2020s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Scifi

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

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Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

So, at long last, 13 years after Avatar hit movie screens and became in unadjusted terms the biggest movie of all time, James Cameron returns with a big, teetering second helping of adventure on Pandora. The interval was mostly forced by Cameron’s ceaseless push for technical advancement to outpace the ever-quickening assimilation of such achievement by the modern viewer. Meanwhile the intervening years have been made to feel even longer by all the cultural commentators repeatedly stating that Avatar supposedly left no cultural footprint, in contrast to other pop cultural colossi like Gone With The Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or even Cameron’s own Titanic (1997), which did indeed often generate quotes and directorial visions that sank deep into the popular consciousness. Certainly no-one’s been getting around saying “I see you” since 2009, but on the other hand the images of Avatar remain instantly recognisable. I made no bones about enjoying the film enormously back then and today still feel one of its best qualities is also its most salient feature of general criticism – Cameron applied his showmanship to a familiar space opera storyline and quasi-mythic template, engaging with fanciful scientific and mystical concepts but weaving it all around a story that paid many nods to pulp adventure and scientifiction writing like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom tales, whilst blending in overtones of revisionist Westerns like A Man Called Horse (1972) and Dances With Wolves (1990). There was, then, something wilfully classical about Avatar, coexisting with the cutting-edge showmanship and loopy blend of hi-tech dreaming and new-age mysticism, and that choice allowed Cameron to easily sell to the audience a lot of images and ideas that were actually extremely bizarre.

In that long interval much has changed: Cameron’s regular collaborator, the composer James Horner, died in a plane crash in 2015, and Twentieth Century Fox, the once-mighty film studio that backed Avatar, has now been redesignated by its new Disney overlords as merely Twentieth Century Film, as if to coldly declare anything it releases to be yesterday’s news. Some enthusiasm for an Avatar sequel probably has bled off in that time. But that’s arguably counterbalanced by a building mystique, fuelled by the prospect that whatever Cameron was cooking up, it wouldn’t just be any old buck-chasing rehash. It’s also left Cameron in an awkward position, appealing to a movie audience the greater bulk of which would have been kids when they first watched Avatar, or perhaps never saw it or barely remember it, and a pulse of anxiety has been amplified by the peculiar and worrying moment of cinema-going we’re currently in. It’s hard not to root for Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water, in part because whilst it is a sequel, it is at least Cameron’s sequel, based in his own material and tackled with all the outsized enthusiasm the man brings to his blockbusters, in an age where audiences have been depressingly eager to surrender any hint of artistic interest in cinema product so long as franchising is served up with consistent baseline competence. A sequel to Avatar must partly serve the purpose of reiterating the basic proposition and recapturing some of its more peculiar facets, particularly the way the original film offered a type of extended fantasy travelogue in its midsection. Cameron knows his way around sequels, with his script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and his own Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). With each of those films, Cameron essentially reused the skeleton of the original film’s plot and essential elements, whilst riffing on them in other ways, greatly amplifying their scope and swapping in clever new variations on basic ideas, like the alien queen and the liquid metal T-1000.

So it didn’t surprise me that much when The Way of Water essentially does the same thing. Cameron kicks off the film with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) bringing us up to speed on what’s transpired since he was fully assimilated into the Na’vi and kicked the wicked human capitalist exploiters off Pandora. This opening narration immediately inspires a little narrative whiplash, particularly as Jake mentions that not only have he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had three children of their own – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – but they’ve also become adoptive parents to two more. One is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born out of Dr Grace Augustine’s mindless Na’vi avatar in a perplexing event, and a young human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind with Augustine’s scientific team by the fleeing humans because he was too young for cryogenic stasis. Spider splits his time between the Na’vi fort and the laboratory still run by Na’vi-allied human scientists including Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Max Patel (Dileep Rao). The question of who fathered Kiri and Spider is raised, although only that of Spider is answered in the course of the film: turns out he’s the son of the late Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a fact that sits uneasily in the back of the young man’s mind but doesn’t seem too important.

But then a fleet of human spaceships arrive again on Pandora, this time with the object of transforming the planet into a human colony to escape a dying Earth. With them comes a gang of “recombinants,” Na’vi bodies created from the genetic material of Quaritch and the other soldiers in his old squad and reunited with their saved memories and personalities, specifically to exploit their ingrained knowledge of fighting on Pandora. The reborn Quaritch, whilst readily perceiving himself as something different to what he used to be, nonetheless is exactly the same total jerkwad as ever, and delights in being set loose on Pandora to track down and kill Jake and Neytiri. Jake, Neytiri, their kids and clan recommence their guerrilla war on the invaders, but the children are captured by Quaritch and his unit. Jake and Neytiri attack and manage to free them all except for Spider. Quaritch intervenes to stop the new military commander of the invaders, General Ardmore (Edie Falco), from using torturous brain scans to force information about the family’s whereabouts from his “son,” instead using more psychological pressure to force Spider to become his guide and translator.

Meanwhile, realising the danger, Jake insists that the family flee their home and travel out to oceanic islands inhabited by the Metkayina, water-dwelling Na’vi who have evolved thick tails and arms specifically for swimming. They also have close relations with the tulkun, a species of whale-like creatures with advanced and communicative intelligence, but also an ethos of total pacifism that leaves them vulnerable to human predation. The Metkayina chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shamanka-like wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) uneasily let the Sully clan into their midst, and Jake in turn demands his kids toe the line with the Metkayina, but after being bullied by Tonowari and Ronal’s son Aonung (Filip Geljo) and his pals, Neteyam and Lo’ak brawl with them. Under the guise of making peace, Aonung and his gang talk Lo’ak into accompanying them out to fish in the open ocean, but then abandon Lo’ak. He’s nearly eaten by a giant predator, but is rescued by a tulkun named Payakan, who’s an outcast from his kind because he once tried to fight back against human hunters.

The shift in locale from the lush forests of the previous film’s locations allows Cameron a new stage to purvey the pure immersive appeal of exploring his created environments, as the Sully clan are introduced to the oceanic environs the Metkayina live in. This entails challenges of adaptation for the formerly arboreal family, like swapping their pterodactyl-like, symbiotically-linked Mountain Banshee mounts for a new species that seem like cross-breeds of barracuda and flying fish, allowing them to not just wing over water but dive under it as well. As with the previous film, these environs and the creatures living in them are fantastically magnified versions of more prosaically familiar earthly things that gloss them over with a new coat of strangeness and luminous spectacle, even if the invention never quite gets as pleasantly nutty as the previous film’s floating mountains. Where the Na’vi were a melange of different indigenous American nations, the Metkayina are based pretty baldly on Polynesian and Maori culture (it’s also amusing to see the digitally transformed Winslet, who first gained attention in Heavenly Creatures, 1994, and Curtis, who became an international character actor on the back of Once Were Warriors, 1994, united in an accidental nod to the glories of mid-1990s New Zealand cinema — even if neither actor really gets much to do). Cameron treads oddly similar territory here to where his fellow digi-visionary blockbuster auteur George Lucas went with Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) with his visions of wicked machines descending from the sky and torching the natural environment, and Cameron blatantly makes the similarity plainer when he repeats the “always a bigger fish” joke from the Lucas film.

The choice of shifting much of the focus of the story of The Way of Water onto the next generation is one that most clearly echoes what Cameron did on Terminator 2. Where young John Connor was a wayward product of a quasi-countercultural youth terminally on the outs with the square world he’s forced to subsist in whilst being constantly conscious of another, impending reality, the Sully youngsters are conscious of their status of mutts born between species and cultures, anointing with both burdens and special status, although Spider has some of John’s PG-swearing attitude. Cameron puts much emphasis on the youngsters of the family trying to find their way and negotiate familiar problems of growing up, particularly in the elder brothers’ clashes with the snooty local youths who like teasing and hazing the new kids on the block. Kiri, meanwhile, emerges as the most interesting of the new characters, with her bizarre birth and hazy heritage, adrift with a moony fascination for the world and stirring mysterious interactions with it, that even strikes the Na’vi as pretty odd. The sight (and sound) of Weaver rendered as an alien adolescent is amusing enough in itself, but also gives the part some curious note of pathos: where much of the recent craze for wielding de-aging digital technology has been applied for pretty cynical ends, or was used by Martin Scorsese on The Irishman (2019) for discomforting musing on aging on screen, Cameron seems genuinely delighted by the possibility of setting such things in flux.

Like many very successful late-career filmmakers, Cameron’s become relatively indifferent to expected standards of realism, going instead for instantly legible visual mystique and dialogue that, whilst inflected with contemporary argot, is pitched on a level designed to be accessible to the young and to resonate on an essential level. The Way of Water strongly reminded me of a brand of family entertainments that used to be reasonably common on screen and in books, those ones where a gang of kids would be living on a permanent safari or the like because their parents had a weird job, and their ranks would be both open and loyal in all sorts of all-together-now fun – actually, Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) is a good, if particularly unnerving example of that – as well as more reminiscent of classic Disney live-action adventure movies than anything Disney makes now. I sincerely mean this as a compliment. Cameron’s insistent (bordering on bullhorned) approach to his environmental themes, as the youngsters are appalled to register violations of the natural world they intermingle with, echoes those kinds of stories too. Not that Cameron’s gone entirely soft: The Way of Water is still a big, booming action-adventure movie where the audience is however ironically encouraged to cheer when the nasty, exploitative humans get their violent comeuppance. Indeed, he expressly set out to create an interesting tension between the idea that advanced intelligence leads to more pacifistic behaviour, as expressed through the tulkun, and its impossibility when faced with naked aggression.

A while ago I pondered the notion that Cameron might indeed by modern cinema’s preeminent, old-school, capital-R Romantic artist. The fascinating result of watching Cameron’s output back-to-back was coming to recognise this, not just in the vast concepts but in the sense of passion as a world-reshaping force, as expressed in his crucial relationships. Cameron certainly invites overt connection with some greats of the Romantic school, most obviously his variations on the Frankenstein mythos of Mary Shelley. Of course, that could be just the pervasive influence on the genre Cameron works in, but he’s also gone further, annexing the specifically North American mythos of the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville and their own engagement with ideas out of Rousseau. Cameron’s fascination for technology, the foe of the Romantic Movement when it emerged in the late 1700s, might seem to preclude that, but for Cameron technology is both the tool of realising his fantasies and, within the frame of those fantasies, a source of monumental contradiction. Indeed, it emerges that Cameron loves tech because it allows Romantic concepts to regain precedence from realism; whether positively or negatively or with aspects of both, the success or failure of the tech shatters the stolid world and unleashes his heroes and their passions. That aforementioned similarity to The Phantom Menace also recalls how that film dipped a toe into a Wagnerian sense of the natural and spiritual world being violated by the spirit of industrialised greed.

Most of Cameron’s films, ranging from the dread apocalyptic fantasies of the Terminator films to the disintegrating modern dream of Titanic that specifically kills off both the Romantic artist and the aristocratic world that couched the style, and the dreams of perfect fusion found in The Abyss (1989) and the first Avatar, contended with that ambivalence. For Cameron technology had the ironic promise of stirring atavistic potential, repopulating the world with demons like the Terminators and neo-knights like the steel-suited Ripley. Again, also pervasive in the genre, but Cameron seems highly conscious of the traditions he works in. Here he wades into the south sea dreaming of Melville’s Omoo and Typee before wholeheartedly offering a variation on Moby Dick as retold from the whale’s point of view. Cameron’s well-known passion for the ocean, which evidently combines a healthy sense of unease with awe, is worked through here at length, as it presents an obvious example of a world that is at once familiar but also eternally alien to humanity. Cameron nudged quasi-transcendental territory with The Abyss and the blatantly angelic look of the aliens in that movie who have developed their technology to the state where there is no tension between it and their natural environment, leading to his messianic climax, in a grandiose cinematic articulation of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that technology rendered on an unrecognisably advanced level might as well be magic.

Cameron was of course pinching heavily from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) there, but Spielberg is less a Romantic than a curious blend of modernist sceptic and Old Testament thaumaturg. Cameron in Avatar finally went over his own theoretical horizon by presenting the fantasy of a natural system so complete and connected it essentially makes technology unnecessary, even primitive-seeming, so long as one developed sufficiently to meet it half-way: it was not so much an abandonment of technology as an attempt to imaginatively synthesis something that serves the same function. That system works not just as a great communication network but contains the memories of its world in a kind of spiritual database. Cameron tries to give this some specific new expressions in The Way of Water, particularly through Kiri, who has a peculiar relationship with Eywa, as the Na’vi call the planetary deity-consciousness that permeates all the life-forms of Pandora to some degree. Kiri’s first attempt to plug into the Metkayina’s local version of the spirit tree like the others can results in her suffering a seizure that gets diagnosed as something like epilepsy after having a vision of her “mother,” only for her to later try it under extreme pressure and reveal uncanny control that allows her to kill a couple of pursuers. Cameron keeps mum to a potentially frustrating degree about what’s going on here, which he plainly means to get into more in the next instalment. I could nonetheless venture a thesis – that Kiri likely had no father and instead is the spontaneously generated attempt by Eywa to reincarnate Grace, and came out connected to Eywa to a unique degree: she can’t link to the spirit tree because she is one.

Cameron seems to be pinching ideas from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels throughout here, with the recombinants reminiscent of Herbert’s gholas, Kiri resembling a less freaky variation on the super-consciousness-inheriting Alia, and the tulkuns as much friendlier sandworms. Fair play – Cameron seems more interested in those ideas and their potential that Denis Villeneuve’s recent hemi-adaptation of Dune was. The first Avatar came out at a time when the pervasiveness of the internet and the truth of a new kind of reality it was fostering had become undeniable, and Cameron’s portrayal of the human operators and their projected selves finding new truth in an extra-reality wonderland felt timely, even if he never let it get in the way of a good story. Today, the internet’s more unsettling traits have become plainer, but Cameron isn’t interested in reflecting on that, in large part because he’s now dealing with experience more explicitly related to the body, of changes to the body and its expressed meaning, which is also touching on fashionable concerns, if less encompassing ones. Repeatedly throughout Cameron explores the idea of a kind of afterlife made possible through both digital transmission and rehousing in the recombinants, and through the great neural function of Eywa, where consciousnesses live on and can be communed with in some form.

The release of the original Avatar inspired a fascinating variety of responses for what it entailed for the culture at large, ranging from right-wing readings dismayed by its environmentalist stance and borderline-misanthropic anger, to accusations from some leftists of dated racism and much musing over contradictions regarding Cameron’s imperial might as a film technician and what he chose to celebrate with it. Meanwhile its general success signalled that, over and above his great skill and showman’s instinct apparent purely on a filmmaking level, Cameron had the pulse of the mass audience still, speaking directly to common fantasies and worries. I don’t really know if The Way of Water will set any of that stuff in motion again. One of the values of sci-fi is of course that it offers a stage to explore such things on a quasi-abstract, displaced level: Avatar reflected on such things on the level of a parable, proposing what it would look if, say, one encountered an ecosystem as one, giant, literal living thing. The disparity with life as we know it is obvious: nature doesn’t work like that, at least no on this planet, and so we’ve been obliged to utilise the world to meet our needs, if indeed to the degree of forming contempt for it. The Na’vi are gifted a kind of exceptionalism because they know Eywa on a direct level, without which they might seem obnoxiously arrogant. Here Cameron does tacitly admit that they are a little, when he has the Sully children browbeaten by the Metkayina brats both as outsiders and as half-breeds. Their enclosed and sufficient world would likely to be even more, and not less, allergic to and intolerant of alienness and outsiders.

Which is perhaps the chief way The Way of Water is a trifle disappointing: Cameron backs away from offering any kind of dialogue or argument of values, of taking his concepts deeper. Even the Wachowskis with their forsaken The Matrix sequels dared to deconstruct their basic power fantasy, as did Lucas. Again, Cameron might be saving that for a later instalment, but I still felt a nibble of frustration as he shifted from an extrapolated “save the rainforest” message to “save the whales.” Quaritch and his team, meaning to track down the Sullys after catching wind of their general location, pressgangs some tulkun hunters into transporting them there and, once he grasps the power of the relationship between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, encourages the hunters to start killing close to the islands, to draw out resistance, and the Sullys very likely with them. Cameron stages a suitably spectacular and nakedly heart-rending sequence of the hunters, led by their ratbag captain Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), chasing down and killing a tulkun mother, a laborious process as the tulkuns have tough, bony bodies and have to be finished off with an explosive harpoon. Cameron gives a further kick in the ribs when he reveals the object of the hunt boils down to a couple of litres of brain fluid that has unique aging-halting properties, now the leading commercial prize on Pandora. This is nominally better as a plot propeller than the previous film’s notorious (perhaps unfairly so given its basis in theoretical physics) “Unobtainium,” and does actually reflect on some unpleasant facts about a long history of animal exploitation. Nonetheless it provokes many questions, as to when and how the humans discovered these properties, and how it became such a priority in the course of the very recent return of the colonial mission. It’s also very plainly there to make the audience whoop when the time to kick ass finally arrives.

Which takes some time, as The Way of Water resists simply leaping into all-action shenanigans, which could be a plus or minus depending on how it strikes you. Cameron deliberately stymies Jake, the accomplished swashbuckler, as he’s now a protective family man playing nice on someone else’s turf. After Lo’ak is nearly killed early in the film, when Jake and the Na’vi blow up a maglev train built through the jungle, Jake becomes increasingly concerned by his second son’s seeming recklessness in the face of danger, and his brood’s general difficulty with the concept of obeying orders. Lo’ak meanwhile feels like he’s considered less worthy compared to his more circumspect older brother, but his disaffection and determination to prove himself ultimately help him connect with Payakan, another being stray from his flock. Lo’ak tries to make others see the worth of Payakan, even as he’s told the reason why the other tulkun shun him. The chain of relations, elemental as they are, nonetheless accrue substance through insistence: connection, whether it be friendship, between Lo’ak and Payakan, synergetic, as between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, romantic, as between Neteyam and Reya (Baiey Bass), the chieftain’s willowy daughter, or familial, between the Sullys and even the Quaritchs, is a constant in this world, echoing in the mirroring father-son conflicts and played out on a more ethereal level by Kiri, who is at once an orphan and an expression of the very planet’s need for connection.

Quaritch in the first film was a heightened caricature of American militarist machismo, imbued with the traits of an explicitly Ahab-like character, scarred by his encounter with the fierce and ungovernable wildlife and determined to decimate it all in the course of asserting power. Here Cameron makes the connection more overt as Quaritch oversees the tulkun hunt, even if it’s only a means to end. Meanwhile his methods for interrogating and browbeating Metkayina villagers, where Spider’s presence influences him to avoid executing prisoners but still burns down their homes, confirm the Vietnam War is still on Cameron’s mind. Bringing Quaritch back smacks of waned inspiration akin to the way Agent Smith became a boring fixture in The Matrix sequels, but also understandable, as Lang’s marvellously sullen and contemptuous aggression in the role was one of the first film’s most potent if unsubtle elements. Cameron signals intention to take Quaritch to peculiar places. Even as for the most part he’s just playing the matinee villain again this time around, Cameron broaches some of this intent, now that Quaritch is inhabiting a life form built for a new planet and must soon or later respond to its wavelengths, whilst his son is still thoroughly human but identifies with the Na’vi. Cameron pauses to note the profoundly dislocating spectacle of Quaritch, after recovering the filmed record of his human body’s death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri, witnessing that death as a viewer locked in a new and alien body. The possibility that Spider’s presence coaxes something like humanity out of the now-inhuman Quaritch is dangled throughout the film, and whilst he remains a monster, he finally does prove to have this one, particular weak spot. Spider’s increasingly horrified response to both Quaritch’s methods and the hunting of the tulkuns eventually drives him to intervene on his adopted family’s behalf in the climax, but then also repays a debt by saving Quaritch from the fruits of his own malevolence.

One element The Way of Water definitely lacks that buoyed the first film had was the surreal, fetish-fuel romance of Jake and Neytiri. The love affairs here, such as between Neteyam and Reya and Spider and Kiri, are by comparison only glanced over, and don’t have the same playfully transgressive quality. The emphasis on Lo’ak’s journey also means that Kiri, who has the more intriguing story if less immediately important for how the plot resolves, isn’t given as much time as she deserves. Jake and Neytiri finally reclaim their eminence in the climax when they go on the warpath to save their brood from Quaritch, with Neytiri pushed to the edge of the genuinely unbalanced when the family take a brutal loss, reduced to taking Spider hostage to counter Quaritch and threatening to cut his throat. Which Spider seems oddly forgiving of later, but then again he’s not doing too well when it comes to parental figures. When push does come to shoot, the wrath of the Metkayina as they charge out to assault the humans is nothing compared to the show-stopping spectacle of Payakan launching himself out of the water and crashing down upon the deck of the hunting craft in trying to save his tiny friend, dealing out righteous destruction and turning Quaritch’s contrived trap into a chaotic free-for-all that also rewrites Moby Dick sinking the Pequod and killing Ahab from grim expression of cosmic indifference and chaos to act of direct and vengeful justice, even down to Payakan taking out his most hated foe by wrapping him up in his own harpoon line.

Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s extension of his mythos, it’s impossible to deny the man still knows how to make a movie on the biggest scale possible, and that’s become a rare gift even in an age where every two-bit director seems to fancy themselves a pontential special effects epic maestro. The years spent refining the special effects have paid off: even if they still sometimes look like what they essentially are, a very sophisticated CGI cartoon, they have a lustre, a richness of colour and grain of detail, that’s quite astounding, particularly with what must have been the excruciatingly finicky work of making digital effects interact with water. Cameron has one of the most clean and fluidic eyes for graphics of any director working, refusing at any point to let the movie degenerate into a jumble of shots for their own sake even as elements pile up to a crazy degree, so when the action finally, properly busts out in the climax it comes with exhilarating force: on a first viewing it leaves a delirious impression of charging flying fish rides and wild underwater battles with mechanical crabs and aerial assaults from a berserker Neytiri. Cameron has some fun tossing in touches ripped off from his own films, in his own aesthetic form of recombinant and daring the audience to call him on it – scenes recalling Titanic as the heroes and villains are trapped within the capsized and flooding hunting ship, Neytiri losing Tuk down a chute a la Ripley and Newt in Aliens, and nods to the angelic aliens of The Abyss as Kiri straps to her back a jellyfish-like creature that works like a scuba tank and spreads gleaming wing-like fronds.

The oddest and most stirring quality of The Way of Water is that it is, even more than its precursor, at once deeply misanthropic and perfectly idealistic, even corny (dig the Tinkerbell-esque way Kiri helps track down the trapped family in the ship), in the way it manipulates a puppet theatre of human facets, the clash between cruelty and empathy, destruction and protection, playing upon the desire for grand new landscapes whilst also insistently reminding us of how we’ve fouled up the ones we know too well. Cameron’s always been a fascinating bundle of contradictions, a male action movie director famed for female protagonists, who populates his tech-heavy films with some of the few memorable romances in recent popular cinema, a control freak who often delivers antiestablishment messages through the ungainly vehicles of colossal blockbusters. And he goes on being one even as the imaginative constructs of the Avatar universe labour so urgently to find some point of fusion for them all. Avatar: The Way of Water is also many warring things, a failure of imagination on some levels and a spectacular and hugely entertaining expression of it on others, a long and clunky example of franchise cinema but also a full-blooded, gleeful relief from it, a film that does its best to satisfy on its own merits whilst keeping on an eye on things still in the future.

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2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Music Film

Tár (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Todd Field

By Roderick Heath

Todd Field first caught eyes as a well-employed character actor in the 1990s when he appeared in such disparate movies as Twister (1996) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He made his directorial debut to general acclaim with In The Bedroom (2001), and followed it up with the more divisive but still Oscar-nominated Little Children (2006), only to then fall into a long, involuntary quiescence until Tár, his latest and one of the best-reviewed and received movies of 2022. That Field played a pivotal role in Stanley Kubrick’s last film and then immediately made his gambit as a serious-minded filmmaker led many commentators to characterise Field as a Kubrickian protégé, or at least an inheritor. But at the end of the day Field is much more of a traditional actor-turned-filmmaker, as despite the chicly controlled visual textures of his films, his primary interests manifest in deploying carefully wrought performance and conveying character drama. Field’s status as a maker of adult audience drama films, the kinds of movies that remain the linchpins of award seasons but also used to once be the stuff of great mainstream appeal, particularly in the mythologised days of the 1970s New Hollywood era, made him seem a little like a throwback figure when he released In The Bedroom.

His debut, about a middle-aged couple driven to commit a vigilante killing after their son is murdered by a lout, came dressed in a kind of fashionably unfashionable garb, with its autumnal settings and scenes of lingering marital strife building to crescendos of big acting from great thespians and self-conscious emulation of Ibsenesque drama and the north-eastern American literary tradition or writers like John Cheever and John Updike evoked, with a little Death Wish (1974) thrown in for cinematic narrative juice. Field went further down that road with Little Children, an adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta portraying the suburban humdrum and the dissatisfied and damaged people living in it. Field tried to push an edge of amplified stylisation in Little Children to move it beyond mere literary realism, particularly through the figure of a released paedophile, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a performance that revived his career, but the result as a whole had a studied, excessive quality. Nonetheless Field helped set the scene for the emergence of some more serious (or self-serious) film talents to emerge in the following decade or so, like Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, and Sean Durkin.

Tár, Field’s latest opus, shows at least that Field’s ambition has apparently grown during his hiatus from movie screens. It’s a nearly three-hour long drama revolving around a central character who inhabits an explicitly anti-popular sphere, and, at least on some levels, refuses to dumb down that sphere and its peculiar lingo, social dynamics, reference points, and fetish zones. Field’s subject is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who’s introduced being interviewed by real-life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, in a staged ritual of cultural anointing of a hero figure. Lydia’s slavishly loyal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) gives away that the raft of achievements Gopnik recites was compiled by her as she recites it along with the interviewer, whilst Lydia herself deploys an act of chagrined humility mixed with hyper-articulate commentary on her business, explaining amongst other things her approaching culmination of a lifelong project, recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, with an upcoming performance of the composer’s legendary Fifth. Lydia’s list of achievements seems indeed bordering on the absurd, including the holy quartet of Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony, and an upcoming book with the knowing title Tár On Tár. Field’s purpose here is to assiduously establish Lydia as an expert media performer and a fictional character who nonetheless occupies the centre of the modern cultural landscape as we know it.

Tár’s first-half hour or so comprises entirely of four extended dialogue exchanges, as Lydia is interviewed by Gopnik before an audience, speaks with a fawning guest at a function following, has lunch with fellow conductor and big money conduit Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), and teaches a class at Juilliard before returning to Germany, where she serves as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). These early scenes, far from being dull or extraneous, are indeed the most compelling in the film, as they’re driven by dances of dialogue that depend on Blanchett’s facility for describing the three aspects of Lydia on show. The polished celebrity oiling the machinery maintaining that celebrity gives way to a glimpse of a canny luncheon warrior who engages in a constant game with the world-class schmoozer and professional rival Kaplan whilst affecting to be two honest professionals talking shop – amongst the consequential things they discuss is a fellowship they run for promoting female composing and conducting talents – before finally offering a portrait of Lydia the teacher. The first two situations see Lydia in her element as a figure used to other people defining and measuring themselves against her, as when she deflects Kaplan’s entreaties to get a glance at her annotated scorings to learn how she achieves some of her most compelling effects.

The third vignette proves something rather different. Lydia looks on as one of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), tries to conduct a performance of an atonal piece she describes wearily as “very…au courant.” Lydia calls time on the performance and, without quite explicitly saying so, makes clear she thinks Max is playing a fashionably heady but empty piece because it suits his intellectual postures rather than anyone else’s need for emotional engagement. When Lydia tries to use playing Bach as an example of extracting creative value from work that seems shop-worn and done to death, Max ripostes that he doesn’t feel like Bach as he defines himself as a BIPOC pangender person who disdains Bach’s “misogyny” for having lots of kids. Lydia, provoked to scarcely stifled disdain, begins trying to persuade Max of the wrong-headedness of this opinion and the importance to being open to the full panoply of musical art, but the session devolves into increasingly personal abuse of the young man’s proclivities and Max finally storms out angrily after calling her a “fucking bitch.”

Field here baits his audience in several ways. The number of people who will roll their eyes no small distance into their cranial cavities when Max describes his identity and attendant cultural loyalties will only be rivalled by the number who will want to immediately circle their tribal wagons around him for protection. Field’s not new to this kind of calculated provocation of a presumed liberal audience’s inclinations, having suggested at the end of In The Bedroom that violent revenge might well be as releasing and cathartic for one personality as much as it’s corrosive and self-defeating to another, and arguably leaned in the opposite direction when he tried to humanise a paedophile, so often the ideal boogeyman figure for reactionaries, in Little Children. Max is offered on one level as an earnest young man and on another as a veritable caricature of a modern very online lefty youth, who with his prissily judgemental comments on Bach incarnates a certain kind of touchy-feely posturing that often seems to have a kind of wilful ignorance and generational arrogance lurking behind it, the kind that proclaims Martin Scorsese a bad filmmaker for making gangster movies over and over. Indeed, Lydia’s frustration resembles that of a million teachers, confronted by a slightly more high-falutin’ version of the student who decries reading classic books and learning history because who cares about all that old stuff, man.

More soundly, Lydia herself, who describes herself as “a U-Haul lesbian,” points out to Max that if he’s so dismissive of the others for the quirks of their identity, then others are given implicit permission to do the same to him, and her. Something of Lydia’s journey to the top is evoked here in pushing through barriers as much by adapting herself to established hierarchies and cultural loadbearing as making such forms adapt to her. Lydia nonetheless relentlessly exposes herself more than Max in the course of her spiel. She’s aggravated by Max’s quasi-ideological choice of music rather than the grandiose late Romanticism-trending-Modernism she loves. She’s irked by the taste of youth leaning towards another, younger, marketable female composer of talent when she herself is creatively blocked and wondering what worlds she has left to conquer before she’s pickled in cultural formaldehyde. Lydia herself is perhaps a little conscious that at some point in her career her gender and sexuality stopped being stymies and perhaps became propellers that bore her aloft in a zeitgeist eager to anoint someone like her, but still has a lingering anxiety provoked by someone too easily parading their identity as a banner. Lydia’s free-flowing verbal force and unrestrained freedom to keep lashing at the barely articulate and plainly, intensely nervous Max, as she herself eagerly embodies a figure of authority not using that authority at all well.

Most of all, Lydia reveals a bullish temper which once roused can’t easily be reined in, even if it usually doesn’t so much erupt as burn away like a volcano under snow. It bubbles to the surface in a later scene when she threatens a school bully who’s been picking on Petra, going out of her way to scare the hell out of a small girl. Such a talent for charging at foes with a blend of street-fighter attitude and imperious verbal efficiency very likely helped her get where she is, but in such a position of exalted status now feels like a Formula One engine jammed in a VW Beetle. The Juilliard scene is a great one, rich with dynamics both overt and implied and powered by the nimbleness of Field and Blanchett moving in perfect lockstep. But it’s also one that points to the overall failure of what follows, not least in the carefully contrived ambivalence over the culture clash’s meaning as concern for character subsumes the discourse on artistic worth and ideals, but also its retreat from that culture clash. The exchange comes back to haunt Lydia, because some student has secretly filmed it despite a ban on that, and it later leaks online in a heavily edited version that makes Lydia look rather bonkers, but in a way that didn’t strike me as liable to be persuasive to anyone.

Tár has gained much of its talking point traction from being characterised as a drama about “cancel culture” in a totemic way like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was about anti-Semitism or The Deer Hunter (1978) was about the Vietnam War. We open with Lydia already on a long road that will lead to her being ejected from her spot atop the cultural pyramid for various mooted and actual transgressions. I’m not entirely sure it’s about that particular phenomenon at all, or more than incidentally. Much of what befalls Lydia could play out the more or less the same in any moment. What is more substantially present is a contemplation of the connection, and lack of it, between artist biography and creative achievement. Mahler’s ill-fated marriage is discussed as well as Bach’s prowess in begetting and Schopenhauer’s assault on a woman, weighed against the things they gifted to everyone else in a kind of moral barter. Such discussions are, in the modern zeitgeist, usually pitched on the level of, “Why am I, who have always acted well/morally/thoughtfully, less famous/acclaimed/rich than that person who did X/Y/Z?” One eternal explanation is that power corrupts, and the way the rot creeps depends on who has the power. That’s not a reassuring explanation for anyone, least of all to those who want to claim that power, but the even less pleasing one is that just about everyone’s done something they wouldn’t like magnified under the glaring glass of celebrity. For a long time modern western society needed the legend of artistic bohemia as a zone of society where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform could escape official moral scruples and expected social roles and indulge desires regarded as perverse or excessive, and also keep such people at a safe distance, and not that long ago it was just about the only place where people like Lydia and Sharon would have been vaguely acceptable in expressing their love. Field’s purpose seems most intent on exploring the nature of temptation to a figure like Lydia, temptation that’s actually exactly the same as that working on everyone else, but manifesting more intensely when you actually have the leverage to indulge it.

Anyway, amongst Lydia’s formidable experiences listed at the outset was a field trip into the South American jungle to study tribal music, when she was accompanied by two of her protégés, one of them Francesca, the other a woman named Krista Taylor. Both were beneficiaries of Lydia and Kaplan’s fellowship and heavily implied to have both been Lydia’s lovers. Krista is glimpsed hovering around Lydia, filming her on her iPhone on a plane in a cryptic opening shot, and later mails her a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge – a novel signposting relevant themes – with a taunting inscription that infuriates Lydia, who jams the book into the garbage chute of an airplane toilet. Shortly after, Krista commits suicide, and Lydia sets out purposefully to expunge all her correspondence with and about Krista, including the many emails she wrote to orchestra bosses telling them Lydia was unstable and shouldn’t be hired. Lydia orders Francesca to delete any she has too. Meanwhile Lydia has told Kaplan she intends to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), who was the pick of her mentor and predecessor as conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), but she finds a drag on her style, and Francesca is the obvious and expectant candidate. When Lydia chooses someone else, Francesca quits and vanishes. Meanwhile, Lydia becomes entranced by a young Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s campaigning for a slot in the orchestra: after watching a YouTube video of her playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Lydia uses her considerable guile to manipulate the orchestra into performing the Concerto with Olga soloing.

Lydia and her story were based broadly on the New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career went down in flames after accusations of sexual assault from several people, a scandal referenced in the film. Field’s decision to make a queer woman the subject of a Levine-like story was a cunning one (maybe a little too cunning), immediately modifying audience attitude to her, where if the protagonist was a big, percussive male personality prejudgements would probably come a bit too easily and sympathy rather less so. It also couches the storyline in multiplying ironies. For Lydia and Sharon, who is also a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster, coming out as gay and a couple when they did was a move still laced with risk, as Sharon mentions in a heated moment, and now the young ‘uns are getting around gleefully proclaiming themselves “pangender,” and it could be there’s a special spiciness to the prurience that swirls around accusations that fall on Lydia that she tends to show favouritism and also sadistic tendencies towards young female talents who are her type precisely because of the lesbian angle. All interesting territory but also stuff Field only skirts.

Because Tár ultimately doesn’t quite make it as a character study, and proves really only a tease in exploring “cancellation,” and the reasons why Field stops short is so he can hover in a zone of pseudo-detachment, dramatically speaking, in terms of the cultural and personal issues he prods. He needs to keep just what transpired between Lydia and Krista as vague as possible to retain his glaze of official ambiguity, to keep the audience obliged to reserve judgement on some level about Lydia as a person, and also, I can’t help but feel, not to have to portray something like transgressive urges. Field’s so anxious to avoid being labelled exploitative he avoids being much of anything. It’s worth comparing Tár in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s last few films, which dynamically venture into the heads of some heroines who own their perversity at the price of being violently misunderstood by the world at large. It could be argued Field is resisting the gravity of “cancel culture” and attitudes of vengeful outrage by not playing that game, but he in truth kowtows to it by avoiding making the audience complicit in or understanding of anything Lydia might have done wrong. Often in recent cinematic and theatrical drama I’ve observed a tendency that I’ve dubbed “unambiguously about ambiguity,” by which I mean they have gestures towards keeping specific aspects of their stories equivocal in a rather ostentatious way that achieves not subtlety and mystery but rather the opposite, and Tár is a particularly cogent example. Michelangelo Antonioni used to do ambiguity with supreme narrative and artistic power; many imitators do it badly. And a huge amount of Tár’s running time is devoted not into delving into Lydia’s head, but instead shallowly reproducing the immediate space about it. Certainly, Lydia is tunnel-visioned, not just by her creative self-involvement but the cocooning effect of celebrity, money, and the cultish closeness of an orchestra ensemble.

By way of compensation Field keeps introducing barometers of her mental space, like the constant, odd manifestations of a troubled mind, like finding a metronome set mysteriously ticking in her apartment, being distracted during a jog by some mysteriously sourced screams, and occasional dips into distorted, rather Bergmanesque dreams touched with hints of the erotic. She also keeps glimpsing a hexagonal design Krista drew on the inscription page of her barbed gift and trippy visions of her jungle adventure. As these keep adding up Field seems to be baiting the audience into thinking Lydia has some kind of crazed stalker sneaking into her house at night, or is cracking up, but what they’re really there for is to keep providing the illusion of something happening before Field properly drops the axe. Lydia keeps an apartment separate to her home with Sharon and Petra for rehearsing and composing, and whilst there hears odd noises that eventually prove to come from a neighbouring apartment, where a hapless German women is caring for her elderly, crippled mother: the woman gets Lydia to help her get her shit-covered mother back into her wheelchair at one point, after which Lydia near-hysterically washes the filth off herself. Later, she follows Olga into a seedy apartment block to return a possession (itself an intriguing and suggestive story segue that goes unpursued) and descends into a dark basement where a dog growls at her, freaking her out so much she flees pell-mell and trips on the stairs, breaking her nose. Such scenes seem intended to illustrate Lydia’s percolating fear of a mucky, scary destiny she’s managed to rise above but still constantly feels stalked by.

Such quasi-Expressionistic and symbolist touches indicate Field’s willing to take some more risks when it comes to the officially lifelike texture of current cinematic aesthetics, but I found them rather too contrived and, worse, a bit time-wasting. Field establishes a miasma of estrangement and anxiety descending on Lydia and then keeps doing so for more than an hour. At many points in its long, ambling midsection I found Field’s work rather too reminiscent of some of his contemporaries who are obsessed to inserting overtones of simmering menace and strangeness derived from Horror film stylistics into upmarket drama films, purveyed of late by the likes of Durkin, Julia Ducornau, and Pablo Larrain. Tár spends all its time warning us relentlessly that something bad is going to happen, and then it happens and, well, we know because of the type of movie we’re watching that Lydia’s not going to be attacked by a lurking fiend, and yet Field insists on purveying his story a little like an art-house version of a Final Destination film: fate’s coming for you, Lydia Tár. The scene with the carer and elderly woman is particularly artificial in regards to the film’s overall aesthetic, which emphasises the bright and shiny surrounds Lydia exists in and she reacts to being covered with filth with the phobic intensity of a vampire to sunlight: the intrusion of mess, dirt, and proof of human decay is served up as a carefully cordoned episode of disturbance of Field’s piss-elegant visual texture as well as Lydia’s hermetic world.

What keeps the film anchored is Blanchett. I’m not as endlessly fascinated by Blanchett as a performer as a lot of commentators are, but it’s hard to deny she renders Lydia palpable despite certain aspects of her never coming into focus. She makes even an aside like playfully mocking the overly-familiar lilt and messages of an NPR announcer into an aria of performative zeal and fleshing thematic depth: I sensed Field making fun just a little of his own high-toned penchants, and also flashes of frustration with the way “serious” art tends to find a kind of ritzy ghettoization in the modern media landscape when people reserve their most committed cultural battles for arguing over superhero movies. Field provides Blanchett with a more spectacular version of the same moment late in the film when, feeling abused and desperate, Lydia is visited by the family of the women in the neighbouring flat, now that the mother’s died and the desperate carer’s now being cared for herself, they’re selling the apartment. Rather than seeing Lydia’s presence and rehearsing as a plus for selling the apartment, they ask her to keep her playing to a minimum, whereupon Lydia trolls them mercilessly by walking around with an accordion and belting out an improvised, brutally accurate description of their actions: “Your mother’s buried deep and now you’re gonna keep her apartment for sale!” As the film shifts into its last act, it’s finally revealed that Lydia, real name Linda Tarr, comes from a working class family, and returns briefly to her family home in Staten Island to take refuge from the fallout of her actions.

Here Lydia unleashes all her brutal humour and disdain for the kind of ordinary people she constantly refers to as “robots” with untrammelled clarity and force (and also at last embraces the atonal), but also exposes her pathos: there’s nobody to restrain her now, even herself, and also nobody to restrain it for, no-one who cares what Lydia Tár thinks about something. That scene perks up the long, dour decline of Lydia, which commences in earnest when she’s faced not just with becoming the object of a baying mob at her book launch, once Krista’s wealthy parents finally catch public attention with their take on Lydia’s destruction of Krista and the edited video of her Juilliard class goes viral, but also learning Francesca has, in payback, saved all of Krista’s emails and makes them available for a civil suit Lydia’s giving a deposition in. Before the reckoning arrives, Field spends much time observing Lydia’s working practice with the orchestra, constantly trying to wring new sensations out of the familiar notes of the Mahler. These scenes are all good on a level of quasi-documentary depiction, but Field never finds any particular expressive intensity for communicating the music’s meaning for Lydia, settling instead for having Blanchett making dramatic conducting gestures reminiscent of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field also avoids depicting any of Lydia’s own music, which felt like a blank spot in her portraiture: Lydia’s individual artistic persona and achievement, the gifts that presumably won her at least one of her EGOT tally, remain unillustrated.

Field’s own artistic touchstones are in evidence throughout Tár. The theme of a destructively domineering and fatefully love-struck impresario in a musical world recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), but a more immediate reference point is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), with its antiheroine recalling Fassbinder’s coolly controlling lesbian, making the connection more explicit in choosing a German setting, equipping her with a seemingly slavish but actually personally motivated aide, and naming Lydia’s daughter Petra. I couldn’t help if there was a nod somewhere in Field’s conception to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” echoed in Lydia’s real surname and in the general theme of the figures of authority revealed at the end to been imprisoned and literally tarred and feathered by the loonies who pretend to be the ones in charge. Lydia might enjoin her orchestra to “forget Visconti,” referring to Luchino Visconti’s famous use of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth in his film Death In Venice (1971), but Field himself plainly isn’t forgetting the association, with the clear hint that, rather than just a cheap predator, Lydia might be taken as an Aschenbach figure given to falling in love with youthful muses charged with talent. Field nicely captures a sense of elusive erotic frisson as Lydia is first intrigued entirely by the sight of Olga’s boots long before she sees the whole person, only to then turn this into his version of a giallo film’s black gloves: they later become visual clues that allow Lydia to foil a blind audition in Olga’s favour. Field engages with the orchestral music world whilst daring to presume at least a working receptivity to it in his audience, mimicking Lydia herself in this regard in refusing to let the slower members of the class catch up, with characters switching between languages at speed and dropping cultural reference points that aren’t necessary to follow the story but do much to give the feeling of a little world with its own special folklore, as well as please incessant dabblers like me with a pile of old classical LPs watching. If Field had found a way to merely make a movie about a few months in the life of a famous conductor Tár might actually have been a better film for it.

Tár lets you know it’s a very serious movie right off the bat by sporting really, really small font for its credits, and it wears its crispness of look and sound like a starlet in a designer dress. But if you want a film that finds ways to dynamically and vehemently dramatize the way creative passion and demons entangle in ugly and astonishing ways in creating art, watch The Red Shoes again, or any of Ken Russell’s composer films, like Mahler (1974). Field’s images by contrast are always pretty and composed with cut-glass precision, but are also almost entirely inert, depending on the actors within his frames to supply the energy and propulsion. Scarcely a single scene has incidental detail: everything’s been crafted with the diligence of a hobbyist piecing together a doll’s house, like the many luncheon scenes that sport Lydia yammering with the likes of Kaplan and Andris where nobody’s actually eating, the tables just stages for the actors to read across. Field is really big on mirrors with multiple reflections of Lydia to emphasise her duality. Even a minor but meaningful scene where Lydia gets Petra to connect with her by playfully reciting “Cock Robin,” a moment that’s meant to illustrate Lydia’s genuine parental sympathy with her daughter, has the quality of an acting exercise. Other touches, like Francesca reciting in time with Gopnik, have a cliché shorthand quality. The basic storyline has some similarity to Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (filmed by Robert Benton in 2003), which contended with the 1990s version of cancel culture and also had a hero who had reinvented himself from a less than ideal origin. Also, the number of films of late where a character is told their time’s up by a bunch of lawyers in a boardroom has been growing sizeable.

Meanwhile Glover’s Andris, a now-virtually forgotten conducting hero, muses on the swirl of career-ending scandals he’s been hearing about in the news and comments on the similarity with the de-Nazification era after World War II and accusations thrown at the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan, and the constant anxiety over being accused. Now that’s a provocative comparison to make, and Lydia expresses dubiety, only for Andris to comment, “Either way, you had to be ready.” Field makes something of a motif of Lydia being viewed through a cell phone camera and with text messages bobbing up over the image, reporting differing attitudes from the person wielding the camera: what is presumably Krista’s vantage on the sleeping Lydia opens the film, whilst someone else later films Lydia at her book launch whilst tapping out sarcastic remarks about her arsenal of high-flown ideas. Towards the start of the film it’s revealed that Lydia has purloined and has been using some of Sharon’s medication for heart arrhythmia, presumably to get to sleep and ease the pain from an injury she seems to have suffered from her physically convulsive conducting style. When she first returns home Sharon is suffering and has no medication, so Lydia pretends to find a pill and gives it to her, a vignette that does a nice job of showing Lydia’s cavalier attitude to Sharon’s needs and also her genuine care for her. The medication thing never comes up again in the movie that I noticed, nor does Sharon’s health, and the couple’s relationship is held at a wary distant throughout. There’s one nice moment when, during rehearsing the symphony, Sharon intervenes to demonstrate to the other musicians what needs to happen: it’s the closest we get to a substantive example of Lydia and Sharon’s creative partnership, with Sharon translating Lydia’s visionary gabble into precise technique.

By contrast, the inevitable scene where Lydia is confronted by Sharon as her career’s collapsing proves oddly truncated and clumsy. Field seems to be trying to consciously avoid the actorly fireworks of the husband-and-wife kitchen fight in In The Bedroom, but the dialogue proves stiff and theatrical rather than terse and cutting. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” Lydia moans at Sharon when Sharon recalls how their own relationship started, to which Sharon retorts, “You’ve only had one relationship in your life that isn’t transactional, and it’s asleep in the other room.” It’s like Field’s trying to write copy for critics watching the film. Sharon also hints at how their relationship started “on a couch” in Lydia’s flat, with the suggestion she sees a likeness between incidents in Lydia’s life. Which ought to commence a truly dynamic scene between the two women, but that’s all we get, and it’s basically the end of Lydia and Sharon’s marriage. Later Lydia tries to approach Sharon and Petra outside the school only to be pathetically cold-shouldered. It’s disappointing, in no small part because Hoss is always a fascinating, lucid actress whose realism and pathos here strongly contrast Blanchett’s bigness, and yet Sharon is in the end just another victim spouse character rather than an equally complex player in the game of love. For a movie as long as Tár is, there really ought to be more authentic meat on its bones.

The climactic moment of Lydia’s downfall comes when she turns up to the premiere of her orchestra’s performance of the Mahler, now being conducted by Kaplan: Lydia, clad in her sharpest suit, struts out at the start of the performance and physically assaults Kaplan before, wild-eyed and wild-haired, begins trying to conduct the mortified ensemble. It’s a great moment for Blanchett, as she gets to exhibit feral physical force and seems genuinely capable of killing Kaplan. But I winced as Field forced this moment of grievous humiliation of his protagonist, which is present mostly because he needs Lydia to commit a final auto-da-fe on her career when most of what’s befallen her thus far could conceivably be weathered with patience and PR. It is of course supposed to be a final confirmation of Lydia’s almost childish entitlement and possessiveness, but it still felt a bit absurd that Lydia, regardless of how many hard knocks she’s taken, has fallen to such a crazed and nihilistic level. Lydia’s return to her childhood home sees her tearfully taking refuge in watching old VHS recordings of Bernstein expressing the philosophy that drove her own career determination.

Lydia’s homecoming is punctuated by her brother (Lee Sellars) commenting, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” Ah, the gruff zing of a salt-of-the-earth working man delivering thesis lines. The theme of a pretentious escapee from a humble background forced to return through disgrace or failure is another one that’s become a wearying cliché of late (it’s close to the only plot Australian TV shows are allowed to have these days), and Field seems aware of it judging by his haste to leave it behind, even as he’s raised many questions about Lydia Tár and who she is that aren’t going to be enlarged upon. Also, who the hell would go to the effort of changing their name from Tarr to Tár? Finally, Field shifts to an extended coda that takes some time to play out as Lydia travels to Bangkok, where she seems to resuming her career in however fringe a fashion, with her old work ethic undimmed, meeting with the orchestra and hashing out the composer’s intentions. When she asks a hotel clerk to recommend a masseur, she goes to the place she mentioned, only to realise it’s a high-end brothel sporting young local women and more literal transactional relationships.

This moment is striking if also bordering on the arch, as it mirrors what we’ve seen early with visual allusion: the young women are arrayed as if in a vending machine and also reminiscent of the survey of the orchestra with the lovely Olga in its midst, with one girl giving Lydia a particularly charged pick-me look that reconfigures Lydia’s earlier behaviour in its most degrading possible likeness, Lydia even caught in a posture like her conducting, the sort of touch that will either strike you as concise or a bit much. The shock of this sends Lydia reeling out into the street to vomit, which might be a register of lingering moral standards, or a form of confession and purgation. The actual ending of the film is rather more curious and ambivalent. Lydia, finally fronting an orchestra again for a concert, begins conducting, and Field reveals with a tracking shot that she’s performing for an audience of gaming fans, most of them dressed in character costumes. It’s delivered as a mordant punchline for the story, of the kind Lydia herself is fond of, even as it also confirms Lydia, who despite all surely doesn’t need the money, is continuing to obey Bernstein’s credo of making music for all audiences, and has found refuge in art, however popular. As a final note it’s strong, even as it once again essentially baits the audience to judge this concluding twist with preordained prejudices: is this Lydia at an endzone of absurdity and delusion, rediscovering her best and truest self, or both? Keep your answer to no more than three paragraphs. Especially considering that whilst this might indeed strike some as a dark place to end up, gaming scores have been gaining cred for years now, and I know at least one classical music station that devotes a showcase to them. Tár is certainly a good, intriguing film and it might have been great, but the tragedy of both Lydia Tár and the film about her is they both conspire to stifle a surplus of interesting ideas to tell a story that’s a bit old-hat and plays too many games for too long.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, War

First Blood (1982) / Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984)

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Directors: Ted Kotcheff / George Pan Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone / James Cameron, Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

In the late 1960s David Morrell, working as an English professor at the University of Iowa, became interested in the Vietnam war veterans amongst his students and their often painful accounts of returning to civilian life in the United States. Morrell, an aspiring writer born in Ontario and whose father had died in combat during World War II, began a novel about a veteran who, trapped beyond the fringes of an oblivious or outright hostile society, erupts in a display of nihilistic murder and destruction, turned on the victimising civil authorities of a small Kentucky town. The character was known only by his last name, Rambo, which Morrell took from the breed of apple he was eating at the time, and based him on various real-life figures, including war hero and actor Audie Murphy, whose life was beset by traumatic fallout. Morrell also took inspiration from Geoffrey Household’s famous novel Rogue Male, filmed in 1943 by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt. Morrell published his book, First Blood, in 1972 to some acclaim, and quickly sold the film rights. The proposed adaptation kicked around Hollywood for nearly ten years with heavyweight directors including Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, and Sydney Pollack taking an interest. Eventually the project was taken in hand by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, two film distributors itching to try producing.

Kassar and Vajna hired the Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, whose previous credits included helping the Australian film industry revive with 1971’s Wake In Fright (aka Outback), and a jewel of the similar Canadian revival of the 1970s, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974). Kotcheff in turn attracted Sylvester Stallone, who was hunting for a viable career alternative to his Rocky films after several coolly received attempts to expand his star persona. Stallone rewrote the best extant script, by William Sackheim and Michael Kozoll, with his canny eye for selling a story to a mass audience causing him to revise the story and make Rambo, now gifted a first name of John, more sympathetic and less heedlessly murderous, essentially refashioning him as an angrier, more damaged and antisocial version of the underdog hero Stallone played in Rocky (1976). First Blood the movie resituated the story to a town called Hope in Washington state, in part because this allowed the film to be filmed more cheaply in Canada. The movie, which still finished up costing some $15 million, became a major hit, cementing Stallone’s place as a major Hollywood star. But Rambo’s place as a byword in popular culture wouldn’t be sealed until a sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, was released in 1984.

That film would transform Rambo, conceived as an avatar for the wounded and thwarted products of a bitter zeitgeist, into a figure many took to be the guns-blazing representative of the Reagan era’s renewed militarist swagger and sense of purpose, avenging old defeats and swashbuckling through new wars, driven on by the delight of movie audiences. A third entry, Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III (1989), would become the most expensive film ever produced for a brief reign. As embodied by Stallone, with fast and bulbous physique, penchant for wearing headbands but not shirts, and clutching huge weapons, the character Rambo became eventually birthed a popular caricature, eagerly satirised in movies like UHF (1989) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1992). Quite the progression from the dark and sombre thriller Morrell wrote, which ended with the character being shot dead by his former Green Berets trainer, Colonel Samuel Trautman. For the adaptation, Kirk Douglas was hired to play Trautman, who was revised from a peripheral, resented figure in Rambo’s life to his former commanding officer, but Douglas dropped out early in filming when he disagreed with revising the story to let Rambo live. He was replaced, in another fortuitous accident, by Richard Crenna.

Douglas might have been artistically right, but Stallone knew his audience. First Blood works carefully to put the viewer entirely on Rambo’s side in its opening reels, as the soldier turned drifter seeking out the home of Delmore Barry, the last surviving other member of his old unit. Rambo soon learns from a neighbour that he’s died of cancer, which she believes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The forlorn figure that is Rambo, Medal of Honor winner and relentlessly honed, preternaturally gifted warrior turned ragged drifter, follows a highway into the mountains of Washington until he’s picked up on the fringes of the town of Hope by the Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who lets Rambo know he’s not going to be allowed to linger there, and deposits him on the far side of town. Rambo defiantly turns back towards the town and Teasle promptly arrests him. Rambo is placed in the police station lock-up where Teasle’s deputies, including the swaggering sadist Art Galt (Jack Starrett), beat him, forcibly strip him, and hose him down, experiences that remind Rambo of being tortured in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

Kotcheff makes use of flashbacks to reveal Rambo’s reawakened traumatic memory as he’s brutalised by Galt in a manner reminiscent of the stuttering, near-subliminal technique Sidney Lumet utilised in The Pawnbroker (1964). The likeness of his present situation to his time suffering in captivity is immediately and vividly illustrated and also the similarity of intent behind it, the pleasure of petty tyrants in humiliating and reducing people under their thumb. The sight of the scars that score Rambo’s naked torso, when he’s obliged to strip for a cleaning in the lockup, alarm the younger deputy on the Hope PD, Mitch Rogers (David Caruso), who suggests telling Teasle about it. But the sight only stirs Galt to more delighted viciousness, seeing the evidence of suffering and heroism only as a especially sweet spur to proving his own power. Finally, when the cops try to dry-shave the resisting Rambo, he unleashes his fighting prowess. In short order he decks the cops, flees the station, and steals a motorcycle. He rides the bike as far up a mountain trail as he can get before leaving it behind and fashioning himself rough clothing out of a bearskin rug he finds at a rubbish dump.

When Galt gleefully tries to shoot Rambo from a helicopter, Rambo retaliates by hurling a rock back, striking the chopper’s windscreen and causing Galt to fall to his death. Teasle immediately vows revenge for his old friend, but as he and his men venture deeper in the forest with tracker dogs, they soon find themselves completely thwarted by Rambo’s tactical smarts. He slays the dogs and lures the cops onto his ingenious and brutal traps. Teasle himself is finally ambushed, helpless under Rambo’s knife, only to be spared with the advice, “Let it go, or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” before vanishing into the underbrush Of course, Teasle can’t and won’t take that advice. He instead calls in the National Guard, who trap Rambo in a mine shaft he’s made his base, but Rambo, surviving an attempt to kill him with a rocket launcher, crawls through the mine until he breaks out to the surface at another locale. Stealing an National Guard truck and heavy machine gun, he returns to Hope, smashes through a blockade, and begins laying waste to the town with Teasle his ultimate target.

First Blood offered something like an upmarket version of ‘70s grindhouse thrillers that often thrust returned vets into bloody action, or a cheeralong extrapolation of the interior fantasies of Taxi Driver’s (1976) Travis Bickle. Rambo can also be seen as an extension of actor-turned-auteur Tom Laughlin’s hero Billy Jack, star of a series of popular movies in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Both characters were living lethal weapons who had served in ‘Nam, both part-Native American, both reluctant heroes who eventually cracked when confronted by thugs and redneck cops and start dealing out ass-kickings. Only Billy Jack had been a nominally countercultural hero, having thrown in his lot with young hippies, dropouts, and the oppressed, whilst Rambo doesn’t have that much community, and eventually became popularly associated with a revanchist right wing’s attitude to the peacenik crowd. First Blood is nonetheless entirely about an outsider battling representatives of authority. The cops are generally portrayed as smugly self-righteous, bullying, or weak, more concerned with the illusion of order rather than the reality of it, more obsessed with safeguarding its privilege as power than worried about justice, and in the case of Galt, essentially psychopathic.

Instead of developing more respect and solicitude the more Teasle and his people learn about Rambo, including eventually discovering his status as a war hero, they become all the more angrily determined to bring him down, because he taunts and undercuts their machismo. The essential, just about endlessly reloadable moment of crisis in every Rambo movie, awaited with eagerness by the viewer and built towards with varying levels of skill and intensity by its directors, is the scene where our hero’s blood finally boils over and he begins dealing out pain and calamity to tormentors and tyrants. The countdown to this inevitable eruption in First Blood begins in its earliest moments, as Rambo learns of Delmar’s passing and starts a lonely montage trek along the road to Hope, a place that describes itself via a sign over the road in as the “Gateway to Holidayland.” One powerfully lingering aspect of First Blood is Kotcheff’s use of British Columbian locations, which prove a perfect backdrop to communicate Rambo’s solitude and the pall of crisis that follows him like a raincloud from the bucolic setting that was Delmar’s home into the increasingly blue-soaked and dour atmosphere of the mountain forests.

The use of landscape maps out both essential dramatic venues, as Rambo escapes into the woods where he can turn the tables on the cops, and his mental landscape, leaving behind the last glimmer of hope for a familiar face and a toehold in society as represented by Delmar’s place, exchanged for the mockingly named town of Hope and finally a plunge into the primal landscape beyond where civilisation drops away and the best hunter and killer reclaims his place at the apex of existence. But the landscape also folds in upon Rambo until his empire is reduced to a hole in the ground with a flickering fire and a buzzing radio that announces the names of dead men. When he does break free and brings his wrath back to Hope, he has already lost, because he must again countenance civilisation to do so. Regardless of the specific cultural and political context the character was planted in, Rambo nonetheless became the essential modern movie depiction of a truly ancient cultural figure, the perfect warrior born purely for combat, an Achilles, a Hercules, or a modern day Viking berserker, a likeness that becomes inescapable in the maniacal last third of Rambo: First Blood Part II.

For Stallone, Rambo provided a second reliable and recognisable role as a star, a rare gift in the early days of cinematic franchising. Rambo was a counterpart to his lovably dim, gentle-‘til-roused Rocky Balboa, and the star continued this counterpoint when he revived both characters in the mid-2000s and again in the mid-2010s. Rocky was a hero deeply embedded in a sense of community and identity, pushed along by a hazily optimistic sensibility. Rambo, by contrast, is a perpetually clenched fist, his blazing, tragedy-telegraphing eyes perpetually seeing double in the world, the one that is and the one in his past, locked in a nihilistic place by his hard-won self-knowledge that the one thing he’s indisputably great at it is warfare. He comes equipped with his personal Excalibur, his ever-present hunting knife, with its wickedly curved point and serrated back edge, a weapon found on his person that the cops take to be a sign he’s a violent miscreant. The crucial similarity of Rocky and Rambo was that both had to be provoked to do what they do best, Rocky because of his general passivity, Rambo because of his grim knowledge that the kinds of situations that require his skills are already too nightmarish to contemplate. The role allowed Stallone to show off not just his musculature but his athleticism, always more convincing in that regard than the comparative ponderousness of his eventual rival and displacer in the pneumatic movie hero stakes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I’ve always believed the mind is the best weapon,” Rambo comments in the second, and Rambo’s cunning as a strategist is repeatedly emphasised as his real edge over variously arrogant and bullish foes.

Rambo is also inseparable from his enemies, the men who provoke his raging remonstrations. First Blood has the best and most dramatically intense of these, in the form of Teasle, who, in his way, is entirely justified in his attitude to Rambo. The film obliges the audience to identify with Rambo as the sad and simple man just trying and failing to get on with life finally pushed too far, with Teasle’s smiling but quietly assured and dictatorial attitude, followed soon by more bluntly thuggish treatment. Unlike most of his successors in the sequels, however, Teasle’s viewpoint is loaned a faint gleam of validity. The reek of danger and strangeness the sheriff gets from Rambo at first glance, and the sense of focused provocation when the drifter ignores his instructions and turns back towards Hope prove, ultimately, correct. Teasle has his own war medals on display in his office, and refuses to grant Rambo any special sympathy: “You think Rambo’s the only guy who had had a tough time in Vietnam?” Rambo nonetheless represents a revenge fantasy not just for disaffected servicemen, but for every wandering outcast bewildered and provoked by their lot in the American landscape, of which there were once many likenesses in Hollywood cinema. Rambo in his first outing belongs to a continuum linking Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad, William Wellman’s Wild Boys and Girls of the road, Raoul Walsh’s angry misfits, and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riders. In a most specific likeness, Rambo, like Mad Dog Earle in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), is driven into the mountains in a stand-off with authority, but where in the ironclad days of the studio system and Production Code such a figure had to eventually lose, Rambo was a product of a much more ornery time.

Kotcheff was a film and television jack-of-all-trades, gaining his career start in Canadian TV in the late 1950s before moving to the UK and making his feature film debut with 1962’s Tiara Tahiti, and his well-honed efficiency that made him an ideal figure to travel to Australia and then back to Canada to resuscitate their movie industries. It’s an odd career that encompasses the likes of First Blood, Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) alongside Wake In Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and North Dallas Forty (1979). What’s most interesting in this regard is that First Blood plays as Kotcheff’s thematic sequel to Wake In Fright, depicting as it does an outsider arriving in a boondock town and being driven near-insanity by the behaviour of the locals, whose delight in tormenting and degrading a stranger reflects back out at the larger world a sense of resentment and fringe detachment. Whilst Kotcheff swapped the desolate alienation of an Aussie town on the edge of a desert for the tangled and looming reach of pine-thatched mountains, and the naïve intellectual for the hard and ingenious superwarrior, the palpable sense of danger and entrapment and depiction of regressive bullying has evident likeness.

First Blood has been criticised for abandoning its potential as a believable and down-to-earth kind of action movie by having Rambo perform some incredibly lucky pieces of physical action, like jumping off a cliff and crashing down through the nettled pine branches until he’s deposited relatively unscathed on the ground, and causing Galt’s death with a rock when the cop can’t nail him with a high-powered rifle. Those criticisms are entirely legitimate, although to Kotcheff’s credit he manages to invest them with a veneer of sense in his staging and cutting. Such shows of prowess also accrue into it’s plain that Rambo is a unique individual with levels of physical ability beyond the normal, and a degree of reflexive intelligence in the midst of battle, that gives him a radical edge over the blowhards. These touches also clearly signal that, despite its nominal roots in social issue melodrama reminiscent of the films Wellman and Walsh made once upon a time for Warner Bros., already First Blood is bending Rambo’s trajectory off into the zone of the matinee serial-style adventurer, at a time when Superman and Indiana Jones had recently revived the unbreakable brand of old-school pulp hero in movies, and the 1980s style of action movie was gaining definition.

So when Crenna’s Trautman does turn up, his presence is supposed be that of the wise elder who knows all the secret history denied to civilians like Teasle and perhaps even to Rambo himself, the man who knows what Rambo is capable of (“God didn’t make Rambo. I did.”) and also why he is the way he is, and provides a last bulwark between two factions. But his real function is essentially to act as Rambo’s hype man, promising Teasle, and the audience, what Rambo delivers. This quality manifests most memorably when Trautman, upon hearing Teasle’s declaration that two hundred cops and National Guards are being sent in to handle Rambo, retorts, “You send that many don’t forget one thing – a good supply of body bags.” Like a bard at a campfire telling stories of great heroes of old to thrill and excite the next prospectives, Trautman announces Rambo’s skills and qualities until he’s transformed from a surprisingly good fighter for a shaggy loser to a demigod only limited by his remnant human scruples: “Technically he slipped up,” Trautman says in noting Rambo’s failure to actually kill the men hunting him.

Crenna’s role at Trautman, which immediately became his most famous and recognisable, presented an inversion of his portrayal of the disintegrating commander in The Sand Pebbles (1966): where that film, made in the early days of the American Vietnam experience and presenting a parable critiquing it, disassembled the mythos of noble military machismo, Trautman reconstructs it rhetorically whilst Rambo does so physically. Rambo presents a fantasy vision of an American soldier who learned to fight like a Viet Cong guerrilla, with nods to Native American fighting styles. Rambo’s incredible physical fitness and toughness as well as honed skill gives him an edge over his enemies, able to dodge and weave and hide, seeming to become part of the forest itself, like the title alien of Predator (1987). His campaign against Teasle and the pursuing cops becomes an ironic inversion where Rambo does to his foes what the Vietnamese are often perceived as doing to the Americans in the war. He utilises the landscape and cunning, nasty traps to draw in and disassemble them, using their reactive vengefulness against them. One cop ends up tied to a tree as bait to draw in and unnerve his comrades. Another is impaled at crotch height upon a row of wicked stakes. The cops and National Guard are reduced to firing blind and shows of impotent firepower, as when the National Guardsmen shoot a rocket launcher after Rambo as he hides in the mine shaft.

When Rambo is hiding in that mine, Trautman contacts him on a CB radio taken from one of the cops, awakening Rambo from his sleep with his old service call-sign and a rollcall of his dead comrades, provoking the warrior with the perverse feeling of his dreams and waking life blurring incoherently until he realises the call is real. “There are no friendly civilians,” he tells Trautman with new-found conviction, and claims the cops “drew first blood,” justifying his retaliation, whilst Trautman retorts that “you did some pushing of your own,” and Teasle tries to trace the transmission. Kotcheff contrasts the different environs of the two men, Trautman broadcasting in lamplight as a beacon in an endless night whilst Rambo is curled up in a bole in the earth where the wind echoes hollow and his paltry fire flickers in a sea of dark. A haunting and impressive scene that perfectly evokes the mental and moral drama in play and provides a meditative interlude that’s unusual in an action movie. It also somewhat outclasses the more officially dramatic climactic moment where Stallone does some capital-A acting, as Rambo, on the verge of killing Teasle, is confronted by Trautman and has a breakdown. He recounts semi-coherently his feelings of outrage at being abused by antiwar protestors and how one of his friends died in a terrorist bombing in Saigon and he was reduced to trying to stuff his guts back inside his body, a vignette that tries so hard to be terribly cathartic it borders on camp.

Nonetheless First Blood holds together with admirable grit for the most part, in part because it resists deviating from its basic concerns. It matches the ideal of Rambo’s purposeful intensity with its own, wielding a sense of gamy, gruelling, intensely corporeal vitality that’s all but disappeared from contemporary cinema. Arguably the film’s most thrilling scene depicts Rambo’s journey through the depths of the mine in his attempt to escape with the entrance blocked by the explosion. This involves a phobic odyssey through a space of pressing walls, dripping, sloshing water, and teeming rats, a gritty, visceral, vividly claustrophobic sequence that doesn’t look like it was much fun to shoot. When he does finally reach a shaft leading out, Rambo pauses to catch his breath and offer a solemn, silent moment of gratitude before climbing back out to the world. There he finds everyone thinks he’s dead, everyone except Trautman, who muses on the scene outside the mine and knows well Rambo might still emerge but doesn’t tell Trautman. Soon enough Rambo leaps aboard a National Guard truck, forces its driver to jump out, and commandeers the M60 machine gun in the back. He arrives in Hope, blows up a gas station, and begins knocking out the power to the town’s centre. Teasle takes up station on the police station roof, only to be shot in the legs by Rambo from below, and he crashes through the skylight to the floor a bloody mess.

Before he kill the sheriff, Trautman manages to disarm Rambo and penetrate his glaze of wrath to reveal the desperately haunted and anguished man beneath. Trautman then leads him away to whatever fate the law demands, a softening of the novel’s end that also opened the door for a sequel. That Rambo is reduced to sobbing violently, whilst clinging to Trautman who plays his father and confessor, confirms a peculiar status Stallone managed to stake out in his stardom, able to play inarguably tough men who are nonetheless governed by powerful emotions, and his shows of rage and destruction throughout the film are finally revealed to be, essentially, displacement of his urgent need to grieve for himself and his former comrades. First Blood was released after The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (both 1978) had begun a rehabilitation of Vietnam as a movie subject, but before Platoon (1986) offered what many felt was official catharsis. First Blood and its follow-up were nonetheless the more populist version of the same thing, selling to the audience a new image of the ‘Nam vet as a tormented underdog deserving rehabilitation even if the war, as Trautman puts it, “was a bad time for everybody.” “Somebody wouldn’t let us win,” Rambo howls, a note taken up again at the start of the sequel, where Rambo questions, when asked to return to Vietnam, “Do we get to win this time?” “That’s up to you,” Trautman replies.

Rambo: First Blood Part II cunningly extends this Janus-faced attitude, angry anti-authoritarian outlook and revanchist reactionary passion, by portraying Rambo as next plunged into a situation where the representatives of the American government are corrupt and craven, whilst their enemies are even worse, and only Rambo, Trautman, and others like them retain something like honour. As with its precursor, Stallone applied his own polish to a script this time penned by James Cameron, at the same time he was developing his own The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), and there’s a lot of overlap. Rambo is nearly as remorseless and irresistible as the cyborg in The Terminator once he gets going, and as with Ripley in Aliens he’s portrayed as a sorry survivor who welcomes a chance to go back to a scene of suffering to exorcise his traumatic demons and fully evolve into a hero, despite the connivance of suit-wearing creeps. Rambo: First Blood Part II opens with Trautman approaching Rambo where he’s stuck working in a prison quarry, a setting that cries out for Woody Allen singing “Gonna see Miss Liza!” The Colonel gives Rambo his apologies for failing to keep him out of jail, but then offers a chance for freedom, if he’ll volunteer for an extremely dangerous covert mission, to be airdropped into Vietnamese territory and determine whether rumours American POWs are still being held at a remote jungle base are correct. Rambo and Trautman fly to an black ops base near the border of Thailand with Vietnam, and Rambo is briefed by Roger Murdock (Charles Napier), the commander of the operation.

The unpleasant side of this plot keystone is that Stallone exploited another actual, lingering issue of the Vietnam War, the plight of missing American servicemen who were at the time believed to still be captives, to pump emotive adrenalin into his rah-rah action flick. On the other hand, the film is surprisingly direct and scathing about the US reneging on its peace pledges of reparations to Vietnam, a tussle in which the POWs are theoretical pawns: any diplomatic push to get any POWs back would certainly require paying up. The face of this deceit is Murdock, a man who may or may not have once been a soldier but now has certainly crossed over the dark side of bureaucracy, and will again readily and actively betray him and GIs still in Vietnamese hands for the sake of political equilibrium. Rambo catches him out in a lie over his alleged wartime service, which he tells Trautman about, before assuring his old Colonel, “You’re the only one I trust.” Rambo’s airdrop over the jungle from a Lear jet goes wrong when his copious equipment gets hung up on the plane, a thrilling action sequence that also contains symbolic meaning. Being forced to cut loose all the fancy gear he’s been encumbered with obliges Rambo to get back to basics, and keeps him from recommitting the assumed mistake of past American method.

Once he manages to free himself and successfully lands in the jungle, he encounters his local contact, Co Bao (Julia Nickson), after first sneaking up on her. Co Bao, the daughter of a former South Vietnamese officer, has elected to continue his fight, and she helps Rambo approach the camp by arranging passage with some smugglers who regularly traverse a nearby river. When he penetrates the camp, Rambo discovers a number of G.I. captives being kept in sadistically awful circumstances, and he frees one man POW (Don Collins, I think), who’s been left tied to a post. Rambo and Co Bao take him back to their rendezvous point as Trautman comes to the rescue in a chopper being flown by Murdock’s aides Ericson (Martin Kove) and Banks (Andy Wood), but when he’s told Rambo has a freed prisoner Murdock orders the chopper to return without him. Trautman is held at gunpoint whilst Rambo and the POW are taken by the Vietnamese, with Co Bao escaping as she split away from them. The trussed-up Rambo is immersed in a slop pit filled with leeches and then tortured with electricity by a Red Army envoy, Lt-Col Sergei Podovsky (Steven Berkoff), and his aide Sgt Yushin (Voyo Goric), who, along with a detachment of Soviet commandos, have come to the camp for shady reasons. Podovsky wants Rambo to hand him a propaganda victory by denouncing his government over the radio. But, unfortunately for him and all the other Commies, the countdown to Rambo’s next eruption has already begun.

Rambo has his one and only real encounter with a romantic interest in all his excursions to date, as he and Co Bao fall in love whilst adventuring in the wilds, and the girl convinces Rambo to take her with him back to the US. Of course, she’s necessarily doomed, and is gunned down by soldiers after helping him escape the camp. Rambo takes possession of her jade Buddha necklace and wears it at as a lucky totem and wears it through the rest of this film and on into Rambo III, finally giving it away at the end to a boy Afghan warrior he decides needs it more. Nickson’s performance doesn’t exactly help the credibility factor – she comes across exactly as what she is, a Canadian model trying very hard to look and sound like a halting-English-speaking guerrilla warrior – but Co Bao is nonetheless interesting and rather singular as a true human, romantic connection for Rambo. She has similar talents to him, accomplished with an AK-47 and skilled at war in her own way: she pretends to be one of the prostitutes who visit the camp in an attempt to extricate Rambo from their clutches, and saves his hide repeatedly in the ensuing battle. Co Bao’s presence also helped to dampen, at least to a degree, the otherwise blatantly sectarian world-view exhibited in the film holding the Communist Vietnamese as malignant scum who can be happily dispatched in all manner of creatively violent ways, as opposed to Rambo’s relatively soft touch with the police of Hope.

Even the smugglers prove to be treacherous dogs who sell Rambo and Co Bao out, forcing Rambo to slay them all and blow up a patrol boat with a Russian RPG the pirates keep around for such encounters. Of course, there’s also the Russians to add new ingredients to the vengeful mix, presenting the ultimate spectre of a renascent Domino Theory being driven by the masterminds of the Evil Empire, the real Cold War foe unmasked as puppet master. To a great extent all the historical and political issues raised and depicted here don’t matter – in practice Rambo: First Blood Part II is simply a slightly updated World War II movie, with the Vietnamese cast as proxy as Japanese and the Russians as Germans. Berkoff, who had cleverly walked a line between seriousness and absurdity as an Russian villain in the James Bond film Octopussy a year earlier, returned to play a different variation on the concept here – Podovsky is an ice-cold, iron-souled Cold Warrior who presents Rambo with the perfect incarnation of The Enemy, entirely antipathetic in values and methods but just as assured in his sense of patriotic mission as Rambo himself. Nonetheless Rambo’s truest foe is Murdock, who resembles Teasle as a smug-ugly representative of civilian authority but robbed of Teasle’s better qualities and comparable moral perspective, instead providing the incarnation of everything Rambo perceives as craven, manipulative, deceitful, and disdainful of actual fighting men in country’s official mindset.

Where First Blood had been handled in a relatively muted, textured fashion by Kotcheff, Rambo: First Blood Part II was helmed by George Pan Cosmatos. The Greek-Italian Cosmatos had been born in Florence, and worked his way up through the ranks of European film production including serving as an assistant director and bit player on Zorba The Greek (1964). Cosmatos began his directing career with serious films, like the 1973 wartime film Massacre In Rome, but, starting with the absurd but very entertaining blend of medical thriller and disaster movie The Cassandra Crossing (1977), he reinvented himself as a maker of hard-charging action flicks. After scoring another success with the Alistair MacLean-ish World II actioner Escape From Athena (1979). Cosmatos made the Canadian-produced, New York set Of Unknown Origin (1983), a peculiar blend of satire and monster movie depicting a corporate man battling a gigantic rat at loose in his apartment, before being offered Rambo: First Blood Part II. Later he would work again with Stallone on an even more hyperbolic star vehicle, Cobra (1986), the deep-sea Alien rip-off Leviathan (1989), and the popular Western Tombstone (1993). Cosmatos’ gift for pure, unadulterated, go-for-broke pulp cinema impact is rife in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Most particularly, in the pivotal scene of Rambo being tortured and forced by Podovsky to make his propaganda broadcast.

As so often in Stallone’s films the evocation of masculine physicality and suffering embraces what might be called martyr homoeroticism, not so much to invite a desiring gaze but to offer the perfected icon for the audience’s sadomasochistic identification, a mix of delight and distress in the sight of tormented masculine strength before it explodes in orgasmic carnage. What glee the film taps in the sight of the all-but-naked Stallone, covered in sewage, body infested with leeches, which Podovsky begins to methodically peel away with Rambo’s own knife. Rambo is electrocuted and threatened with having a glowing hot knife shoved into his eyes, until Podovsky realises it’s better to threaten the POW he tried to free. Finally Rambo seems to relent and settles down reluctantly before a radio microphone, calling up the American base over the border, and asking to speak to Murdock. Cosmatos moves through shots here in musical degrees of intensity – close-ups of Berkoff’s face with piercing blue eyes as he maintains ruthless pressure, of Stallone’s muscular arm as he grips the radio, of his sadly limpid gaze as he affects being driven to traitorousness – before delivering the killer blows, as Rambo growls out Murdock’s name, lightning flashing on his face, his grip on the microphone tightening with a click of knuckles. “I’m coming to get you,” he warns Murdock, whose aghast and terrified reaction on the other end is glimpsed in a near-subliminal but indelible cut, before Rambo lashes out, using the microphone as a weapon to wallop his torturers and make his break. He even gives Yushin a dose of his own medicine by thrusting him against his own electrical torture device and turning the dial to 11. Utterly ludicrous, of course, and the sort of action movie vignette that’s provided fodder for lampooners ever since. And also a kind of perfection for this kind of moviemaking, completely unabashed and unashamed in presenting the cinematic equivalent of an adrenalin hit.

Rambo: First Blood Part II can also be regarded as one of the many children of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western transcription A Fistful of Dollars (1964), films that pretty much made compulsory a scene depicting the hero’s capture and brutalisation, prefiguring his escape and rebirth as incarnate wrath. Rambo flees with Co Bao’s aid but her death provokes him to halt his flight and ready for apocalyptic battle, picking off Podovsky’s commandos one by one and decimating a unit of Vietnamese soldiers who hunt him through long reeds only to find he’s laid a trap. Rambo’s preparations for battle include strapping on a headband with a tug of pure manliness, and selecting a weapon of choice, explosive head-tipped arrows, the sort of touch that makes eight-year-old boys of all ages delight. During a gunfight with the Vietnamese commander who directed Co Bao’s death, he turns one of these on his foe and blows him to smithereens in one of those moments that breaks down what little barrier there is between violent melodrama and absurdist comedy. Meanwhile Yushin chases him down in a helicopter, only for Rambo to manage to scramble on board, kill Yushin, and commandeer the craft, which he then uses to annihilate the camp’s garrison and rescue the POWs. As they flee they’re chased down by Podovsky in a colossal Sikorsky helicopter gunship, but Rambo manages, by playing possum, to lure Podovsky in and blow him out of the sky with an RPG.

Here, again, Cosmatos’ gleeful lack of moderation or care for anything except the impression of hellfire fury blesses the film with a certain pathological perfection, as in the way he holds off Goldsmith’s pounding martial music until after Rambo screams in the deepest eye of his berserker rage, somehow finding a step beyond the zenith of bloodlust. Indeed, what distinguishes Rambo: First Blood Part II from its many forebears and imitators is precisely the way it enters entirely into the berserker mindset, and indulges it to the nth degree. The peculiar conviction of the Rambo films as a unit is their complete rejection of all modern moral sensibility, turning instead to the primeval conviction that sometimes the only solution is righteous bloodletting, and that once countenanced, after other avenues are exhausted that zone must be committed to, and can indeed be a place of virtually transcendental experience. Rambo has evolved into a holy warrior without a specific religion to espouse beyond aiding the weak against the strong, a note taken up in his three subsequent outings. In the meantime, Rambo: First Blood Part II concludes with Rambo only just manages to fly the damaged and failing chopper to the American base and land it safely. There he socks Ericson, shoots up the surveillance equipment in the American base, and terrorises Murdock, only sparing his life on pain of doing his best to bring home other POWs: “Find them, or I’ll find you.” What’s most notable here is that Rambo is essentially rendered impotent by his one great loyalty, his country, discharging his weapons and rage fruitlessly against inanimate objects.

The most invaluable connecting thread for the early Rambo films beyond Stallone himself was Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. His theme for First Blood precisely evoked the state of haunted but dignified persistence that was the initial key to Rambo’s character, and became the leitmotif for his wanderings in subsequent movies. The soaring lushness and booming martial intensity of his orchestrations are perhaps what chiefly distinguished the series from its lower-budgeted precursors and imitators (along with peculiarly good technical collaborators, including Jack Cardiff who worked as director of photography on Rambo: First Blood Part II, and who might well have remembered his own Dark of the Sun, 1968, when he signed on). The colossal success of Rambo: First Blood Part II birthed a string of imitations, like the Chuck Norris star vehicle Missing In Action and its sequels, and left a permanent mark on the style and assumptions of Hollywood action films. Predator likely wouldn’t exist without it to riff on. It was made the subject of jest and then validation in Die Hard (1988). On through just about every movie since where an omnicompetent hero decimates hordes of baddies, like John Wick (2014) and Extraction (2020). As for the character himself, Rambo III rounded off his initial trilogy, just managing to scrape over the line as the end of the Cold War loomed and Rambo’s days as a relevant pop culture hero suddenly seemed numbered. The film’s choice of taking up the Soviet war in Afghanistan became a sorely ironic point as the film indicted the conflict as the Russians’ equivalent of Vietnam, more than a decade before the US would go into the country itself (indeed an odd piece of fake lore would be coined on the internet that the film’s postscript title tribute to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” had been altered from an original version dedicated to the Mujahidin).

Rambo III’s first director Russell Mulcahy was fired and British editor Peter MacDonald hired. MacDonald stated his chief desire was to make Rambo a more human, humorous figure, and the film had a strong essential proposition: Rambo, after refusing to join Trautman on a mission in Afghanistan supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahidin, goes in to rescue him when he’s captured, and the two battle their way out of the country side by side. Rambo III’s then-astronomical budget registers in the demolition of expensive infrastructure, the tactile immediacy and ruggedness of the action, and the lustre of the landscapes. But it’s too much a scrappy retread of its precursor despite trying to shift into buddy movie territory: the film climaxes again in a battle between Rambo and a Russian enemy in a giant helicopter – this time with Rambo pitted against him, hilariously, in a tank – and pithy exchanges over the radio (“Who are you?” “Your worst nightmare!”). Stallone resisted bringing the character back until 2008, well into the renewed warlike moment of the War on Terror. Finally he directed and starred in a film variably called simply Rambo or John Rambo, depending on the market. I didn’t like this entry when it first came out, but on recent revisit found it surprisingly good. Rambo, now living a peaceful life as a snake trapper and riverboat skipper, is called upon by some American Christian medical personnel to ferry them into Myanmar where they plan to administer aid to victims of the ruling military dictatorship’s brutal repression. Rambo, after warning them against going, is convinced by their leader’s open-hearted fiancé Sarah (Julie Benz) to take them. When he later hears they’ve been captured by the truly evil local military commander during a massacre of a village, Rambo elects to accompany a team of mercenaries hired by their pastor to go in and rescue them.

The storyline this time around was almost too straightforward and executes a much slower burn than its precursors, holding off the requisite, purgative explosion of payback until the climax, and lacking a strongly developed antagonist, only sporting a particularly vicious army commander Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin), who likes doing things like feeding the missionaries to pigs and slaughtering entire communities. But Rambo did develop some substantial ideas in its juxtapositions, leaning heavily on echoes of High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) in mooting tension between Rambo’s weary knowledge of humanity’s dark side and the humane, optimistic ideals of the missionaries, as well as probing the schism between Rambo and the cadre of mercenaries with their different generational and professional attitudes. When the action finally cuts loose in the climax, as Rambo unleashes a heavy machine gun on the Myanmar military, backed up by his newfound pals, with properly maniacal impact. By the film’s end the series circled back to where it nominally started, with Rambo returning to the US, but this time truly going home, to his father’s horse ranch in the Arizona heartland. Stallone has returned to the role once more, for 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, which saw him battling a Mexican drug cartel. But it was a disappointingly generic coda that felt hurriedly repurposed to vaguely fit Rambo, with our hero acting in ways rather too naive for the character so familiar by this point, at least until the impressively bloodthirsty climax. Old soldiers never die, apparently – their box office takings simply fade away.

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1930s, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

The Old Dark House (1932)

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Director: James Whale
Screenwriters: Benn W. Levy, R. C. Sherriff (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

The Horror genre was given form and definition in the silent film era. A handful of great filmmakers, starting with the likes of F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, and Tod Browning, did much of their best work in the style and plainly had an affinity for it, and their classic stand with a raft of powerful and important works by filmmakers who made brief visits to the genre, including Fritz Lang, Victor Sjöstrom, and Rex Ingram. Most of that vital Horror cinema was made in Europe, whereas in Hollywood, apart from Browning’s films and starring vehicles for Lon Chaney, Horror films tended to be tinged with comedy and lampooning, expressing a breezily dismissive contempt for spooky shenanigans in the optimistic mood of the Jazz Age: funny tales debunking supernatural menace, like the much-filmed theatrical hits The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, were all the rage. But as the genre emerged into the sound era, coinciding with the dark pall of the descending Depression, Browning’s Dracula (1931) suddenly made it a big box office genre for Hollywood. With due speed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures produced a follow-up in the form of an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s storied prototype for much fantastical literature and filmmaking, Frankenstein. The director hired for that film was the English stage maestro turned film director James Whale, and Whale, at least for the next thirty years or so, perhaps did more to codify Horror as a genre than any other director. The irony there was he wasn’t particularly fond of being associated with it, and much of his impact came in the way he tangled with its already enshrined clichés to create new ones.

Whale was a working class boy from Dudley, Worcestershire, deep in the “Black Country” of coal mining regional England. Forced to stop going to school because of his family’s lack of money and not strong enough to become a miner, Whale found work as a cobbler and also, with his emerging artistic talents, earned extra money painting signs and advertisements for local businesses, and used the cash he earned that way to pay for lessons at a local art school. Volunteering for service in World War I, Whale gained a commission as a second lieutenant and served in the trenches until he was captured by the Germans in 1917. Waiting out the war in a POW camp, Whale became heavily involved in staging theatre with his fellow prisoners, and found his great passion. After the war’s end he spent a brief stint as a cartoonist but soon found work in the theatre in multiple guises including as an actor, stage manager, and finally director. Like Murnau, Whale was homosexual and didn’t care much who knew it, and whilst he was briefly engaged to a woman in the early 1920s, Whale’s boldness in that regard is sometimes presumed to have ultimately foiled his career, although for the time being it seemed nothing could hold him back.

Whale’s big break came when he was hired to direct R.C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End for a theatre group that specialised in staging new works for private audiences. Journey’s End explored the fatalistic mood of the men fighting in the trenches, in a drama that touched upon questions of the worth of hero worship as a potentially beneficial example but also one that could both lure people into a deadly situation. Whale’s personal investment in the material as a former soldier was plain enough, and the material proved to have the same appeal to a vast number of people. Whale initially talked an unknown young actor named Laurence Olivier into playing the lead role of Stanhope, but he was replaced by Colin Clive when, encouraged by the impact the lay had for its private audience, Whale took it to the West End. The play became an instant smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, at a time when the war, which people had been trying so vigorously to forget, suddenly became a matter of interest again. This gave Whale a shot at Hollywood, as the burgeoning age of Talkies saw the film industry desperate for directors who knew how to handle dialogue: as a “dialogue director” Whale made The Love Doctor (1929) and worked on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). He debuted as fully credited director when he helmed the movie adaptation of Journey’s End. After following that up with the popular romantic melodrama Waterloo Road (1931), Whale was assigned to Frankenstein.

With Frankenstein, Whale inadvertently made his name permanently associated with Horror movies. By some accounts Whale wasn’t terribly thrilled by that, but he did nonetheless become a singularly important influence on the way Horror evolved in the sound era and as a fully-fledged movie genre. Most obviously, the film’s depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster created a perpetual pop culture image, thanks to the confluence of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s iconic look for the monster, actor Boris Karloff’s performance, and Whale’s conceptual take on the creature’s existence and symbolic import for the audience. More subtle, but perhaps more important, was the way Whale helped Horror as an aesthetic adapt to the more intense gaze of the 24-frame-a-second era and the attendant vividness of sound. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) carefully negotiated frames of the dreamlike and the psychological, birthing the stylised, purposefully unrealistic approach of the endlessly influential Expressionist style, and that remained for a long time the predominant influence on the genre, although some of Browning’s works like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1926) tended more to posit morbid and perverse psychology in otherwise realistic settings.

One key to Whale’s vitality lay in his florid ease in moving between tones and artistic postures, the way he fused stylisation and realism, theatricality and cinema. He made Frankenstein’s looming, Expressionist-influenced but three-dimensional sets, coexist with location photography and knead them all into a peculiar kind of whole, just as he was later to become known for easily pivoting between humour and straight-faced thrills. The poetic-metaphorical airiness and pathos of Mary Shelley’s twisted but articulate creation was swapped out for something more concrete, more essential. The desperate, mute Monster came more fully and coherently the image of just about anything rendered Other in a social context. He embodied poles of attitude, at once childlike and brutish, victim and cold avenger, misshapen and powerful, and his eventual end in a burning windmill evoked at once righteous action by a community and the spectre of mob rule, the punishment of the transgressor blurring with the cleaning of the hive of deviance.

Whale’s four fantastical films, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), present perhaps the greatest directorial body of work in the genre, rivalled only by the likes of Terence Fisher and Mario Bava in the 1960s and George Romero in the 1970s. But they’re defined in part by the way Whale’s tension with the genre manifested. Whale’s dark, sometimes overtly strange and camp sense of humour, mostly held in check on Frankenstein, came seething out with the next three, all of which were big popular successes: Whale’s unease with being pigeonholed as a maker of scary movies again connected with the audience’s simultaneous ardour and scepticism for such fare. The Old Dark House, which was for a long time lost only to be rediscovered by Horror director and Whale acolyte Curtis Harrington, was based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley, whose second work it was. Priestley, who would later become extremely popular and regarded in Britain, commented sardonically after the book’s release that the American publishers retitled it The Old Dark House in a determined effort to turn a profit, and it worked. The title was kept for the film, and it served to felicitously announce Whale’s mordant blend of attitudes, summoning up both an essentialist evocation of a classic genre trope reaching back to the Gothic Romances of Hugh Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe, and also its puckish deflation, close in spirit to the debunking comedies of the ‘20s.

What Whale managed however was more sophisticated, and it laid down the blueprint he’d follow for The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, provoking with a gleeful humour and semi-satiric slant, whilst steadily invoking the absurdity its characters face and sometimes embody, setting the scene for when the truly strange and disturbing busts out. Priestley’s novel hinged on a similar conceit to his later, perhaps best-known work in its own right, the play An Inspector Calls, in conjuring the house filled with eccentrics loaded down with their own private and shared transgressions. Whale merrily grasps onto The Old Dark House’s edition, the family Femm, comprising most immediately the spindly Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their 103-year-old father Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), and the mysterious sibling who resides in a room on the top floor. The Femms are the perverse and degenerating end of an ancient line, their house a looming pile of stonework that contains the ages of English society. Into their strange little world stumbles a gaggle of visitors representing modernity, desperately seeking shelter from the storm. The bickering young married couple  Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margeret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), and their tagalong pal, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). The Manchester magnate Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his dancer date Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).

The opening scenes present a classic story set-up as the Wavertons and Penderel travel in Philip’s chugging motor car through a buffeting rainstorm, banks of earth collapsing in their wake and tyres grinding desperately at the muddy ruts of the road. A classic Horror movie opening, reaching back to days of travelling coaches and forward to kids in Volkswagen vans in the genre, but contrasted with the rude liveliness of the characters who refuse to acknowledge they’re in a Horror tale. The Wavertons, plainly out on what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon, locked together instead Philip unleashes epic, vicious sarcasm: “I’ve never been in a better temper in my life. I love driving a hundred miles through the dark practically without headlights. I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck. This is one of the happiest moments of my life!” Penderel’s cheeriness, project from the backseat, is counterpoint and further goad to Whale’s portrayal of marital bother raised to epic pitch by the situation. “Perhaps you’d like me to drive for a bit,” Margaret suggests: “Yes, I was expecting that!” Philip retorts before continuing to try to get traction , and Penderel roars out a version of “Singin’ In The Rain.”

The frayed-nerved comedy here is both funny and mortifying in portraying a familiar kind of hell. The Wavertons and their tagalong friend are trying to drive out of the Welsh hills down to Shrewsbury, but the ferocious storm that’s descended is causing landslides and flooding, and they look for the closest convenient shelter. Margaret spots lights and encourages Philip to make for them, but when he catches sight of the craggy, crooked, ancient manse of the Femms her husband comments, “It’s probably wisest to push on.” But the as the storm seems to have cut off the roads all around they’re left with no recourse. Whale interpolates an ingenious model shot recreating the driver’s viewpoint in pulling into the muddy and desolate yard of the old dark house. Out the hapless travellers jump from the car and bang on the front door, and Penderel for a moment takes excited refuge in the notion the people in the house are all dead, “all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them,” writing his own draft Horror tale whilst waiting for a response within, and in a moment he seems to just about get his wish as a hatch in the door swing open, revealing the gnarled, hirsute face of Morgan (Karloff), the Femm’s servant/warden, who responds to Penderel’s request for shelter with an incomprehensible, guttural mutter. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” Penderel comments.

Granted entry by the grunting, damaged manservant, the trio are soon confronted by Horace, descending the wooden staircase like someone gene-spliced man, praying mantis, horse, and living skeleton. After sniffing his way through introductions and angular politeness, Horace escorts his guests over the blazing fireplace, and picks up a bundle of flowers, which, he tells them, his sister was about to arrange, before tossing the blooms on the fire. And Horace is the closest thing to a fully functioning human in the house, compared to the mute Morgan and his largely deaf sister, at least on the level of faculties, although he completely lacks a spine, in the metaphorical sense. Thesiger was destined to gain an odd kind of immortality specifically from his collaborations with Whale here and on Bride of Frankenstein, which might have surprised him, given he was a respected and experienced stage actor who had played roles for George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, and he kept acting in films into his eighties. A wounded veteran of the trenches, Thesiger was as blue-blooded as they come, related to the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and nephew of Lord Chelmsford, leader of the infamous military expedition against the Zulus – the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift went down a week after Ernest’s birth. Which sounds just like the kind of character he usually played. Looking much older than his 53 years, Thesiger presented Whale with his ideal interlocutor in portraying a simultaneously scornful and joyous caricature of the British aristocracy, devolved and waspish, wasted but invested with a deceptive strength, charged with disdain but at the mercy of its servile class, represented by Morgan, who meanwhile is sliding towards Morlock-like barbarity.

Another contrast is provided by Rebecca, whose piousness is chiefly a vehicle for expressing unvarnished contempt, and the way she offsets her brother’s atheistic and pagan mores. Moore’s performance anticipates Una O’Connor’s wild and flailing brand of absurdism for Whale, but with a different physical presence, as rotund and porcine as Horace is thin and equine, bearing a strong resemblance to the portrait of Queen Victoria she keeps on her bedroom wall. When Margaret asks Rebecca to show her a place where she can change from her wet clothes, Rebecca takes her to her own bedroom which, she explains, once belonged to her beautiful sister Rachel, who died after breaking her back in a riding accident aged 20: “A wicked one – handsome and wild as a hawk,” she cries, and eagerly looks over Margaret’s young, pretty form and anticipates its inevitable decay. Rebecca lustily regales her guest with Rachel’s agonised end and how she ignored Rebecca’s entreaties to turn to God. Rebecca’s bedroom is separated from the main hall by a gloriously decrepit corridor with a billowing white curtain at an open window and rain splashing on the stonework floor. Rachel’s old room proves a refuge of gentility save for the warped overlooking mirror.

Rebecca monologues about Rachel to the increasingly agitated Margaret whilst conjuring charged impressions of feminine beauty in her obsessive noting of red lips, long straight legs, and white bodies. Morgan’s knock at the door gives the lurking manservant a chance to ogle Margaret in her underwear, whilst Rebecca herself, for all her deploring, seems to be hiding a fascination for Margaret, thrusting her splayed hand upon Margaret’s chest. After Rebecca leaves Margaret can’t shake off her mocking words, as if she’s still in the room. Whale offers one of his most striking and peculiar cinematic phrases here, as he cuts jaggedly between shots from different angles of Rebecca’s face, reflected in the warped mirror and lit by guttering candles, all her savage perversity and mocking delight in mutability emerging as an array of perverted Gothic images. Margaret’s own face, as she tries to put on earrings, is also warped into strange and alien form by the mirror, as if she’s being claimed by Rebecca’s curse of the flesh. Margaret freaks out and, after opening to window but failing to push it close again for the powerful wind, she flees the bedroom and returns to the others in the hall. The punch-line for this is that she returns to the hall and looks every inch the resplendent lady about to dine in the finest restaurant.

This gaudy, layered, hysteria-laden scene is a perfect miniature representation of Whale’s jaggedly original approach to filmmaking and capacity to create a vivid, near-surreal context for his dark fantasies, turning what would have been a very minor episode in the movie into a vignette charged with undercurrents of sexuality and boding violence. The urge to transgression and its eternal partner, ironclad moralism, are in the mix, nodding to the distorted effects of what would soon be called “decadent art,” and winding up to a peak of delirium evinced by Margaret’s panic and despair. Whale’s camerawork is actually, generally more restrained in The Old Dark House than in his other films, like the long, devastating tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter in Frankenstein, and his shots passing carelessly through and over walls in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, as Whale readily showed off the roots of his visual imagination in the theatrical zone, but was able to leave behind any hint of the stagy, instead delighting in the way his camera could capture space and people within it. Instead, The Old Dark House shows more delight in his shot composition and cutting.

The dinner sequence that follows is another brilliant set-piece, albeit a more subtle one, where that delight is fully in evidence. The characters settle around the Femms’ dining table and try to enjoy a meal together, the flicker from the fire casting their shadows on the wall and the hulking, glowering Morgan playing waiter. Margaret, with a scowl, gets Philip to sit between her and Rebecca, who scoffs down pickled onions with righteous appetite. Meanwhile Horace brandishes carving utensils like small weapons of war, and when Rebecca chides him for not saying grace, retorts, “Oh, I had forgotten my sister’s strange tribal habits – the beef will seem less tough when she as invoked a blessing upon it,” and his initially playful sarcasm quickly spirals into a dark and spiteful meditation on the many blessings the family hasn’t received over the years. Rebecca’s hearty Christian appetite is balanced by Horace’s modest delight in gin – “I like gin.” He keeps trying to foist gnarled and soggy boiled potatoes on his dinner guests, each proffered with the inimitable Thesiger voice prompting, “Have a po-ta-to.” “Thank you, I should love a potato,” the practical Penderel answers, whilst Philip picks the eyes out of his. The electric light flickers and nearly dies, as Horace explains the house’s generator isn’t reliable. Finally, the agonised ritual of the dinner is interrupted by another knock at the door, which proves to be Sir William and Gladys, also seeking refuge.

Priestley’s design in the book emerges in the film as the characters represent different aspects of British society and history, and what’s particularly important here is the way Whale tweaks the material into offering the cast of characters as a succession of self-portraits – world war veteran, angry pleb on the rise, biting camp aesthete and wicked sceptic. The Old Dark House itself represents the closest Whale ever came to unifying the two artistic postures he was well-known for – the portrayer of Great War angst and the maker of Gothic fantasias, finding a dramatic landscape where those two things could coexist and feed each-other. They also converge on Penderel, a survivor of the trenches who readily acknowledges that he exemplifies a type, rattling off evocative self-descriptions that have become close to parodic clichés for him: “War Generation, slightly soiled – a study in the bittersweet – the man with the twisted smile – and this Mr Femm is exceedingly good gin.” Where the Wavertons are a sturdy middle-class couple, inheritors of the future, Penderel is a perpetual misfit and ironic party animal, seeing ridiculousness in everything. At least until he claps eyes on Gladys, who swiftly shifts the weights on the Eros-Thanatos scale in Penderel.

Sir William represents another corner of interwar British society, a self-made, nouveau riche businessman with a strong Yorkshire accent and a surface attitude of bonhomie. That barely conceals a seething motive in his working class roots and a telling lack of any sense of noblesse oblige. He’s easily drawn in the course of chatting with the other guests after dinner into recounting his tragic past, how his wife died, he believes, from heartache after being cold-shouldered by snooty society wives when Sir William first began to rise helped, convincing her she was holding them back. Sir William avenged her by breaking and bankrupting the husbands of those women, and yet remains a figure of pathos: now he’s got a fortune and a knighthood and no human connection, except for playing sexless sugar daddy to Gladys. Sir William’s narrative is coherent as both a depiction of Whale’s experience of class anger, and it can also be argued a coded metaphor for the agonies of coming out in Whale’s time, in registering a specifically intimate and human cost to social prejudice. Sir William and Penderel butt heads at first, with Sir William assuming the urbane Penderel looks down his nose at him for being such a go-get-‘em operator, and Penderel telling the magnate off for speaking disrespectfully to Glady when he outs her – that is, tells everyone her real last name, which is Perkins. “I envy you, I admire you,” Penderel tells Sir William, in comparison to his own unmoored and lethargic state, to the magnate’s retort, “Oh yes, you envy me, but you don’t admire me.”

Meanwhile the Femms represent a particularly eccentric and ingenious collective twist on an essential motif of Gothic fiction, the aristocratic clan cut off from the tides of modern life and subsisting on decaying pretensions and trapped within a house that once expressed their exceptionalism but now only exhibits their decay. Nonetheless, as Rebecca triumphantly tells her brother as he frets over the fear that the rains could bust a nearby dam and wash the house away, Femm Manor is built on solid rock – the roots of the Femms are planted so deep in the soil of the country they can’t be dug out even if they wish it. Rebecca and Horace have divergent expressions of their intense neurosis in embodying a disparity of godless sensualism and religiose intensity, but both are the same degree of crazy. The ancient Sir Roderick, when the Wavertons seek him out, is found ensconced in his bedroom which looks fit for Tudor monarch and barely altered since that epoch, whilst Rebecca’s bedroom is candlelit – “I’ll have none of this electric light!” she declares – and festooned with musty Victoriana. We never see Horace’s room, but the mind boggles. And at the top of the house, the locked door, hiding the last Femm, Saul, a brooding, superficially ingratiating pyromaniac. The flood below, madness and fire above, and points on the compass in between.

The great storm that falls upon the Shropshire Hills doesn’t just sever the Femms and their interlopers from the outside world but also cordons them within the subliminal space made solid. But the motif of the house as an encompassing expression of such ingrained neurosis and entrapping identity also feeds into the subtler dynamic that fees both humour and horror. Whale suggests there are few more disquieting and disturbing things than being obliged to have a meal with strangers, enabled by strained manners and a grotesque conventional politeness that ignores for a set period of time the strangeness that occurs off in the margins, like Margaret’s encounter with Rebecca. Indeed, this is essentially Whale’s entire thesis about social life, a constant game of facades and unveilings, and fusing a particular brand of comedy of manners with its darker doppelganger in Horror, which is a genre precisely preoccupied with the breakdown of civilised pretences and engagement with the primal. It keeps in mind the impression I’ve often had that something like Howard’s End or The Age of Innocence contains more real and discomforting violence than any number of slasher movies.

Karloff’s presence in the film sees Whale again with the actor he boosted from character actor to a peculiar brand of stardom, in a role that partly burlesques the characterisation of the Frankenstein’s Monster. Morgan is another shambling, towering, unspeaking creature, but one that’s been semi-domesticated: the Femms need him to keep food on their table and keep the electric light working. He’s an upper class idea of the lower class taken to an extreme, useful as a mass of obedient muscle until he gets liquored up and becomes insensately dangerous, casting a lascivious eye on Margaret. But Morgan has another function, as Saul’s warden, a bulwark of violence required to keep a less immediately intimidating but even more dangerous force in check. At one point, as Gladys follows Penderel out into the storm, she looks in through the barred kitchen window and sees Morgan, now thoroughly soused: the servant lurches to the window and punches his hand through the glass in a perfunctory attempt to grab one of the tempting morsels about him. It’s not a part that requires much of Karloff, in the first of his major post-Frankenstein genre roles when he’d soon be appearing in the likes of The Mummy (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) which let him unleash his voice. But it does gain everything from his presence regardless, as Karloff wrings pathos from Morgan’s attempts to speak which inevitably fail and instead expression comes through physical chaos as he drinks.

After her squall of hysteria in Rebecca’s room Margaret quickly becomes the most sanguine person in the house, calmly and coolly shepherding the conversation as the various camps in the house try to communicate. Meanwhile Penderel and Gladys’ crackle of attraction combusts when the two venture out to the Wavertons’ car, stashed to wait out the storm in the barn, to fetch a bottle of whiskey Penderel left there. They quickly fall in love and taking refuge in the back seat of the car, with all that implies thoroughly implied. Priestley intended his novel as a tragic character study of Penderel masquerading as a thriller, although quite a few critics over the years have said the book didn’t really achieve that. Nonetheless Penderel emerges as the closest thing the film has to a central character and hero as he shifts from alcoholic gadabout to a man in love and has to quickly improvise in fending off danger. Douglas, honing his suave and worldly persona, is quite excellent in the role. Indeed, one arresting element of The Old Dark House is the quality of its cast, packed as it is with heavyweight actors on the cusp of major stardom, in Karloff, Douglas, Laughton, and Massey. Stuart on the other hand, after also appearing in The Invisible Man for Whale, never really gained star traction but, in one of those marvels of Hollywood fate, would record a commentary track for this film’s laserdisc release sixty years later which would bring her to James Cameron’s attention and help win her role in Titanic (1997).

And yet it’s Thesiger who owns the film, walking the finest line between creepiness and ridiculousness, seeming to most immediately embody the perversity of the Femms but also the most timorous in the face of it. When the necessity arises to fetch a large kerosene lamp from the top floor landing when the lights fail and Rebecca gloatingly prods him to help Philip bring it down, Horace keeps anxiously trying to avoid the errand, and when they hear peculiar laughter echoing down from above, Horace finally flees to his bedroom, leaving Philip to fetch the lamp alone. Philip takes up the lamp but notices the telling signs there, the padlocked door, the remains of a meal on a plate on the table with the lamp, whilst wind whistles in the crannies high in the roof. Meanwhile, down below, Margaret, in an interlude of playfulness, starts making shadow animals on the wall in the firelight, her silhouette and her gestures thrown against the wall of the dining room, only for Rebecca’s silhouette to lurch into view as she repeats the some gesture of touching Margaret’s chest, sending Margaret into a panicky flurry again. As she opens the front door and shouts into the night, begging Penderel to come back, a hand reaches behind and over her head to grasp the door and slam it shut. An iconic Horror image, this time arriving without a mocking codicil. The hand belongs to the soused and randy Morgan, who chases Margaret around the dining room, upturning the dining table in a gesture of pointed symbolism. Philip returns from aloft, and seeing what’s happening, does battle with Morgan, until he wallops him with the lamp, causing Morgan to plunge down the stairs, knocked unconscious. Later, when he awakens, Morgan gains his revenge by heading upstairs and releasing Saul.

These scenes illustrate Whale’s unique skill in mediating tone shifts, as menace emerges from the comic and absurd, and moments of playfulness segue into an eruption of actual danger. The fact that The Old Dark House was missing for a long time prevented it from becoming as much of an immediate influence as Whale’s other films, and the legendary schlock artiste William Castle was able to get away with directing a wayward remake in 1963. Whale likely had seen Paul Leni’s stylish film version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), replete as it with brilliant cinema, and some of Whale’s imagery echoes it. But Leni’s film has rather less sophisticated comedy than The Old Dark House, which is far more exactly aimed at the nexus of social anxiety and psychological angst in tapping both horror and humour. Whale would become bolder and stranger in his blendings with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein – the catatonic-seeming Mr Plod policemen in the former and the shrieking, inflated melodrama cues in the latter. The Old Dark House therefore stands as an essential ancestor for just about all comedy-horror crossbreeds, and what most of the best of such films wisely follow Whale in doing was in infiltrating comedy via the characters and playing core genre elements essentially straight, a presumption that’s essential to the success of, say, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) or Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Indeed, Craven, with his penchant for inserting a brand of anarchic, cartoonish humour into his Horror films, in many ways came closest of subsequent Horror auteurs to building upon Whale’s sensibility. On the other hand, the film was also a direct influence on the far more indiscriminately lampooning attitude of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

Moreover, Whale picks out a thread here that was to prove important in terms of where Horror cinema was headed, in general. Whilst The Old Dark House makes sport of the trappings of gothic horror, the real source of horror then moves away from the supernatural, conveying metaphor and oneiric imagery, and emerges as human and immediate, and embodied by different forms – the hulking brutishness of Morgan and the impishly homicidal Saul. The essence of the drama becomes this imminent physical danger. Mad killers on the loose were already a well-lodged genre convention, but there’s something that feels particularly pertinent in the way Whale plays one genre frame against the other. In short, Whale grasped where the Horror movie was going, although it would take another few decades to get there. What Alfred Hitchcock would do to the genre with Psycho (1960), with its own old dark house and lurking, devolved murderer, is essentially a reiteration of this intelligible shift in focus and meaning. One can look on past that to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which is built of the same basic ideas as The Old Dark House – the searching, displaced travellers, the degenerated family, the crumbling old house, the hulking, monstrous force of threat, the preoccupation with perverse social ritual, only by that time monochrome gothic has been replaced by the spacy, sunstruck American brand.

The Wavertons, trying to understand the enigmatic threat lurking in the Femm house, venture upstairs together and enter Sir Roderick’s room, where the find the ancient knight lying in his bed. Whale has Sir Roderick played by the actress Elspeth Dudgeon (credited for the film as John), covered in aging makeup and a false beard. This conceit has a sly brilliance to it, recognising the quality of androgyny that very old age confers, and feeding Whale’s underground river of destabilisation, the one remnant of the Femms of old now happy in his prostrate, post-gender state, calmly awaiting mortality’s edge: “When you’re as old as I am, at any minute you might just die,” he comments, and gives a chuckle. “Madness came,” he says of his family, “We have all been touched with it a little you see, except for me – at least I – I don’t think I am.” Sir Roderick warns the Wavertons about Saul and the possibility of Morgan unleashing him, before falling asleep. Philip dashes out to see if Morgan is still unconscious, only to find he’s arisen, and Horace pokes his head out of his bedroom door to tell him he heard Morgan going upstairs, and instructs with punitive directness, “Wait for him downstairs and kill him,” before hiding again.

Whale’s peeling of this particular onion reaches sees inevitable combustion as a single hand appearing on the staircase railing announces Saul’s lurking presence, and Morgan lurches into sight with the sickly smile of a man with a trump, before trying to launch at Margaret again. It takes the combined efforts of Penderal, Philip, and Sir William to wrestle Morgan into the kitchen and lock him in there, and Penderal dashes back to Margaret and Gladys and gets them to hide in a closet whilst he sets about distracting Saul. Saul, when he finally shows his face, proves disarmingly innocent and scared-looking, like an anthropomorphic hamster. He descends to Penderel, begging him to prevent his relatives locking him away again. Saul claims to not be mad, but has instead been imprisoned to keep secret the fact Horace and Rebecca killed Rachel, and often beaten by Morgan. Penderel is initially credulous of Saul’s claims, but Saul quickly begins to reveal his madness, picking up the carving knife from dinner and insisting on recounting the biblical tale of Saul and David.

Penderel instead begins stringing him out by affecting interest in a story he wants to tell, and the two settle at the dinner table: the earlier, strained dinner conversation gives way to more of the same tense, dissembling playacting, but this time the game is immediate, desperate, the barrier between civility and lunacy only as thick as Penderel’s improvisation. Penderel then is a solider once more, albeit this time actually fighting for something – trying to keep the madman away from Margaret and Gladys. When finally Saul explodes it comes with astonishing ferocity, hurling the knife at Penderel and then bashing him with a chair, before dashing up the stairs and setting fire to a curtain in cackling delight. Penderel, despite having a broken arm, ascends to fight the loony again, and this time Saul tries to rip Penderel’s throat out with his teeth, only for them both to fall over the balcony to the floor below. The movie softened the novel’s ending slightly, as Penderel dies in the fall in the book: after test audience didn’t like this, the ending was reshot, it does feel more in keeping with the movie’s totality.

As if by compensation for the loss of one tragedy, Whale inserted another. Morgan breaks out into the dining room again, ready to resume chasing Margaret, only for her to get him to look to the fallen Penderel and Saul: Morgan, utterly heartbroken by the death of his charge, cradling Saul’s body, weeps over his fractured body and carries it back up to his room. This crowning vignette resonates on several levels, most obviously in anticipating the encounter of the Monster and the Blind Hermit in Bride of Frankenstein in its depiction of the symbiosis of the misshapen, as well as sneaking in a moment of undisguised love between men, and echoing the fraternal grief of the war veterans, which needed some echo, some acknowledgement, to pass before the night of the storm can end. Penderel’s proposal of marriage to Gladys, which she accepts by giving him a passionate kiss as she too cradles her injured lover, suggests a spiritual economy of love at work: something can’t die without something being born. The morning comes, finally, the sun shining and beginning to dry the ocean of mud without, Horace emerging to politely wave the Wavertons away as they head off to fetch help, whilst Gladys cradles her wounded gallant, and Rebecca scoffs at the lot of these bent, buckled, bruised, but still upright humans.

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1970s, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Shivers (1975) / The Brood (1979)

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Alternate titles for Shivers: They Came From Within ; The Parasite Murders ; Frissons

Director / Screenwriter: David Cronenberg

By Roderick Heath

Many directors have made great Horror movies. Some defined and redefined the genre. But few have become unshakeably associated with a specific wing of the genre that they largely invented, as David Cronenberg is with “body horror.” Cronenberg, born in Toronto in 1943, grew up a voracious consumer of EC Horror comic books, science fiction story magazines, and Western, pirate, and Disney animated movies, whilst his father tried to get him interested in art-house cinema, a seed that took a little longer to germinate. A writer from a young age, he started studying botany and biology at college but switched to English, and became interested in filmmaking after watching a short film made by a classmate. After making a pair of shorts of his own, he cofounded a filmmaking co-op with future collaborator and notable director in his own right, Ivan Reitman. Cronenberg made two more, increasingly ambitious short films after graduating, both of them hinging on common sci-fi concepts but given cruel and disturbing twists that took seriously the human meaning of their ideas. The first, 1969’s black-and-white Stereo, evinced an interest in the concept of telepathy Cronenberg would revisit for his breakout hit Scanners (1981). 1970’s colour film Crimes of the Future depicted a future where adult human women have died out, and men are increasingly driven to acts of paedophilia or else are to suicidal ends: Cronenberg would notably recycle the title for his most recent film of 2022.

Crimes of the Future established important elements of Cronenberg’s artistic vocabulary, particularly his fascination for modernist architecture and unease with its implied aesthetic and social meaning, and willingness to tackle themes few other directors would touch with a ten-foot pole. Both Cronenberg and Reitman would benefit from the increased Canadian government support for filmmaking and a resulting national cinema resurgence, exemplified at first by the likes of Donald Shebib’s soberly realistic buddy movie Goin’ Down The Road (1970) and Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), but soon sparking a surge of Horror movies, including Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1973) and Black Christmas (1974) and Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973), a trend that would soon make Canadian cinema strongly associated with low-budget but cultishly beloved slasher movies. Cronenberg decided to get in on the act, but in a manner that would immediately establish his unique ability to play the exploitation movie game on his own terms. After several years directing TV episodes and telemovies, and some theatrical work, including writing a musical show for the popular magician Doug Henning (with music by Cronenberg’s future constant collaborator Howard Shore), Cronenberg wrote a script called Orgy of the Blood Parasites, which he then filmed in 15 days on a budget of $179,000, some of it sourced from the national film fund. Upon release the film did reasonable business, but it was soon also targeted by conservative politicians as a grotesque example of what taxpayer money was being spent on. A few decades later Cronenberg was awarded the highest Canadian honour. The wheel spins.

Cronenberg followed Shivers with a number of increasingly professional and heedlessly adventurous movies, mostly blending aspects of Horror and sci-fi – 1977’s Rabid, essentially a retread of Shivers if slicker and tighter, 1979’s The Brood, 1981’s Scanners, and 1983’s Videodrome, with a notable discursion for Fast Company (1979), a film about young racing freaks. Cronenberg’s steadily mounting reputation eventually saw him gain Hollywood backing (even as he remained a firmly Canada-based filmmaker) for the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1984), a remake of the ‘50s sci-fi film The Fly (1986), and the psychological horror-thriller Dead Ringers (1988), works that cemented his fame and for many represent his major achievements. Cronenberg then began stepping away from straight genre films, whilst not abandoning his signature aesthetics and provocations. As hot and cold as I tend to blow on much of Cronenberg’s later oeuvre, his early work remains uniquely potent. Not just for the authorial stamp he managed to apply on stringent budgets, coolly energetic and charged with unique personality whilst free of the mannered style he would later develop, but for the way he smartly blended the familiar structures and codes of standard genre storylines and used them, not unlike his perversely transforming characters, as vessels for his concerns, his preoccupation with the body, disease, transformation, and abnormality fuelled by his strictly atheistic artistic and philosophical viewpoints.

The American alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, is often noted by genre critics and historians as particularly cogent when it comes to analysing just what Cronenberg did with his work. Where the titles of the 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Them! (1954) encapsulated the era’s anxieties, aimed towards the alien, the unknown, the pitiless other, Cronenberg explicitly recast the equation as the real source of threat and fear as sourced within ourselves, minds and bodies. Rather than seeing the post-World War II landscape of clean-lined modernist buildings and accompanying promises of physical and mental purity purveyed in modern consumerist culture and its wares, Cronenberg saw lurking neurosis blooming, alienation and divorcement, engendering a state of anxiety all the more insidious because it seems to have no cause. If classical Gothic horror as defined by artists like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe provided a psychological landscape rooted in impressions of a decayed and diseased hangover of the past and bygone worldviews and powers, Cronenberg went to the opposite extreme, identifying the percolating fear that even in the most seemingly sterile and ahistorical of surrounds disease and decay still await, the illusion of stability just that. The body, increasingly the object of commoditised perfection in advertising, pop culture, and pornography in the mass media, post-Sexual Revolution age, visions of fit, trim, desirable beauty replete on television and in magazines, was still prey to the same forces as ever, but such forces had now taken on the aspect of a form of heresy to the modern religion. On the other hand, looking a little more deeply, one sees that Cronenberg’s key preoccupations are actually very old, indeed profoundly embedded in a medievalist worldview, where sex and death are perfectly linked, and their umbilicus is the welfare of body.

Cronenberg wasn’t the first to dabble with such themes, even if he was the first to definitively unify them. Cronenbergian ideas are apparent in ancestors like I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) with its specific take on fear of alien infiltration as invested with erotic and maternal anxiety. Roger Corman, with his 1963 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Haunted Palace, placed proto-Cronenbergian horror, manifest in imagery of alien impregnation and hordes of misshapen human by-products, wrapped within the more familiar, old-fashioned Gothic style. Shivers bore incidental but important resemblance to J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, published the same year as Shivers’ release, as Ballard’s novel took up the same idea of a shiny new residential building swiftly degenerating into lawless barbarism. The early scenes of Shivers display how well Cronenberg understood his assignment as a new player in the ‘70s exploitation movie game, but also clearly convey his ability to spike the brew with unique ingredients. The film opens with slide show advertising a swanky new apartment building development, Starliner Towers, built on an island in the St Lawrence River just outside Montreal. A smooth voice lists the building’s features and services over pictures of the building and its surrounds whilst the opening credits unfurl. Cronenberg’s targeting is immediately precise and deadly, lampooning the language of advertising and the illusions of aspiration it exploits – you too can be a superior human being if you live in our well-decorated sky-riding concrete boxes, with nature kept thoroughly in its place.

Cronenberg immediately and brutally attacks this as he cuts between benign scenes of residents shuffling in and out, like a pair of blonde newlyweds who settle down to sign their lease with the building manager, Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik, who had also appeared in Stereo and Crimes of the Future and is a key performer in Cronenberg’s early work), with a vicious crime: a teenage girl wearing a school uniform, Annabelle Brown (Cathy Graham), tries to hold out a man bashing his way through the door of her apartment. The man, Dr Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), manages to crash through and brutally assaults Annabelle despite her fierce resistance, finally throttling her to death. He lays her corpse on a table and cuts open her abdominal cavity with a scalpel after taping her mouth shut, and pours a bottle of acid into her guts. Hobbes then slices his own throat. This bewildering act of intimate violence seems to pass unnoticed by the rest of the building. Meanwhile, in another apartment, an insurance investigator, Nick Tudor (Allan Kolman, billed as Alan Migicovsky), is suffering from stomach pains, and acts coldly towards his concerned wife Janine (Susan Petrie). When he leaves for work, he first heads to Annabelle’s apartment, making it plain that he’s her lover. Tudor discovers the scene of horror there, and leaves without reporting it. The corpses are instead officially discovered by Dr Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), who runs a medical clinic catering to Skyliner residents, as he makes a house call. Roger is interviewed by a homicide detective, Heller (Barry Bolero), but both men are equally baffled by the crime.

Roger, who was taught by Hobbes at medical school, only begins to get an idea of what transpired when he talks to a friend, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), who worked with Hobbes. Linsky, looking through Hobbes’ papers, tells Roger the former professor was fired in disgrace after being caught fondling Annabelle during a visit to her girls’ school when she was 12, and then carried on having an affair with her and paying for her apartment at Skyliner. Linsky comments acerbically that, whilst being a pervert and a lousy teacher, Hobbes had unique genius for getting grants, and had a genuinely curious mind. One of his ideas was to breed a species of parasitic organism that could be implanted into human beings and take over the function of diseased organs. Roger and Linsky soon begin to realise that Hobbes had succeeded in creating such an organism and implanted it in Annabelle to test it, only for her to start showing signs of wanton instability, and his murder was an attempt to destroy the parasite before it could be spread. Trouble is, Annabelle has already slept with several men in the building, including Tudor and an older ladies’ man, Brad (actor unidentified), who has seen Roger for a check-up and reported similar abdominal pains to those Tudor is experiencing, and whilst Tudor himself refuses to see a doctor, Janine reports the issue to Roger.

Cronenberg spares time amidst this to note some of the denizens of Skyliner, like Brad chatting up women whilst also giving away his own anxieties as he talks about vitamin therapies in the clinic waiting room, and two old ladies ambling by the tower with unfortunate timing, as Tudor vomits a parasite over his balcony high above, and the bloody, wriggling creature lands on one woman’s plastic umbrella. The doorman (Wally Martin) sits about the lobby reading paperback potboilers and admits to having never drawn the gun he carries, and Merrick tries to deal with all problems with much sanguine salesmanship as he can muster. Roger himself is in a relationship with his nurse, Forsythe (Lynn Lowry). The parasite Tudor vomits up crawls into a sewer and gets back into the building, where some kids glimpse it squirming around, and it later springs upon a woman (Nora Johnson) in the laundry room, burning her face as squirms upon it before slipping into her mouth and taking up residence. This process is repeated in a daisy chain of rapes and flailing couplings, as everyone in the building becomes infected with the parasites, which renders them, after periods of disorientation and sometimes illness, powerfully and even violently aroused, some to the point of mindless compulsion.

The film’s most significant subplot involves Janine and her friend and confidant in the tower, Betts (Barbara Steele), a friendship that shades into a simmering lesbian flirtation. Betts is single and independent and self-possessed whilst Janine languishes in a mordant caricature of a standard heterosexual marriage. One that sees her husband becoming much fonder of the parasitic organism squirming inside his stomach and stimulating his most intensely onanistic desires, talking tenderly to the thing as it pokes at his belly, than he is of his increasingly distraught and frustrated wife. Only when the parasite’s influence grows strong does Tudor suddenly charge up with lust for Janine, who is understandably perturbed and flees their apartment for Betts’s. But Betts herself has already had a close encounter with one of the parasites, which crawls out of her bathtub drain as she’s bathing, and crawls inside her nether regions in a welter of blood and quasi-orgasmic squirming. Later she comes on to Janine in the same suddenly compulsive and urgent way and the two share a deep kiss: Cronenberg zeroes in to note a bulge in Betts’ throat passing on into Janine’s as she’s infected with a parasite, in a gleeful travesty of pornographic intensity.

The look and atmosphere of Shivers does indeed have something of a strong resemblance to ‘70s porn movies with its blatant fill lighting and filming in chintzy-neat environs, and sequences like the early depiction of Annabelle’s murder, where the actress looks obviously too old for her part, do resemble porn set-ups. Cronenberg turns this to his advantage. He manages to skewer both the niceties of genre movie exposition and the mercenary wont of erotica when he portrays Roger being tauntingly distracted by Forsyth as she strips off her nurse uniform as he’s trying to listen to Linsky’s explanation about what Hobbes was up to. The blank, bright look of the film gives it all a clinical severity. Cronenberg uses the building in a fashion reminiscent in a way of the apartments around James Stewart’s abode in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954): where in Hitchcock’s film the surrounding flats became cinematic projection surfaces for the hero’s various needs and anxieties, Cronenberg fills Skyliner with people whose secret fantasies and hungers soon take them over, spilling out of their little boxes and into public spaces to be enacted. The film was shot in a building designed by the famed modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, giving Cronenberg’s sense of both fetishism and suspicion for such locales a dose of specific grandeur. The cast is mostly made-for-TV anonymous save for Steele, the once-beloved English star of Italian Horror movies, and Lowry, who came to Cronenberg via George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) and Radley Metzger’s Score (1974), whilst Silver’s marvellously air no-nonsense intelligence and deep-voiced presence was carried over to Rabid.

Shivers’ narrative form has some strong resemblance to ‘70s disaster movies, like the Airport films, with their social cross-section characters and interest in evolving personal and sexual mores, forced into a tight space in a crisis situation, bringing out hidden dimensions of character from rank pathos to unexpected heroism. Moreover, the very end of the film strongly, and amusingly, resembles the ritual ending of the TV show The Love Boat, itself a derivation of the Airport template with disaster removed and concentrating instead on fulfilment-seeking Me Decade mores, everyone now installed in seemingly correct partnerings. A more experienced Cronenberg might have developed many of these character vignettes more to wield more concisely developed ironies and to pack more metaphorical and thematic punch, but on the other hand their randomness does befit his insistence on treating the inhabitants of Skyliner more as subjects in a sociological-scientific study. Hobbes’ name echoes back to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes with his famously pessimistic view of humanity and nature, and his design for his parasitical creation, Linksy says when reading Hobbes’ notes to Roger over the phone, provides what might as well be a mission statement for Cronenbergian cinema, “‘Man is an animal that thinks too much – an over-rational animal that’s lost touch with its body and its instincts’…In other words, too much brains and not enough guts.” Linsky again quotes Hobbes in his design for the parasite: “A combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that’ll hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.”

But Shivers could also be, gross and disturbing as it is, the closest thing Cronenberg has made to an out-and-out comedy. The story set-up with all the buttoned-down neighbours becoming increasingly randy and wild is the stuff of farce. Visions like the parasite, after being vomited up, splatting against a biddy’s umbrella, and then leaping out of a washing machine to plant itself on a host’s face, evoke utter absurdity before swivelling hard to the grotesque. Other, sardonic touches like Linsky and Roger squabbling over the lunch they’re munching down in between discussing Hobbes’ gut-infesting creation, have a Hitchcockian flavour. Inherent in Shivers’ thesis is a darkly concerted satire on post-1960s mores, with Cronenberg providing a metaphor for the accruing costs of a rapidly mutating social survey in which everyone has become a kind of free-floating entity seeking out erotic and emotional fulfilment. This implicitly sceptical attitude helped earn Cronenberg the first of many attempts to critique him for a lurking reactionary streak, which would be amplified by elements of his films like the gross portrait of neurotic matriarch in The Brood. Cronenberg’s habitual disinterest in clarifying his thinking on such matters didn’t help. Crucially, Cronenberg’s approach keeps in mind the essential duty of the Horror genre artist, which is to provoke rather than try to mollify the audience’s anxiety, to enter deeply into profoundly uneasy fantasies and psychological zones – one reason why the genre still resist being entirely domesticated despite shifts that have seen a filmmaker like Cronenberg move from the very fringe of culture to its respectable centre. Whilst Cronenberg’s early work gained serious attention in some quarters in its time as well as unease and revulsion in others, it took the age of AIDS to make what he was getting at seem urgent, as sexual activity was suddenly seen as consequential again as it was before the invention of the contraceptive pill, and Cronenberg’s cinema was taken up with particular fervour by queer cineastes as the disease impacted their community, appalled by the strange spectacle of bodies rebelling and collapsing.

Shivers is a messy movie, one that Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have thought through too deeply, instead representing a madcap travelogue through the building blocks of his imaginative concerns, invested with an energy and abandon that sometimes seems more reminiscent of Romero or Ken Russell than his own, later, carefully modulated style. Much of Shivers unfolds in a state of flux without a clear narrative backbone, and an edge of the surreal to some of its vignettes in a story that’s supposed to be at least vaguely couched in rational motivations. Aspects of the story don’t make much sense, like why the parasites are so dangerously corrosive outside the body, and the differing behaviour of the infected, although the latter detail can, arguably, be the product of their different characters: the parasites don’t control them but provoke them to unleash their most deeply egocentric behaviours. That Cronenberg opens the movie bluntly with Hobbes’ crime and death means that the plot is left to be explained by Linsky rather than discovered and enacted. When he would return to a similar kind of maniacal savant figure for the likes of The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Cosmopolis (2012), Cronenberg would find rich dramatic value in making them central antiheroes. And yet the messiness nonetheless is a large part of what makes Shivers interesting, particularly as the DNA just about the whole of Cronenberg’s future oeuvre is somewhere in the churn, and indeed its many body horror followers, including Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

The scenes focusing on the Tudors, with the husband becoming fixated and even charmed by his new, transforming, suddenly bilaterally inhabited body, much to his wife’s flailing despair, before monstrosity consumes him, presents all the essentials of The Fly in miniature. When Linsky comes to the building to see Tudor at Rogers request, he’s attacked by one of the parasites which burns his face, forcing Linsky to try and kill it, whereupon Tudor launches on Linsky and kills him to protect one of his spawn, in a scene of striking, agonised pathos. When Roger finds Linsky dead and Tudor standing over him, the doctor abandons his humanism and guns Tudor down. Roger, having saved Forsythe from being raped by the infected doorman by shooting him dead, finds she’s already been infected, a parasite bobbing gruesomely within her mouth as she experiences a spasm. Before the reveal, Forsythe raves on about a dream she had where a dirty old man explained to her that everything in life experience contains an erotic element – another thesis statement from the director. Cronenberg’s delight in fillips of esoteric detail and weird organisations is also in evidence, as when Linsky notes that Hobbes gained funding from an organisation calling itself the Northern Hemisphere Organ Transplant Society.

Shivers plainly takes a great deal of licence from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as it portrays a steady degeneration and collapse of the protagonists before the increasing hordes of the infected, and The Crazies, with its theme of spreading contagion causing aberrant behaviour: Lowry’s presence makes the connection more immediate. Some later scenes of the infected launching on the heroes in narrow corridors and crashing through barricades, as well as the setting and satirical purview, might have planted seeds in Romero’s mind for Dawn of the Dead (1978). Another evident influence is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in the general portrait of a relentlessly subsumed populace being made into something other than entirely human, and the revelation of Forsyth’s infection strongly recalls the similar twist in the Siegel film. Steele’s presence meanwhile connects the film to a different tradition, her dark, tantalising features, so perfect for the sensuous witches of Italian Gothic Horror, here embodies a modernised version of the same kind of figure.

As the building’s populace is entirely consumed Roger, the last uninfected men, is forced to abandon Forsythe after initially trying to gag her and carry her out of the building. He scurries around the corridors witnessing increasingly depraved sights, like a man leading twin teenage girls acting like dogs on leashes, and a father who enthusiastically exhibits his daughter’s beauty before grasping her in a passionate embrace. Cronenberg’s perturbing interest in paedophilia as a kind of ultimate marker on the fringe of human behaviour, evinced in Crimes of the Future and likely informed by admiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, recurs here, as when a waiter attacks and infects and mother and prepubescent daughter in an elevator. Later they emerge to assault and infect the doorman, girl clinging close to her rapist-lover-infester who sniffs her hair whilst she consumes his suggestive gift of food, before placing blood-smeared mouth on the guard’s to pass on the parasite – another scene that nods heavily to Night of the Living Dead, when the daughter consumes her father. But Cronenberg’s event horizon of behaviour is a descent into completely wanton and amoral sexual behaviour rather than cannibalism. He defines Hobbes as a pervert for a reason, to make him seem less like a pied piper of sex and more like a pathological case who, unable to stand being written off as a weirdo by society, instead tries to remake society in his own image.

Nonetheless the film’s climax is invested with a sarcastic ring of orgiastic festivity and revolutionary explosion, as Roger is finally driven into the building’s swimming pool where Forsythe, Betts, and Janine bob like sirens given up to the new flesh and awaiting their Odysseus to bring under the spell. Roger is crushed by a mass of converging infected and brought into the fold by Forsythe’s consuming kiss. Cronenberg dissolves to the sight of the building’s denizens driving out in a convoy from the underground car-park, heading out into the world to continue spreading their gospel. Roger and Forsythe are glimpsed as a reborn pair of super-swingers, Roger with cigar jutting from his lips and the orchid-wearing Forsythe lighting it for him, followed out by Janine and Betts and other couples. Cronenberg ends the film with one of their cars cruising on the freeway at night whilst a radio announcer describes an outbreak of violent sexual assaults around the city.

The Brood, Cronenberg’s third feature made four years after Shivers, displays a great leap in control on all levels for the director, from narrative and conceptual emphasis to directorial technique. It marked his first collaboration with Shore, whose eerie, sophisticated scoring makes an immediate mark. The film’s opening is betrays the new, crisp sense of purpose, as Cronenberg opens cold on an intense and confronting depiction of psychiatrist Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a psychiatrist who’s created a new field of therapy he dubs “psychoplasmics,” engaged in role-playing therapy with patient Mike Trellan (Gary McKeehan), whose deep neurosis is sourced in anger and shame for his father. Raglan deftly draws out Mike’s hang-ups in playing the part of the father, trying to draw Mike through to a cathartic rupture, climaxing when Mike shows off seething buboes manifesting on his torso, the physical expression of his mental anguish. The session is occurring before an audience of interested colleague, acolytes, and students, at Raglan’s Somafree Clinic. Amongst the onlookers is Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), an architect who looks on with grim fascination whilst others comment with awe that Raglan is a genius. Frank has come to Raglan’s therapeutic retreat to fetch his daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), who’s been on a visit to her mother Nola (Samantha Eggar). Nola is currently being isolated for intense therapy with Raglan in a cottage separate to the main clinic. She and Frank are separated and estranged because of Nola’s intense, borderline maniacal neuroses. When he gets Candice home, Frank is appalled to find scratches and bruises all over her back, and, assuming Nola made them, looks into preventing Nola reclaiming her, getting Nola’s mother Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald) to look after her as he goes on the warpath.

The blunt opening on a process of enquiry and revelation echoes on in Cronenberg’s films to the infamous panel demonstration at the start of Scanners that ends with a head exploding, and the lengthy early therapy scenes of A Dangerous Method (2011), a film which returned to Cronenberg’s interest in and scepticism for the world of psychiatry. McKeehan gives a fiendishly convincing performance as the emotionally crucified and desperately needy man-child whose jealousy at being displaced by Nola as the focus of Raglan’s attentions ultimately proves important to the story, whilst Reed instantly emblazons Raglan’s blend of cool professional authority mated to insidious rat cunning when it comes to getting into the heads of his patients. Cronenberg aims acid satire on the New Age therapy craze of the ‘70s as a new form of secular religion, portraying the arrogant Raglan as a kind of cult leader, provoking people in his care to the point of crisis in acts of theatre whilst also rendering himself a messianic figure of epiphany and redemption. “You sound hostile,” he remarks coolly to Frank as he confronts him with righteous wrath.

Cronenberg has been unusually forthcoming about the origins of The Brood, which he wrote in a frenzy of purgative activity, sourced in his bitter divorce and custody battle with his first wife. As this suggests, where Shivers was a communal portrait, The Brood is a tightly focused character and family drama with added elements of surreal grotesquery. The Brood also has a reputation for being perhaps the darkest and most disturbingly violent of his early films: certainly compared to the flashes of black comedy in Shivers or the interludes of action movie-tinged pyrotechnics of Scanners it’s a compressed and ruthless ride, one that enters into a zone of unmediated expression of personal angst that’s rather singular in Cronenberg’s career. As Frank delves deeper into Raglan’s method and plans a lawsuit, he’s thrust into the company of a disaffected former patient, Jan Hartog (Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman), who has a growth on his neck which he keeps hidden and a form of cancer both of which he says were caused by psychoplasmic therapy. Meanwhile, as Raglan works on her in their therapy sessions, Nola expresses vehement rage at her mother, who she accuses of beating and mistreating her, and her father who weakly refused to intervene and eventually left. Meanwhile Juliana explains to young Cindy that Nola was often in hospital as a child because she would suffer spontaneous physical injuries: when young Nola was already manifesting the psychoplasmic talent which Raglan prizes as the perfect test case to prove his theories.

Eggar, who had first gained attention in William Wyler’s The Collector (1966) as the victim of an obsessive and destructively controlling young man who kidnaps her, here was cast in something close to the opposite role. Eggar offers an unnervingly convincing performance as the kind of deeply egocentric and self-mesmerising mania who might well be conjuring crimes and abuses from her past to justify more nebulous discontent, and constantly whipping her emotions up with scant justifications, largely at Raglan’s enabling encouragement, as her spectacle of suffering is his bounty of data. What neither of them is entirely aware of is that the physical by-products of these sessions enact her poisonous emotions. Cronenberg doesn’t entirely reveal what’s going on until the climax, when Nora displays for Frank’s horrified edification that through the psychoplasmic process she’s grown a new, exterior womb, and gives birth to drone-like and deformed children who vaguely resemble Candice, and who live in the attic of Nora’s hut. The Brood, as Raglans calls them, are also possessed of malevolent and murderous intelligence, and set out to deliver Nora’s wrath. One of them sneaks into Juliana’s house and beats her to death with a kitchen mallet, Candice glimpsing sight of the bloodied body sprawled on the floor and the diminutive killer, glaring down at her from the staircase.

When Nora’s father Barton (Henry Beckman) comes to Toronto for the funeral, he approaches Raglan to get him to bring Nora out, but is appalled when Raglan refuses to interrupt Nora’s seclusion. Later Barton gets drunk and weepy in Juliana’s house, and Frank goes to pick him up, leaving Candice in the care of her teacher, Ruth Mayer (Susan Hogan), to whom Candice has turned to as a maternal substitute and represents a faint glimmer of romantic interest for Frank. Before Frank can reach him, however, Barton is attacked and killed by the small assassin, which beats him to death with some glass globes. Entering the house, Frank sees and pursues the dwarf, only to corner it in the bathroom where it suddenly curls up and dies. Meanwhile Nora tries to ring Frank at his house, and when Ruth answers the phone, Nora immediately assumes she’s Frank’s lover, and becomes consumed with the conviction she can have perfect family happiness again if only she can get Ruth out of her life.

The Brood could be described as the ultimate cinematic adaptation of Philip Larkin’s famous poem ‘This Be The Verse,’ with its sentiment, “They fuck you, your mum and dad,” as Cronenberg expresses an aching sense of the way cycles of damage repeat in families. Candice (and other children) is repeatedly exposed to the brutalising effects of the chaos enveloping her family, emotional damage made literal by the lurking, murderous homunculi. Nora denies to Raglan that she wants to fashion Candice into another version of her, but by the film’s end has achieved exactly that result. Frank, whilst far more practical and forceful than Barton, who’s reduced to weeping in despair over the failure of his life duties just before he’s murdered, has almost the opposite problem in trying to save his daughter: he has such a vehement, and largely justified, vein of anger that he has trouble keeping on a leash when he requires diplomatic cool. The climax revolves around this very issue, as Frank has to keep Nora mollified long enough to ensure Candice’s rescue from the Brood, but cannot keep his cool when she exposes her most perverse new habits to him, a lapse that has fatal consequences. Meanwhile, when a pathologist examines the corpse of the dead homunculus Frank brings in, he notes that it has no sexual organs, and with symbolic portent comments, “I should think his vision of the world is very distorted. I’m pretty certain he only sees in black-and-white, no colours.” A product of rage that is the embodiment of the lack of nuance.

Cronenberg himself noted that despite its highly original qualities, The Brood was actually the most classically structured of his horror films. That’s easy enough to make out. It sustains a familiar alternation of plot development and suspense sequences punctuated by slasher movie-like killings, and recalls old genre films like The Invisible Ray (1936) in dealing with a victim/villain, newly endowed with supernormal characteristics, using that weird talent to commit a series of killings in revenge for perceived wrongs. Raglan is an wittily updated version of a mad scientist, and his eventual comeuppance recalls the end of Island of Lost Souls (1932). A scene of him creeping tensely through the Brood’s room trying not to disturb them recalls the end of The Birds (1963), and the concept of a shadow school populated by alien children echoes Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963), which also starred Reed. The gnarled, murderous “children” were plainly inspired by the ending of one of Cronenberg’s favourite films, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The connection between Nola and the Brood and the idea of psychoplasmics itself is reminiscent of Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), with its driving concept of mind-projecting alien technology spawning monstrous actualisations of the id that attack and annihilate threats.

Cronenberg nonetheless fuses and compresses his influences and kneads them to serve his personal urges. The concept of people essentially becoming artists who work with a palette of their own flesh is one that bobs up repeatedly in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. This idea is embryonic in Shivers, with Hobbes’ efforts to create the parasite his own attempt to assert the transformative potential of creation over social convention, and is apparent in The Fly, Naked Lunch (1990), eXistenZ (1998) and the latter Crimes of the Future. The warping and transitioning of the flesh becomes another tool of, and also a tool working upon, human action and creation. It’s approached here on a most visceral and perturbing level, of course, with Nora constructing homunculi that paint in shades of red. Nora, as a fierce and vindictive exemplar of the very idea of the monstrous feminine, is contrasted with Ruth, an image of unthreatening femininity, with her pixie hairdo and job teaching young children (although not in any way childlike herself and canny enough to recognise getting involved with Frank at this point in his life isn’t a great idea). She teaches kids in one of those concrete-and-glass institutional structures that anyone who was a kid in the ‘70s or ‘80s will instantly recognise.

After the discovery and examination of the drone homunculus, Frank naturally assumes there’s no further danger, but whilst he chats with one of Candice’s classmates’ mothers outside the school, inside Ruth is confronted by two more of the homunculi, who gained entrance to the class because they dress in bright parkas like the other kids. The homunculi snatch up wooden mallets for the class’s woodblock games, launch on Ruth, and beat her to death before the horror-frozen kids, except for one lad who dashes out for help and fetches Frank. He arrives too late, the homunculi having snatched Candice away and left the empty-eyed Ruth in a pool of blood. This scene, one of the most infamous in his oeuvre and indeed of the genre, highlights Cronenberg’s most viciously unsentimental streak, eliminating all semblance of familiar story and emotional cushioning, and makes the dark unease about what the kids are witnessing all the more disturbingly immediate. He still has an eye for pathos, as Frank drapes a piece of crepe paper with a child’s scrawling upon it over Ruth’s staring eyes. The height of outré in 1979, Ruth’s killing now evokes the more frighteningly immediate spectre of violence in schools.

Cronenberg continues to follow the logic of a certain brand of New Age therapeutic advice, with Nora literalising the act of cutting everyone who interferes with her sense of personal mission (in current parlance they’d be dismissed as toxic). Whilst Nora doesn’t know what her homunculi have done, she experiences the emotional results, reporting to Raglan after Ruth’s death that “I just don’t feel threatened by her anymore.” By this time Frank has learned from Mike and Jan that Raglan has cleared out all the residents at the clinic save Nora, because, having seen the photo of the dead homunculus in the newspaper, Raglan has realised the Brood are dangerous but he still doesn’t want to give up on Nora. Frank, searching for Candice with the police, first checks out the apartment Nora was living in after they broke up, and eventually concludes the homunculi must be taking her all the way to the clinic: Cronenberg offers a glimpse of the three siblings ambling along the highway’s edge amidst the snowy, midwinter Ontario landscape. When Frank arrives and confronts Raglan, the doctor is shocked by the news of Ruth’s death and the probability Candice is now with the Brood, and he sends Frank to talk to Nora, to keep her calm and distracted long enough for him to bring Candice out. Frank confronts Nora and starts promising her the moon, and Nora, as if challenging him, decides to reveal her secret and lifts up her robes to display her growth and external womb, which disgorges one of her new children.

This revelation is Cronenberg’s piece de resistance of gruesome outrageousness, and perhaps the most successful dovetailing of metaphor, plot device, and sheer what-the-absolute-fuck visceral impact in Cronenberg’s cinema, delivered somehow utterly straight-faced but charged with just the faintest lilt of absurdist camp. Still it gets taken a step further, thanks to Eggar’s delighted ferocity in the role, as Nora begins licking the blood and afterbirth off the infant like a mother dog with a pup, a vision curtailed by censors at first. Much like Tudor in Shivers, Nora wields a strange and powerful pride in her body’s new expression. Frank’s disgusted reaction ruptures the illusion, and she becomes worked up, stirring the Brood from their cots and launching upon Raglan as and Candice near the door. Raglan shoots several of the Brood but the rest wrestle him to the floor and thrash, beat, and even bite him to death. The Brood then try to kill Candice, as Nora vows to Frank she’s rather seen their daughter dead than with him: Candice locks herself in the bathroom whilst the Brood claw at the door, ripping a hole through it. Frank finally, with a maniacal glaze, wraps his hands around Nora’s throat and, with her external womb and new homunculus squashed between them, he throttles her to death. The homunculi die with her, allowing Frank to leave with Candice.

Cronenberg’s concluding revelation that the weeping, near-catatonic Candice is displaying signs of having developed her mother’s psychoplasmic talent in compensation for a series of ruinous emotional shocks, presents a bleak signature for the director that’s similar to but also inverts the end of Shivers. Where that film found the blackest of black humour in the failure of the heroes and the prospect of the oncoming liberation and “beautiful, mindless orgy,” The Brood sups arsenic-dark irony as Frank’s efforts to rescue his daughter seem only to have helped perpetuate the cycle of abuse and maladaptation. And yet the ultimate end of this cannot be known: for a parent, every day is a new day of creation. Cronenberg dances close to the edge of the pathological with The Brood, and it earned suspicion from some quarters of expressing seething misogyny. And perhaps it does, but it also weaponises and analyses the impulse, the awe and repulsion inspired by the very idea of the birth process and the mystified realm of motherhood. Like most of Cronenberg’s best cinema, it finds a raw nerve, presses it, and keeps pressing.

Standard
1960s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, French cinema, Thriller

Les Biches (1968) / La Femme Infidèle (1969)

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Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenwriters: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff / Claude Chabrol

In memoriam: Jean-Louis Trintignant 1930-2022
In memoriam: Michel Bouquet 1925-2022

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years Claude Chabrol, as if slyly mimicking one of his apparently benign but quietly, roguishly purposeful protagonists, turned out deftly crafted movies with the taciturn relentlessness of a fine jeweller in a small, dimly-lit workshop. Amongst the ranks of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol stood out for many reasons. A provincial lad rather than a Parisian, Chabrol was the son and grandson of small town pharmacists, but he became obsessed with movies from the age of 12 onwards. When he headed off to study pharmacology at the Sorbonne he also hung around Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française and other movie theatres, where he made a clutch of friends fellow young movie freaks with odd ideas, men with names like Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette. After a stint in military service, Chabrol joined his pals in working for a film commentary magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. Chabrol took up some of the ideas of their elder statesman Andre Bazin in advocating the use of deep focus photography in aiding a generally realistic kind of art that engaged the audience’s attention without compelling it. He became particularly obsessed with the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, the dark poets of genre cinema, although Chabrol would absorb their fascination for criminality and the abnormal impulses in seemingly ordinary people and wed it to a more particular palette.

Whilst his pals faced making the leap from critics to filmmakers by shooting short films and learning craft on film crews, Chabrol used a lucky windfall from an inheritance to finance his debut, 1958’s Le Beau Serge, often seen as the first true movie of the French New Wave (depending on how one feels about Agnes Varda’s La Pointe-Courte, 1954). Le Beau Serge, essentially a character study of two troubled young medical students, proved a success. Chabrol quickly followed it with Les Cousins, a film that more properly instituted Chabrol’s career as it became known, evincing his fascination with morally ambivalent characters belonging to the French bourgeoisie, punctuated by acts of murder. Chabrol wrote the film with his soon-to-be regular collaborator Paul Gégauff, who would eventually be stabbed to death by his second wife. Chabrol’s early financial successes allowed him to help several of his New Wave compatriots make their own debuts. But Chabrol had trouble maintaining his profile through much of the 1960s even as he evolved in a different, more commercial direction from his New Wave fellows. His few admired and successful films in this period, like Les Bonne Femmes (1960), a portrait of four young women working in the same store but on different paths in life, and a study of a notorious serial killer, Landru (1962), were interspersed with failures that betrayed an uncertainty about just what kinds of films he wanted to make.

The ones he did make included several comic spy movies, and a tilt at winning some international traction, with the bilingual-shot, Anthony Perkins-starring The Champagne Murders (1967), a film that pointed where Chabrol was heading, including in showcasing the talents of his actress wife Stéphane Audran. Chabrol wed Audran, with whom he first worked on Les Cousins, after his first marriage broke up, and she soon became the obsessive focal point and ingenious performing linchpin of his films. Beginning with Les Biches Chabrol began working with the producer André Génovès, and their collaboration churned out a string of icy-crisp psychological thrillers including La Femme Infidèle, This Man Must Die (1969), Le Boucher (1970), La Rupture (1970), and Just Before Nightfall (1971), all slow, unnerving tales punctuated with carefully observed and prepared acts of violence, and often sporting ambiguous resolutions. Pauline Kael would quip these films resembled sardines in a can even as they largely remain his most famous works. Eventually Chabrol resumed varying his output, interspersing the thrillers he was now famous for with political and personal dramas an even the odd dark comedy, right up until his death in 2010. Chabrol confessed at one point that he made lesbianism an aspect of the plot of Les Biches to try and juice up its commercial prospects, but it seems to have helped Chabrol nail down the texture of woozy, strange, displaced sensuality that would charge his movies in this phase.

Les Biches, a title which translates as “The Does” – as in deer, a female deer – wields elusive mesmerism as it counts down the moments to what one feels instinctively from the start will be a bad end. Les Biches also ends at more or less a point which La Femme Infidèle (which would receive a slick and Hollywoodised remake years later in the form of Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, 2002), uses as its pivot, tweaking narrative formula several degrees by displacing the inevitable moment of rupture to the middle of the film, and then studying the aftermath with much the same blandly dissembling style as it offered the prelude. Chabrol had famously identified the “transference of guilt” theme in Hitchcock’s films, and it proved a shared point of interest for the two directors as a zone of concern where psychological phenomena and Catholic theology overlap. This is the fascination for the way characters find themselves inheriting and contending with the wrongs of others, often manifesting as some sort of false accusation of a transgressive act, with a subtler underlying game of affinities, and the way this currency of moral debt underpins “civilised” existence on an explicit and subliminal level, as every urge to break a rule is matched by a desire to restore it. It’s a tendency Chabrol ultimately identifies as close to essential in close human relationships like a marriage, although he first began playing with it on Le Beau Serge’s study of two friends.

Les Biches seems to sidestep that kind of traditional moral prism nonetheless by focusing on what were at the time considered perverse relationships, only to find such reflexes can be especially strong in such cases. Les Biches concerns the triangular love affair that binds the imperious, idiosyncratic rich girl Frédérique (Audran), the reticent waif known as only as Why (Jacqueline Sassard), and listless ladykiller architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and tells it in five named parts – three central chapters named for the three characters, plus a prologue and epilogue. The prologue recounts how Frederique encounters Why one day whilst sauntering around the Seine, in a sequence that has a studied feeling of erotic portent, like a fantasy realised. Why attracts attention with the naïf chalk art of does she scratches into the paving, and with her scrappy beauty, swathed in faded blue denim, whilst Frederique looks like she could be auditioning for a Dietrich-and-Von-Sternberg-influenced Vogue photo shoot: she in turn gains Why’s attention by tossing her a 500 franc note. The pair adroitly cruise each-other, and Frederique takes Why back to her house, treating her to a hot bath as they flirt and skirt around the point until Why tries to dress. Frederique, after insisting on tying her shirt in a knot across her wet belly, that starts caressing and picking at the buckle of her jeans. One of the great sexy vignettes of cinema, and also a mere entrée to a film that carefully avoids giving sexploitation thrills whilst conveying a deep-flowing stream of erotic fervour.

Chabrol employs a quick, witty fade from Frederique opening Why’s pants to a title card announcing the first chapter proper, named for Frederique: the goodies are opened but the trove is going to prove troublesome. Frederique takes Why to stay at her villa at Saint Tropez, close to the Port de Cogolin, a yacht basin she owns and operates and inherited from her grandfather. Frederique is vague and evasive in explaining the site’s roots in some kind of wartime deal. Frederique and Why, strolling around the basin and lying in the sun on a yacht, as Why tells Frederique she’s a virgin, a fact she expects Frederique to be sceptical about (“I think it’s noble of you,” Frederique assures her with a listless yawn), and Frederique recounts her own listless affairs with local yobs during the boring winters (“Games of bowls and games of cards…and other games as well…and then there are the intellectual pleasures.”) but also says she feels Why needs exposure to her peculiar little world, and Why does indeed fit in well, proving an accomplished bowls player. As well as stalwart housekeeper Violetta (Nane Germon) Frederique is also keeping at the villa Robèque (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi), a pair of eccentric, prickly, possibly gay men, and she regularly hosts parties for the local bohemians. Frederique and Why’s affair seems to be fairly idyllic until, at one of those parties, Frederique plays cards with Robèque, Riais, and Paul, one her acquaintances around town. Let the games begin.

Chabrol took some inspiration for Les Biches from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (Gégauff had already written René Clement’s adaptation, Purple Noon, 1960), flipping genders but retaining the essential motif of a poor stray taken in by a wealthy host-friend-lover and finding they can’t stand being weaned off the teat when the time comes. The title evokes toe-dabbing sinuosity of deer, a deeply sarcastic evocation of the peculiarly feminine type of violence depicted, and the balletic strains of Debussy, infusing the dances of character and camera. Chabrol’s peculiar art soon evinces itself in the way he seems to be extremely plainspoken about most of what goes on in the movie, both dramatically and stylistically, and yet remains tantalisingly reticent about the most vital. At the outset Frederique seems to be the character with all the power, broadly conforming to a stereotype of a wealthy, decadent lesbian with her penchant for mannish if still chic clothing, doing what Why suggests is a man’s job, her roguish seduction, and playing the manipulative queen bee for all in her sphere. She has a collection of game trophies and relics obtained from safaris in Kenya and Mozambique, as “I love hunting.” She’s also the emblematic representative of a privileged class, drawing people into her orbit with money and then controlling them with it.

But as events unfold Frederique proves a more complex and rather less formed personality than she poses as. The card match that introduces Paul proves a subtle, visually and behaviourally charged set-piece, as Paul notices Why and constantly glances at her, whilst she hovers a distance behind Frederique, munching on a suggestive apple. Frederique, dominating the table in both deed and in Chabrol’s framing, becomes increasingly glazed with a heavy-lidded and tight-wound as veneer of stoic calm as she continues to fleece Robèque and Riais and starts bossing Why around. Later, when the party breaks up, Paul and Why go off for a drive together, and Frederique promises to le Robèque and Riais keep the money she won off them if they’ll follow the couple and tell her what happens between them. The proposition here seems initially obvious – Frederique, fearing her lover will be stolen from her by a man, manipulates her two hapless minions to keep an eye on them and see if her fears will come true. And yet as the story unfolds Frederique sets her own sights on Paul, initially perhaps for revenge, but possibly also having deliberately wanted Why and Paul to pair off, perhaps to get rid of Why, or to use her as a kind of test case in a scientific experiment, as if wanting to see if Why will lose her virginity and what will happen as a result. Why herself hesitates before letting Paul seduce her with a warning on her lips, whether to inform him she’s a virgin or she’s been sleeping with Frederique, only to decide whatever it was isn’t worth confessing. The innermost thoughts and experiences of Chabrol’s characters tend to remain opaque in this manner. But the detonations that punctuate their behaviour aren’t necessarily more explicable to them than to the onlooker.

This idea is most vividly illustrated in the pivotal killing in La Femme Infidèle, where the urge to commit the killing seems to come and go like a muscle tic. “Of course,” Chabrol told Time Out magazine in 1970, “I’m not interested in solving puzzles. I am interested in studying the behaviour of people involved in murders. If you don’t know who the murderer is, that would seem that he is not interesting enough to be known and studied.” And yet Les Biches holds its cards close to its chest until the very end about who will kill and will be killed, and the manoeuvrings of the three characters ultimately tells us who they are without revealing all of what they are. It’s conceivable Paul might catch Frederique and Why together and experience some spasm of chauvinist outrage, just as it’s credible Frederique could kill one of the other in a show of desperate power. Or that Why’s bouts of floating melancholia might be hiding a maniacal streak, sparked by a need to cling on to what little toehold she has in the world of wealth and human warmth she currently has as an eccentric exile, and offence at being ejected by not one but two lovers.

All of this exists nonetheless in a superficial state of flux in a movie that plays out for much of its length as a muted study of sexual and romantic disaffection and uneasy cohabitation. A seemingly casual joke early in the film in which Frederique can’t tell a first edition from a reprint encodes the lurking danger of smudging authentic and chosen affinities. Les Biches could be called, in the fashion of Chabrol’s friend Eric Rohmer, a winter’s tale (much as Rohmer’s films often play as Chabrol films without murders, carefully inscribed legends about small but life-changing epiphanies): Saint Tropez, playground of the rich and famous in summer, is in the off-season just another dull resort town, the local beds as much refuges as playpens. The situation could easily be played for Buñuelian black comedy, new-age Lubistch, sex romp teasing, or hardcore porn. Instead Chabrol pushes cinematographer Jean Rabier’s camera on in motion, refuses to let anything resolve, forcing the sense of flux, travelling without moving. The sense of inertia extends to the careful art direction and costuming, mostly brightly lit and carefully dressed in pastel shades, rather than colours redolent of consuming passion. Frederique is often glimpsed in arrays of black and white, her authority and security encoded in hard clean hues, and a habit sufficiently signature that Why making herself over in Frederique’s guise becomes a statement, a game with identity suggesting interchangeable personas: “Using other people’s things is like changing your skin,” Why notes to the bewildered Paul.

The cult of the idea of the actress, thing of at once specific beauty and chameleonic prerogative, one Chabrol played more overt games with on The Champagne Murders, bobs to the surface here again as Why tries repeatedly to become Frederique. Frederique herself, smouldering in uncertainty after Why’s tryst with Paul, seeks him out, and finds him fairly nonchalant about his experience with Why: he is instead much more intrigued by Frederique herself as she hovers, robbed of her characteristic hauteur around him, and in his distraction Frederique forgets he was supposed to meet her “protégé” for a date. The pair drink up the dregs of a bottle of cognac and Frederique tosses the bottle in the bay. “She’ll be hurt,” Frederique comments. “Not as much as she would be if I dropped here in two or three weeks,” Paul replies. Paul and Frederique’s affair turns out quickly to be a hot one, and Frederique calmly tells Why they’re going to leave her in the villa and head off to Paris together. Audran and Trintignant’s toey chemistry on screen together can be put down to the fact they briefly married when much younger: Chabrol was fond of such casting stunts. Left on her own, Why wanders around town in a state of anxious disaffection, and pestered by Robèque and Riais as they presume to entertain her, as when they try to draw her into a game of making animals noises with aggressive weirdness: when Why starts silently weeping they guess she’s a crocodile.

Frederique and Paul’s return is inauspicious for Why: the ever so slight flinch Frederique gives when she moves to give Why a greeting kiss when she and Paul return, moving from an on-the-mouth kiss to one on the cheek, is a signal with enormous ramifications. Soon Frederique comes to Why’s bedroom and lies down beside her to report with hints of perplexity her love for Paul, so smitten that even getting books on architecture from him seems a romantic act. Paul moves into the villa, which means room has to be made as Robèque and Riais get increasingly bitchy and Why starts acting increasingly strange, including dressing up as Frederique. Riais describes himself as a revolutionary and encourages Why to act like one, but Why declares she’s fine with the things the way they are. Nor are the revolutionaries up to much. Robèque and Riais are thrown out of paradise when Frederique thinks they’ve spiked their dinner with unpleasant flavouring. Chabrol notably repeats the key framing of Frederique from the card match here, as if to visually declare her power is resurgent, but the impression is undercut with droll comedy as the two men immediately start wheedling money out of her (“It’s not enough for second class…and taxi fare to the station…and dinner on the train.”), which she hands over irritably but obligingly, finally handing over one large note and snatching back the wad of smaller ones. Noblesse oblige.

Finally Chabrol delivers the film’s true climax, which depicts not a murder but a drunken party involving the three lovers in the now-private villa. Paul tries vainly to tell an obscure joke about a man searching for a source of wisdom and failing, whilst Why tries to coax the other two into bed and realise the ménage-a-trois that’s been potentially percolating between the three. Locked out of the holy sepulchre of the master bedchamber, Why crouches at the doors, listening as Frederique and Paul have sex, Why writhing in remote sympathy and gnawing on her fingers whilst envisioning their contortions. Talk about the trickle-down effect. The radical shift of style here delivers an ironically orgasmic switchback that forces Why’s fervent, cheated, distracted state of mind into view as well as the sexual spectacle, one that’s also a dark joke on cinema itself, offering transmissions to the audience basking in the spectacle of other experiences. When she awakens the next day Why finds the other two gone, fled again to Paris, leaving her with some cash and the now totally empty villa.

Why finally begins her rebellion, selecting a poison-coated dagger from amidst Frederique’s African reliquary, and travelling to Frederique’s Parisian house. There she confronts Frederique and confesses her equal love for her and for Paul, a form of passion Frederique, for all her supposed sophistication, can’t or won’t understand: “Your love disgusts me.” Why also describes constantly hearing shouts, as if from people quarrelling, and isn’t sure if they’re living in her head or not, but says they want to make the leap from her to Frederique. “I’d like to throw someone out,” Why retorts when Frederique tells her to leave, “I’m fed up too.” Why stabs Frederique in the back with the dagger as Frederique touches up her makeup, trying to maintain a fierce and fetishised veneer. Chabrol hacks the moment of death up into a succession of quick cuts, life not simply ending but identity fracturing, as Why claims the very being of Frederique: “Have I told you, Frederique, that we look like one-another?” Faced with the choice of being reduced to a psychosexual parasite or to obliterate and subsume objects of ardour, Why chooses the latter. She dresses up in Frederique’s evening gown and gets into her bed: When Paul telephones, Why mimics her voice, breathlessly expressing her desire for his return. Chabrol, with the dry cold of a liquid nitrogen spill, brings up the end title card over the sight of Paul letting himself into the house, leaving whatever comes next to the viewer’s undoubtedly vibrating imagination.

La Femme Infidèle wields a more bluntly declarative title than Les Biches. What happens in it does indeed entirely flow from the central transgressive person and act mentioned in the title, even as its focus and meaning slowly complicates. Said unfaithful woman isn’t the focal point of the tale. Chabrol’s customary terseness again manifests immediately, opening without fanfare in a scene that introduces that woman, Hélène Desvallées (Audran), and her seemingly idyllic state, talking with her mother-in-law whilst seated in the spacious yard of their large house outside Paris. The first shot, a tracking shot moving like an idle trespasser with trees drifting between camera and the seated duo, sets up a motif returned to in the last scene. The two are soon joined by Helene’s husband Charles (Michel Bouquet), a successful insurer, and their young son, Michel (Stephane Di Napoli). Helene and mother-in-law chuckle over a photo of the young Charles, whose middle-aged visage has gained an aspect of roly-poly joviality in his soft and unharried salad days. This very brief pre-credit sequence has a similar flavour to the opening of Les Biches, presenting an islet of fantasy perfection of a kind, before the digging commences. Charles has an ideal job and often gives his wife a lift into Paris so she can spend the day shopping and running errands. Signs of trouble in paradise surface nonetheless when the predictable patterns of life are disrupted, when Charles can’t get Helene on the phone where she said she would be.

Where Les Biches obliged the viewer to offer sympathy and patience to some peculiar people, La Femme Infidele purposefully retells one of the oldest stories around – the tale of a jealous husband who, faced with his wife’s infidelity, kills his rival and tries to get away with it. Chabrol doesn’t offer new twists or present unusual slants on the characters. On the contrary, he strips away as much distraction from the central matter as possible, focusing in on this essential drama and watching it unfold with his customarily cool gaze, almost to the point of offering elemental myth. A key early scene is executed with a stark, satirical directness in portraying a marriage gone to seed: Helene prepares for bed by painting her toenails and donning a brief negligee and laying herself beside Charles, who, saying good night, turns out the light in complete apparent obliviousness to his wife’s evident desire for some connubial attention. Chabrol’s deadpan gaze doesn’t however register it as comedy, presenting it rather as the anecdotal flipside of the opening portrait of an ideal French bourgeois family. The whole film, in a way, follows this pattern, like a farce with the jokes cut out. Charles’ disinterest isn’t however the result of not loving his wife, or loving someone else. He has opportunities to be unfaithful, including with the keen, ditzy, miniskirted Brigitte (Donatella Turri) who’s been hired as a secretary in his offices and who’s already slept with one of Charles’ colleagues. But that’s not what he wants. Perhaps he doesn’t want anything.

Charles is then the victim of a brand of tepid complacency that viewed by Chabrol as a law of nature as pervasive as gravity or thermodynamics, at least in the world of the comfortable upper-middle class. He and Helene are drawn out to a nightclub with a friend who’s recently broken up with his wife, perhaps for the same reasons, where Helene makes a passable show of getting down to the hip-twisting pop music, but Charles looks comically out of place in, and they take too long to get out on the dance floor together to make good use of a slow dance number. Once they’re home bed Charles lies awake whilst his wife sleeps, meditating on his wife’s flimsy excuses for not being where she says she is (she tells him after one such occasion she went and saw Doctor Zhivago again and liked it the second time; and of course that’s a film about infidelity too). When he’s again unable to reach her during one of her Parisian sojourns, Charles unease blooms into outright suspicion, and when meeting with a private investigator he uses to look into insurance claims, he also hires him to follow Helene. When they meet again by the Seine a few days later, the investigator tells Charles his wife has been meeting with a man named Victor Pegala, an author with some independent wealth, visiting his apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine for two hour stretches, three days a week. This marvellous little scene sees the two professionally bland, discreet, unemotional men discussing the blatant and undeniable truth of a deeply wounding breach in clipped and businesslike terms, the plainly gut-punched Charles nonetheless retaining his calm and handing over wads of cash to the investigator, amidst an iconic Paris-is-for-lovers locale caught with its humdrum pants down.

Charles continues to dissemble his way through apparently normal events of life, like celebrating his son coming first in his history class with some champagne. Domestic bourgeois life as kabuki art. But part of Chabrol’s droll implication here is that, rather than this being mere fake window dressing, this is also the texture of ordinary life, of the willed-into-existence state of pleasantry that constitutes civilisation, and from which any extracurricular escapes are merely that. Certainly this seems to be the attitude Charles wants to take, but he cannot resist the urge that comes to pay a visit to Pegala (Maurice Ronet), who (recalling the doubling of Frederique and Why) resembles Charles, if more fit and robust and recently divorced and so ready and able to indulge a casual affair with a bored housewife. The hell of it is Pegala seems like a perfectly good fellow, one who Charles could easily be friends with. He’s solicitous and welcoming when Charles turns up at his door and lulls the lover into being upfront, by telling him that he and Helene both regularly have affairs but he’s a little perturbed by how long this one’s been going on.

By this point Chabrol has already shown a brief scene showing Helene and Pegala together, Helene lounging post-coital in his bed as rain pours outside and pegala bringing tea and snacks in: Chabrol fades from them kissing each-other goodbye (a moment itself modelled of the long kiss in Notorious, 1946), to Helene walking through the rain afterwards, lending their parting a breath of ephemeral poetry and a suggestion of the way these trysts linger on in Helene in revivifying fashion back out in a cold and dreary world, as well as offering tragic foreshadowing: neither knows this is the last time they’ll ever meet. Charles premeditates his visit to Pegala, presenting himself as a smiling charmer at his apartment door: “I’m not a salesman or a beggar…” As the pair settle and sip cordially at whiskey, Charles manages to manoeuvre himself with the skill of a salesman into a position of authority in his exchanges with the pleasant but understandably tense Pegala, not by acting irate and tough but by acting the worldly indulger he becomes a kind of detective, gleaning the tale of a sordid affair. Charles nonetheless loses his control when he sees, in Pegala’s bedroom on a table near his rumpled bed, a large novelty lighter Charles gave her as an anniversary present, but now passed on to Pegala because she felt Charles had forgotten it. After seeing this, Charles starts to act woozy and rambling. Pegala is concerned, and comments, “You look awful.” “Yes, I know,” Charles responds with a sudden flash of sickly amusement. He grabs up a bust from a table, bashing Pegala on the head twice with awful, killing blows, leaving him dead on the floor with rivulets of blood spreading on the floor and flecks of it on Charles’ shuddering hands.

Charles, quickly getting hold of himself after this abrupt act of bloody violence, begins calmly and methodically cleaning up any trace of his presence in the apartment, washing off the bust and other items, before bundling up Pegala’s body in a rug. This he carries downstairs and out to his car, stowing the corpse in the boot, and starts driving out of Paris. One can argue La Femme Infidele comes close to uniting the distinct influences of Lang and Hitchcock on Chabrol, as well as illuminated Chabrol’s distinct personality. The inevitability of Pegala’s killing recalls the relentless march to Siegfried’s assassination in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), whilst Chabrol also recalls House By The River (1951) in depicting a murderer coping competently with his crime and even seeming to profit from it but facing being consumed by the reality-cracking implications of his act. The extended sequence of Charles tidying up the crime scene and disposing of Pegala’s body, also presents an extended variation on Norman Bates cleaning up Marian Crane’s murder in Psycho (1960). This is the centrepiece of the film in terms of technique and design: Charles, his face reset to its usual ice cream flatness, moves about the apartment with remorseless purpose, doing his best to erase every trace of his presence and even the appearance of a crime having been committed, all done with studious calm and boldness in broad daylight.

Chabrol taps this sequence not just for pokerfaced suspense but a level of carbolic humour. Charles has to contend with such petty difficulties as opening and closing a gate whilst manhandling a corpse like a bag of dirty laundry, and then gets tailgated by another driver (Zardi again) when he’s driving out of the city. The accident scene immediately becomes Charles’ worst nightmare as a crowd of gawkers gather to watch and yammer whilst the other driver insists on swapping insurance info and a gendarme comes to mediate and inspect the damage, feeling around the edges of the buckled rear hatch, whilst Charles becomes increasingly irate in his eagerness to escape. This scene is grimly hilarious in itself whilst also feeling like a Parisian in-joke that’s likely even better for anyone in on it. Finally Charles manages to continue on, reaching a bog somewhere in the countryside, into which he drops the body. Charles waits with tooth-grinding patience, peering down as the bundled body soaks up water and leaks out bubbles, sinking with agonising slowness until it finally vanishes under the soupy film of floating weeds.

Chabrol’s careful use of colour as a dramatic signifier provides associative psychological meaning and becomes important in the aftermath of this long central sequence. Pegala’s apartment is decorated in pale blue shades. Not long after his seemingly successful escapade, Charles joins his wife and son at a garden tea table: the shade overhead and a railing and tablecloth below, both blue and seeming to squeeze the image into a kind of cinemascope burlesque, framing the people between, including Helene who’s silently morose over her lover’s apparent vanishing and abandonment of her, and the upbeat, empowered Charles. Helene goes into the house and lies down in her bedroom where the drapes and sheets are also blue, contrasting the general greys and browns of the house’s décor: Helene lies back on the blue sheets and weeps. The tension ratcheting under the surface of the family soon begins manifesting as young Michel becomes distraught over losing a piece of a jigsaw puzzle he and his father are trying to assemble, whilst Helene stares dolorously into the television in the rear of the shoot, between arguing father and son. The visit of a pair of policemen, Inspector Duval (Michel Duchaussoy) and his partner Gobet (Guy Marley), is almost a relief. They’ve come to talk to Helene because they found her name and details in a notebook of Pegala’s. She claims to have only been a casual acquaintance who met him at a party. The cops are coolly professional and seem entirely accepting of all they hear, but their intense gazes speak another language. “We’re making progress,” Duval assures Helene, “In our hit-and-miss way.”

Despite the debts owed and paid to Lang and Hitchcock, Chabrol was really working within a common and popular tradition of French crime storytelling. Indeed, the greater sympathy French critics offered those directors than many did in other countries likely owed something to a crucial sense of recognition. That style was exemplified on the page by Georges Simenon and essayed by filmmakers Jean Renoir in films like La Chienne (1931) and La Bete Humaine (1937), and H.G. Clouzot in thrillers like Le Corbeau (1943) and Les Diaboliques (1956), as well as the poetic realist films of the 1930s. Chabrol’s aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different to the stylised effects of the poetic realists, even as he engaged with their fatalistic concerns, concerned much less with the mechanics of detection and action than with the processes that lead people to bad ends. This tradition arguably had some roots in the French novel tradition of Zola and Balzac, with their fascination in a quasi-zoological fashion with the presence of moral blight and corruption as it manifests in all sectors of society.

Chabrol is also notably good at deploying comic relief in both Les Biches and Le Femme Infidèle, in a way that helps intensify his theses as well as break up the tension. The wilful zaniness of Robèque and Riais in the former and the goofy appeal of Brigitte in the latter present characters strayed in from other worlds – the two men represent bohemia in all its perpetually improvising, smoke-blowing, opportunist skill, as well as a different, more absurd but also anxiety-free version of queerness to the strange kind the women enact. Brigitte impersonates the hip new generation oblivious to the niceties of the bourgeoisie as well as a possibly illusory promise of an age with different values coming on. Chabrol’s protagonists meanwhile are builders and maintainers as well as prisoners of their imploding universes. Just as Frederique ultimately invites her own destruction by refusing to countenance a fluid and multipolar kind of love, Charles and Helene are ultimately doomed not by the absence of love but by the processes of proving its survival. Helen eventually finds the photo of Pegala the private investigator gave Charles in his coat pocket, and burns it not just to dispose of evidence but as a votive to the proof of ardour it represents. She drifts back to Charles as he labours in their garden and the pair swap looks, locking them into the ultimate deed of mutual implication. The title then becomes perfectly ironic: in the last measure Helene is entirely, perfectly faithful, as is Charles. The very end returns to a stance of suggestive ambiguity, with the two cops returning and Helene and Michel looking on as Charles goes to talk with them, possibly to confess all. A mere aftershock, anyway, to Charles telling Helene what she already knows: “I love you like mad.”

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2000s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie

Death Proof (2007)

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Director / Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Death Proof has been the problem child in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography since it was released, when it proved the director’s only real box office failure after the zeitgeist-inflecting success of his early work. Even Tarantino himself more or less wrote it off as a miscalculation. But Death Proof stands as a pivotal moment in his oeuvre, literally and figuratively, if not for all the right reasons. Counting the two halves of Kill Bill (2003-4) as one movie, and diplomatically ignoring the portion of Four Rooms (1995) he made, Death Proof emerged exactly half-way through his directing career to date, the median point for Tarantino’s first four films and his subsequent four. The film’s initial failure was largely due to the intriguing but ultimately cockamamie conceit that birthed it. Tarantino and fellow independent film zero-to-hero Robert Rodriguez, who had previously collaborated on the Rodriguez-directed, Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), wanted to revive and celebrate a lapsed tradition: the double bill they and many another movie freak once blissed out on in seamy movie theatres dubbed “grindhouses,” in the days before the age of VHS and the multiplex changed how movies were consumed. The two directors hatched the concept of Grindhouse, under the banner of which they would each offer a movie riffing on a classic brand of trashy genre fare. In the grindhouse manner, when retitling of movies was common, Death Proof itself is revealed to be the hastily inserted new title of a film called Thunder Bolt.

Rodriguez, for his part, made Planet Terror, a sci-fi horror crossbreed and freeform blend of George Romero, early James Cameron, and the kinds of movies turned out under the auspices of Roger Corman and Charles Band. Tarantino elected to make Death Proof, a characteristically eccentric twist on the hallowed tropes of the slasher movie. The two movies would be served up in a manner resembling the often scratched, shortened, scrambled prints that screened in those theatres, and connected by a number of trailers for other, imaginary horror and action movies. Grindhouse was gleefully defined by innate ironies, as a tribute to the fly-by-night world and rough-and-ready aesthetics of another age of moviemaking and viewing, and a supersized hipster-cineaste burlesque-cum-fetish object, executed with a big budget and classy collaborators. Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth contributed unnervingly convincing fake trailers. But when Grindhouse proved a flop, largely for its unwieldy length and confusing marketing, Death Proof and its companion piece were rereleased separately, as was always the intention for the films’ European release (where the double bill tradition was much less common) and for home viewing, with scenes left out of the initial versions for the sake of running time and humour value restored.

Of the two films, Rodriguez’s fun, silly, gruesome semi-spoof seemed the more appropriate considering the project it was part of (and it is indeed probably Rodriguez’s best film). Whereas Death Proof was criticised and rejected by many as rather too eccentric and particular. When Tarantino moved on, he kicked off a string of absurdist-revisionist period movies with Inglourious Basterds (2009), leaving behind the most noticeable thread of his films up until Death Proof, their fascination with contrasting the heightened-to-epic-proportions effects of genre film with the petty weirdness of modern life. But I’ve regarded as Death Proof as one of Tarantino’s finest achievements since my first viewing, and have even ventured to call it my personal favourite, although an oeuvre as generally strong as his that can change from viewing to viewing. Certainly Death Proof is a movie that pushes certain tendencies of Tarantino’s style to an extreme perhaps just beyond its popular understanding, which is doubly ironic considering the film’s nominal function as a celebration of the trashier delights of moviegoing, as both as a work about the cinephilia Tarantino is so strongly associated with, and a self-reflexive, self-satirising work that today carries echoes very likely beyond what was intended.

Death Proof is a movie purposefully constructed in two halves, each defined by a sinuously detailed and conversation-driven slow-burn capped by eruptions of floridly filmed violent action, Tarantino the archly theatrical composer of dialogues and Tarantino the high cinema maven in extended argument. Of all his films it’s the least baroquely plot-driven, but is also actually perhaps his cleverly layered labour of narrative dexterity, functioning as straightforward thriller, a laidback and counterintuitive deconstruction of such a thriller, and a work of self-reflexive critique all at once. Tarantino tried to mate the radically disparate sectors of cinema that regularly preoccupy his movies in a particularly delicate balancing act of form and function – the very different brands of interpersonal filmmaking of the Howard Hawks-esque “hangout” movie and the dryly observational method of post-Jim Jarmusch indie film, crashing against the down-and-dirty pleasures of 1970s genre film and French New Wave-inspired self-consciously postmodern showmanship.

Time has also provided more discomforting subtexts: Death Proof, which deals explicitly with a predatory man who works in the film industry setting out to violate and destroy women he can’t have, was produced by the movie mogul and serial sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein, and prominently features at least one of his victims, Rose McGowan. There’s also some fascinating echoes of the car crash Uma Thurman suffered in making Kill Bill, on which Death Proof’s heroine, the stunt performer Zoë Bell, had served as Thurman’s stunt double.  Heavy stuff indeed to attach to a film by and large defined by a generally vibrant, collegial tone. Except that tenor was always superficial: Death Proof always contained a sardonic commentary on the misogyny too often inherent in the slasher movie and the problems of converting an inner fantasy landscape into the actuality of a film production, and a work that digs into the relationship between cinema and sexuality with covert bite. The basic plot presents what could be described as twinned variations on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), as it charts two disparate groups of young women, both of whom become objects of obsession for a nefarious serial killer, ‘Stuntman’ Mike McCay (Kurt Russell). The entirety of the film depicts each group’s encounters with Mike and the small, almost logarithmic variances that see one group fall victim to him and the other prove capable of fighting back. One of which is, of course, familiarity with old movies.

The first group is a gang of friends recently reunited in Austin, Texas: radio DJ ‘Jungle’ Julia Lucai (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) go out for a night of sowing wild oats. The second group are all friends who know each-other from working on film crews – makeup artist Abernathy ‘Abbie’ Ross (Rosario Dawson), actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and stunt performers Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (Bell, playing a version of herself), who converge to work on a movie shoot in Lebanon, Tennessee, and encounter Mike during a harebrained escapade rooted in Zoe and Kim’s shared ardour for daredevilry and cinephilia, as Zoe obliges her friends to help her in her quest to borrow a 1970 Dodge Challenger from a farmer who’s selling it so she can execute her fantasy of riding on the exterior – a stunt she calls “Ship’s Mast” – of the car from Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). The algorithmic structure of the film, with its twinned gangs of female friends, nods to the wash-rinse-repeat narrative replication of, for instance, the Friday the 13th series, whilst also performing revisionism. The lengthy yammering sessions between the two girl gangs explicates subtle differences in character and outlook as well as positing plot points, and in the second half the traits and characters of the female friends are purposefully laid out to make the audience aware of the various factors that will lead them to be triumphant over Mike rather than just be more victims.

One obvious and distinctive quality of Death Proof in Tarantino’s oeuvre is that it’s a movie mostly populated by and entirely concerned with women characters, if also following Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill with their female protagonists. This is partly a by-product of shifting ground to Horror cinema referencing as opposed to Tarantino’s usual stoping ground of crime thrillers and action movies, and also one accomplished with the director’s typical eccentricity as Tarantino blesses its performers with dialogue comprised of typically stylised Tarantino argot. Much of the film simply seems to consist, superficially at least, of the two gangs talking about jobs and relationships and hunting for a good time, unfolding in quasi-naturalistic manner that perhaps comes the closest of all Tarantino’s films to one of his acknowledged cinematic models, Howard Hawks. A lengthy conversation between the second gang whilst eating lunch in a diner sees Tarantino shooting it in the same manner as he did the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992), turning into a conscious walk-through of his own stylistic reflexes, an algorithmic variation on his own cinema as well as of a certain genre.

Part of the design of Death Proof as a unit in the Grindhouse project was to recreate the exploitative and sexed-up aesthetic of ‘70s genre film with an edge of self-conscious irony. This intent is nodded to in a series of visuals in the opening credits laced with sarcastic commentary on the gazing – the long-legged Julia, strutting about her apartment in panties with butt impudently twitching, lies down underneath a poster of a starlet in the same pose; the camera zeroes in on Arlene’s crotch as she dashes up to Julia’s apartment but with urinating rather than horniness the spur. Later there’s a sequence in which Arlene performs a lap dance for Mike. But where your classical grindhouse movie was making its connections between sexuality and horror on a purely mercenary level, Death Proof is playing multiple games, the cheery recreation of a gauche aesthetic constantly underpinned by a narrative built around sexual display and frustration, one in which Tarantino repeatedly emphasises masculine attempts to defeat the essential and ultimate control of sex by women. This is depicted in the course of fairly normal sexual gamesmanship when out on the town but also on the ultimate, pathological level Mike espouses. In Arlene, Julia, and Shanna’s first conversation together as they drive through the streets of Austin, power dynamics underlying sex are a constant refrain, as Arlene explains her policy of trying to keep her boyfriends a little sex-starved to maintain firm control of her relationships, and Shanna comments wryly on Julia’s habits of flirting with Shanna’s father, to Julia calm retort, “I have my own relationship with Ben – you’re just jealous because it don’t include you.”

The interpersonal dynamics of the gang sketched in the scene point to the recurring notes struck in the film’s first half, particularly Julia’s too-cool-for-school persona and habit of playing queen bee and impresario. These stretch to setting up Arlene as butt of a slow-burn prank , having announced on her radio show that her friend from out of town is looking for a mate and will give a lap dance to any man who can successfully recite a certain poem to her. Julia’s habits of bullying are later resentfully recounted by Pam, and despite the good-humoured and sexy package Julia tries to wrap it in, her prank on Arlene has much the same flavour. Shanna herself wryly calls her “mean girl in a high school movie,” although Julia’s more positive traits are also apparent, as when she solicitously and apologetically nurses Arlene through disappointment. The arts of social discourse and sexual gamesmanship are themselves the subject of dramaturgical precision, as Julia insists on illustrating the scenario she’s dreamed up for Arlene by roping in her actress friend Marcy (Marcy Harriell) to role-play with Arlene, and the two do such a good job of recreating the flirtatious art that Shanna comments, “Y’all are making me hot!,” whilst Arlene gets revenge by provoking Julia with racially tinted scorn for her physique. Soon after, Arlene glimpses an old, souped-up, black-painted and menacingly detailed car cruising by the place where they eat lunch. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s had her first encounter with Mike, the man stalking her and her friends across town.

The first group encounter Mike in the flesh at the Texas Chili Parlour, a tavern belonging by Warren (Tarantino), where they drink with random boys whilst awaiting a pot-dealing friend, Lanna Frank (Monica Staggs), before they head on to a girls-only retreat at Shanna’s father’s lake house. Mike sits at the bar, despite being a proclaimed teetotaller, and offers to give a ride home to Pam (Rose McGowan), a former classmate of Julia’s but not a friend, left stranded by a date who didn’t show. Mike’s affectation of placid congeniality makes him seem like a rock of gentlemanly rectitude around which the river of nocturnal boozing flows, compared to the spivs who set out to seduce the girls, Dov (Roth), Nate (Omar Doom), and Omar (Michael Bacall), although, with his prominent facial scar, he’s also a strikingly odd presence. The younger men launch sniggering, whispered jibes his way when they take in both his disfigurement and his generally antiquated veneer of cool, in between plotting with aggressive intent to get the girls drunk and wheedle their way into joining them at the lake house. “If a guy’s buying the drinks, a fucking bitch’ll drink anything,” Dov declares as if expounding the Talmud of scoring. Mike’s arsenal for picking up is deployed throughout the night, including name-dropping the once-famous TV personalities he used to double for, drawing blank looks from the twenty-somethings he’s out to impress. He does better when carefully targeting anyone slightly split off the pack: most immediately Pam, and also Arlene, who has, despite her displeasure at Julia’s prank, been disappointed it hasn’t paid off in gaining her masses of male attention: Mike cleverly goads her into performing the much-anticipated lap-dance for his benefit.

As usual for Tarantino, familiar genre tropes and the presence of the fantastical are posited in an otherwise studiously mundane, if not exactly realistic, world, where style and substance have peculiar, be-bop-like interactions. The other major dialogue in the drama is one of age. This is couched in both human terms, with Mike the angry, damaged relic amidst a youth culture that, like all youth cultures, firmly believes it invented the pleasures of getting wasted and laid on a Saturday night and heedlessly pursues its wont, and in cultural and cinematic terms. The dance through the familiar landmarks of the classical slasher movie is eccentric, the beats all askew, the points of concentration distorted but recognisable. The long, ambling scenes in the Texas Chili Parlour are actually ingeniously choreographed in the outlay of characterisation and seemingly happenstance yet ultimately purposeful detail, under the guise of depicting messy, formless fun. Vignettes flow like the rain pouring outside, from Shanna telling off Dov for mispronouncing her name “Shauna” to Arlene succumbing to the requests of Nate to go make out in his car for a while, heroically brandishing an umbrella for her courtly protection (“You have two jobs – kiss good, and make sure my hair don’t wet.”). Complicating notes are struck: Julia’s stature in her gang and as a minor celebrity is juxtaposed with her increasing romantic frustration with her sometime filmmaker boyfriend, Christian Simonson, with whom she swaps text messages through the night only to get increasingly irritated when he doesn’t turn up.

Death Proof then seems to less to the vicissitudes of seamy genre film than to the particular accent of American indie film as mapped out by John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch, and Tarantino found his toehold in whilst not so subtly perverting it – mundanely preoccupied, dialogue-driven, concerned with mapping behaviour and charting the semi-underground life of bohemians and outsiders in American life and the dreamy textures of its pop cultural inheritance. When Tarantino does have to do some plain plot progression, he manages to approach it with a simultaneous mixture of showmanship and affected blasé disinterest, most wittily purveyed when Warren tells one of his employees (Marta Mendoza) to turn on a light in the parking lot, so she listlessly flips the switch. Cut to without, as Arlene, relaxing by herself and smoking a cigarette, suddenly beholding the sight of Mike’s car revealed by the sudden illumination, the lurking presence of menace and the patterns in the algorithm wheeling about her suddenly beginning to come into focus. Later Arlene tells Mike his car makes her uncomfortable, but he’s able to disarm her instinctive worry by readily and happily posing as a good old-fashioned horndog on the prowl essentially after the same thing she is. Mike’s scar carries a host of associations, linking him to the disfigured murderers of films like Friday the 13th (1980) and The Burning (1981) but also to Scar of The Searchers (1956) and through him to Ahab, captain of another marauding, doom-purveying craft in combat with nature itself.

Mike’s pathology however must wreak its vengeance not on a mindless symbol but on the taunting, wilful, immediate presence of young women. Mike tolerates slights and humiliations all night with a patient, foreboding expectation of payback, with his preselected gallery of lovelies. He keeps photos of the gang he’s targeting pinned to the sunshade of his car, all taken with a telephoto lens, describing them as his “girlfriends.” Russell’s ingenious performance depends on the easy masculine charm that always defined him as a star and helps put across a sense of roguish, conspiratorial energy for the audience to share, down to smiling directly at the camera just before commencing his project of murder. As a role, Mike demands that kind of innate audience liking, before he’s eventually revealed to be less the familiar kind of forbidding and determined Horror movie villain, invulnerable a la Michael Myers to pain and unswerving in purpose, than a Looney Tunes-like character, alternating puffed-up delusions of potency and absurdist displays of pain and frustration, able to violate the fourth wall but still imprisoned by the whims of his creator, a la Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953). Mike has pretences to being the director in his little drama as well as the stuntman, casting his bevies of beauties and forcing them to performers.

When the evening at the Parlour finally runs its course and everyone starts heading off their disparate destinations, Mike successfully lures Pam into his car, which he explains is “death proof,” carefully reinforced to protect the driver from injury during stunts. But the unfortunate passenger is not so protected, and is indeed caged and unprotected, and Mike veers about wildly to knock Pam to a bloody pulp even as she begs him to stop and tries, with a note of pathos as she tries to use a note desperate humour to disarm him (“I get it’s a joke and its really funny…”) before Mike performs his coup-de-grace with awful, mocking relish, slamming on the brakes and bashing her head in on the dashboard. This scene is singular in Tarantino’s oeuvre as a pivot to genuine, intimate cruelty, resisting the cartoonish safety-valve quality of much of his depictions of violence, instead properly discomforting in confronting the awful intimacy of misogynistic torment and victim plight. McGowan’s unnervingly convincing playing of the scene enforces this, whilst Russell expertly conveys the slipping of the mask he has worn through the previous scenes, the smouldering anger and relish for annihilating what he can’t have.

Alongside his dialogue, Tarantino’s most famous trait is his penchant for slow-burning suspense in long, nerve-wracking sequences that build and pay off in unpredictable ways. This is famously evinced in sequences like the cop’s torture in Reservoir Dogs, the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds, and the dinner at Candyland in Django Unchained (2012). Death Proof marked an attempt to push that tendency as far as it would go by Tarantino, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood (2019) in essentially offering a film that almost entirely devoted to that slow burn, building through the course of its twinned halves to eruptions of violent action. In this case, because he’s riffing on the slasher movie with its subtextual connection between a violent act and a sexual one, the evocation of desire and its eradication in terms of the filmic image, as well as the more obvious and literal conception of Mike as an aging lothario with a sexual problem who can only “shoot his goo” by killing his objects of desire, the structuring of Death Proof is inherently sexual, punctuated by two orgasmic moments of carnage. After killing Pam, Mike subsequently chases down of the other girls – Julia, Arlene, Shanna, and Lanna racing down the highway rocking out to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch and Titch’s “Hold Tight” – and rams their car head on, shattering and mangling their bodies and destroying their car whilst his flips crazily down the road.

This scene is a highpoint of 21st century cinema as a piece of set-piece filmmaking that announces its own construction with hues of sarcasm – the elaborate means Julia has to go to get just the right song to score thrilling highway action (she calls up a fellow DJ at her radio station to make the request) and Mike’s vicious showmanship (calculatedly turning out his headlights a split-second before ramming their car to dazzle them). The thunder of the crash pays off the slow burn in a pure spectacle of terrible physical damage examined in forensic, instant-replay detail: a squall of shattered glass through which sails Julia’s pathetically severed leg, whilst Arlene’s face is torn off by a tyre and Shanna is launched like a bottle rocket through the windscreen and crashes against the tarmac. The peculiar quality of all this, over and above the intricate brilliance of the filmmaking which far excels just about any movie it’s riffing on on a technique level, is that Tarantino has actually succeeded in making a Horror movie that critiques the Horror movie and also fulfils it to the letter, having set up victims in reasonable depth and sympathy and sacrificing them all to the dark gods anyway.

Tarantino’s fadeout from the scene of carnage leads to a subsequent scene in a hospital where Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and his son and deputy Edgar (James Parks) discussing Mike’s seemingly miraculous survival and minor injuries, as Earl analyses the crash and immediately picks it as a calculated murder that will be impossible to prove as such thanks to Mike’s carefully contrived stage management of the event. This scene mediates the film and provides several strands of meta meaning: McGraw, a character created for From Dusk Till Dawn and subsequently featured in Kill Bill alongside Edgar, is the quintessential crusty, canny old Texas lawman, and in the Tarantino universe graced with dimension-hopping and death-defying abilities, appearing along with his son and his daughter Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) who had also appeared with her father in Planet Terror, acting here as Mike’s physician who explains the painful but essentially superficial injuries he took in the crash.  Earl’s keenness as a lawman immediately sees through Mike’s smokescreen, and he suggests and then rejects a possible course of action in relentlessly hounding Mike to catch him up but elects against it, declaring he can at least make “goddamn sure he don’t do it again in Texas.” Whilst the meta-narrative trappings are superfluous in a film that’s otherwise highly sophisticated in such things, this scene finds a witty way of plodding through a necessary point of exposition, with Earl tantalisingly raising the notion of becoming a dogged nemesis to Mike as in some Horror movies only to decide the remainder of his life would be better spent “following the Nascar circuit.”

The second half, announced with dry humour in white-on-black titles declaring a shift to “Lebanon” before amending that to “Lebanon, Tennessee,” varies the algorithm whilst returning to particular images and actions, such as a more attentive member of the girl gang noticing Mike’s hovering presence as he loops back in his car for another gawk at his prey. Movie jokes proliferate with viral rapidity, befitting the half of the movie that’s looking back on itself, trapping the story told in the first half within the cage of revision. Lee, the designated hot young starlet, is delighted by any media coverage of herself and gets Abbie to buy a magazine she’s featured in. She also wears a cheerleader outfit throughout, for the role she’s playing in the movie she’s filming and likely to look cute, a character joke that’s also a nod to the hallowed traditions of the teen Horror movie. Noticing this, the cashier in a 7/11 sells the women a copy of the Italian edition of Vogue like an illicit drag stash. The area that’s supposed to be rural Tennessee is actually a stretch of California that also looks a lot like the kinds of Australian outback locale many an Ozploitation action film was shot in. Tarantino kicks off the second half in employing black-and-white as the viewpoint is temporarily that of Mike, as he hovers around the women he’s spying on, insinuating himself into their zone of existence. He pushes his daring fetishism and sense of secret possession to the limit, sneaking up on the snoozing Abbie with her feet jutting from a parked car’s window and caressing them until she snaps awake.

Whilst it’s tempting to push a little too far and claim Death Proof is a kind of secret parable for Weinstein’s behaviour and Thurman’s crash, it’s also difficult to deny from today’s vantage that both inform it to a degree. But ultimately it’s Tarantino’s ultimate, ironic commentary on the vicissitudes of being a filmmaker. Tarantino posits himself in the film in multiple guises, turning the nominal drama into a labyrinth leading back to himself as impresario of sex and violence. He’s Warren, the garrulous, party-mongering bar owner just trying to make everyone happy. He’s Julia, trying to arrange playlets of character and frisson-inducing encounters with friends as performers, and digging up classic songs to pervade life with a perfectly curated life soundtrack. He’s Mike himself, the guy who knows all the details to forgotten pop culture and feels frustrated nobody speaks his language these days, as well as the aging wolf frustrated he’s losing his youth culture cachet. He’s the much-mentioned director “Cecil” who’s directing the movies the second gang are working on, who has maintained his sexual status through being the locus of authority in his little world. And he is himself, in the director’s chair offscreen, heard calling “Got it!” at the end of a brief scene, mimicking the opening shots in Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), where the move camera becomes a spying still camera, focusing on and taking unknowing possession of women about to fall prey to a killer.

This multivalent presence of Tarantino is both an ultimate statement of auteurist ownership and ego domain and a dissection of it. However playfully, Tarantino both celebrates and indicts himself as the particular gateway for a work of cinema where sexuality is both constantly evoked and portrayed but also necessarily sublimated into the flow of images, in the context of genre and mainstream cinema niceties where the orgasmic is registered through displaced destruction. This directly engages with and animates a familiar idea of criticism of the slasher movie, that with its deliberately blank-slate killers and common use of first-person camerawork, the style of the slasher was designed to allow the audience to experience the pleasure and frustration of the stalking killer trying to possess/annihilate the object it pursues. Tarantino links this quirk of style to the act of directing itself, at once constructing and destroying fetish objects and doppelgangers. And the inverse of that, the creation of heroic and empowering figures whose vitality can sometimes slip the bonds a creator can put on them. Much as the crazy proliferation of women-in-peril movies in the 1970s and ‘80s Horror films eventually forged the figure of the Final Girl – a female protagonist obliged to fight for survival without any rescue at hand – and then the James Cameron brand of action heroine, and Death Proof, humorously but also earnestly, encapsulates that evolution in its narrative whilst also linking it back to other traditions in the oft-dismissed but often quietly dissident traditions of the trash movie, with gestures to the rampaging Amazons of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), the tough ladies of ‘70s Blaxploitation, and the reforged avengers of rape-and-revenge thrillers.

And so, the second half of Death Proof creates a trio of heroines whose capacities and outlooks give them advantages lacked by their tragic counterparts from the first half. Kim discusses the handgun hidden in her purse as a safeguard against being raped. Zoë’s extraordinary physical agility and durability is expounded on at length. Abbie fills a similar place in their gang to Arlene as the butt of the gang’s idiosyncratic hierarchy but stands up for herself more effectively than Arlene, and the gang lacks a figure like Julia who controls it. The women haven’t abandoned their femininity, but laying claim to “masculine” pursuits like stunt work and car loving becomes a virtue, an idea summarised when Kim and Zoë acknowledge having grown up on the regulation diet of “that John Hughes shit” like Pretty In Pink (1986) but also a roster of classic drive-in hotrod and action films that both serviced and instilled a love for thrill-seeking, and so, in oblique fashion, trained them to deal with real evil when it comes at them. All of this is explored in the flow of seemingly formless conversation, Tarantino setting himself the challenge of showing Chekhov’s Gun (or Kim’s, in this instance) without anyone noticing, but then not being surprised when it’s fired.

Lee is the weak link in the gang as a girly girl who’s not too bright to boot, the embodiment of a more vacuous modern Hollywood, so she’s left behind when the trio head off for a fateful joyride. More intertextuality: the Dodge Challenger’s owner Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) is the same redneck creep who gets his tough bitten off molesting the Bride in Kill Bill, and Lee’s understandable reaction to being left in his company is to mutter, like Bug Bunny in a fix, “Gulp.” As usual with Tarantino, the onscreen action is accompanied by music scoring consisting of myriad harvested music cues and needle-drop oldies that drape the drama in a referential and bygone form of cool. But here this familiar artistic conceit comes on with a more layered and intricate sense of meta humour, often playing games with diegetic sourcing within the drama. The scenes in the Chili Parlour unfold under a near-constant flow of vintage Stax singles – approved hipster retro culture, of course, but as many of the songs belong to the classic “love advice” genre that comment sarcastically on the vignettes of modern romance played out in the tavern.

Tarantino’s snippet of Pino Donaggio’s score for Brian De Palm’s Blow Out (1981), as two-faced in its romanticism as ever in that composer’s work for the old master ironist, accompanies Julia texting Christian as a vignette of very modern romance – the directness of expressions of ardour and anger in this medium are far more clear and direct than what goes on between the young folk in actual physical proximity. This gives way to more a more overt joke riffing on the idea of matching thematically appropriate music to images as Julia accidentally provides Mike with the perfect soundtrack for high-speed murder. Mike’s constructed image as an old-school tough guy is illustrated as he shows off for the second gang of girls by gunning his car to make smoke with the wheels whilst Willy DeVille’s “It’s So Easy” blares from his tape deck, only to wring a mocking comment from Lee – “Little dick!” – that casually indicts his overcompensation and datedness (as well as the inference of association with William Friedkin’s Cruising, 1981, another film about the ambiguities of sex haunted by the presence of a serial killer).

The film wraps up with end credits set to April March’s careening translated cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Laisse tomber les filles,” concerning an infamous womaniser heading for deadly punishment from his many lovers. Those end credits also intersperse the familiar scrolling names with flash-edits of leads from old film reels, sporting female models whose names are forgotten by history and whose faces were included on those old reels to aid with colour and lighting collection by cinematographers. This peculiar touch again carries multiple associations. It is at once Tarantino’s signal of pure delight in the expressive tool of a medium, one immediately under threat by digital photography, and a random, peculiar piece of ephemera associated with it. It’s also a flourish of cultural commentary, reminiscent of the dummies that mimic and mock the cast in the opening credits of Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (1963), evoking a bygone ideal of femininity rendered glossy and artificial and thoroughly trashed by the film’s end.

Death Proof is also unusual as the only film Tarantino has shot himself, achieving a fleshy, colourful texture overlaid with a scratchy and washed-out veneer to capture the rough grindhouse print look, and use of wide-angle lensing to emphasise space and give objects a looming, surging impact. This becomes particularly vital in the climactic scenes, in which Zoe successfully engineers her fantasy of playing Ship’s Mast – riding on the hood of the Dodge Challenger, dangling from belts – on the legendary vehicle of Vanishing Point, a car that is, in homage to the original’s eerie symbolism but also befitting into Death Proof’s own dichotomy, snow white, whilst Mike’s muscle car is black with a skull-and-crossbones painted on the hood. But Mike, having followed the women into the boondocks and seeing the ideal opportunity to raise hell with them, begins chasing the Challenger, ramming into it to make Zoe fall from the car, but she manages nonetheless to ride like a gecko upon the sleek hood of the charging vehicle as the vehicles hurtle down country lanes. Finally Kim loses control and crashes to a halt on the roadside with Zoe hurled into the bushes on the shoulder. Kim shoots at the gloating and unwary Mike, wounding him and sending him fleeing, whilst Zoe pops up again, saved from injury by her astounding reflexes. Once sure everyone’s okay and hot for revenge, the trio race off in pursuit of Mike.

This makes for of the great movie finales, a dedicated statement decrying the increasingly artificial and smoothed-over tenor of millennial Hollywood cinema, a tendency that’s only grown far worse since 2007. Mike’s rueful awareness that CGI is stealing away both his livelihood and the peculiarly intense glamour his profession used to lend to cinema in general presages Tarantino’s employment of Bell to demonstrate just what a great stunt performer can do and how much spectacle it injects into a movie, over and above the formidable filmmaking technique which emphasises the essential veracity of what’s being shown. Tarantino’s deployment of Bell as the film’s can-do wonder woman betrays inherent respect for stuntpeople as well as for Bell’s effusive personality, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood’s vision of the stunt performer as a being who most clearly and potently links the fantasy world of film to the real world, the figure required to perform acts of real daring and danger to make the cinematic illusion work. Moreover, in the context of the film Bell is presented as the light to Mike’s dark, the true practitioner of the risk-taking art that is stunt work, compared to Mike, who has fallen from grace. Her game of Ship’s Mast, which involves great danger and testing of all her physical and mental skills, pointedly contrast’s Mike’s “death-proof” car, his attempt to deliver himself from real danger even whilst indulging the orgasmic pleasure of dealing out death and carnage.

This dovetails in turn with the swivel in theme from misogynistic rampaging to nascent feminist revenge fantasy. Mike proves to have chosen exactly the wrong bunch of women to piss off this time, and he’s chased across the countryside by the ferociously determined Kim, who delightedly mimics sexist flirtation lines whilst tormenting the killer, and Zoe, who wields a length of pipe like a medieval knight’s lance. Mike himself, upon being shot, immediately degenerates from swaggering demon to howling coward, and doesn’t take too well to having the tables turned, desperately trying to outpace the Challenger. Their careening chase bursts out onto the highway, where, naturally, modern cars are humiliated by the power and steely integrity of the older vehicles, the instant metaphor for the film’s entire presumption and aesthetic. When Kim finally manages to ram Mike and flip his car over, the three women pluck him out and beat the shit out of him, their relentless punches causing a breakdown in the texture of the movie itself. When he collapses, Tarantino officially ends the film immediately, bringing up “The End” title over the triumph a la the end of many of a wu xia epic, only to then offer a kind of epilogue as he comes back to the scene to show Abbie breaking Mike’s neck with a well-place kick. Again, a very Tarantino motif – the defeat of one monster might well birth others – but one he carefully brackets to soften as more a fantasy addendum, a little like the curtain call spanking in The Bad Seed (1956). Fitting nonetheless for a movie that dismantles and then reconstructs a fundamental idea of cinema, that space where fantasies, ranging from the most depraved to the most heroic, are allowed free rein.

Standard
1960s, 1970s, Auteurs, Comedy, Western

The Producers (1968) / Blazing Saddles (1974)

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Director: Mel Brooks
Screenwriters: Mel Brooks / Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger

By Roderick Heath

Melvin Kaminsky, known to posterity as Mel Brooks, was the child of a classic Jewish-American immigrant experience. Born in Brooklyn in 1926 to a Polish father, who died when he was two years old, and a Ukrainian mother, Brooks’ childhood habitat was the tenements of Williamsburg. Brooks grew up slight and sickly, making him a target for other, more robust kids. Brooks learned to both disarm that rough world and channel his own aggressive streak into a zany persona and found he had a talent for reaping laughs, putting this skill to work when he gained his first job at a swimming pool, aged fourteen. By that time he had already, thanks to his uncle, gained his first encounter with the showbiz world through seeing a performance of Anything Goes, and vowed his future lay there. Brooks taught himself to play drums and changed his name to avoid confusion with trumpeter Max Kaminsky. After graduating high school Brooks had plans to study psychology cut short by service in World War II. After returning from the war Brooks went straight into the Borscht Belt music and comedy circuit, making the acquaintance of Sid Caesar, who hired him to write for TV. In 1950 Brooks was flung into the company of talents like Neil Simon and Carl Reiner when Caesar hired them to write the variety-and-comedy show Your Show of Shows, which proved a smash hit, and the same team worked together on various programs for most of the ‘50s.

Meanwhile the largely improvised comedy bit Brooks and Reiner started performing for friends, involving a 2,000 year-old-man who had witnessed the crucifixion, became a cause celebre in comedy circles. This became a ticket for the duo to become known as performers as well as writers, appearing on talk shows and hit comedy albums. Brooks’ first foray in filmmaking was the 1963 short animated film The Critic, conceived by Brooks but directed by Ernest Pintoff, with Brooks providing the wheezy voice of a confused old man trying to understand a pretentious foreign art film. The Critic won an Oscar, and a couple of years later Brooks linked up with comedy writer and performer Buck Henry to create a send-up of the wildly popular James Bond films, in the form of the TV series Get Smart. Get Smart proved so successful it handed Brooks the chance to make a movie. For some time Brooks had been kicking around the absurd notion of a Broadway musical about Adolf Hitler, a concept that morphed eventually into The Producers, the tale of a dishonest theatrical impresario and his accountant confederate who concoct a scheme to make a fortune by overselling investor shares in a sure-fire flop. Although it gained Gene Wilder a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in his first major film role and Brooks himself actually won for Best Original Screenplay, The Producers met a largely sour critical reception upon release in 1968, bordering on odium, and proved a box office disappointment, although it did soon begin to accrue a cult following.

Brooks’ follow-up The Twelve Chairs (1970), a more classical kind of comedy based on a respectable novel, did no better. Brooks assumed his directing career was over by this point, but his luck turned when he connected with writer Andrew Bergman, who was peddling a movie outline he called Tex-X, intended as an anachronistic hipster burlesque on Western movie clichés and sporting a Black hero. Brooks bought the property and assembled a team including several writers he’d known on Your Show of Shows, as well as Bergman and rising, ultra-hip stand-up comic Richard Pryor, to brainstorm ideas, a writing process Brooks later described as “a drunken fistfight.” Brooks made a deal to be the film’s director, and finally he delivered a colossal, zeitgeist-tapping comedy hit that made him not just a successful filmmaker but a comedy brand, one he took advantage of to make himself a movie star too. Brooks reunited with Wilder on Blazing Saddles through a series of unfortunate events, and again for the immediate follow-up Young Frankenstein (1974), a film that did for Horror movies what its precursors did for smarmy Broadway shows and Horse Operas. Decades later Brooks adapted The Producers into a very successful stage musical and then a film version of it, of which I will never speak again.

It’s bordering on tedious cliché to say that it’s hard to imagine films like The Producers and Blazing Saddles being made today. Outrageous, boundary-pushing humour is still plentiful but not the specific, confrontational prescription that fuelled Brooks’ best work in daring to press sore spots in the collective mindset, through his preoccupation with cultural tension that manifests as tonal dissonance. Or, to put that in a less high-falutin’ way, it’s real funny when Hitler sings and acts like a hippie and a cowboy talks jive and an Indian chief speaks the Yiddish. The first and most obvious level of dissonance in Brooks’ persona was the side of him that adored movies, literature, and theatre, revelled in their larger-than-life grandeur and stylised power, and the side of him driven to puncture all that, to point out the conflict with a gritty, grimy, streetwise sensibility with the practised disrespect of the professional smart-ass, the medieval court jester reinvented for a new age. Mediating the two facets was his archivist streak, as if some wing of his brain was devoted to precisely catalogued clichés, images, lines, tropes. The second level of dissonance was cultural, as a very Jewish comedian with an experience of being close to the bottom of a new society who, after years of suppressing that facet of his humour to get along with the American mainstream, suddenly found the zeitgeist swinging around to appreciating its specific lilt, its sarcasm towards power structures embedded not just in politics but in narratives and language. And a third layer of dissonance was one of personal character, Brooks channelling his angry, poke-the-beast sensibility into the defusing art of making with the funny.

In that regard Brooks was following in the footsteps of the Marx Brothers, but where they made comedy from testing forms until they broke down in anarchy, Brooks was more methodical, honouring his love of story and character, which could supply their own, coexisting forms of humour, along with slapstick and non-sequitir. Part of the genius of Get Smart as a series had been Brooks’ creation of a hero who was an idiot, in contrast to both the Bondian fantasy of the poised, cool hero, and the usual desire of comedy players to seem quick-witted and knowing: Maxwell Smart was a common man to the Nth degree, swanning cluelessly through dangerous and complex situations he only vaguely understands. Most of Brooks’ rivals and emulators in the zany-and-irreverent comedy stakes lacked his capacity to simultaneously sustain a coherent story and characterisation and work them for more than one style of comedy, although some, like the ZAZ team who would make Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984), had something of that ability. The scattered children of the Brooksian sensibility, like the beloved triptych of animated TV series, The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, deal with a similar balance of character comedy, social survey, referential and parodic humour, and surreal genre breaks, if all in different proportions.

Rifling through The Producers and Blazing Saddles, a connective thread emerges, distinct from their obviously shared roots in Brooks’ cracked sense of humour, and looking beyond their signifcant differences. Both films display Brooks’ compulsive fascination with the art he loves, his urge to disassemble it and reconstruct it in a new shape according to other random inputs, laden with ironic disparities that can strike others as perverse, vulgar, and wrong, and also very funny. The Producers explores how the sausage is made, often by people who barely have any idea what they’re doing; Blazing Saddles chews it and reports on the taste. For The Producers, Brooks wanted to depict a pair of losers who try to make themselves the masters of their fate, but find themselves no wiser than Smart. Or…no smarter than Wise? Anyway, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is introduced in the early scenes in what is for him the most degraded position possible, albeit one that suits his sick talents: the former master of Broadway producing is now so pathetic and broke he plays gigolo to a stream of ancient women of means who stream in and out of his office “to grab a last thrill on the way to the cemetery.” Mostel, a comedian and character actor who had suffered through a long period of blacklisting but managed in that time to define the lead roles of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Fiddler On The Roof on stage, was just re-emerging as a movie actor. There’s some irony in the way Brooks cast him to give a roaring, barnstorming beauty of a comic performance that’s pure stage farce hamola, sometimes threatening to topple the pasteboard sets with the force of his outsized energy and charisma. Small wonder Brooks only felt the need to credit him as “Zero” in the closing cast call.

Brooks’ comic sensibility immediately flies a warped flag, revelling in the new openness in American cinema to tackling what would have been utterly verboten five years earlier, most immediately and saliently in making clear Bialystock has sex with little old ladies for money. Having already seen off one sugar momma, Bialystock invites in another, known as “Hold Me! Touch Me!” (the amazing, mischievous Estelle Winwood) for her entreaties, and cycles through role-play scenarios fit for old kinescope porn reels like “The Innocent Little Milk Maid and the Naughty Stable Boy” and “The Contessa and the Chauffeur.” Part of the joke here, a joke that’s wintry in its inferences even as the film seems bouncy and friendly, is that Bialystock is utterly trapped by a greedy world he himself exemplifies, and has experienced the ultimate role-reversal from the usual image of the showbiz maestro preying on eager, young, suppliant females. Enter Leo Bloom (Wilder), an equally pathetic but quite different man, young but repressed, timid, and easily terrified, sent by Bialystock’s financial managers to review his books. Bloom evokes a different cultural wing to Bialystock, his name nodding to James Joyce’s hero and his personality like a Kafka antihero, equally entrapped by an infantilising process enabled rather than dispelled by his dedication to the dry, drearily realistic precepts of bookkeeping.

Bloom interrupts Bialystock in the middle of his session with “Hold Me, Touch Me” and Bialystock, realising he can’t go through with another encounter, hurriedly bustles her out before sternly confronting the cowering Bloom. Bloom’s neurotic angst is soon revealed, barely placated, in a touch pinched from Peanuts’ Linus, by a scrap of security blanket he carries, and worries that Bialystock, in his blustering “rhetorical conversation,” is going to eventually pound him to death by jumping on him like Nero on Poppaea. Eventually the two men find something like sufficient equilibrium to let Bloom get to work, only for him to find Bialystock oversold his last bomb, pocketing $2000 for his own use. Bialystock pleads for Bloom to hide the discrepancy with eloquent pleas, before ending with a simple, loudly screamed, “HELP!” Bloom agrees and then chuckles at the observation that, given no-one cares about the finances of bombed plays, it would be easy to repeat Bialystock’s trick on a fortune-making scale provided it was certain the project they solicited investment for would fail. Bialystock, realising this suggestion’s potential, works seductively on Bloom as they wander around Manhattan, until Bloom suddenly catches the wind of self-fulfilment: “I want everything I ever saw in the movies!” he screams joyfully, dancing around the spuming fountain outside the Lincoln Center to Bialystock’s gleeful approval, half-Mephistophelian, half-schoolboy.

It’s not being that unkind to Brooks to say that for all his greatness at thinking up funny stuff to put in front of his camera, as an actual filmmaker he was by and large only competent, with straightforward blocking and staging that sometimes foils his script and actor’s comic energy as much as liberating: the second coming of Frank Tashlin or Leo McCarey he wasn’t. But comedy filmmaking usually benefits from a relatively stand-offish approach directorially speaking, and something of The Producers’ unique charm stems from his bluntness in capturing the theatrical energy of his performers and their looming physicality, wielding Mostel’s big, bulbous physiognomy as a Mount Rushmore of seediness. The opening scenes, intercut with the credits, have a frenetic quality that puts across the almost blind dedication of Bialystock to his sustaining act, and the mounting hysteria of his encounter with Bloom is marvellously sustained, culminating in Bloom striding around the fountain, filmed with a tracking shot tracing an arc with him that transforms him briefly into exactly the kind of movie hero he wants to be. The environs of Bialystock’s offices – he soon swaps out his grubby digs for rooms that fulfil his credo of “That’s it baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!” are comic arenas where shamelessness is appropriately over-lit to better pick up flopsweat on the hairline, and the threadbare pathos of failure and the chintzy trappings of success are barely discernible. Brooks pulls off some artful camera touches nonetheless as when he shoots Biaylstock in all his looming, fat-faced ridiculousness in close-up whilst entertaining “Hold Me, Touch Me” who sits diminished behind, and a zoom shot of Bloom skipping around the fountain whilst Bialystock revels, the erupting water evoking the orgasmic pleasure of their choice to go bad and get rich. And Brooks lands one, great joke dependent on intelligent directorial staging, even as it merely involves a static shot and use of sound: Bialystock knocks on the door of one of his ladyfriends and hears her frail voice through the speaker, “Just a minute!” and then the sound of dozens of locks being  undone, Bialystock wilting during the process.

Part of the cunning Brooks invested in The Producers lies in its slight exaggeration of believable elements, caricaturing people Brooks had doubtless encountered over the years in show business and embarking them on the kind of scheme that’s commonplace in that business’s wheeling and dealing – for instance, it was rumoured that Marty (1955) was financed as a tax write-off only to prove a hit, a twist of luck that’s only cream so long as the investment wasn’t oversold – pushed only to the fringe of the absurd as Bialystock and Bloom sell the play to 20,000%, thanks to Bialystock hurling himself with new enthusiasm into his circle of brittle old “investors.” The first stage in in their scheme requires however finding a property to stage that’s so soul-grindingly rank it’s guaranteed to flop. After a gruelling session reading through piles of plays, Bloom is ready to throw in the towel, only for Bialystock laugh giddily and proffer one like a tablet of the Ten Commandments as the essential bomb in the making, a “guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty” entitled Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden. Heading out to track down the author, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), they find him atop his apartment building where he keeps pigeons, clad in ratty long underwear and perpetually sporting his army helmet. Liebkind proves to be a Nazi fanatic determined to present to the world the idealised version of Hitler he has long cherished. After first assuming Bialystock and Bloom are immigration men and launching into a mangled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” upon finding what they’re after he launches into depraved rants insulting Winston Churchill and talking up Hitler’s talents (“Not many people knew it but ze Führer was a terrific dancer!”) whilst talking to his birds like surrogate children.

Mars’ performance nearly thieves the film from Mostel and Wilder’s pockets, playing a character who is at once contemptible, irascible, and violent, but also wields a vein of pathos, an exposed nerve of perversity. He’s a degraded hold-out of a defeated cause who’s become just another New York weirdo, violently alternating between weepy paeans to the lost idyll that was Hitler’s Germany as it subsists in his war-fried brain and ranting displays of fascist imperative lurking behind his desire. But he’s also like so many other wannabes hovering at the outer fringes of show business, desperate to be hailed for his labours and have his strangeness reclassified as genius: he’s like a fictional, slightly more coherent prediction of Tommy Wiseau. Liebkind launches into a mangled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” when he thinks the producers are immigration agents, swiftly pivoting to “Deutschland Uber Alles” when he thinks he’s about to pull off the great rehabilitation. “You are ze audience,” he informs one offended woman at the show’s premiere, “I am the author – I outrank you!” Later, when he tries to halt the performance and recount his own memory of Hitler, one of the cast hits him on the head from behind the curtain: Liebkind keeps on speaking without seeming to feel the blow until he suddenly cries, “Ow!” and collapses. Brooks liked this gag so much he repeats it verbatim in Blazing Saddles. With Liebkind, as elsewhere, Brooks encompasses a squalid world full of losers who reflect and mock showbiz pretension, locating cheerful absurdity in it all: even the lunatic Nazi is a creature of need. Bialystock resides in his office, yellowed and peeling posters for ancient hits on the wall, filth on the window, Bialystock’s hair draped like sun-dried seaweed to his scalp: Bialystock tosses the contents of a bad cup of coffee against a window pane and rubs away grime with his scarf. The gate to Liebkind’s building is kept by a woman (Madlyn Cates) who insistently calls herself the concierge, and retorts to Bloom’s courtly “Thank you, Madam,” with “I’m not a Madame, I’m a concierge!” Bialystock and Bloom are willing to pervert themselves to the degree of putting on Liebkind’s Swastika armbands to seal the deal, although they quickly deposit these in the garbage on the street and add their loogies for good measure.

The moment he smells a return of fortune Bialystock rewards himself with “a toy,” that is, hiring a Swedish go-go dancer and stripper named Ulla (Lee Meredith) who can barely speak English as his secretary and quickly schooling her in such refined arts as preparing his cigar. The Producers gets away with this in large part whilst still retaining sympathy for the two antiheroes because it ultimately presents Bialystock and Bloom as a pair of children inhabiting adult bodies, utterly bewildered and at the mercy of the grown-up hungers those bodies experience and the world they travel through, ready to abandon all law and principle if it means grabbing a hunk of all the things that tantalise without mercy. Again, the state of the common man in Brooks’ view. Brooks peppers their journey with other assorted unwitting stooges for the bomb-in-the-making with more enthusiasm than talent, including the director Bialystock hires, the ultra-camp Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), and his fey assistant Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas), and the brain-faded hippie musician Lorenzo St. Dubois (Dick Shawn), or LSD for short, who lands the pivotal role of Hitler in the play. Comic stereotypes all, of course, but slotted in to provide a social survey of weirdos defined chiefly by being a slightly different taxonomy of weirdo to the main characters. Bialystock and Bloom visit to DeBris’s house (“He’s the only director whose plays close on the first day of rehearsal.”) to hire him sees them forced to squeeze into a lift with Carmen, and find DeBris squeezing himself into a ball gown for an industry ball (“I’m supposed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but I think I look like Tugboat Annie.”) and hitting on Bloom. Carmen responds to DeBris’ inspired vision of female Stormtroopers in S&M gear inserted into the play with an ecstatic “Love it!” The irony here is that DeBris and Carmen, playing up the whole concept of theatre camp to a far horizon, also offset the heavy overtones of sublimated love between Bialystock and Bloom themselves.

LSD, for his part, only auditions accidentally after Bialystock, Bloom, and DeBris suffer through hours of auditioning performers all trying to establish their Germanic credentials (my favourite: the one who insists on finishing his song and then blows DeBris a raspberry). LSD stumbles in looking for another show but is talked into giving a performance with his all-girl band, and gives an unhinged performance of a song he wrote called “Love Power.” Sample lyric: “And I give a flower to the big fat cop – he takes his club and he beat me up!” The actual premiere of Springtime For Hitler sees the audience utterly horrified by the spectacle DeBris offers in his opening production number, with a crisply uniformed SS man warbling the paean to Nazi ambition and restored German national glory (“We’re all marching to a faster pace! Look out, here come the Master Race!”) whilst scantily clad girls in pervy versions of folk dress swan about. Then out comes a kick-line in Gestapo duds, forming themselves into a Swastika for a climactic parody of Busby Berkeley-style choreography. This is made all the more merciless by the fact the “Springtime For Hitler” title number is infinitely more memorable and insidiously catchy than any number of proper show tunes. It’s a good candidate for the single funniest scene in cinema, but it’s not an innocent kind of laughter, rather the kind that relies on the audience being provoked by the profound dissonance of subject and form, and then by the dissolution of dissonance by the time one finishes the movie and starts humming “Springtime For Hitler.”

The Producers ruffled feathers upon release for its blithe approach to making fun of the most serious subject imaginable, Hitler, and its many other fillips of sick humour. “Well, talk about bad taste!” one of the eventual audience members of Springtime For Hitler exclaims, neatly summarising exactly what Brooks set out to extol, revelling in being freed from the shackles of TV. But the quality that The Producers shares with Blazing Saddles is the sense of purpose underlying the freewheeling lunacy. The Producers executes a specific kind of revenge fantasy on the very concept of Hitlerian power, a step further than even Charlie Chaplin dared and the kind that perhaps only a Jewish comedian could come up with, reducing the psychopathic god to a peevish vaudeville character and his rhetoric to the stuff of cornball musical theatre. Bialystock and Bloom become Brooks’ proxies in this ironic mirror, seeming to conspire with the shades of the evil regime only to deliver it the most humiliating kick, whilst their eager delight in watching the show unfold and seeing the appalled reactions of their audience becomes a peculiarly cunning comic artist’s self-portrait, the professional’s hunger for validation melded with the provocateur’s delight in burning the house down. At the same time Brooks easily swats other targets, particularly to the tropes of the musical that the form has, indeed, never really recovered from, seeing the fascist will nascent in the urge to carefully orchestrate and subordinate dancers to geometry and rhythm, the reduction of murderers’ uniforms to a form of sexual fetish, and the edge of maniacal charisma contained within the nominally pacific style of the Counterculture’s music.

Bialystock and Bloom initially think their plan has worked brilliantly, only for the start of the actual play to hold the audience in their seats as, through casting LSD and with DeBris’ gaudy, tacky musical insertions and comic interventions, Springtime For Hitler has been turned from fascist paean to a broad farce and satire, perfectly attuned to an era where camp had become an aesthetic value. Of course Bialystock’s instincts, utter out of compass for years, will conspire to create success where he wants failure. Meanwhile Liebkind watches in sobbing despair in beholding what’s happened to his play, and tries to stop the show, only to be knocked out and taken for just another gag. This twist eventually drives the producers to make compact with Liebkind, after the Nazi in his rage tries to shoot them, to blow up the theatre and prevent more performances, only for Liebkind to get muddled during planting explosives, the blast injuring the three men and ensuring they’re caught. In court, where the three injured men are tried together (Liebkind swathed like a mummy but still with helmet on) Bloom makes a heartfelt plea on Bialystock’s behalf, but it’s not enough to prevent their journey to the hoosegow, whereupon they immediately repeat their plot by staging a musical called Prisoners of Love and accepting investments from the prison staff: Bialystock and Bloom are again in their element.

The gorgonizing mirror that is show business itself is the ultimate target of The Producers, existing in constant, tormenting relationship with the nursed fantasies, cherished ambitions, and deepest perversities not just of the audience but its makers. A zone defined by gravity-defying magic where one can not only make great piles of cash but also encounter the most beautiful and talented people and suborn them to your will in manners beautiful and awful, but which remains eternally unpredictable, a careening beast where what should be good becomes bad and vice versa depending on a thousand chance elements. Lessons Brooks himself was well-versed in, and after Blazing Saddles delivered a hit for him. There was some luck in this and also a pay-off for cultural seeding Brooks and others like him, including MAD Magazine, the Harvard National Lampoon in print and a generation of madcap improv theatre and stand-up comics like Lenny Bruce, that finally saw him hitting the zeitgeist bull’s eye. Blazing Saddles was specifically a madcap parody, most of Brooks’ subsequent films adopted that approach, aping classical genre plots to hang gags and sketches off. The best of them still kept some thesis in mind: Young Frankenstein, for instance, defuses the very idea of monstrosity and plays intricate games with notions of legacy and identity. For its part, Blazing Saddles undercuts the fantasies contained in many Westerns and deals directly with the basic national racial schism usually, strenuously avoided in the classic Western genre, ironically coinciding with the popularity of Blaxploitation film which performed many a remix on stale genres. Brooks inherited this idea from Bergman and it doubtlessly was amped up by Pryor, standing at odds with Brooks’ usual sensibility to a degree.

The style of much humour in Blazing Saddles – which today we might describe as “very politically incorrect” or “not woke”, and which was despite current rhetoric pretty much as controversial in its time as now – serves an ironic purpose, highlighting things usually excised from more polite exercises, revealing gaping vistas of experience in the classic Hollywood movie where people couldn’t fart or fuck and basic social truths were usually carefully mediated if mentioned at all. This principle is apparent in so much of the movie, ranging from the infamous, show-stopping campfire scene sporting a bunch of cowboys chomping down baked beans and making flatulent music, to villainous henchman Taggart (Slim Pickens) giddily describing how he and his men like “rape the shit” out of any women they capture whilst marauding. Blazing Saddles makes brutal sport undoubtedly for the sheer hell of it, but the little winces of pain as well as hilarity such lines provoke are a proof of life, blowing the lid off some secret aspect of life usually elided in the formalities of a classic movie. The opening scene sees a gang of white railway construction overseers try to get the mostly black and Chinese labourers to sing a work song for their entertainment, deftly makes multiple kinds of sociological sport, as workers, led by the smooth, poised, insolent Bart (Cleavon Little), sing jazz standards to the bewildered bosses, who respond by acting out the way they expect the Blacks to act, making tits of themselves in the process.

Blazing Saddles was taking on the squarest of square movie styles at a time when John Wayne was still hauling his pendulous carcass into the saddle, but the genre which had been Hollywood’s essential cash cow for decades was on a steep decline: Blazing Saddles completed the job of breaking it so effectively it was difficult to make more Westerns without a comparison falling from some wiseacre’s lips. The opening titles sport a theme song sung by country singer Frankie Laine that’s played completely straight in lyrics and music in mimicking the traditionally stirring genre theme tune, save for the hint of sarcasm in the overwrought title itself. The plot, involving a scheme to seize land and make a fortune from a railway being constructed over it, could come right out of any number of straitlaced horse operas. But the décor Brooks and his writers hang on that frame is seditious. Bart and another labourer Charlie (Charles McGregor) are dispatched by Taggart, the chief foreman, on the railway handcart to see if the track ahead is sinking in quicksand, and sink into the muck they do: when Taggart and his men arrive he diligently uses his lasso to pull the handcart from the quicksand and leaves the two disposable workers to die. It’s funny, as they say, because it’s true. Bart and manage to squirm their way out, and Bart grabs up a shovel and crowns Taggart with it, landing himself a ticket to the gallows in the territory capital.

Meanwhile, the railway’s course is set to be diverted across the solid land belonging to the burgeoning town of Rock Ridge. Taggart and his men are in cahoots with the Territorial Attorney General, Assistant To The Governor, and State Procurer Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who sees a way to make a fortune by obtaining the land, and sends the henchman to terrorize Rock Ridge’s citizens into fleeing so Lamarr can take it over. When this fails and the townsfolk demand a sheriff to protect them, Lamarr looks for a way to fatally demoralise the town, and hits upon the idea of pardoning Bart and convincing the territorial governor Le Petomane (Brooks), Lamarr’s partner in the land grab, to appoint him to the sheriff’s job. Bart is greeted in the town with expected racist bewilderment and disdain, but he makes friends with a drunk in his jail who calls himself Jim but proves to be the legendary gunslinger known as the Waco Kid (Wilder), and gains some respect when he outwits and captures a hulking goon, Mongo (Alex Karras), sent by Taggart. Lamarr next tries to destroy Bart by less direct means, engaging the travelling chanteuse Lily Von Shtupp (Madeleine Kahn) to seduce and humiliate him, only for Bart to prove so well-armed trouserwards that Lilly instead becomes his slavish devotee. At last Lamarr hires a small army to reduce the town to ashes, so the townsfolk, at Bart’s direction, build a Potemkin Village-like replica of the town to serve as a trap for the villains.

That Blazing Saddles has that coherent a storyline for most of its length is remarkable considering how casual it is in subverting it at any opportunity. Brooks employs manifold flourishes of meta humour, like a little old lady being beaten up by thugs suddenly looking at the camera and decrying her treatment, or Bart blowing up Mongo with a dynamite-laced candygram and then noting the hardest part of this trick was inventing the candygram. Mongo himself recreates a familiar trope in many a classic adventure movie of a husky but almost childlike henchman who swans into Rock Ridge and punches out a horse before being beaten by Bart. He becomes loyal to Bart, the first man never to whip him, to the point Waco teases him for being in love with Bart, to which Mongo irritably retorts, shoving them both aside, “No, Mongo straight!”, and later muses, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.” Brooks similarly undercuts Lamarr’s pretences to being the adult in the territory as he desperately seeks his rubber frog during bath time, as Taggart scrubs his back. Brooks makes swerves into other genres, like the hangman for the territory (Robert Ridgely) being modelled on Boris Karloff’s performance in Tower of London (1939). Blazing Saddles constantly announces itself in friendly quarrel with the ghost of Hollywood respectability. Lamarr anticipates, during his rousing villain’s speech to his men, getting an “almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.” Bart forces the townspeople of Red Rock to wait for him by invoking the holy name of Randolph Scott. Lamarr’s name evokes the iconography of classic Hollywood star power through Hedy Lamarr whilst destabilising Lamarr’s supposed authority with a girly name.

Brooks poking fun at the product of Hollywood’s golden age had loaded meaning when Blazing Saddles was released: whilst far less consequential than mocking Hitler, Brooks was still rubbing salt into an open cultural wound. As well as mapping out all the sociological ructions, sharp veers in what was permissible on screen, and changing perspectives on history and communal meaning sparked during the 1960s, Brooks also, casually informed the industry that the genre that had once been its mainstay was dead, even if, like a dinosaur with a slow nervous system, it kept moseying on a few more years before keeling over. The old stars, the old studio bosses, the old directors were dying or retiring. John Ford might have been grateful he died a year before Blazing Saddles came out, although Wayne, whilst turning the Waco Kid part down, told Brooks he’d be first in line to see the movie. At a time when a small industry whining about dirty words and sex scenes in movies was sprouting in reaction to the new Hollywood product, the old kind was rapidly becoming mythologised as grand imperial age. Brooks dramatized the disparity, setting eras in pop culture in quarrel and enjoying the mess.

That mess includes barbed commentary on the period racism and carnage usually gleaned over in movies: “Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the West and for what? So they can appoint a sheriff that’s blacker than any Indian!” Taggart moans after finding Bart is now sheriff. The studio wanted Brooks to remove the many uses of the slurs in the script, but Little and Pryor back Brooks, largely I think because they felt it had a purgative value. Blazing Saddles cleverly tells a modern story of post-Civil Rights-era in satirical period garb: moments like Bart struck dumb as a nice little old lady spits “Up yours, nigger!” at him have more truth in them than Stanley Kramer’s entire filmography. The film offers a clever, witty, debonair, intelligent Black hero in Bart, slick and dressed like Roy Rogers and embodying the perfect Western hero just as much. Bart finds a way to operate despite being faced with deep contempt from all sides save the equable Waco, who is himself struggling a la Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959), out of a pit of alcoholic degradation, showing off his shuddering shooting hand at first but soon enough getting his mojo back. Bart’s arrival in Rock Ridge sees him threatened and insulted, only for him to extricate himself by taking himself hostage, toggling between the persona of a gruff gunman and a cowering comic relief Black, before retreating into the jailhouse and congratulating himself: “Oh, baby, you are so talented!” The townsfolk themselves all have the same surname of Johnson, a touch that nods to familiar movie cliché where the name Johnson was often applied as a kind of everyman badge, and also witty as a racist inversion, the white people all rendered bland and lumpen in identity.

One of film’s funniest and certainly its warmest moment, perhaps the one that almost most directly achieves that purgative effect, comes after the aforementioned insult from the old lady as Waco consoles the depressed Bart with a gentle speech about keeping in mind what simple, ordinary people he’s dealing with, “these are people of the land, the common clay of the new West…You know…Morons.” At which point Bart grins in delight. Like Bialystock and Bloom, Bart and Waco are misfits who find solace in each-other’s company and maintain a conspiratorial attitude against the world, only in this case with an aim to saving it rather than exploit it. The chemistry evinced here between Little and Wilder is all the more vital given Wilder was only pressed into his role when Brooks’ first choice, Gig Young, had to be replaced as his actual alcoholism was catching up with him. Waco was supposed to a leathery, haggard old-timer, tailor-made for a worn-in familiar face, but bringing in Wilder, who since The Producers had become a star in his own right, helped reinforce the film’s hip quality. Little himself was making his feature film debut, having previously only been a stage actor: Brooks had originally intended for Pryor to have the role, but Pryor was still considered too wild and risky a talent. Little is ideal in the part, however, and even given the smaller window for Black headliners in ‘70s Hollywood it’s bewildering that Little didn’t become a huge star, or at the very least get more roles than some TV guest spots.

Meanwhile Brooks casts himself as Le Petomane (his character name a deep cut of reference, to a nineteenth century French performer whose name literally meant “The Fart Maniac,” a clear sign Brooks knows well how the tradition he works within is) and as an Indian chief remembered by Bart in a flashback, who spared the lives of his family who were trailing a wagon train whilst his warriors massacred the rest. As the Governor, Brooks nailed down a characterisation he’d take up again in A History of the World, Part I (1981) as King Louis of France and which also links back to Bialystock, as a distractible satyr with the moral and mental poise of a ten-year-old, delighting in the capacious bosom of his secretary and easily manipulated by the splendidly slimy Lamarr, who is in turn constantly frustrated to the point of rage in being a clever guy surrounded by frontier nitwits. The film is nonetheless just about entirely stolen by Kahn’s pitch-perfect lampoon of Marlene Dietrich as Von Shtupp, perfectly mimicking the great old star’s languid lilt and performing a song entitled “I’m Tired,” a riff on Dietrich’s persona as the been-there-done-him scarlet woman, nodding most immediately to her roles in Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Blue Angel (1931). Her performance of “I’m Tired” (sample lyric: “I’m had my fill of love, from below and above.”) repeats some of the shtick of “Springtime For Hitler” as she’s joined on stage by some dancers in Teutonic army uniform, and indeed it’s an early example of how Brooks would keep trying to better his classic of crass and fail.

Lily’s downfall proves to be Bart’s prodigious manhood, setting out to test the myth of Black trouser snake size and bleating “It’s twue! It’s twue!” as the lights go out. This sort of thing also encompasses a more timely parody of the fast-emerging cliché of Blaxploitation films with their bullet-proof, long-schlonged lady-killer heroes. Dissolve to Lily serving Bart a gigantic sausage for breakfast: “Fifteen is my limit for schnitzelgruben.” Brooks had become a slicker filmmaker by this point, although a lot of scenes, particularly around the Governor’s offices, are played out in the most functional point-and-shoot fashion. Every now and then, though, he wields a genuinely clever sense of camera cause and effect. One moment pays direct tribute to the kinds of sprawling compositions in a MAD cartoon, his camera makes a lengthy dolly surveying the motley assembly singing up for Lamarr’s force, including Mexican bandits, bikers, German soldiers, Confederates, Arabs with camels, and Ku Klux Klan members. An earlier, famous shot is more subtle in its sleight of hand, when Bart first appears decked in cowboy gear, shiny star on his chest. Anachronistic jazzy music stars playing as if to aurally announce that this here is not your daddy’s cowboy, nosiree, this is a cool Black one. It’s the sort of cringe-inducing musical cue often delivered in to play on an audience’s ironic awareness whilst not quite violating the fourth wall: hell, something like The Harder They Fall (2021) does the same thing only with a different music style. Except that Brooks takes it a giant step further as Bart rides across a plain to find Count Basie and his full orchestra playing in the middle of nowhere, Bart swapping high-fives with the great bandleader. Layers of history and art collapse together in one perfect surrealist gesture.

This vignette illustrates how Brooks’ more high-minded mentality melds with unexpected ease and fruitfulness with his down-and-dirty impulses. The nods to Joyce and Kafka in The Producers are supplanted here by devices borrowed from Theatre of the Absurd figures like Luigi Pirandello, luxuriating in the way making a comedy offers a casual smokescreen to all accusations of pretension and dramatic lapse. This is taken to a logical extreme at the film’s end when the actors burst out of one movie and start invading others. Abandoning the coherent plot of The Producers and its essentially character-based humour was a risk for Brooks and indeed as he became known for his parodies his films began settling into loose-jointed skits: Blazing Saddles works in large part because it offers such a deluge of them. But the story of Bart and the Waco Kid and Lamarr’s partnership hangs together just enough to give the film a level of dramatic unity, and indeed making the film as a whole a particularly wry entry in the ‘70s buddy movie stakes. Brooks delivers a climax where Lamarr’s mercenary band attacks Rock Ridge. To delay them long enough to put finishing touches on their trap, Bart and the townsfolk set up a fake tollway in front of the approaching brigands. Having lured the bandits into the fake town but failed to properly set explosives to blow them all to hell, the heroes must fall back on Waco’s incredible aim to set it off.

This turn of plot feels surprisingly clever and substantial, balanced by the imagery of the villains wheeling about a fake town populated by bobble-headed cut-outs standing in for townsfolk and kicking over false fronts. This is again touched with odd genius, at once seeming like an only slightly too ridiculous scheme and touched once more with a meta aspect, making the flimsy nature of Hollywood sets into a part of the story: the suspension of disbelief the audience is usually expected to make confronted by false environs and bad special effects might as well extend to the characters in a movie too. The good guys charge in to finish the job and the two sides battle in the street, whereupon Brooks pulls out in a long zoom shot to reveal they’re now in the midst of a Hollywood backlot. Zoom in again on a sound stage, where a bunch of very camp dancers are filming a number called “The French Mistake” but stumbles in the choreography infuriate the director (Dom DeLuise) who tries to show they how it’s supposed to go only to screw it up himself. The brawling cowboy picture actors crash onto the set, the dancers join the melee after Taggart hits the director, a hulking he-man seems about to beat up some skinny hoofer only to sneak out on a date with him, and others make like Esther Williams in a pool.

This shattering of form and resulting explosion of joyous mayhem is very much the culmination of Brooks’ sensibility even as it announced it as far as the mass audience was concerned. The entire filmmaking machine breaks down, fakery and factory becoming inseperable. One waning genre, the Western, confronts another, the Musical, affected machismo and campiness colliding and battling but also finding their delightful new fruitions. The old Hollywood pantheon (in the form of cement hand and shoe prints out front of the Chinese Theater) confronted by their inheritors wearing the drag of fantasy-satire extrapolation. Lamarr pauses before dying to ponder bewilderedly at the size of Douglas Fairbanks’ footprints and then scratching his name and creed ($) into the ceement, whilst the heroes seek out a happy ending – “I love a happy ending!” Waco exclaims – in the movie theatre, having had enough of real life already. In a great little throwaway touch, Waco, reabsorbed back into the movie, still clutches the tub of popcorn he bought in the theatre. Waco and Bart ride off together, having saved the town, but soon dismount and climb into a chauffeured car to drive into the sunset. The true meaning of movies, Brooks notes: when they work everyone goes home happy, but some go home in a limo.

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1960s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Films About Films and Filmmaking, Horror/Eerie

Targets (1968)

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Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Screenwriters: Peter Bogdanovich, Samuel Fuller (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Peter Bogdanovich 1939-2022

From vantages in later life Peter Bogdanovich may well have looked back at Targets, his official emergence as a director, and given a grim smile. As well as looking directly into the darker fantasies hatching out of the American body politic in ways that have become all too familiar in the decades since its release, Targets is also a movie casting a caustic eye on the collapsing ground between fantasy and reality, celebrity and infamy. It’s both a young man’s spree and a promise of reckoning to everyone who enters a zone where subjects of cool artistic regard, personal meditation, sociological scrutiny, and raw tabloid frenzy all converge: Bogdanovich already saw and understood the forces that would define his life and career.  Bogdanovich’s journey in the first 35 years of his life seemed uniquely blessed and lucky, whilst so much of the rest of it, though he at least never seemed to succumb to temptations of self-pity and self-exile, might have felt like being trapped within the hall-of-mirrors angst of Targets. Bogdanovich, the son of Serbian and Austrian-Jewish parents, was born in New York just after they immigrated to the US, and was conscious until the end of his life of his peculiar status as product of two continental sensibilities.

Bogdanovich trained as an actor, but his adoration for cinema manifested early as he started keeping indexed reviews of every movie he saw from the age of twelve, and he emerged in his early twenties as a leading critic and scholar. He became a film programmer for the Museum of Modern Art, doing much to transform the reputation of directors like Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford amongst the American cognoscenti, whilst also befriending many such storied directors and writing about their careers and experiences. Along the way Bogdanovich began thinking of getting into movies himself like his French New Wave critics, and like other, young, budding filmmakers before and after, he soon found himself employed by the emperor of quickie cinema Roger Corman. Bogdanovich and his wife Poly Platt, a theatrical set designer and all-round imaginative talent, fled New York and unpaid rent for Hollywood, and within a few weeks Bogdanovich was deeply immersed in cobbling together a film for Corman, as Francis Ford Coppola had done before him utilising footage from a Soviet science fiction film Corman had bought and combining it with newly shots scenes to create a movie called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), for which Bogdanovich was credited under the name Derek Thomas.

Oscars were mysteriously not forthcoming for that odd, silly, yet hazily poetic chimera, but Bogdanovich had proven he had the stuff of a filmmaker. For his second and proper debut as a director, Bogdanovich and Platt came up with a storyline that was as much a rumination on their own obsession with cinema and its meaning as it was a tale describing modern dread. Bogdanovich also credited Samuel Fuller with helping him write the script, and Fuller’s fingerprints are discernible throughout, in the lean and cunning dovetailing of journalistic forthrightness and aesthetic force. Not that many people saw Targets when it was first released, but it won Bogdanovich industry attention, allowing him to move on and make The Last Picture Show (1971), the movie that announced him as a major force in the emerging New Hollywood era. Targets is atypical for Bogdanovich in many respects, as a lean, patiently paced tale of death and dread, where the director would later devote the bulk of his career to screwball and romantic comedies, albeit laced with strange textures and lodes of anxiety, and tender human dramas. Bogdanovich found a way of sating the B-movie world’s needs whilst aiming far beyond it. At the same time many of Bogdanovich’s defining traits are already in evidence – an indulgent sense of character and humour, replete film buff flourishes, and a way with offering neglected stars a career-redefining part.

Targets takes as a jumping-off point a truism about the nature of horror, contrasting the almost comforting, moodily historical and psychological imagery of classic, Gothic-style Horror, and the films that had thrived on it, with the nature of horror as experienced as part of the everyday world of the late 1960s, drawing generally on the Vietnam War zeitgeist and in particular on the murderous rampage of former soldier Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966. Bogdanovich articulates the contrast by using footage from Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963) to represent the latest movie by beloved Horror movie star Byron Orlok, played, in one of the greatest strokes of self-referential casting in the history of movies, by Boris Karloff in one of his last performances. The film commences with a long portion of The Terror playing out, with the aging, limping, bedraggled Karloff/Orlok playing out a semi-improvised fantasia in a waning subgenre on screen, until, in a manner that feels inspired by the opening newsreel and conference of Citizen Kane (1941), the movie ends and the lights come up in a screening room.

The use of The Terror in particular to represent the decaying Gothic style is particularly apt in the associations it trails. Corman and a cadre of young assistants, including Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, and costar Jack Nicholson, flung together portions of the movie to take advantage of some sets and remaining contracted days with Karloff, and later assembled it into something like a coherent film. It’s the kind of movie that represents low-budget and mercenary genre cinema of its time as at once absurd and endearing, touched with happenstance art and beauty. Targets presents it as a factotum labour by Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich himself), a young TV director who’s anxiously trying to make a movie career happen, made at the behest of pushy producer Marshall Smith (Monte Landis). But watching the movie proves to have left Orlok depressed and suddenly determined to retire, much to Smith’s chagrin, as he wants to next produce Sammy’s next, more ambitious script, one he describes as “a work of art,” with a part specially written for Orlok. Orlok is happy to aggravate and ignore Smith, but Sammy is left despondent at suddenly losing what he saw a great opportunity for the both, and fears it’s a commentary on his work, which Orlok denies. Orlok also decides to avoid a personal appearance he’s supposed to make at a preview of the movie, to be held at the Reseda Drive-In Theatre. He quarrels with his personal assistant, Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), who is also Sammy’s girlfriend, when she criticises his behaviour, and she leaves in a huff. Sammy turns up shortly after, drunk and insisting on telling Orlok off for turning down his great role, and the two men get hammered together whilst arguing out their different fears.

As Orlok departed Smith’s offices on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip earlier in the day, the completely unaware actor was viewed through the crosshairs of a sniper scope from across the street: young Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) buying a new hunting rifle, scopes out prey on the boulevards. Bogdanovich privileges the viewer with a glimpse inside Bobby’s car trunk as he places the rifle within, already containing as it does dozens of guns. Bobby returns home to his father (James Brown), mother (Charlotte Thompson), and wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan), who all seem to lead an ideal American suburban lifestyle as far from the saturated Technicolor mystique and morbidity of Orlok’s movies as it’s possible to get. Bobby family relate like they’ve been cast in a commercial, with son calling father “sir” with perfect reflexive deference, as the two bond over shooting cans, and they all sit around watching banal television: they’re likely the kind of people who wouldn’t watch one of Orlok’s films for being too silly and unhealthy. Bogdanovich’s camera, moving with Bobby, surveys Platt’s sets, moving between equally banal spaces, where the blue pastel interior walls and near-clinical sparseness of the furnishings make the house seem more like a dentist’s waiting room than a home. Nobody seems troubled or uptight, but there are subtle tensions in Leave It To Beaver-ville. The camera notes a photo of Bobby in military uniform, signalling he’s likely been in Vietnam. Ilene is a telephone operator currently working night shift, whilst Bobby works days in an insurance company, but there are hints he might have been sacked; both are stuck in the family house whilst it’s mentioned Bobby has a brother who’s started a family. Bogdanovich strains however to avoid psychologising Bobby. His oncoming actions are more the result of a vacuum of identity rather than pressure, his obsession with guns the product of a life lived in constant training for some event that may never come, so he must make it.

The film weaves parallel patterns for hero and villain. Orlok retires whilst Bobby is fired. Bogdanovich cuts from the Thompson family having dinner in a fishbowl shot to Orlok, Jenny, and Smith’s press agent Ed Loughlin (Arthur Peterson) occupy a booth in a restaurant. Later, Bobby sits alone drinking up TV, whilst Orlok withers after watching his movie but then becomes rapt along with Sammy by the good work in The Criminal Code, before of course, the two men’s paths converge. The visual language emphasises this – jump cuts that lock the two characters in similar gesture, camera pans that begin in one scene and end in another. What makes the obvious duologue at the narrative’s heart interesting is the way Bogdanovich engages with it, both cinematically, and in the levels of irony he packs into his thesis. Orlok’s sense of crisis at the twilight of his career is reflected in a crisis of aesthetics: what was once scary is now fun, if not comical, artistic experience that once had a pleasant zing of risk now pleasant. Even Orlok comments to Sammy that “You know what they call my films today – camp – high camp…My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore.” But what is horror now? Orlok shows Sammy a newspaper with the headline, “Youth Kills Six In Supermarket” as an example, and Bobby soon provides another. Horror now comes out of the antiseptic, ahistorical dream of the modern suburb, a place that is supposed to be the great pinnacle and dream of human history, borne not out of ancient evils and rotten, animate psyches, but the very opposite, spaces that seem to appease all need for fear, anger, lust, allowing everyone to lead the good clean wholesome lives they always wanted to. Bobby confesses to his wife that I don’t know what’s happening to me…I get funny ideas…you don’t think I can do anything do you,” statements that are so fuzzily expressed Ilene gives bromides in response: “I think you do anything you put your mind to, at least that’s what your mother says.” Which is of course one of the great existential curses: what, exactly, should one put one’s mind to?

Meanwhile Bogdanovich finds a way of dramatizing his own cineaste obsessiveness. Sammy’s relationship with Orlok, his old, withered muse and nemesis in taking movies seriously, channels Bogdanovich’s encounters with the grand old men of Hollywood, and even anticipates what would become Bogdanovich’s famous friendship with Orson Welles. That Bogdanovich himself plays the role exacerbates the metanarrative trickery still further. Bogdanovich’s reverence for the past is signalled when Sammy finds Orlok watching one of his old movies, represented by Howard Hawks’ prison flick The Criminal Code (1930) featuring the pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff as a murderer. Sammy notes the director and comments, “He really knows how to tell a story,” which Orlok affirms, remnant professional pride still lodged somewhere in his weary, self-doubting frame. Bogdanovich’s sympathy for actors as one himself, challenged as he inserts himself front and centre in his movie, is also vital here. Sammy and Orlok’s drinking-and-moping session culminates with the two men falling asleep on Orlok’s hotel room bed. Waking in the morning Sammy gave a frightened start on seeing his bed-mate, waking Orlok: “I was having a nightmare and the first thing I see as I open my eyes in Byron Orlok!” Bogdanovich makes these touches, which stray near to self-indulgent, matter in terms of the larger narrative. That’s in part because they present Orlok as a man of an industry with a history, and one who in many ways embodying the Gothic horror style, not just in that it’s his living and metier, but in that he represents memory, tradition, experience, and craft, things of value left by the tidal roll of the past, things Sammy tries to value whilst also embodying youth and potential.

“Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream,” the star comments in recalling his glory days with a lilt of the old sinister persona easily called forth. “It’s not that the films are bad, I’ve gone bad.” The patent sarcasm of this is Karloff was always a terrific actor, able to deliver brilliantly layered performances like those in Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher (both 1945) alongside his gallery of grotesques, and Bogdanovich’s gift to him a year before he died was a role that ingeniously exploited both his talent and his persona. Adding to the game is the fact that Sammy’s script, the one he wants to get Orlok to act in, is very plainly Targets itself. The hall of mirrors gets a little longer. Orlok’s name, as well as presenting a readily legible echo of Karloff’s nom-de-theatre (Boris Karloff himself being a kind of character played by William Pratt, an Englishman with Indian heritage), refers to the name of the Dracula substitute in Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). “You don’t play some phoney Victorian heavy,” Sammy tells Orlok regarding his proposed role in his script, “You play a human being.” Bobby for his part could be said to embrace the role of poet of murder, supplanting Orlok’s make-believe with real flesh targets, but his is a dry, cold, alien poetry, associated with pale blue prefab walls and high white industrial structures, the eye of the camera becoming the lens of the sniper scope, seeking out targets to challenge his aim.

Bobby’s emerging homicidal impulses are signalled from his first appearance, scoping Orlok across the street. And again when he points a shotgun at his father when he’s setting up cans for them to plug, a gesture that his father is infuriated by, violating everything he taught his son about using guns. Bobby hastily explains his faux pas – “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” and tellingly he remains unable to kill his father, avoiding unleashing his poetry until he’s away from the family home. There’s nothing identifiably bad about his father, who seems like a decent, solicitous, old-fashioned patriarch who insists on fastidious safety when handling guns, but it’s precisely that igneous aspect of strength he exudes that might fester in the mind. Ilene comes home from a night at work to find Bobby sitting on their bed smoking and asking her not to turn on the light: in the dark Bobby can dream dark dreams whilst still awake, and the stubbing out of a cigarette is the seal set on a private resolve.

The next morning, Bobby types out a letter, as much suicide note as statement of murderous intent, in which he says he knows he will go down eventually but others will die first. He shoots Ilene as she comes up to him for a morning kiss, and then his mother when she races in to see what happened. Realising she was just about to pay a delivery boy bringing groceries, he dashes into the kitchen and guns down the lad too. Bobby calmly and caringly picks up his wife and mother’s bodies and lays them on beds, as if hoping to lock them in permanent stasis, eternally and perfectly inhabiting the house and the roles they were in, in part because in his mania he feels this will release them from consequences of what comes next. He lays down handtowels over blood stains as if ashamed to have had to spoil the carpeting, and extends the solicitude to placing a jacket over the delivery boy’s head. Here Bogdanovich employs touches that betray careful study of Hitchcock, in the image of Ilene leaning into the camera for her kiss as Bobby shoots her and is then flung back, and repurposing Psycho’s (1960) post-murder clean-up, with the camera performing delicate Hitchcockian tracking shots that zero in on tell-tale totems. Psycho’s imprint is also plain on the conception of Bobby as a character, as a superficially nice young man who’s a killer, constantly chewing on candy.

At the same time Bogdanovich moves out beyond Hitchcock in portraying a killer whose activities have no plot motive and inspire virtually no traditional suspense, and by the finale Bogdanovich countenances the breakdown of movie narrative into warring images in a way Hitchcock always resisted: the Master’s consciousness that film was a reality created by juxtaposed imagery could not face blurring such lines. Most of the second half of Targets unfolds in a negative behavioural zone where tension is wrung more from forced identification with Bobby, obliged through the camera lens – agonising as Bobby lines up his shots, feeling the frustration of missing, the pricks of pain in failing to carry out the mission and frustration of the deadly synthesis of spectacle and homicide, the anxiety of trying to survive just a little longer to keep the nullifying rain falling. Bobby leaves his home, buys stacks more ammunition and charges them to his father – that he lacks any cash bolsters the hints of his joblessness – and waits with patient bravado whilst the manager rings his father to get permission for this, the kind of moment usually reserved for a spy hero trying to get past some enemy cordon. Success; Bobby heads out to a perfect vigil he spied driving around earlier, atop some oil tanks overlooking the freeway, a place to enact the idle fantasy of stopping the ants from moving.

Bobby goes about his apocalyptic mission nonetheless like the suburban sojourner he still is, settling down to munch on a home-made lunch and a bottle of pop whilst anticipating the day’s fun, whilst unpacking his sack crammed full of death, guns and bullets laid out with geometric precision atop the tank with its gleaming white paint and equally geometric forms of piping and railings. The cinematographer for Targets was Laszlo Kovacs, and he can be seen developing an argot here (as with the previous year’s Psych-Out), that visual lustre charged with raw on-the-road poetry and diffused yet immediate imagery he would later deploy on the likes of Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Movie (1971), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), movies where Kovacs could pivot in an instant between a New Wave myth of Americana and textures of filmy, grainy psychology, and both are present to a degree in Targets – the urban landscapes in all their variegated shininess seem charged with a kind of putrescent glitter whilst the interiors are coded by colour into discrete zones of characterisation. The crucial early scene in the Thompson house where Bobby confesses having strange ideas is one, long shot tethering actors and environs in a systemic statement, bedroom, kitchen, hallway and living room folded about them all, not ending until Bobby goes outside to fetch a pistol from the car, because happiness is a warm gun.

Bogdanovich gives a first clue to how clever the dovetailing of his two storylines will be when, before Bobby arrives at the tanks, he portrays Orlok, with Sammy and a mollified Jenny, hanging his mind about attending the movie screening, and sitting down with a local DJ, the motor-mouthed hipster Kip Larkin (Sandy Baron), to go through the arrangements for the show: Orlok cringes at the various tired audience questions Larkin plans to lay on him, and instead relishes Sammy’s suggestion that he tell some stories. He settles down with casual displays of stagecraft tells a variation on the old fable “Appointment in Samarra,” in which a servant flees Baghdad for Samarra after encountering Death in a marketplace, only for the man’s employer to speak to Death who admits to having been surprised to see the servant when he’s expecting to meet him “tonight in Samarra.” This vignette is marvellous for a number of reasons. As a switchback towards a pre-modern world of fables and verbal storytelling. As a chance for Karloff to show his talents in that waning art. As a showcase for combining the verbal and visual for an anecdotal, character-defining effect Bogdanovich would use again notably and repeatedly in The Last Picture Show. As a clever narrative gag confirming Orlok’s still-guttering talent to grip an audience, even arresting the DJ’s attention. And as a thematic anticipation of Bobby’s sniping spree, as people riding along the highway have no idea they’re journeying to Samarra, the ultimate event of their lives the remote game of shooting moving cans for Bobby, who has, at least for one crucial moment, assumed the immortal mantle of Death, but in his detachment from his crimes he reveals a peculiar impotence. Whereas the artist can countenance and express awful things harmlessly, and gifts this on to others for their relief.

As varied and generally far lighter as most of Bogdanovich’s subsequent films would be, it’s entirely possible to see characters like the perturbing heroines of What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Daisy Miller (1974), the wandering con artists of Paper Moon (1973), the wayward romantics of At Long Last Love (1975) and They All Laughed (1981), and the filmmakers of Nickelodeon (1976), as very different expressions of the same will to anarchy Bobby also draws on, except for many of these that will is revivifying, an expression of creative need and survival will, rather than embarking on a death trip. But the vast majority of Bogdanovich’s oeuvre floats on a sea of sublimated anxiety about collapsing forms and protocols. The repressed and desolate world portrayed in The Last Picture Show meanwhile depicts a private hell for Bogdanovich characters, their acts of rebellion and dissent far more petty and human than Bobby’s but motivated by a similar eruption against the tyranny of normality. Bobby on top the oil tanks and later above a movie screen in the ultimate foldback of art and audience is an avatar of Bogdanovich himself, stirring the audience’s nerves to the same pitch of disquiet as his own with aesthetic bullets, setting stability into chaos, tapping the nervous systems of others in games of stimulus-response. Like just about any movie director, in truth, which is why the climax registers on so many levels.

Where Bogdanovich defines Bobby’s scenes with his family through their wooden good cheer, Orlok’s scenes with Jenny, who is Chinese-American and has been teaching him the language (a sign Orlok isn’t at all close off from new experiences and learning) and Sammy, who speaks fluent movie brat, are defined by their sinuous blend of familiarity, affection, irritation, and provocation – they have no bonds beyond business and yet act far more like a real family. Their scenes are flecked with moments of deft characterisation, like Orlok’s rueful pleasure in giving Smith pain, despite Loughlin warning Orlok Smith will sue and win, and telling Jenny to cancel the tickets she bought him on the Queen Elizabeth because “I told you I wanted to go home on the Queen Mary,” a ship with a place much deeper in the heart for an old-school transatlantic wayfarer. Orlok’s disappointment not to continue their Chinese lessons segues into an odd Hawksian stretch of dialogue where the idea of speaking Chinese stands in for a variety of home truths and sharp quips. Bogdanovich spares sympathy for Loughlin, who tries and fails to make peace between Orlok and Smith, and muses, in a register of defeated wistfulness, that he has a degree in English literature from Princeton, before resolving to go get drunk. Bobby’s shootings from the oil tanks represent a nervelessly constructed sequence as his bullets hit home and cars swerve and wobble on the road. One car crashes into the median ditch, a woman trying urgently to open the driver’s side door and get to the wounded driver: Bobby takes aim at her but the pin clicks on an empty chamber, and Bobby, frantic to reload, burns his hand on the hot barrel. He’s able to reload in time to shoot the woman as she tries waving down help, her distant body twitching and falling. A worker in the oil depot hears the shots and climbs up the tank, only for Bobby to snatch up a shotgun and blast him, sending his body spinning to earth.

Finally cops arrive as the greater amount of carnage than usual on the freeway registers, and Bobby grabs up his arsenal, just panicky enough to drop guns and ammunition like a breadcrumb trail. Nonetheless he makes it to his white convertible roadster and speeds away, entering the Reseda Drive-In which is largely empty, parking his car, and taking up a new post atop the scaffolding behind the movie screen. Many friends and onlookers felt Bogdanovich was never really as good without Platt than he was with her, as invaluable production mastermind and creative sounding board: Platt did go on to become a major producer in her own right. It’s tempting to look at the similarly paralleled Ilene and Jenny as analogues of Platt herself, encoded into a story she had a hand in writing, if more in Jenny’s solicitous blend of aid and scepticism compared to Ilene’s what-me-worry dismissal of her husband’s furtive attempts to communicate, even as Ilene also seems to be a chipper player in making the great life project of marriage a going concern. One reasonably radical aspect of the film is the complete lack of a music score save sounds from diegetic sources, exacerbating the deadpan horror, culminating in eerie synthesis where the grating echo of The Terror’s dialogue rises up along with Bogdanovich’s camera through the scaffolding to find Bobby in his shooting blind, gun barrel poking through a hole, the protoplasmic forms of projected images surrounding the very real weapon. Fast zoom shots stand in for the act of shooting. A mischievous alliance of authorial need and Fate is needed to bring Bobby and Orlok together. Orlok himself and Jenny meanwhile are driven by a chauffeur through the LA twilight, with Orlok noting, as he surveys an unending stretch of car lots, “God, what an ugly town this has become.”

Targets only became really well known after Bogdanovich gained later fame, but as if by compensation it’s become a powerfully influential work, directly and indirectly. As a foundational text of the New Hollywood era, it presages many recurring concerns of the era’s filmmakers, like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Taxi Driver’s (1976) preoccupation with the crossroads of ironic media fame and murder and The Conversation’s (1974) paranoid feel for the urban world. Its DNA can also be spotted in movies made by directors with a similar nostalgic passion for, and amused scepticism about, the old film industry, like Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), as well as a future time of meta genre cinema like the Scream series where characters are both within and aware of a Horror movie. Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (1976/2019) suggests he might have watched it and came out similarly preoccupied with the hostile landscape of the period towards the grand old dinosaurs of Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino, an avowed fan of the film, virtually subsumed Targets into his aesthetic persona, taking up its feel for the LA landscape as a style guide and Bogdanovich’s tailor-made rescue of old timers as a basic career goal. Tarantino annexed the film-viewing-as-massacre motif for Inglourious Basterds (2009), whilst Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) is basically a remake of Targets writ large, with the same basic plot of a washed-up actor finding himself a real hero going about against a murderous force of modern sociopathy, whilst touching base with similar period details, like the popular DJ ‘The Real’ Don Steele heard on the radio (perhaps a double-layered reference on Tarantino’s part, as Bogdanovich often voiced DJs himself in his movies, and had recreated this for Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych).

As a revisionist Horror movie, Targets also retains a pure prognosticative streak, even if many of its lessons were only partly heeded, and audience tastes quietly chose a third path. Targets was released almost simultaneously with Night of the Living Dead (1968): the two share an evident, caustic perspective on American gun-happy lifestyles, and Bogdanovich was entirely right in seeing a transition away from quaint bygone representations of psychological unease to more modern ones nascent in the genre. But he didn’t anticipate the fusion of approaches as found in the subsequent slasher movie style, where often masked, monstrous killers deal out carnage in a modern fashion but retain an aspect of the primeval and the abstract to them: the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s (1974) Leatherface or Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers are every bit as alien and boogeyman-ish as any character Karloff every played and indeed more so, although the terror they deal out is more realistic and believable. Bogdanovich by contrast completely avoids any signposting of monstrosity with Bobby, who comes across like any vaguely pleasant, stolid young man on the street right to the movie’s end. “The banality of evil” is today an excruciatingly overused phrase, but Bobby certainly embodies it.

The finale then sees the ritualised imagery of Orlok’s last movie transmuted into an act of aesthetic terrorism, whose deliverer is almost incidental, as the movie screen starts gunning the audience dead. Beat that, Godard. As with the freeway scene, awareness of the danger and chaos only slowly begins to take hold of the audience in their ranked cars and others around the theatre, like a man in a phone booth (Mike Farrell) who Bobby challenges himself to shoot despite not being able to see him properly, and who, badly wounded, slowly and agonisingly drags himself across the gravel compound, and the film’s projectionist who is instantly killed, the movie rolling on regardless. Lovers and families realising the danger crouch low, and those who can try to flee. Bogdanovich finally arrives at the most disturbing and tragic image of the movie, as a young boy weeps in stricken, frozen fear whilst staring at his dead father behind the car wheel. A theatre employee’s innocent act of turning on lighting endangers everyone as cowering in the dark behind the dashboard is the only protection for many. People in the crowd with guns start shooting back.

Sammy frantically tries to reach Orlok and Jenny near the screen after abandoning his car, as the flight of cars out of the drive-in becomes a choked dance of light and dark, the red glow of brake-lights ironically infusing the contemporary action with some of the surreal lustre of the Gothic drama on the screen. When Jenny is shot through the shoulder by Bobby, the infuriated Orlok starts a march up to where he can seen Bobby shooting it out with the yahoos from the crowd, and Bobby is momentarily startled and disorientated by the sight of two Byron Orloks on the move, one real, the other on the screen: Bobby hysterically shoots at both, a bullet clipping the Orlok’s brow but not stopping him, and before Bobby can recover and take up another gun, Orlok swats it from his hand with his cane and slaps Bobby into submission. If this moment was mishandled it could easily have slipped into comedy and anticlimax. Instead Bogdanovich makes it work as a nexus where genuine heroism on Orlok’s part and the general insanity of Bobby’s project each find the perfect moment of expression, each needing the other to find fruition.

Orlok’s disarming of Bobby coincides, through Bogdanovich’s hair-trigger editing, with the movie reel running out in the projector, the false imagery suddenly ceasing and replaced by neutral white. Life and art confront each-other, and at such a point of singularity an overwhelmingly sane man like Orlok has that one crucial defence over a lunatic like Bobby, as he can tell the difference between the two. “Is that what I was afraid of?” Orlok questions in disbelief as he looks down at Bobby who, disarmed and chastened and surrounded by quickly by cops, has been reduced to a pathetic boy given a good spanking by his grandfather, whilst Sammy solicitously wipes Orlok’s bloodied temple. This clarifies something of Orlok’s character as well as finding the last irony in Bobby’s, as Orlok’s own sense of fear and horror finally gains illustration, where he’s done it for others for decades. Bobby himself can only question of the cops who drag him away, “I hardly ever missed, did I?”, as a man proud at least of a job well done. Bogdanovich fades from the churn of chaos to the forlorn image of Bobby’s car, still parked where he left it, the only car left in the drive-in, as if Bobby vanished along with the Byron Orlok in his last Horror movie, all part of the same dark dream, no matter what guise it wears.

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy

Licorice Pizza (2021)

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Director / Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Roderick Heath

Paul Thomas Anderson Land is a familiar place by now, if only in its strangeness, and the opening moments of Licorice Pizza lead us there hand in hand. The familiar Andersonian motif of flowing, seemingly dreamily free and immersing but also subtly disconcerting, unmooring tracking shots is this time used to immediately introduce Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman). Alana works for a school photography outfit called Tiny Toes, which is busy taking class photos of the denizens of a Los Angeles high school, all of it set to Nina Simone’s “July Tree” with its sonic textures evoking lazy summer days in reedy fields whilst the camera scans spraying sprinklers, gleaming halls, and long legs. Alana encounters the brash, 15-year-old Gary, who charms her with the same breezy efficiency as Anderson’s camera locates them. Gary asks Alana out on a date, and when she asks what he’d use to pay for it with he not at all humbly brags that he has a lot of money because he’s a successful actor. Alana is of course highly sceptical of this, but soon finds that Gary is indeed telling the truth, having found success as a child star in a hit stage musical called Under One Roof and its film adaptation. Despite her jolly mockery of Gary’s ambitions, the pair plainly experience instant chemistry, and Gary has something that Alana, despite her greater years, lacks badly: a sense of confidence and effectiveness in the world, the kind of confidence that’s the natural provenance of Hollywood itself, a blend of showmanship, hustle, and an eye on the prize.

From a distance, Licorice Pizza looks a little like an artistic retreat from Paul Thomas Anderson. After the risky, influential excursions into semi-abstract character drama on There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), and the queasily funny-sad retro outings of Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017), films that all gained great critical admiration but most of which did weak box office, Licorice Pizza sees Anderson retreating to a warmly remembered version of the 1970s, the era he painted with such acid verve in Boogie Nights (1997), his second feature film and the one that made his name. It might even be said to round out a trilogy about the decade, taking place roughly half-way between the post-Manson dizziness and confusion of Inherent Vice and the disco-to-camcorder age Boogie Nights charted. But it might actually be closer in nature to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), as a study of human affection at strange extremes. Actually, all of Anderson’s films are fundamentally about that, about needy people urgently hunting for those who can sate their desires, be it a lover or something less obvious, a mentor, a pal, a parental figure, or indeed all rolled into one. Alana and Gary’s relationship seems to have potential to evolve into any of these things, as it sees them locked together in a centrifugal whirl that provides the only real gravity in the unfolding film, both symptomatic of the ridiculousness that surrounds them and yet ultimately hallowed amidst it.

Alana ticks off the many good reasons why Gary’s overtures are absurd, including their verboten age difference, even in the louche atmosphere of the era. But she finishes up being so sufficiently charmed and compelled by the teenager she does turn up at the time and place he proposed: Gary offers something, even if only a sliver, of something new and possible. The opening scene, as well as throwing us in the deep end when it comes to this pair, nods back to the early scenes of The Master where, in very similar fashion, Anderson presented being a workaday photographer as a weird nexus, the sort of job shambolic people take, but which involves freezing the images of the people they shoot into lacquered instances of false perfection. Alana soon finds Gary has quietly assimilated and mastered the affectations of a Hollywood player, with his favourite local restaurant popular with stars, as well as his PR agent mother Anita’s (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) talent for spin. In short, he’s scared of nothing, because he thinks he knows how things work. And for the most part he does. Even when it becomes plain his acting career’s at an end now that he’s had his growth spurt and lacks mature performing technique, he reinvents himself without much concern as an entrepreneur on the make. Alana, by contrast, has no idea what she wants or how to get it: she still lives at home with her parents and sisters, and comments to Gary with plaintive simplicity, “When you’re gonna be rich in a mansion by the time you’re sixteen. I’m gonna be here taking photos of kids for their yearbooks when I’m thirty. You’re never gonna remember me.” “I’m never gonna forget you,” Gary retorts with firm ardour.

Licorice Pizza is a certainly a nostalgic work, as preoccupied as Anderson’s pal and rival Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) was in resurrecting the flavour of a specific bygone era in the climes of Los Angeles, a place defined then as now by an inherently surreal dialogue between the world of show business and its denizens and everyone else. Where Tarantino naturally looked for the combustible tension in that scene, Anderson looks for the absurd and the romantic. One could also add in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2016) into the mix, a film that followed a more familiar genre film template but emulated much the same brand of humour in sarcastically reflecting on growing up in a wilder time. Anderson, the son of an actor and voice artist who was well-known once upon a time for hosting a creature feature show and being the official announcer for ABC Television, is certainly an industry brat, and for all the effort he’s put into not simply being another chronicler of being a Tinseltown scenester, he’s remained preoccupied by the kinds of creatures the town attracts in droves: people dedicated to enriching themselves and to realising their personal desires and lifestyle aspirations and enthralling others. As young and still relatively naive as he may be, Gary shares nascent traits with such notable Anderson characters as The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, Boogie Nights’ Jack Horner, the gamblers of Hard Eight (1996), and There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview – he’s an impresario with peculiar talents for sustaining himself in perpetual motion with an eye always out for the next angle, an incarnation of American hustle. He’s absorbed a certain lexicon of urge and power that’s hilarious at his age but wouldn’t be so much if he were older, as when Alana encounters a waitress, Frisbee (Destry Allyn Spielberg) she knows who works in one of Gary’s favourite restaurants, and she comments that he’s always after a hand job: “I’ll pass the baton to you.”

Anderson mines the essential disparity between Gary and Alana, his premature worldliness and her floundering immaturity and uncertainty, for a unique amalgam of humour and pathos. The disparity locks them together in a folie-a-deux where neither can quite escape the other despite making gestures at pursuing less troublesome connections. When Gary learns his mother can’t accompany him to New York so he can make a TV appearance with the cast of the Under One Roof (based on Yours, Mine, and Ours, 1968, which featured Gary’s inspiration, Gary Goetzman, and Lance’s, Tim Matheson, amongst its cast) and borrowing its theme song) with its star Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), he manages to sell Alana as a substitute chaperone. As they jet across the country, Gary’s slightly older co-star Lance Brannigan (Skyler Gisondo) flirts heavily with Alana: soon they become a couple, but break up when Lance proclaims he’s an atheist to Alana’s family during a dinner with them. Gary becomes fascinated by a waterbed he spots through the window of a wig store and immediately sees a business he can get aboard on the ground floor: soon he has a thriving outlet of his own. When they’re unexpectedly reunited thanks in part to Gary being arrested in a case of mistaken identity, Alana throws in with Gary’s enterprise and proves a dab hand at publicity and over-the-phone sales. So good that Gary talks Alana in trying acting, arranging for her to have an interview with a top agent, Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris). This leads to her being considered for a role in a movie playing a hippie girl alongside major star Jack Holden (Sean Penn). When this shot goes nowhere and the 1973 oil embargo puts the waterbed business on ice, Alana makes a play for a more substantial life, volunteering for the political campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), whilst Gary sees another golden opportunity when he overhears Wachs talking about pinball machines being legalised in California.

Large portions of Licorice Pizza are dedicated to portraying thinly veiled real show business figures in acerbic, anecdotal-feeling vignettes, with Doolittle as Lucille Ball stand-in, Jack Holden as a William Holden skit, and gravel-voiced, caution-impervious director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) a spin on Sam Peckinpah. The skin of fictionalising seems so flimsy as to be barely worth the bother, but it does emphasise that Anderson is not so much interested in them in a gossipy sense than in evoking the way they exemplify the time and place, and the temptations and traps before its two shambolic heroes. The film’s third quarter is transfixed by Anderson’s take on Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), the former celebrity hairdresser turned movie producer who was dating Barbara Streisand at the time, who swings wildly between intimate charisma and combative, confrontational attitude. Anderson uses these portraits both as sources of fun in their own right, and to dig into the large gap between the image of show business success and stature and the perversity of having such figures at large in the same streets and places as everyone else. This point is underlined when Alana, initially stunned and smitten by the showbiz zones she drifts into, eventually realises in being wined and dined by Holden that whatever actual person was in there has long since been supplanted by a collection of old movie lines and well-honed chat-ups, as when he mentions that Alana “reminds me of Grace.” Gary falls afoul of Doolittle when playfully whacks her with a pillow during the song and dance number on the TV show and makes a very adolescent bawdy joke when being interviewed by the host: Doolittle unleashes her wrath backstage, slapping and threatening him, and she has to be dragged away by some stagehands, bawling that Gary is finished for humiliating her in front of her fans.

The theme of professional performances that become subsuming in lieu of an actual personality both contrasts the portrayal of Alana as someone urgently seeking a path in life and sarcastically echoes it. Alana feels the allure of Peter Pan-ish youth as she falls in with Gary and his cadre of teenage pals and younger brother Greg (Milo Herschlag), a gang of rambunctious, energetic, mutually reinforcing lads who follow Gary in implicit and total respect for his sense of enterprise. Alana encounters the same temptation being embraced in a more institutionalised fashion when flung into Holden’s proximity with his attempts to seduce a woman thirty years younger and prove he hasn’t lost his mojo by performing a motorcycle stunt for the entertainment of a few dozen onlookers. An even more bizarre, but also needling example of performance sustained by unknown rules and logic crops up in the form of Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a restaurateur who opened LA’s first Japanese restaurant, The Mikado, and who is portrayed here as a client of Gary’s mother. In his first appearance Frick brings his Japanese wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) to a consultation with Anita and speaks to her in English but with a fake Japanese accent like a middle schooler doing an impression, and she answers in Japanese which he seems to translate. Only in his second appearance, when Mioko has been mysteriously and summarily replaced by Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), does Frick admit he doesn’t actually speak Japanese. Later, in a more subtle and distressing moment of realisation, Alana becomes privy to understanding Wachs is a closeted gay man, whose public persona and ambitions depend absolutely on keeping this side of himself under wraps no matter the personally destructive results. Both these vignettes comment with differing tones and methods on some of the least attractive traits of the otherwise warmly-remembered past but completely avoid any form of hectoring.

Trouble is also sparked when people refuse to put on a convenient act or sustain the rules of an agreed-upon illusion, as when Gary decides to act up during the Under One Roof performance, and when Lance refuses to do a blessing for the Kane family’s sake during their dinner together. This refusal he couches in the most pleasant manner possible but still causes a fateful rupture with Alana, who gives him a bawling out outside the house – “What does your penis look like?…If you’re circumcised then you’re a fucking Jew!” – before heading back inside and laying down an equal bombardment on her family. Gary’s discovery of the waterbed is essayed as a libidinous fantasia as he lays upon the undulating mattress, the flirty sales assistant (Iyana Halley) hovering over him like a blessed angel from the land of commerce. Gary’s subsequent attempt to flog waterbeds at a “Teen-Age Fair” becomes another dreamy excursion through the regalia of another age (yet still tantalisingly familiar) in youth culture through another of Anderson’s majestic tracking shots. The Batmobile from the Adam West series and Herbie the Love Bug roll by and the fair is attended by Fred Gwynne in Herman Munster guise (played, in a mischievous blink-and-miss cameo, by John C. Reilly) making a personal appearance, as well as Cher but not Sonny. Alana proves to also be at the fair to sell wares for a friend, approaching Gary in a vignette that sustains the dreamy texture, as they two smirk at each-other and swap flirtatious greetings, as if sequestered and afloat on a raft of milk foam.

Despite granting his line of wares the unappealing name of Soggy Bottom, which Alana says sounds like someone shit their pants, Gary’s understanding of salesmanship proves basic but sound, as he’s hired a woman, Kiki Page (Emily Althus) to sprawl across the show model bed to attract customers, and sees the potential when one of his young entourage, Kirk (Will Angarola), has the great idea of selling weed along with the mattresses. This has nothing to do with why two cops suddenly manhandle Gary and handcuff him. They drag him to a nearby police station where they cuff him to a bench, telling him he’s going down for murder, whilst the frantic Alana chases him down. Gary is quickly cleared by an annoyed witness despite roughly tallying with his description, whereupon Gary is freed without any apology, and he runs off with Alana. This scene sees Anderson briefly revisiting the mood of Inherent Vice and its blindsided sense of law enforcement as a virtually arbitrary faction tormenting the clueless hero, but the main result is that, thrown back into each-other’s company, Alana comes aboard the Soggy Bottom enterprise. She makes the first order of business changing the name to something more appealing, which is, apparently, Fat Bernie’s, and then when called on to improvise in trying to appeal to a customer on the phone, suddenly making headboards part of their service to enable implied sexual gymnastics. Getting a DJ to plug the business helps drive booming sales, and Anderson scores their rapid rise to middling success in a montage ingeniously set to The Doors’ “Peace Frog.” Meanwhile Gary and Alana’s flirtation continues in schoolkid fashion, letting their legs touch whilst pouring over an attempt to design a logo.

For a filmmaker who’s gone from strength to strength as Anderson has, Licorice Pizza, rather than a recourse, reveals itself as a notable and brave new step, as a movie that manages to be a pure and unmistakeable product of his imagination and style and yet dares to lack any compulsion to prove his artistry as many of his earlier works have – the film resists being as stylised and cryptic as Inherent Vice or skirting the same sleazy zones as Boogie Nights despite connective gestures to both – through some overtly strange stylistics or challenging or cruel twists, save the puckishly deployed levels of discomfort the characters suffer through. Even the verboten affection at the story’s heart remains, at least as far as we see, remains more a source of teasing sarcasm in charting its to-and-fro of flirtation and spurning, than actual transgression: Gary and Alana remain in one of the most chaste relationships in a modern movie. Anderson made his name swerving hard between high comedy and glaring melodrama on Boogie Nights before embarking on such would-be epic exercises in heavy-duty drama as Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood, and The Master, although the latter two films still had many flickers of Anderson’s underlying comic sensibility. Phantom Thread went through an extended burlesque of gothic romance and psychodrama tropes before resolving into a particularly odd kind of romantic comedy. The sinuous mixture of the blithe and the fastidiously-observed that flows through Licorice Pizza slowly accrues emotional gravitas in a manner that doesn’t entirely hit until the end of the film.

As well as contending with it as a subject at hand, Anderson pays many nods to the blurring of boundaries between performance and reality in casting, placing Haim alongside her real-life sisters playing characters who like Alana have their real names, as well as their parents (all of them, within their limits, doing superlative comic work), and casting Anderson’s own children and Hoffman’s siblings amongst the horde of Under One Roof, and other children and parents of Hollywood players. Licorice Pizza seems to yearn, whether it intends to or not, for a time long before everyone started living virtual lives, when movies could follow their own eccentric prerogatives when it comes to privileging character over story, and when human perversity was easily and readily encompassed by mainstream cinema to a degree that’s almost alien in our era of hyper-vigilant online moral police. Licorice Pizza can be likened to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1972) in their nimble blending of taboo themes with humour and lightness of touch, as well as classics of the era that dealt with people and cultures in flux, including Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), Francis Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1971), and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), whilst charting a middle path between their extremes of melancholia and frantic humour. I was also reminded at points of Guy Ferland’s Telling Lies In America (1997), which portrayed, via a Joe Eszterhas script, a not-dissimilar rites-of-passage tale for a teenage huckster in love with a mature woman.

Gary’s experience in a wing of pop culture aimed at pre-pubescent and “family” audiences, with Under One Roof typifying a kind of wholesome entertainment crowded out in cultural recollection of the era by edgier fare at a time when Hollywood was being much-celebrated for finally growing up, couches Gary’s pseudo-sophistication in its opposite: professional infantalisation. Small wonder Gary’s urgently trying to grow into adult life which seems way more exciting, eyeing newspaper ads for porn movies and moving to exploit gaps in the market that service the tastes of adolescents, and perma-adolescents. Anderson seems to see something pertinent in this cultural tension, when today a company like Disney has conquered what’s left of Hollywood through its cultivated capacity to assimilate everything into the precepts of the professionally inoffensive – the revenge of an infantile culture the great shifts of the late 1960s and ‘70s was supposed to have supplanted. Alana’s flirtation with acting also means negotiating the potential roles open to her in the era, with Grady assessing her in their meeting, or rather freely inventing poetic impressions of her, and harping on her “very Jewish nose,” which is for once kind of cool in the moment. Alana also follows Gary’s advice about saying she can do whatever zany thing the filmmakers require, although when she’s considered for Holden’s film that means archery and horseback riding. She also readily says yes to doing nudity, although that’s the one thing Gary told her not to do, sparking a ruction between them as Gary complains she’ll get naked for the world but won’t show him her boobs.

Which she finally does just to make him happy, but slaps him when he asks to touch. Great character comedy, of course, but Anderson here also twists the hall of mirrors that is acting back to where it starts, in the specific quality of the movie actor. When Holden insists on showing off his riding skills, he’s exhibiting a real talent but using it as just another a perpetual game of pleasing an audience, like the lines he rattles off from his beloved old movie The Bridges of Toko-San (a riff on Mark Robson’s excellent William Holden vehicle The Bridges of Toko-Ri, 1954, whilst the movie he’s to appear in with Alana is drawn from Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, 1973). One irony in this is that Haim and Hoffman are first-time actors although both trail strong associations for the knowing audience, Haim as a pop star and Hoffman as the chip-off-the-old-block son of Anderson’s regular collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman: although they’re ingénues being tapped for unpolished talent, they already possess an identity you can’t help but factor in in appreciating what they do, making them at once fresh and yet familiar. Both are allowed a palpability that’s rare in modern movies, Hoffman’s acne and puppy fat and Haim’s gawky, blemishy looks rendered not just patent but luminous. Alana is the first female character in Anderson’s movies who is the unarguable central figure, and she’s thankfully just as shambolic and wayward as his male protagonists. Alana is beset by a classic case of what today is sometimes called a quarter-life crisis, defined by reaching the point where adult life is really supposed to begin, but having no idea which direction to chase it in, and the film essentially draws all its eddying anti-narrative energy from her.

A recurring flourish sees Alana meeting people she used to know in school now settled into low-tier jobs, including Kiki and Frisbee, and later Brian (Nate Mann), who works on the Wachs campaign and agrees to bring Alana into their ranks. Alana proves in the course of her wanderings to be canny and talented but has no idea what to channel her energies into or how to sustain them: at first only Gary seems to stimulate something latent in her. Alana is a long way from being a perfect or even particularly good person, and her generally frustrated maturation is relieved by getting to play at still being a teenager. She’s blessed with a spiky and quarrelsome aspect, most memorably displayed when she chews out Lance and her family, including taunting her older sister Este: “What are you thinking? ‘I’m Este, I work for Mom and Dad, I’m perfect…Alana doesn’t have her life together, Alana brings home stupid boyfriends all the time!’” Which Este can only acknowledge with minimal expression is pretty accurate: “I mean…” Alana occasionally smokes pot with other sister Danielle, only to erupt, when Danielle finally tells her she needs to stop fighting with everyone, “Oh, fuck off Danielle!” Her squalls of feeling are really about self-castigation, reaching a climax when after one a most strenuous and dangerous escapade with Gary and his friends she slumps into a glaze-eyed funk, making it clear she’s reached a point of epiphany in her life and is desperate for something, anything to grab hold of to get her out of her rut.

Alana is also rather gormless when it comes to the kinds of industry charmers Gary mixes with: Lance easily snares Alana by treating her with the same fascination that a flight attendant (Emma Dumont) shows Gary. Later she’s easily swept off her feet, before being dumped on her ass, by Holden. Gary and Alana’s alternations of spurning and neediness are the closest thing the film has to a narrative spine: early on, when Alana is dating Lance, Gary rings her but won’t speak, resulting in a long moment where the two hover on either end of the line, each aware but again held in check by some mysterious logic, some refusal to break the surface tension that would sink them both. This mutual taunting continues at intervals, as when Gary and Alana try to ignore each-other when with different dates in a restaurant, and towards the end when Gary finally seems to break from Alan altogether when she accosts him for being opportunistic in comparison to the noble Wachs. Later, when Gary opens his own store for the waterbeds, Alana serves as eye candy dressed in a bikini and gets high, causing her to get increasingly clingy to Gary and irked when Gary finally seems to be getting somewhere with a girl his own age, Sue (Isabelle Kuzman). This sequence is one of Anderson’s finest despite resisting any kind of dramatic push and instead aiming to portray a nexus for the characters in their differing life stages that’s funny whilst also cringe-inducing. Alana dances woozily to a band consisting of Gary’s teenage pals, gets clingy with Gary, and finishes up trying to spy on him and Sue when they duck into a back room to have sex, before kissing one random man by way of revenge and stalking off in pot-sodden frustration, yet another grievous episode of humiliation and self-mortification racked up.

Alana’s subsequent encounter with Holden and adventures with Gary and team in a delivery truck present more ebullient slapstick moments, but reiterate the same motif as Alana is repeatedly humbled and defeated. Holden gets talked into performing a motorcycle stunt by Blau when he’s taken Alana out for dinner. Holden gets Alana to ride on the bike with him, only for her to fall off when he tears off, and Holden himself crashes after making a jump: Alana’s fall is noticed only by Gary, whilst Holden’s is hailed when he gets raggedly to his feet: not only is Alana literally dumped here but she becomes privy to how ridiculous the celebrity scene really is. The film’s set-piece comic sequence is however when Alana, Gary, and the gang go to set up a waterbed in Peters’ mansion, with the livewire Peters switching modes of relating mid-sentence, alternating praise and seeming identification (“You’re like me, you’re from the streets.”) before threatening to choke Gary’s brother in revenge if he does anything to mess up the house. Gary takes this as a challenge and deliberately lets the hose filling up the waterbed slip loose and start pouring over the carpet of Peters’ bedroom, and when he and the crew come across Peters left stranded when his sports car runs out of fuel and obliges them to drive to a gas station, Gary doubles down on payback by smashing the windscreen of Peters’ car, only for this discursion to result in their truck to run out of petrol, forcing Alana to perform the dangerous work of freewheeling backwards down a hill.

This whole movement of the film sustains unique comic texture, with elements of both character and verbal humour and physical farce of a kind comedy directing greats as disparate as Mack Sennett, Howard Hawks, and Frank Tashlin might have recognised. Cooper’s scene-stealing performance coming out of nowhere and providing moments of unbalancing delight like him fighting for control of a gas pump by threatening to use it as a flamethrower on a customer, and him raging along the pavement behind the cringing, mortified Alana once the strange night has hit its dawntime shoal only to switch on a dime to flirting with a pair of women dressed for tennis. This sequence also proves the last straw for Alana as, after surviving the risky ride, she stares into the abyss of her own absurdity. With the Wachs campaign she seems to find a new niche in directing his TV commercials (actually they were filmed by Anderson’s friend and mentor Jonathan Demme), and employs Gary to run the camera for them. This inversion of their previous positions sows the seeds of a rupture between them as Alana tries to assume superiority to Gary – “I’m cooler than you, don’t forget it.” – and chastises him for turning her ploy for respectability into another get-rich-quick opportunity, which causes Gary to leave in a cold huff in a seemingly permanent break. Gary gets down to opening a pinball parlour whilst Alana has hopes raised for a romantic liaison with Wachs when he goes out of his way to praise her work, and contends with an ambiguous source of threat in the form of a tall, thin, long-haired stranger (Jon Beavers) who hovers around the campaign office.

Anderson makes a pointed nod to Taxi Driver (1976) in this scene as Alana and Brian confront the man, with an accompanying evocation of unease, and although the actual import of his presence proves different to the model, it does nonetheless serve the purpose of revealing a different, deeper layer to what we’ve seen. When Alana gets a call from Wachs asking her to meet him for a drink, she leaps at the chance, only to quickly realise that she’s actually been brought there to provide a beard for Wachs’ boyfriend Matthew (Joseph Cross), as the stranger is hovering in a corner of the restaurant and Wachs is more afraid he might represent some force that can out him than anything else. Anderson manages one of his most intelligent and effective pieces of camerawork here: he frames Alana’s reflection in a decorative mirror whilst Matthew is foregrounded but out of focus as he argues with Wachs, who is just edged out of the frame: Matthew’s own erasure from Wachs’ public persona is visualised at the same as Alana’s realisation of what’s going on is registered, her embarrassment and also her dawning empathy. Her potential self-possession asserts itself too, as she quickly moves to warn Wachs about the stranger, and calmly ushers Matthew out.

The subsequent scene sees Alana escorting the stewing, tearful, heartbroken Matthew home and gives him a hug of comfort. This provides a potent emotional epiphany in crystallising the underlying sense of neediness and appreciation of the rarity of connection and the pain inherent in loving: “Is he a shit?” Matthew asks Alana when she says she has a sort-of boyfriend: “They’re all shits, aren’t they?” As with her earlier race to help Gary during his arrest, this affirms Alana’s best quality and indeed sees at least perhaps the maturity she’s been chasing so desperately. That maturity also demands, in a last irony, that she face up to her love for Gary, as the two search for each-other in a satire on the familiar montage of criss-crossing lovers that resolves when they spot each-other and ran to embrace only to misjudge and crash into each-other, under a theatre marquee advertising Live and Let Die (1973). Gary insists on triumphantly introducing Alana to his new kingdom of mesmerised pinball addicts as “Mrs Alana Valentine,” to Alana’s scorn, but he finally kisses her with a man’s purpose. The more incisive and quieter perversion of romantic cliché here, nonetheless, is that Anderson notes that their reunion solves nothing, instead leaving Gary and Alana with a whole new stack of questions, confusions, and impossibilities that can only find resolution in experience without safety nets, which is essentially life in a nutshell. Anderson finally seems to avow faith it’s the will to keep moving, to keep improvising the great performance, that best manifests life itself.

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