track of the tribe in snow, forcing them to break off the pursuit. After being briefly taken in by Brad’s parents (John Qualen and Olive Carey) and sister Laurie (Vera Miles), who carries a torch for Martin, Ethan and Martin set out again to locate the band after receiving a possible clue to their whereabouts. Martin becomes increasingly worried that Ethan doesn’t intend to rescue Debbie anymore, but plans to kill her in case she’s been “living with a buck.” After several years on the trail, thanks to a Mexican trader, Figueroa (Antonio Moreno), Ethan and Martin finally gain access to Scar’s camp and find him not only aware of who they are, but all too happy to taunt them with the scalps of their murdered family members on his spear, and the sight of a now-grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) become one of his wives.
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The set-up here – the ragged warrior and the settled family, the pining matriarchs and hero-worshipping boy – is reminiscent of Shane (1953). Ford might well have internalised that hit, that most aesthetically purified and self-consciously mythic of Westerns, trying to decide if it meant anything to him or not, and proceeds from the realisation that George Stevens wanted his fabled concept just a little too unspoilt. Shane lived and died for the sake of letting civilisation getting on with its follies, stirring its contradictions but not despoiling them. No blonde seraphim to stir hearts and take the rap here. Ford speeds through that work in miniature and comes out the other side to leave desolation and terror where the little house in the prairie stood. Ethan is no-one’s idea of a white knight. But the actual aesthetic antagonist to be wrestled with here is My Darling Clementine and the Cavalry trilogy, their perfection as a summary of Ford’s concept of the west revisited, tested, and finally endorsed again, but only after the deepest agonistes. Martin is the family’s adopted son, regarded with squint suspicion by Ethan when he sits down to eat at the dinner table: “Fella could mistake you for a half-breed.” Ethan’s jagged, reactionary-racist sensibility is already fully on display. So too is his humane streak, as he rescued Martin as a child from the wreckage of a massacre. Martin and Ethan’s relationship compels the film even as they seem to barely tolerate each-other’s company and even at points seem to be mortal enemies, as Ethan explicitly denies Martin any kind of familial status to him early on, but also becomes almost a caricature of the hard-bitten, tough-love paterfamilias.
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The Searchers’ DNA is scattered today throughout the length and breadth of contemporary cinema, from the dreamlike transpositions of the Star Wars films to the grimy, pensive immediacy of Taxi Driver (1976) and all their descendants in turn. The greater part of The Searchers’ power and vitality wells precisely from contradiction. It’s a film where the hero is also its villain, where the American landscape is both worshipped and regarded as suspicious and duplicitous. The narrative itself rests upon contradiction, as the characters tread the length and breadth of the American heartland and yet find their reckoning mere miles from where the hunt started. It’s no cutely liberal take on the Western like Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1953), but that’s precisely what allows it to dig into the dark side of the American enterprise, capturing the marauding mindset of men like Ethan and Scar, who both operate out of motives of vengeance and tribal identity. Perhaps that’s why Ford socked Fonda over Mister Roberts and then turned around to make this: a little voice in the back of Ford’s mind insisting the only way you could grapple with what infuriates you was not to play wise elder but to swallow the hot coal.
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Ethan is reminiscent of Jesse James as a veteran whose post-war crime spree seems to him at least have been a mere extension of the conflict, as it’s hinted Ethan might have been supporting himself in a similar way. “You match a lot of descriptions,” Clayton notes when Ethan won’t take his deputising oath because “it wouldn’t be legal.” Later, he guns down the duplicitous Futterman (Peter Mamakos), a trader who sells Ethan and Martin a clue for gold but who then tries to kill them to get more, and his helpmates with cool thoroughness, so much so that later he and Martin are suspected of murder. Ethan and Scar are the frontier death-dream incarnate. There’s a tonal reflex reminiscent of horror cinema in some of The Searchers, particularly the creepy moment when Scar’s shadow falls upon the child Debbie in the graveyard where her grandparents are buried and soon too will be the rest of her family, and the rhyming scene at the climax as he looms over Debbie and Martin. The bookending doorway shots feel more than a little inspired by Hugo Fregonese’s Apache Drums (1951), a film which transmitted its producer Val Lewton’s psychological and folkloric sensibility into the Western, and perhaps Ford absorbed a little of that sensibility along with the technique. The struggle for domain that takes place in the course of the movie is physical but also subsists on this atavistic level, fought on the level of symbols and totems, to which in a way Debbie is reduced often throughout.
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Scar’s spear loaded with scalps, including those of the Edwards clan and Martin’s mother, is held out as a triumphant standard, in the grip of Debbie, another captured prize. Ethan removes any dividing line between himself and his enemy as he stoops to claiming Scar’s scalp. But the laws of tribalism negate the need for moral discernment. What I do to you is righteous and what you do to me is savagery. Ford’s celebration of space throughout, the grandiose forms and climes of the Monument Valley locations and all their primeval strength, is constantly contradicted and complicated. Ethan is all too aware the posse’s been drawn out just far enough to stop them fending off the murder raid; the vastness becomes a trap under such circumstances. Scar’s tribe are able to remain ever so tauntingly ahead of Ethan and Martin. The open area around the Edwards homestead harbours enemies advancing unseen and nightmarish. The bluffs of Monument Valley are a canvas to describe the tension: they stand grand and worshipful but also dominate and dwarf Ford’s characters as the posse rides out to chase down. Ford constantly captures his actors with the rock forms behind or looming over them, trying to cage their elastic physicality, their volatility, their challenge to nature.
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Stagecoach was a legend that skirted Monument Valley but found its stage in the open ground; The Searchers inhabits vertiginous zones where the moral danger seems mapped out in canyons and caves. Scar’s tribe exploit the folds of land to surround the posse, riding along parallel ridges, whilst the posse use a river as a defence. Ethan and Martin wander a continent but the first time they attain their goal they’re chased inside a cave that seems like a zone of moral nullity, a cave that looms again at the end as Ethan hunts down Debbie with apparent murderous intent. This oppressive use of the landscape is particularly apparent in a uniquely vicious scene in which the posse, still in the early stage of its pursuit, come across the body of a dead brave, actors and rock forms constantly caught in dialogue. Spiritual violence is stirred: Brad picks up a rock and pummels the corpse, but Ethan has a more exacting sense of justice, shooting out the body’s eyes so that the dead man’s spirit must roam the afterlife in blind desolation.
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Ford’s frontier homes and outposts have low, slightly oppressive ceilings (one of many lessons Orson Welles took from Ford: in cinema, the sets don’t just frame drama but generate it), and his camera framings obey the rectilinear demarcations of the architecture as much as his exterior framings respond to the jagged upthrust of the land. Here cotillions form and rituals of marriage and justice unfold, obeying their own social architecture, cordons far more unyielding than any cavalry column into which Ethan and Martin crash upon their second return home. Years of fruitless wandering, is reported via a letter Martin writes to Laurie, a missive she’s obliged to read out to her parents and to the letter’s deliverer, the guitar-picking, haw-hawing local flash Charlie McCory (Ken Curtis). A great chunk of narrative and time is ingeniously compressed this way, whilst making other points, as Charlie presents a romantic threat to Martin whilst Laurie’s increasing exasperation with her peripatetic beau boils over at the news that Martin picked himself up a wife. Accidentally, of course, as Martin thought he was trying to trade for a blanket but found he’d purchased a squaw instead, a woman he dubs “Look” (Beulah Archuletta) and whose presence, helpful as she tries to be, he can’t stand. When he and Ethan got the idea of asking her about Scar, she became fearful and left them, and they later found her dead in an Indian village, attacked and left in carnage by a Cavalry patrol, leaving the perplexing question as to whether Look was merely trying to get away or was trying to help Martin.
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The Searchers is as much a film about generation conflict as Rebel Without A Cause (1955), which Wood had starred in the year before, and its many followers. One reason, perhaps, why so many young men watched the film and found in its something like their cinematic bible, over and beyond its imagistic and storytelling force. Home, the locus of simplicity and order, is shattered early in the film, and tensions were already brewing; gruff pseudo-father and maturing pseudo-son are then obliged to chase the ghost of common meaning. So easy to see the conflict between Ethan and Martin as the uncomprehending gap between a generation of fathers who had been off to war to defend a settled world and sons who wanted to renew it, and the bewilderment and sullen anxiety of the young in the face of their elders’ mysterious prejudices and unreasoning demarcations. Despite his many protestations to disinterest in Martin’s lot, Ethan acts like his father – one of the great bits of movie business comes in the cantina scene in which Ethan keeps foiling Martin’s attempts to get a drink of liquor even as the conversation involves something else entirely. It’s a moment that’s just as revealing and even more cunningly parsed as the more famous scene with Martha folding Ethan’s coat: bonds of family, of love, of instinctive connection take place on a level that’s near-subliminal. Moreover, this sort of thing illustrates exactly what a filmmaker like Ford can conjure, and any great filmmaker, over and above even the layers of Frank Nugent’s already tight-wound script.
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Martin seems exempt from the ranks of tribalism as such identities are melded in his frame as well as nullified by his youthful openness. Ethan and Martin represent a dichotomy of experience commonly seen in Ford’s films but usually safely contained by social constructs like the military, the youth learning about the world and passing through baptisms of fire, and the older, hardened, life-scarred man. Look to one of Ford’s early films like Seas Beneath (1931), where the young man has his first erotic experience with a senorita and the older man is the stalwart captain shepherding all through the curtain of fire. Here the rhythms are off-kilter, the figurations twisted. The captain is a landlubber Ahab chasing after a girl who may or may not be his daughter from a transgressive romance, and the young man, played by Hunter with his stark blue eyes and passion play physique as a beautiful gelding, never gets time to get it on with Laurie or the flamenco dancer making eyes at him in the frontier cantina. Sexual transgression lurks behind so much of The Searchers, in the barely-coded anxiety over miscegenation and sexual slavery, but its tenor is rather one of neurotic severance from the erotic. The ascending order of racist neurosis is invoked, driving Confederate holdout Ethan crazy, and Scar’s motives are calculated as revenge by precisely triggering them, for the chieftain who’s lost two sons to the encroaching white man knows well what hurts his foe. The resulting sense of obsession builds relentlessly to specific moments of baleful paroxysm, as in Martin placing himself between Ethan and Debbie as he moves to gun her down, and the final battle. The film repeats the generational conflict in miniature towards the end with a level of in-joke humour. Ethan and Clayton find themselves confronted by green, young, sabre-waving Lieutenant Greenhill, envoy of his Cavalry commanding father, breezing in to alert the elders to Scar’s presence with callow energy, and played by Wayne’s son Patrick.
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The margins of the central drama are filled out by such a gallery of oddballs and frontier grotesques, covering a range of types and cultural entities, filled out by ingenious detail and performances. Clayton is a leader both spiritual and temporal, embodiment of all social authority in the sparse precincts of the frontier and perfect contrast to Ethan’s individualist indomitability. Yet he’s anything but abstract in his bristling, bustling vigour, tying his top hat to his crown with a handkerchief and vowing to get himself “unsurrounded” and barking at Greenhill to “Watch out for that knife” only to cop it in the backside in the midst of battle. Crackpot Mose Harper (Hank Worden) longs for a rocking chair and makes fun of the Comanche by mimicking their war cries, tolerated and patronised by all who know him, which proves to be a great survival talent, as he gives Scar the slip and alerts the heroes to the tribe’s return. Brandon, a character actor who bobbed about Hollywood for decades and who had bigger parts than this but none more famous, makes a tremendous impression although Scar remains for the most part an antagonist over the horizon. His appearances early in the film galvanise the characters aura of threat and dark, scowling, brutal charisma, from looming over young Debbie as he comes across her attempting to flee the homestead to putting on his chieftain’s bonnet and sporting the medal Ethan gave to Debbie about his neck. When he and Ethan finally meet, the doppelgangers stand almost touching in their fearsome mutual challenge, whilst refusing to break the rules of the chivalrous game of hospitality.
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The Searchers also undoubtedly contains Wayne’s best performance, lacking the slightly calculated feel to some of his other major turns like the aging Nathan Brittles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and ornery Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969). His Ethan Edwards simply is – his smouldering aggression, his patronising assurance, his surly turns of phrase (“That’ll be the day”) and grit-toothed ferocity and private moments with eyes deep pools of sorrow and regret and flashes of lunatic rage. For a man of undoubted, bullish presence and martial skill, Ethan is trapped in states of impotence throughout much of the film, reduced to finding and burying the mangled remnants of his family. Wayne’s performing intuition grasped gesture as the essence of film acting, the sort of considered motions generations of kids have mimicked in trying to grasp the essence of screen cool. The badass spectacle of whipping out his Winchester from its holster before riding in to the burning homestead. The spins of his revolver as he shoots out the dead Comanche’s eyes. More than that, though, here Wayne uses such gestural precision to describe Ethan’s frustrated power, finally blatant in the seething fury in his eyes as he barks at Clayton for spoiling a shot at Scar and finally near-lunacy as he shoots down buffalo in his desire to starve the Comanches, becoming in his unreasoning wrath and sense of punitive mission the embodiment of the dark side of the Western conquest, and his schoolyard posturing before Scar when finally they men meet.
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Ford, like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, had always made complex Westerns, although there was certainly a general accuracy to the notion the genre was becoming more meditative in its historical considerations. Although his political allegiances were becoming more conservative, Ford was becoming more direct and questioning about who could be considered American and what the country could mean to them were becoming more pointed. He would soon construct creation myths for African-Americans (Sergeant Rutledge, 1960) and finally Native Americans (Cheyenne Autumn) in terms of his traditional Western form, on the way towards the cosmic crack-up of his last film 7 Women (1966). The sequence here where Ethan and Martin encounter the massacred tribe and the Cavalry who did it evokes his Cavalry trilogy through music cues and images but there’s no sense of heroic necessity: Martin is bewildered by their motives. This is the west being bludgeoned into passivity and coherence rather than coolly policed. The ruined, lunatic women the soldiers gather, inspected by Ethan and Martin in hope Debbie is amongst their number, are the by-products of civilisations crashing together. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” one of the Cavalry officers comments, but notably, the women are all in a crazed state after being rescued, whilst Debbie, when they finally encounter her, remains entirely lucid and intelligent enough not just to simply remember her old life but to try and save Ethan and Martin from imminent attack. Ethan repays the favour by advancing to shoot her down, with Martin thrusting himself between them. Fortunately, Scar and his braves interrupt the moment of truth.
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Ford stands today as one of the definitive classicists in film technique, but to watch The Searchers is to experience an unusual approach to storytelling and cinematic structure. To see Ford utilise the mid-‘50s widescreen colour format is to see a born cinematic eye unleashed upon a natural habitat, exploiting space from actors’ faces looming in close to features in the peering distance. Ford’s DP Winton C. Hoch isn’t exactly one of the celebrated cinematographers of his time, and yet few films are better shot than The Searchers. Hoch imbues Ford’s precisely-composed tableaux with life through jostling, precisely inscribed detail even in the midst of colossal landscape shots. Ford and Hoch work in hints of Expressionist texture into interior and dialogue scenes, hinting at the repressed and the fetid in even the most seemingly easygoing interludes, and capturing the intensity of existence out in these tiny abodes and hamlets through the decor in a homestead. The Searchers is a big movie, and yet big moments are almost thrown away, like the final confrontation between Martin and Scar. Exposition scenes double as character revelations, jokes distract from momentous discoveries and urgent truths. Nothing in The Searchers is ever just one thing, one reason Ford was able to knock over such an epic tale in less than two hours. Perhaps the most notable example of this discursiveness comes in the action climax, as the long-nursed thirst for revenge against Scar comes as fast as reflex, in perfect contrast to the ceremonial death-dealing in Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Few directors could resist the bloodthirsty spectacle of moments like Ethan’s discovery of Lucy’s body and Brad’s subsequent ride to a quick death, but Ford elides both, describing the first by Ethan’s harassed and snarling behaviour afterwards, and marking out the events of the latter purely by sound.
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The hint of Expressionist influence in the film is hardly surprising. Ford had gained a great deal of early acclaim and admiration for his skill in fusing that heady Germanic style with Hollywood exigencies in movies like The Informer (1935) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Like many directors who had started working in the silent era now confronted by the blazing colour and stretched screen of ’50s film culture, he seemed to be thinking back to those days wistfully in shots like one filmed in silence and silhouette, in which Martin is lowered down a cliff face as he goes to pluck Debbie from the midst of Scar’s camp. One of the best shots in the film – in cinema in general – comes when Debbie appears on the sand dune behind Martin and Ethan as they bicker outside Scar’s camp, unnoticed for a long time as she approaches. The perfect economy of Ford’s framing allows the epic, even the miraculous, to suddenly transform the drama, as if the land itself has finally unleashed its captive. Ford’s love of alternations in tone between high drama and slapstick humour has long been one of his peccadilloes that can vex contemporary viewers. But it’s also essential to his cinema, where sobriety and clowning are indivisible as part of the texture of life, expressions of the unruly energy released by common humanity, mimicking and to a certain extent offsetting more genuinely chaotic instincts. This aspect of Ford’s art had been purveyed with careful, contrapuntal rhythm in his Cavalry trilogy, but here comes in a series of violent swerves and headlong crashes. Certainly the “comic relief” of Martin’s irritation with Look never sits well, particularly as he shoves her rolling down a slope when she tries to sleep by his side: it’s supposed to play as rambunctious in a brotherly manner, echoing Laurie’s exasperated assaults on Martin, but just comes across as mean and bullying.
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The awkwardness is also a by-product of the film’s hysterical, blue-balled intensity, an aesthetic reflex on Ford’s part in registering the need to relieve its perpetually gathering psychic thunderclouds. Better moments of comedy include Ethan tossing a glass full of rotgut tequila on a fire to save Martin from unthinkingly drinking it, and the full-on physical comedy of Martin’s fistfight with Charlie, upon returning him to find him about to marry Laurie, another moment that converts the larger tension of the drama into an absurd islet, as the two young men battle over their lady. Ford’s unique blend of precision and elision in staging reaches its height in the finale, as Clayton’s posse join Greenhill, Ethan, and Martin in a raid on Scar’s encampment. Ford’s dashing tracking shots move with the charging horses through the camp offer the deliverance of unfettered movement after the tight and stifled precursor, but also with haphazard speed and reckless force: Ethan riding in it to chase down his foe casually knocks over a fleeing Comanche woman. Nobody’s standing around duelling or going down in noble last stands.
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Martin sneaks into Scar’s tent to locate Debbie: the sound of the great war chief cocking his rifle is matched to a mere shot of his legs in the tent flaps. Martin spins, lets loose with his revolver. By the time Ethan arrives, he finds only the oblivious corpse of his foe, felled by the kid. The famous upshot, one of those moments that can make ancient cynics get misty, one that tormented even Jean-Luc Godard with its mysterious impact: Ethan chases down a fleeing, fearful Debbie, only to snatch her up like he might have as a child, cradle her in her arms, and softly suggest, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Some of the power of this lies in surprise, but also in its subterranean logic. Scar, his mirror, his task, his animus, is dead. Ethan’s concerted rage is spent, and all that’s left is an ageing man clutching the last thing he might call kin in the world. It’s easy to hate Ethan Edwards so often throughout The Searchers, but then you love him, much as Debbie runs in terror from him only to curl up against his chest, like a father who has lapses of inchoate and unknowable darkness at night but returns like the sun in the morning.
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Ford’s 1961 follow-up Two Rode Together would deal explicitly with the problem elided here, as the protagonists of that film would become obliged to help the woman they rescue from living with an Indian tribe overcome stigmatisation as someone beyond the pale, socially and sexually speaking. Ford obsessively examined a schism in his own mindset that was also a schism in his concept of America, albeit one that could also manifest in his portraits of Ireland and Wales and anywhere else. The need to belong to a community, an ordered way of life, a hierarchy, striking sparks against an opposing truth, the desire for freedom, for essential being, for standing beyond the power of the corrupt and the hypocritical, those ignoble foils that always come with society. Younger Ford had happily sent Ringo and Dallas off to be “saved from the blessings of Civilisation” at the end of Stagecoach.
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Older Ford envisions the possibility of a future free of racial neurosis and violent instinct, and knows it’s right, but also knows very well it means the end of something else he cherishes, that great stage upon which his dreams live and die. When the door closes on Ethan, much as it found him, it closes not just upon the character and his embodiment of the Western hero cut off from the settling world, but upon an entire concept of the genre, perhaps even the genre itself. Everything else was just waiting for Sam Peckinpah to come and shoot it full of holes. Ford’s overreaching artistic desire, to create mythic-styled narratives about becoming and finding, here admits at last a failure, a point where some things cannot be contained, reconciled, kneaded into the great American project. History rolls on, leaving its ruins, its dead, its forgotten, heroes and villains all churned together in the dust.

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1970s, African cinema, Auteurs, Drama, Experimental, Romance

Touki-Bouki (1973)

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Director/Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty

By Roderick Heath

Following its 2007 restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki-Bouki has emerged in recent years to be celebrated as one of the finest products of African cinema. Touki-Bouki made a Sight & Sound Film Poll as one of the hundred greatest films of all time, and these days even celebrities are paying homage to its most famous images. Quite a ride for a film that did make a mark in its time, gaining an International Critics Prize at Cannes, only to then generally sink from view. Touki-Boukis director took another twenty years to make a second feature, as Mambéty re-emerged for a brief spell of productivity before his death from lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 53. Mambéty, born in Dakar in 1945, was the son of a Muslim cleric who, after dabbling in theatre as a student, became interested in film, at a time when an eruption of new cinematic energy was taking place across Africa at the time, part of a general scene of cultural fervour in the post-colonial dawn. Mambéty’s countryman Ousmane Sembène had flown the standard for new African cinema with 1966’s Black Girl.
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In spite of his lack of formal training, Mambéty pieced together a short film, City of Contrasts, in 1968, dedicated to surveying haphazard attempts to synthesise a novel architectural style at various sites around Dakar with a sceptical eye. He followed it with another short that gained some attention, Badou Boy, a portrait of a young scallywag engaged in a duel of wits with a policeman, mediating Mambéty’s own formative experiences and looking forward to the larger clashes driving Touki-Bouki. Next Mambéty set to making his first feature with a budget of $30,000, most of which came from the Senegal government. One irony is that Touki-Bouki is both a perfect emblem of that moment of cultural energy and a reaction to it. Mambéty avoided the kitchen-sink realism and overtly critical style of melodrama being made by Sembène and others, in favour of an approach obviously influenced by the French New Wave, but also wielding a definably independent spirit rooted deep in its native landscape and sensibility. Touki-Bouki defines a more personal, allusive, but hardly disengaged reaction to the moment, celebrating the maddening mismatch of impulses and ambitions beckoning.
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Touki-Bouki emerged as a freewheeling tragicomedy with a rambunctious sense of humour as a well as a spirit of commentary and satirical import that lands all the more sharply for its deceptively breezy disposition. At times Mambéty’s eye is as cruelly excoriating of social disparity as Luis Bunuel was on Los Olvidados (1951), recording the day-to-day life of the poor citizenry who encircle the islet of westernised modernity in the downtown Dakar. His camera pans down from the gleaming ramparts of office blocks and apartment buildings colonising Dakar’s precincts to the shattered slums and shanties scattered around its fringes with a witty, needling sense of contrast, but also a casual familiarity with such violent contrasts. Mambéty sees in them the spirit of a place and a time, the super-modern colliding with the unknowably ancient, the slick with the gritty, the Western idea of time and space with the African.
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Mambéty’s antihero is Mory (Magaye Niang), a young man who makes a living driving cattle to an abattoir to be butchered, whilst his girlfriend Anta (Mareme Niang) is a student attending college. Mambéty’s Dakar is a place of petty jealousies and tolerated pests. Anta lives with her Aunt Oumy (Aminata Fall), a produce seller and low-grade conjurer who lets friends take her produce on credit. Anta is first seen irritably forcing one to put back everything she’s taken if she can’t pay. Anta resists the cajoling, charged demands of a mob of young student radicals in a truck, whose political action meetings seem to be mostly an excuse to pick up girls. When Anta refuses to come to one of their meetings, the radicals, in their frustration, accost Mory when he comes to the campus looking for her, lassoing him and driving across down with Mory tied to the back of their truck. In a rage after this humiliation, Mory flees to a favourite place on the coastline, and Anta tracks him down. The duo make love on the cliffs above the ocean, a sequence Mambéty communicates with shots of languorously rolling, foaming waves on the rocks with the sounds of sex on the soundtrack. Afterwards, lounging in the sun next to the motorcycle, the lovers resolve to leave Senegal by any recourse and head for Paris to make their fortune.
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With a puckish sense of ne’er-do-wells at loose in the world, improvising their path through life, Mambéty’s assimilation of New Wave tropes occasionally feels closer in spirit to Richard Lester than Jean-Luc Godard. Still, Godard is an inescapable influence, with visuals that recall the bright, lushly-coloured, almost pictographic approach of Pierrot le Fou (1965). But there’s a stark, deceptive quality to Mambéty’s style that’s quite individual, unfolding through a succession of images precisely framed and lucidly composed, attentive to the pungent atmosphere of a time and place, in a way that’s almost still-life art, but which also merge to form a brisk and energetic whole. Touki-Bouki unfolds according to its own peculiar rhythms and focal points, but it also plays, interestingly, as a lampoon of a film noir plot. Mambéty’s portrait of desperate lovers making their ploy to escape their circumstances, turning to crime to better their lives, evokes a swathe of noir films and films that coexist on the border between that grim genre and social problem studies, particularly Nicholas Ray’s films like They Live By Night (1949) and Rebel Without A Cause (1956). Except that the crime is tepid and the criminal lovers’ escapades are more than a little absurd, thanks to Mory’s significant overestimation of his own street smarts. The very end can be read as a satire on the climax of that founding text of French poetic realism and noir aesthetics, Julien Duvivier’s Pepe Le Moko (1938).
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Mambéty starts the film with shots of cattle being herded and driven to an abattoir, lazy undulations of the haunches of cattle and the ponies bearing loft the herders filling the screen, for a scene from a rural lifestyle that might as well be taking place a hundred or a thousand years ago. Mambéty quickly despoils the placid mood as he depicts the cattle being slaughtered gorily. This unflinching segue anticipates a similar sequence in Rainer Werner Fassbender’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1976). Mambéty’s motivating spirit is rather different to Fassbender’s punkish effect, but there’s a similar idea at play, correlating the butchery of animals with the brutal processes of personal and historical transformation. Mambéty repeats the motif later on when he shows Oumi slaughtering a goat, all part of the raw and bloody business of providing food, the earthiness of the lifestyle of Mambéty’s fellow Senegalese, laid bare in grim and dazzling detail. Mambéty cuts between Oumi slicing open the goat’s neck with Anta stripping off her shirt in the staring sunlight for her seaside tryst with Mory, evoking a sense of squirming desperation to the couple’s psychic horizons despite the often comic tenor of their adventures, as well as conjoining sex and death as sublime necessities.
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Early in the film Mambéty watches with a documentary filmmaker’s eye as women cue up for clean drinking water, a moment of reportage that could fit into any news report on life in the third world, except that Mambéty turns it into a scene of human comedy as two women begin fighting over their place in the line; when a supervising man tries to break up their tussle, both begin beating him up instead. Authority figures are either wielders of latent violence, like the cop Mory encounters, or absurd occupants of jobs that seem them disseminating a vague sense of state relevance, like the portly mailman who makes the rounds of the shanties on the Dakar fringes, with Aunt Oumi convinced he’s keeping letters from her son from her, and struggles to make a ponderous passage up a hill. Mory’s first attempt to rustle up some cash comes when he decides to take on a dude tantalising and tormenting pedestrians with his prowess as three-card monte. Mory bets a thousand francs he pick out the right card, but when he loses has to flee because he doesn’t have the cash to cover the bet, chased down the street by a mob happy to take off after anything that moves just for something to do.
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Mory manages to elude his pursuers only to come across a cop who enjoys intimidating him with the possibility he might just shoot him for the hell of it, before then asking for a match: Mory is so relieved he offers his whole matchbox. The same cop proves to be a nemesis for the next score Mory and Anta eye, when Anta realises they could rip off the gate take for a wrestling match. Several boxes are left in the cop’s keeping, one of which contains the money. Mory, making a declaration of status as boss man, decides the box on the bottom must be the one. The actual robbery isn’t shown, but Mambéty cuts to Mory and Anta’s getaway, hailing a taxi to transport the stolen box across town whilst Mory pursues on a motorcycle. He’s stopped by an officious traffic cop for driving through a zebra crossing, but Mory makes a successful ploy to scare off the cop by pretending to have seen him at a rowdy party that got busted. The cab driver, a wheezy old man, accidentally drops the cashbox when he’s unloading it for the elated bandits, only for the contents within to prove not riches but a skull.
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The title is usually translated as “Journey of the Hyena,” an apt description of Mory’s skulking opportunism as a criminal who dreams of grand successes, a small predator who darts around the flanks of bigger beasts. The early scenes of Mory and Anta on the beach see Mambéty breaking up the linear flow of images, weaving a texture at once repetitive and discombobulated, fitting for a film about Senegal, the westernmost country on the African mainland. The lovers confront the ocean as a vertiginous frontier standing between them and Paris, which might as well be Oz. Mory decides next to rob a rich gay man named Charlie. Charlie lived in Paris in the past, and now resides in a large modern house on the Dakar waterfront. He lounges about his swimming pool and extemporises airily from his bath whilst Mory gets down to robbing him blind. Charlie introduces a particularly noir-like development in Touki-Bouki’s plot, as a character whose erotic wont contrasts and mirrors the social and financial yearning of the young people and who float in a possible zone of mutual exploitation. The scene could be set like the ugly moment in Midnight Cowboy (1969) where that film’s desperate main character assaulted and possibly killed the old gay man he decided to rob to facilitate his own life escape. But Mambéty wryly deconstructs the canard by making Charlie a humorous and likeable figure whose supine good cheer is just as hapless as Mory’s half-assed criminal entrepreneurship. When he finds he’s been robbed his first response is to phone up the police and chat amiably and teasingly with some officers he’s trying to seduce.
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Charlie represents a gently satirised breed of cosmopolitan colonials. The uneasy relationship of colonised and colonisers is a nagging theme of Touki-Bouki, although Mambety’s credo that “anticolonialist laughter is also laughing at yourself” is illustrated as well, as he considers the landscape of modern Senegal as a strange mutt where eye, heart, and mind can leap from the primal to the space-aged in one survey of the landscape. Dialogue is littered with sniping mutual racism. Oumi and her larcenous patron kvetch about sons of the nation heading to Paris and not coming back, or worse, “They bring their white women back with their diseases.” When Mory and Anta finally do get aboard a passenger ship bound for France, they’re thrust into the company of patronising French teachers who complain in turn about just about everything, from the stolidity of their African students and the extremity of the radical movements back home, and make comments like “African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy” whilst proclaiming Senegal barren physically and intellectually. The elders’ solution for everything is to call in a marabout (a variety of Islamic religious advisor in Senegal), and Charlie has the bad news as one who’s supped at the font of imperial beneficence and left no illusion for anyone who follow: “France isn’t what it used to be,” now that it’s no longer the beating heart of a great imperial complex.
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Nonetheless the siren call of Paris echoes irresistibly for Mory and Anta, represented by a soundtrack driven along by the sprightly strains of Josephine Baker’s song “Paris.” Baker, as the black chanteuse who found love and favour in France thanks to playing out an exotic fantasy of a bare-breasted, banana-bedecked jungle girl only then to reinvent herself as the essence of cosmopolitan sophistication, makes for a loaded, ironic touchstone for such ambitions. The cinematography by Pap Samba Sow keeps in mind both the potent colours and design intricacy of African art and also the purposefully flat and placard-like effects of ‘60s radical movie agitprop. Colours blaze with fervent immediacy, the gush of blood from the goat’s neck and the patterns of the kaftans and lettering of city signs all lit up with delirious intensity, as if the world is a great collection of hieroglyphs rendered in colour needing a sympathetic eye to decode. One of the funniest punch-lines comes when it’s revealed that the wrestling match Mory and Anta try to rob is being held to raise money for a statue of Charles De Gaulle, a symbolic erection in the name of continued close connections between France and Senegal.
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Mambéty’s preferred symbol, the lynchpin of the movie and of his protagonists’ lives, is Mory’s bike. It’s a practical instrument, Mory’s transport, his vessel of self-image and independence. Mambéty’s images of an outsider hero on a motorcycle echoes expressions of countercultural disaffection like Easy Rider (1969) coming from overseas and also rhymes with the same year’s radically different exploration of postcolonial crime and rebellion, The Harder They Come. But the bike is also a representation of Mambéty’s concept of Senegalese spirit, circa 1973, and his concept of a culture that’s a fusion of ways of being and experiencing: a cobbled-together chimera, western-made machine festooned with the potent animalistic totem of horns on the handlebars, and an incantatory, rather phallic sculptural veve on the rear. Such adornments elevate the motorcycle from mere device to a totem communing between the human and the animal, the spiritual and the historical. As long as Mory and Anta ride it, they retain a self-sufficient lustre, a dash of romantic heroism. Once they rob Charlie, Anta abandons the bike in a wasteground, leaving it to be retrieved, in a hilariously bizarre touch, by a man dressed like a Halloween caveman, who happens upon it like the spirit of atavistic anarchy, and begins riding it around Dakar in glee.
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Oumi curses Mory for failing to pay her for some rice she gave him, screaming that she hopes he winds up in hell to Anta with an incantatory air – not for nothing, it seems, does Anta call her “the sorceress” – and the fractured sense of time at play throughout Touki-Bouki seems to stem from Oumi’s curse; time, place, and self all splintered and randomly dispersed. The skull the luckless taxi driver finds inside the stolen box seems to be a relic of some esoteric rite, death’s head grinning out at the luckless would-be plutocrats as a reminder of strange and ancient forces working against their venture in self-improvement – small wonder the box it’s in rests under the one they should have stolen, which sports the colours of Senegal’s flag. The sequence following Mory’s robbery of Charlie is nonetheless a comic tour-de-force as he and Anta head across Dakar to the port, even subordinating Charlie’s chauffeur by pretending he’s been told to drive them. In his exultation, Mory strips bare-assed and stands triumphant in the back of the open-topped car, and flees into a lengthy fantasy imagining the two lovers returning from France, rich and powerful. Crowds flock to watch their progress and they’re given all the pomp and paraphernalia of national heroes. Even uppity Oumi dances in celebration before their car whilst the couple lounge with cigars and make like big shots.
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In more prosaic reality they still make a splash as their travel agent thinks she knows them (“Maybe from New York,” Anta suggests). They encounter a man named Margot, a con man they know who’s desperate to escape from Dakar as he’s being hunted down by a dude with a club after some misfired scam: Mory and Anta let him hide in the car into the port. The lovers have succeeded, making it to the ship on time and in style. But Mory is halted on the gangplank by the thought of one of the cattle he herds to slaughter, and suddenly runs off, desperately trying to find his bike. Anta, left alone, waits for him, but when sailing time comes, she remains aboard. Where Duvivier’s antihero was finally consumed and destroyed by his status as exile and petty overlord of a colonial citadel, and died at the dockside foiled in his last gesture of escape, Mambéty inverts the situation: his lovers are separated and his dopey protagonist pulled back to native soil in a sudden pang of realisation of what he’s abandoning, only to find he’s already lost his source of pride and energy. When he does find his bike, it’s been smashed to pieces, its cattle skull mascot broken, the caveman rider terribly injured in a crash. Mambéty sees a generation in flux, a wealth of possibilities on hand but also invisible to the needs of the moment.
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The ship is a vast, beautiful, floating white carcass spiriting Anta away to a vague fortune whilst Mory weeps over his own shattered machine and destiny. Mambéty returns to the pivotal image of Mory, Anta, and the bike at rest on the cliffs above the infinite dreaming ocean, perhaps as a remembered idyll or perhaps a suggestion everything we’ve seen has been one possible path these two might stray along. Mambéty later stated that he made Touki-Bouki to dramatise his own emotional and intellectual reactions when he fantasised about leaving Senegal for any greener grass – tellingly, when Mory halts on the gangplank, a “Mr Diop” is being called for to board – and the film, in spite of Mory’s eventual desolation, elucidates a specific faith, that any place and people retain the seeds of great dreams and possibilities. When he returned to filmmaking Mambéty made Hyènes (1992), a follow-up with a plot inspired by Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, taking up the theme of returning from diaspora to hammer out old debts. Every future is bought at the cost of another.

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