1940s, 1960s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Romance

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) / Hatari! (1962)

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Director: Howard Hawks
Screenwriters: Jules Furthman ; Leigh Brackett

By Roderick Heath

Howard Winchester Hawks, born in 1896, was a scion of an Indiana family that made its fortune in paper milling. The family often visited Pasadena for the sake his mother’s health, and Hawks grew up there as an increasingly rambunctious lad who found physical outlets in car racing and barnstorming flying even before he’d left high school, plus success as a junior tennis champion. His hotrodding incidentally introduced him to then-cinematographer Victor Fleming, his first major contact in Hollywood. Soon after Hawks worked on some Cecil B. DeMille films in between stints at College, and gained his first directing experience filling in on set for Marshall Neilan on the Mary Pickford film The Little Princess. His flying skills served him well as he was engaged to instruct young pilots during World War I, landing a plumb assignment after a visit by Pickford during his training dazzled his commanders. After the war he returned to Hollywood and used his family’s financial clout to get him in good stead with Jack Warner, and after several years working in producing and screenwriting whilst crashing around with a cohort of similarly macho and venturesome young filmmakers, Hawks decided directing was his true passion. He made his feature directing debut with The Road to Glory in 1926. For the next forty years Hawks would remain one of Hollywood’s most vital and visible players, even before being anointed as an essential American auteur.
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Hawks had been directing films for thirteen years by the time he made Only Angels Have Wings, including outright masterpieces like Scarface (1932). But Only Angels Have Wings marked the advent of Hawks’ mature style and method. Hawks’ family background of successful entrepreneurs probably helped give him some savvy as a businessman within a business that a lot of other filmmakers lacked, an aspect of the man inseparable from the artist. He successfully branded himself and developed a reconfigurable product. He knew that his art was inseparable from the forces that allowed him to make it, the desire of a viewing public to hang out with movie stars, to both see, and see themselves in, such uncanny beings. Hawks’ cinema, more than that of any other director, was the pure synergy of performance and shaper. Only Angels Have Wings holds a contradictory place in Hawks’ oeuvre in some ways. It’s both one of his most cohesive and impeccable films but also a mere preparatory sketch for the work he’d pull off over the next three decades. Hatari!, a product of Hawks’ divisive final phase, is by contrast a much more uneven piece of work, and yet also sees Hawks’ touch often hitting its most beautifully distinctive notes.
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At his best, Hawks was something like the platonic ideal of commercial filmmakers. Particularly today, when filmmakers are often completely indifferent to the qualities and energies of the movie stars at their command or incompetent at utilising them, when special effects rule the blockbuster roost and narratives are so dictated by screenwriting manuals and cast-iron formulae, Hawks’ ability to make movies come alive according to their own internal logic and the interaction of performers seems like a fever dream of what entertainment’s supposed to look like, compared to what it so often is. Hawks worked within an industry just as often strict and inimical in warding off creativity, of course, but he knew how to make it serve him, and the audience. Hawks was reputed for his easy capacity to step between film genres whilst maintaining his distinctive imprint. Hawks’ dramas and comedies usually worked in an obviously divergent fashion, but were never entirely polarised. His dramas depicted intense, very masculine worlds where women prove themselves as capable, whilst his comedies emphasise his male characters being disassembled on the fly by the female.
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Hatari! represents a point where the boundary between the two dissolves, as Hawks entered a cinematic zone obeying only his own sure sense of behavioural sprawl. Only Angels Have Wings gained meaning from seeming to summarise much of Hawks’ life and career until that point, fusing his love of flying, his interest in group dynamics, games of love, and codes of honour, and his cinematic talent for situations of heightened stress like wartime transposed onto a nominal peacetime just gearing up again for a great convulsive moment. The project had roots in Hawks’ experience in scouting locations for Viva Villa! (1934) and his encounters with flyers in Mexico, although it feels more crucially like an idealised and extrapolated analysis of his own youth. Credited solely to Jules Furthman although Hawks and others contributed to it, the script saw Furthman recycling a major motif he’d used on Ty Garnett’s China Seas (1935), that of a disgraced coward trying to earn back respect. But where that was an incidental aspect of Garnett’s work, here it fuses perfectly with Hawks’ overall schema, perhaps as neat an illustration of the difference between genre convention and auteurist sublimation as you can get.
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Only Angels Have Wings is also one of those movies that works because of rather than in spite of the strictures of classic Hollywood’s embrace of stylised artificiality. Travelling performer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) steps off the boat at the fictional South American town of Barranca for a short stopover and right into the arms of two Yank exiles desperate for a little hometown flavour, Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr) and ‘Gent’ Shelton (John Carroll). The two men’s eager, jovial competition for her attention soon takes a tragic turn. Both are flyers for the Barranca Airways, a fledgling, low-rent operation run by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and bankrolled by bar owner ‘Dutchy’ Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman). They’re trying to land a potentially life-changing subsidy by filling a mail delivery contract for a set period, but in chasing it down they’re obliged to take obscene risks in antiquated aircraft and contend with the often brutal climate in getting over the Andes. Joe is killed when weather closes in and he’s too eager to take a chance on landing in fog so he can have dinner with Bonnie. Soon enough Bonnie and Geoff strike sparks of romantic interest and Bonnie decides to hang around, but is soon confronted by Geoff’s determination to retain his sovereign ethos, the outlook of the pilot inimical to domestic order.
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Only Angels Have Wings saw Hawks consciously trying to transfer the outlook of wartime he’d explored on The Dawn Patrol (1930), an ethos based in omnipresent threat and a prototypical version of existential angst, where the constant fact of death and danger means taking a radically different attitude to it. Bonnie is initially shocked and appalled by the dismissive flintiness adopted by Geoff and the other flyers over Joe’s death (“Who’s Joe?”), and whilst she soon realises it’s an attitude that actually suits her quite a bit, she’s nonetheless compelled by fear and affection to try and stop Geoff risking his life. The fatalism is counterbalance by a study of the richness of human interaction and a panoply of ironic rhymes. Geoff refuses the trappings of domesticity but serves as parental figure to a peculiar family and has his platonic wife in ‘Kid’ Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), one of his pilots and pals whose failing eyesight compels Geoff to ground him. Bonnie embodies traits that blur gender lines, her independence as a musician (as opposed to the chorus girl Geoff immediately asks if she is) and sexual being all footloose and fancy free. The narrative seems to be predicated around Bonnie’s ability to change, to surrender any need to demand her man settle down, but actually ultimately depends on Geoff’s, as he’s obliged to surrender his usual rule of refusing to ask anything of a woman lest she take it as licence to do the same to him.
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Meanwhile the tight-knit scene is crashed not only by Bonnie but Geoff’s ex-flame Judy (Rita Hayworth) and her husband ‘Bat’ MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), who Geoff instantly recognises as a man formerly known as Kilgannon, disgraced after he bailed out of a plain leaving behind his co-pilot, who just happened to be Kid’s younger brother. MacPherson and Judy represent failure in terms of the group ethos – she failed to be supportive to Geoff and he recognises she’s doing the same thing for MacPherson, who in turn has to run a gauntlet of ostracism and put up with being handed absurdly dangerous jobs to maintain his place on the Airways staff. Geoff is obliged to keep him on after grounding Kid, sending him first to fly a mine owner’s son out from a remote plateau, demanding piloting of incredible skill. But mere professional ability doesn’t make a professional. One aspect of Only Angels Have Wings that makes it feel at once like a cumulative statement and a draft is the quality of the machismo running through it. Plainly, it had taken Hawks this long to acquire both the clout as an artist and industry player to make such a movie and summarise his basic worldview with a precision like that of his pal Ernest Hemingway. And yet as he entered his forties and fifties, Hawks became increasingly witty and adept at playing with the gender coding in his movies, tinkering with the entire concept of American manhood and womanhood. But the big daddy morality is played straight nearly to a fault here, with such vignettes as Geoff soaking Judy’s head as prelude to a tongue-lashing.
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Despite her eminence, Bonnie isn’t the classic Hawksian woman, the tough and worldly gamine, but rather is trying to become one. She keeps failing the creed to the point where she accidentally shoots Geoff after trying to force him at gunpoint to stay on the ground. And yet the machismo in Only Angels Have Wings has a performative aspect, one underlined by casting Grant, hitherto an actor known almost entirely for light comedy roles, in a part that might have seemed a better fit for the likes of Clark Gable, strains subtly at the contours of the assured masculine leader figure: Geoff is consciously working to fulfil the role he’s assumed. The type of no-cry-babies-allowed discipline all the characters ultimately agree is necessary to mounting an operation like building an airline off the ground, and yet the toll mounts up to the point where even Geoff is reduced to weeping private after Kid’s death. From one perspective this is a myth of gutsy free enterprise, from another a horror story of venture capitalism brutally and literally illustrated, and from yet another a metaphorical vision of all human endeavour as a duel with nature and circumstance. The most luckless and yet paradoxically the happiest-seeming member of the crew is Tex (Don Barry), who mans the remote mountaintop shack to keep watch on the pass the pilots have to fly through to get over the Andes, often a trap of fearsome weather and huge condors, a jolly Tiresias guiding the pilots on their tilts toward destiny.
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But Hawks’ real focal point is the reaction of his characters to their situation. Geoff states, “I’m trying to run an airline, and I’m not doing it any different to anyone I ever flew for.” As with the majority of Hawks’ later films, the drama resembles less the linear deluge of cause and effect preferred by mainstream narrative but a series of music variations or chess moves, each one reconfiguring the basic initial proposition, testing and revealing the characters and shunting them on to new beginnings, or ends. The MacPhersons turn up just when the narrative needs a new motif and a crystallisation for those already in motion; Kid’s crisis of sight and temperament points the way forward to the end of a way of living. Hawks’ love of having his characters sit down and begin performing music together didn’t simply let him show off his actors’ talents and give his movie pivots of entertaining downtime, but helped bracket such shifts of energy and present a ready and blatant portrayal of such improvisatory happening. Bonnie’s initial arrival in Barranca establishes her as a figure of life and song, chiming in with the waterfront singers and swiftly catching the wind of a new culture and way of being. Her clicking into gear with Geoff and the pilots is dramatized as she sits down at the piano and quickly begins orchestrating Dutchy’s musicians for a show of passion and talent that proves how alive the living are and how dead the dead. Flying as metaphor for life, of course, the importance of retaining a self-ruling attitude towards it as well as grasping for great challenges.
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Hawks, who was probably better at grouping actors together in frames than just about any other director past or present, also loved such sequences on a visual level, allowing him to cram faces and bodies in close relation, as busy and bustling as Hogarth but with the scabrous misanthropy swapped out for its opposite, a love of teeming human energy and unity. The fall-off from the raucous high-point of Bonnie’s piano playing to later as she dabs at the keys signifies the moment for deeper revelations and connections. And misunderstandings, as when Geoff for a moment thinks Bonnie intends to claim a trinket from Joe’s effects for herself whilst in fact intending to gift it to Joe’s heartbroken local girlfriend. The spectacle of human frailty and mercenariness is so much more common than decency it’s easy to make such mistakes. Only Angels Have Wings depends upon an almost metaphysical sense of mission to make itself comprehensible – being a pilot is a calling that transcends the usual and compels men beyond bonds of sense and earthbound loyalty – and that’s clearly signalled in the title, if in contradictory fashion: all are doomed, sooner or later, to crash to earth again.
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At the same time, Hawks seems to be having a bit of fun with the world of moviemaking itself, perhaps no less an enslaving and obsessing profession. Dutchy emits Samuel Goldwynisms like “Include me out,” making him the mogul, with Geoff as director with a surplus of wannabe leading men and in need of a hardy leading lady. And what a leading lady he lands with Bonnie. Hawks was supernaturally skilled at putting across a sexual vibe in his films whilst eluding censors, and makes it very clear Bonnie’s eager to jump in the sack with Geoff, accepting an invitation to his room, only for events and Geoff’s scruples to forestall things. Sex is easy in Hawks’ films, consequences not so much. Arthur, one of the less-regarded but most entertaining stars of her day (having a good year in working with Mitchell, as they were both also in Mr Smith Goes To Washington), had a unique ability to seem at once adorable and offbeat, a quality that serves her well as Hawks uses her to crash the boundaries of the adventure movie with a screwball comedy heroine. Hayworth, who gained a major boost to stardom thanks to her role here, contrasts Bonnie seeming more mature and fitting for Geoff’s purposes, with her cool, level stare and low, lilting voice contrasting Arthur’s chirp, but her lack of moxie is soon revealed as she gets plastered rather than confront her own role to play in the face of her husband’s apparent disgrace.
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Hawks casting Barthelmess, who had fallen a long way from his days as a silent heartthrob, was particularly inspired and one that served the film’s themes intrinsically: the tyranny of exclusion from one’s metier was literally etched on Barthelmess’s face, from a botched facelift, and the impression he makes in the role feels all the more genuine for it. Flourishes of melodramatic inevitability, leading to Kid and MacPherson being forced to pilot together in a desperate attempt to deliver the last mail delivery, are imbued with a certain logic as each new advent sets in motion forces that whittle down alternatives. Kid’s displaced rage over being grounded and stuck with his brother’s betrayer sees him accidentally break Gent’s arm. Geoff is winged after Bonnie sticks him up. As the deadline for filling the contract nears, crisis also gains velocity, as various minor players and converging angsts crash against each-other like pool balls. Hawks’ love of compressed settings gave many of his films theatrical unity of space and performance as well as dramatic intimacy, whilst relying on supple cutting and camera placement to dispel any hint of the stagy. Only Angels Have Wings may be the most perfect variation on this aspect of Hawks’ cinema because it feels intimately joined with overt story and thematic impetus as well as metaphorical vista. It feels likely Hawks was taking some inspiration from the French poetic realist style having its heyday in the late ‘30s, with the same strongly contrasted but also finely textured photographic style and fatalistic concerns, although the sharp feeling of impending doom that defined the French movement is softened.
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Only Angels Have Wings hovers in hallucinatory form, a stage of drama perched between fog-ridden ocean and soaring, jagged model-work mountains, the space in between, Dutchy’s saloon and airfield, an island of life and death etched out in pools of vivid chiaroscuro and expressionist fervour. It’s probably also, visually speaking, Hawks’ finest work. The photography (by Joseph Walker) offers a restrained brand of expressionist heightening. There’s a near-dreamlike vividness to the evocations of the exotic, from the Barranca waterfront where musicians and dancers collect in localised storms of human energies, to Tex’s remote, rough-hewn but cosy vantage amidst elemental extremes of the high Andes. And yet Hawks was one director never terribly interested in pretty pictures: he was always looking for the most concise conveyance of information and the most charged and engaging way of framing his actors. The most striking piece of Paul Mantz’s aerial photography, by contrast, as Bat lands on the remote plateau, filmed in one great, unbroken shot from another plane, swinging about with a vertiginous sense of height and movement. Bat’s success in getting his plane in and out of this nearly impossible setting is powerful both on the thematic level – we see how inured Bat is to danger now thanks to endless humiliation and deploring, as well as serving his professional need in the only way he can now, whilst the stunt flying offers a jolt of real and palpable danger amidst the film’s stylised simulacra.
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The last quarter of Only Angels Have Wings entwines moral and character crises and physical adventures with mischievous perfection, and Hawks’ and Furthman’s tropes, arranged as carefully as dominos, begin to fall. Bonnie’s fear and romantic frustration leads to Geoff’s wounding. This leads to Bat and Kid being forced to work together, flying a new trimotor plane that still cannot surmount the loftiest reaches of the Andes. The two men goad each-other to new daring, only to find their capacities have limits, instead forcing them to take the sopped-in pass, only to collide with one of the condors nesting there. This leaves Kid with a broken neck and Bat forced to try and pilot the flaming plane back to the airfield, displaying such fortitude and daring that he finally dispels the last of the curse upon him and is readmitted to the society of fliers. Kid’s death proves a catharsis for Geoff that reduces him finally to weeping in the shadows, but also releases him to love Bonnie. The fundamental imperfection of men and women, their breakableness in the face of a hostile universe, has been reproven, but so too has the fact of their indomitable capacity. Geoff and Gent are granted a last chance to prove their mettle as together the form one complete, operating man and fill the contract with a few hours to spare. Bonnie realises at the very last moment that Geoff has asked her to stay indirectly through the device of Kid’s double-headed coin, a momentous life moment and dramatic climax hinging on a subtle device.
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Whilst Only Angels Have Wings had taken its keynote from a transliterated quote rooted in Shakespearean tragedy — “A man can die but once, and we owe god but one, and if we pay it today we don’t owe it tomorrow,” — Hatari! is a wayward approximation of the Shakespearean pastoral, studying its heroes out in the wild where the adventures and connections are playful and fruitful. Hatari! carries over many basic Hawksian refrains from Only Angels Have Wings – newcomers breaking into a tight-knit domain of preoccupied specialists, the hero who’s been romantically burned and refuses to initiate a courtship, the musical performance as fulcrum of evolving relationships – but with a much more measured and puckish take on it. The Hawks of a quarter-century later is quite a different artist in other ways. Filmed in bright colour out on the actual African veldt, the business this time around is much less urgent, portraying the Momella Game outfit, dedicated to capturing wild animals for zoos and circuses in the wilds of Tanganyika (today mainland Tanzania). As a profession it’s not nearly as dangerous as bush piloting, if still hardly a soft option. It’s not even so masculine, as the official boss of the outfit is Brandy de la Court (Michèle Girardon), daughter of its founder and well-used to the rough-and-tumble travails of the savannah, although Sean Mercer (John Wayne) is its operational chieftain. The team’s efforts to capture the animals demands a blend of toughness and care that fascinates Hawks thematically and visually, finding in this an almost perfect union of masculine and feminine traits. Where Only Angels Have Wings dealt specifically with exiled American characters confronting the imminent age of the US emerging as a global superpower as well as the threat of war, Hatari! offers a multiethnic sprawl reflecting the vicissitudes of the post-World War II age.
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Mancini’s score, often playful elsewhere, wields a main theme replete with plangent drums and horns evoking a dramatic and intrepid landscape. The newcomer this time is Anna Maria D’Alessandro (Elsa Martinelli), swiftly dubbed Dallas as per the outfit’s tribal lore which demands a good, pithy nickname. A photographer hired to document the capture of animals destined for a Swiss circus, Dallas turns up in Sean’s bed when he and the rest of the crew return from a drinking session after the Indian’s life is saved: having simply claimed the first bed she could find, Dallas offers sexual provocation to Sean right from the start. Dallas initially finds herself well out of her depth as she doesn’t count on just how jarring and strenuous the savannah chases get, but after swallowing her pride and apologising for getting in the way she soon finds her feet. Dallas also instantly falls in love with Sean as the compulsory Hawks alpha, but like her forebears like Bonnie finds him determinedly unreceptive. On the advice of team driver and mechanical wizard Pockets (Red Buttons), Dallas instead starts finding ways of putting Sean on the spot. The team experiences a crisis just before Dallas’ arrival, as one its stalwarts, ‘The Indian’ Little Wolf (Bruce Cabot), is gored in the leg by a rhinoceros. A young French roustabout, Charles ‘Chips’ Maurey (Gérard Blain), asks Sean for the job of filling in for the Indian in the hospital with an opportunistic verve that annoys German team member Kurt Müller (Hardy Kruger), but in donating blood for the Indian and later matching Kurt in a test of shooting skill, he earns himself a place in the ranks. Soon he’s competing with both Kurt and Pockets for Brandy’s affections.
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Hatari! saw Hawks working again with the ingenious crime and sci-fi author turned screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who had collaborated on several of his greatest films including The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959): Brackett was Hawks’ ideal collaborator as one who enacted the whole business of being a hardy woman in a manly world rather than just fantasised about it. Hatari! broadly reproduces Only Angels Have Wings’ basic structure as the outfit must fill the animal orders they’ve been hired to nab. Compared to the agonising travails of the earlier film, there’s not much more on the line than professional pride, although that’s the most unforgiving taskmaster of all. The Indian’s fear that they might be jinxed in regards to rhinos adds a psychological, even spiritual foil to be overcome, in a similar manner to the insurmountable Andes. The Indian plays a similar role to Kid in Only Angels Have Wings and Eddie in To Have and Have Not (1944), the wounded elder the appointed alpha male plays protector to. Here, however, this aspect is supplanted as the main mode for expressing the protective, quasi-parental need by Dallas evolves quickly from being freaked out by the outfit’s pet cheetah to adopting some young, motherless elephants. She pressgangs the outfit into helping her keep them fed – her skill and abandon as a nurturer is at once perfectly maternal and erotically provocative. Sean hovers in readily bewildered and cautious fascination as Dallas rattles his cage with propositions like, “How do you like to kiss?”
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Hawks loved recycling elements and reframing ideas from movie to movie, considering them from different aspects: whilst several of his films are virtual remakes of others, this reordering gave each a distinct tenor. Wayne’s Durston in Red River (1948) concentrated on the dark and irrational aspect of the authority figure, particularly when haunted by romantic loss and challenged by youthful talent. The boozer characters played by Dean Martin in Rio Bravo and Robert Mitchum in El Dorado were depictions of the sorts of degrading lows characters like Geoff and Sean had certainly experienced following their own romantic crucifixions, as men who try to hide from their emotional anguish in the narcotising delight of booze only to find out all too cruelly what it cost them. Chips and Kurt are reminiscent of the many competitive bucks in Hawks’ oeuvre and also have a quality reminiscent of Kid and Bat, albeit remixed to a less fraught level. Chips’ opportunism in asking for the Indian’s job offends Kurt, who attacks him and derides him. Chips then makes him ask him to help the Indian, and later they directly compete to see who’s the better shooter before Sean’s indulgent gaze: Chips matches Kurt and punches him in the jaw, a last act of score-settling that Kurt accepts with rueful understanding. Later, as the two men compete for Brandy’s affections, they become inseparable pals. Given the intimations of a political metaphor that runs through the outfit’s adventures, they stand for rapprochement between Germany and France in the post-war order, just as the figuration of Sean, the Indian, and sharp-dressing Mexican Luis Lopez (Valentin de Vargas) are the model for a modern North America that’s left behind past conflicts and schisms.
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Hatari! is the longest film Hawks made, although it scarcely has a plot. The comedic interludes verge on silliness at times, in Dallas pressganging the outfit into helping her keep the baby elephants fed, and many scenes of the outfit trying to corral escaped and intransigent animals. A scene of Dallas being inducted into a local tribe’s ranks and painted in blackface definitely puts the teeth on edge now. A late scene where she bathes the animals is pure froth (and yet this provided the film’s deepest impact upon the pop culture as it’s scored by Mancini’s instant standard, “Baby Elephant Walk”). And yet Hatari! nonetheless perhaps comes closest of all Hawks’ films to achieving what he had always chased in a movie, a state of immersion with a set of characters whose actions, traits, and foibles become as familiar as neighbours, living lives imbued with an outsized vitality by circumstance and mythmaking technique. In this regard even the film’s nominal faults help Hawks portray his team in various states ranging from high gallantry to happy absurdity. Sean and Dallas finding connection in playing a piano is a virtual copy of the scene in Only Angels Have Wings. Kurt and Chips entertain Brandy by playing music for her to dance to, only for Pockets to reveal startling ability to cut a rug as he enters the romantic fray. The giveaway for who Brandy actually loves, in such a stoic environment, an only ben an expression of purely reflexive care. After tending with soldierly efficiency to Kurt and Chips getting banged up in a crash, she freaks out with Pockets has a minor fall and nurses him back to health.
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Hatari! exemplifies Hawks’ credo of making use of his actors’ talents and capacities by making them really get in the mix with the animals, and other moments that depend on unfakeable displays of skill, such as Martinelli playing piano, or her rapport with the baby elephants, or Button’s delightful display of dancing. Rather than seeming like some kind of movie star showing off, Hawks taps this sort of thing to make his characters seem all the more palpable: everyone has their party trick, their unexpected aptitude. Unifying rather than interrupting Hatari!’s sprawling behavioural indulgence are the hunting sequences. These come on as long, detailed, scoreless depictions inviting the audience to witness something at once madcap and delicate. The animals quite often fight back and torment their pursuers with unexpected verbe. The actors are unmistakeably engaged in the action: shots of Wayne perched in a catcher’s chair trying to lasso wild animals amidst driving dust and grit, fill the compressed widescreen frames with a sense of pure motion and dynamic engagement. Another of Hawks’ singular capacities was his ability to find a sense of drama in watching people do their work. Of course that’s much easier when work is this different and interesting, but Hawks’ fascination for watching people do such things for money was undoubtedly designed to plug into his audience’s own sense of workaday pride, and as part of their social identity. This was a sensibility he shared with Raoul Walsh and not too many others in the movie world then and now.
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The crew are a team apart, elevated by their communal dedication and general skill. When not dashing about the savannah they’re people with lives elsewhere, contrasting the desperate tenor of Only Angels Have Wings’ exiles, and sometimes signalling an innate love of danger – Kurt is a race car driver. Sean notes a telling similarity between his crew and their proud neighbouring Massai tribes, who maintain a strict ethic in remaining cattle growers and herders and pay another tribe to carry their water. It’s hard not to notice, from today’s perspective and despite the general idealism, the way the team relies on its African workers but includes no actual black locals. The inclusivity of the Africans however stretches to inducting Dallas into their ranks to honour her for her protection of the young elephants, although that’s an honour Sean has to coach her to understand: Dallas’ tribal induction mimics her inclusion in the outfit but in some ways outweighs it, establishing her as someone engaged with the African world in a way the outfit never quite does. Pockets is her temperamental opposite in regards to animals, tentative and clumsy in their presence. But he’s finally able to stake a claim to equality in the team when he develops a device for catching monkeys with a rocket-delivered net, a triumph for gawky mechanic that he doesn’t even see because he keeps his eyes closed.
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The catching season ends with the hoodoo broken and a rhino caught. As if by deliberation, Hawks’ next film, Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964), would purposefully invert the general proposition here as its would-be outdoorsy hero is revealed as a boob way out of his depth needing schooling even in catching fish by female provocateurs. As in Only Angels Have Wings, the climax of Hatari! is a romantic clinch, but comically sustained this time. Dallas flees the crew at the end of the catching season rather than face rejection from Sean, obliging the crew and even her adopted elephants chasing her into town. Whilst perhaps an excessive affirmation of the film’s goofy side, as well as inventing as far I can tell the most famous cliché ending of the modern romantic comedy, this is also perhaps the ultimate display of Hawks’ depiction of a kind of fusion family, mobilised to bring one of their own back to the hearth. Hawks circles back to where Sean and Dallas’ relationship started, with Dallas ensconced in Sean’s bed and even with a pie-eyed Pockets barging in, except with the crucial detail that Sean and Dallas are now married. And this time, in come the elephants again, interrupting all hope of connubial bliss as literalised manifestations of the eventual dangers of marriage – children! Now there’s a frontier of experience the bravest adventurer will shrink from.

Standard
1910s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Drama, Epic, Experimental, Historical, Thriller

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

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Director: D.W. Griffith
Screenwriters: Hettie Gray Baker, Tod Browning, D. W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods

By Roderick Heath

David Wark Griffith should have been on top of the world. He had just scored what is perhaps in sheer audience numbers still the biggest hit in cinema history, with The Birth of a Nation (1915). He was being hailed all around the world as the greatest innovator and aesthetic force the young art form had yet seen. And yet Griffith was stung and chastened by the levels of anger and accusations of culpability hurled his way in the face of his great success in propagandising on the behalf of the Ku Klux Klan and enshrining of racist pseudo-history in narrative form, an impact that had sparked riots and demonstrations. His emotional response to such a conflicted situation meshed with an artistic sensibility that now had the money and clout to realise itself on any project and scale he wished. His theme was to be prejudice as a human phenomenon, not so much as a mea culpa for The Birth of a Nation as a reaction to a reaction, with a narrative that takes more than a few pot shots at the destructive impact of the self-righteous. Faced with new expectations and intoxicated with the epic style of cinema he had discovered, Griffith decided to expand upon the scenario he was planning to film next, called The Mother and the Law. Inspired by the historical imagery of Cabiria (1914) and encouraged to push his experimentations in cross-cutting to a new level, Griffith decided to tell several different stories tethered together by unity of theme as well as cinematic technique.
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The Birth of a Nation’s controversial aspect only seems to intensify over time, whilst broadening awareness of other early creative voices has robbed it of some stature as a work of innovation. With its virtually antipathetic outlook and far more deliberated artistic expression, Intolerance has nonetheless still often struggled to shrug off its long-held reputation as an awesome folly that ruined its director-impresario. The colossally expensive and logistically demanding production became a singular moment in the early history of Hollywood, one that even inspired a whole movie, the Taviani brothers’ Good Morning Babylon (1987). The shoot pooled together many future Hollywood talents and mainstays as members of the cast and crew, and came to encapsulate the enormous ambition and reckless immodesty of the rising industry. Intolerance represented a grand experiment in what a movie narrative could look like and what ideas it could contain, and how far a mass audience was willing to go. Some still call it the greatest movie ever made. Certainly it’s one of the most influential. Even if Intolerance examined possibilities for commercial filmmaking that Hollywood as a whole would largely reject for decades, filmmakers far and wide took its cinematic lessons to heart. The montage ideas Griffith wielded became vital inspirations for Soviet film theory. Something of its influence echoes through to the conversing time frames of Citizen Kane (1941) and on to The Godfather Part II’s (1974) contrapuntal structure and the splintered evocations of The Tree of Life (2011).
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If The Birth of a Nation shocked many, including its director, by outpacing all concept of how cinema could hold and manipulate an audience, Intolerance mapped regions of artistry and technique not everyone found they wanted to annex – the New York Times review labelled it incoherent and even intertitle writer Anita Loos, who had worked with Griffith before, admitted she struggled to grasp Griffith’s technique. One critic of the day, Louis Delluc, commented that the audience was confused by the time jumps, as “Catherine de Medici visited the poor of New York just as Jesus was baptizing the courtesans of Balthazar and Darius’ armies were beginning to assault the Chicago elevated.” With most movies, leaning on title cards was a relative luxury at a time when a decent percentage of the prospective audience would have had literacy troubles from either curtailed education or coming to English as a second language. The nature of silent cinema made it a perfect unifier for such an audience. But following Intolerance demanded paying attention to the written intertitles. The film’s relative financial disappointment seems generally however to have been due more to its splashy roadshow presentation, and Griffith’s growing certainty that the approach to making and releasing films that had worked with The Birth of a Nation would, despite running contrary to the swiftly settling realities of Hollywood business, would consistently deliver success, including spurning star performers.
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Intolerance tells four interwoven stories. One is set in the present day of 1916. When the Jenkins family, a clan of rich mill-owners, crack down on their striking workers, the entire community is displaced and forced to survive as most finish up in a big city slum. Amongst their number are a girl, “The Dear One” (Mae Marsh), and “The Boy” (Robert Harron). After they eventually marry The Boy quits working for a gangster, the “Musketeer of the Slums” (Walter Long), but the Musketeer has him framed and imprisoned, whilst Dear One’s infant daughter is stripped from her by a band of social welfare crusaders. The Boy is later accused of killing The Musketeer, who was actually shot by his mistress, “The Friendless One” (Miriam Cooper). A second story unfolds in ancient Babylon, as “The Mountain Girl” (Constance Talmadge), after avoiding being married off at the behest of her brother (Frank Brownlee), falls in love with King Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) from a distance, and eagerly joins the warrior forces fighting off the besieging armies of Cyrus the Great (George Siegmann). The High Priest of Bel-Marduk (Tully Marshall), infuriated by his cult being displaced by that of Ishtar, decides to betray the city to Cyrus. The third story recounts the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell) manipulates her son Charles IX (Frank Bennett) into ordering a slaughter of the Protestants in Paris, an order that sweeps up young gallant Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette) and his fiancé, “Brown Eyes” (Margery Wilson). The fourth tale recounts incidents in the tale of Jesus, “The Nazarene” (Howard Gaye), including his generous miracle as the Wedding in Cana and his crucifixion.
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In truth, only the first two of these stories really add up to much. The Massacre story amounts to a few brief scenes, and the Nazarene account is closer to a recurring motif, like the famous symbolic refrain of a young mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a baby in a cradle. This vision constantly punctuates the drama and often marks shifts between the narrative strands, emphasising Griffith’s concept of the world’s evil so often gathering to crush ordinary people. It feels at times like Griffith decided to get some use out of some unproduced three-reeler scripts he had lying around, which is basically true. The present-day tale and Babylonian legend tell counterpointing tales of communal dispossession and desperation, romantic frustration, and battle. Griffith’s overarching theme evokes human society as something being perpetually born, evoked in recurring cradle motif. That refrain contrasts the imagery of maternal care and vulnerable youth with the three fates sitting balefully hunched over in the corner, who are in turn echoed in the present-day narrative by the three prison guards ready to cut the strings that will hang The Boy. The Nazarene’s fair and compassionate preaching is contrasted with the various forms of bigotry and hypocrisy glimpsed throughout the film, and his eventual execution taken as a fitting extreme for this tendency of societies to consume their innocents.
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Despite Griffith’s disavowals, the difference in focus between The Birth of a Nation’s sectarianism and Intolerance’s anti-bigotry creed certainly suggests the result of a creative mind set at war with itself and emerging with a more universal message, and mediates the previous film’s bitter portrayal of racial conflict with the poetic invocation of interracial romance in Broken Blossoms (1919). Other variances between Griffith’s most famous films are consequential and go well beyond their divergent messages. Where The Birth of a Nation was intellectually under the sway of Thomas Dixon, Intolerance feels invested with Griffith’s more personal touch in conception, with stories, despite their scale and disparate time frames, unfolding in a manner and revolving around the sorts of characters clearly more in his wheelhouse. Particularly with the focus on female protagonists, the winsome naïfs and plucky tomboys, and varying figures of desperate, conflicted emotion. The Birth of a Nation loses its initial narrative and creative momentum the more Dixon’s plot and pseudo-history dominate it and the film as a whole, and despite its relative sophistication still depicts narrative cinema as a work in progress. By contrast, Intolerance is astonishingly complete and sophisticated, building in invention and dramatic intensity with symphonic zeal to its astounding last few reels. Both films are of course works of breathless melodrama that depend upon indicted avatars of social ills and images of urgent endangerment.
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But Intolerance’s psychology is cannier and its social panoramas less maudlin and more boldly critical. In this regard Intolerance is still surprising, and to a certain extent turning from The Birth of a Nation’s sensibility to Intolerance feels like moving from a 19th century view of the world to one infinitely more modern. The downfall of Babylon, brought about by the Bel-Marduk priests, the fate imposed upon Dear One and the Boy after their community is decimated by the decisions of Arthur Jenkins (Sam De Grasse), the Nazarene’s crucifixion, and the massacre of the Huguenots, are all tales where innocents fall victim to calamities brought on by members of society determined to defend their privilege and power. Griffith’s unvarnished portrayal of violent strike-breaking, with the Jenkins’ goons shooting at demonstrators, and the indictment of do-gooder organisations as one wing of a system of oppression that takes from the lower classes on both ends, have a boldness that still feel radical especially considering they were offered at a time when such labour violence was commonplace. If Griffith had made it a few years later he would’ve risked being labelled a Communist agitator. A further layer of irony is added as the strike is caused by a cut to the workers’ wages made by Arthur to help his spinster sister Mary (Vera Lewis) fund her interest in charitable organisations. She creates the Mary T. Jenkins Foundation, the same organisation that eventually takes away Dear One’s baby. Loos’ biting intertitles describe the crusaders as having turned to agitation after losing their looks, but the film offers Mary a measure of empathy early on as she realises the younger people in her social circle no longer consider her a peer, leaving her with an empty life she tries to fill through good works.
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It’s tempting to write off Griffith as an anti-intellectual, holdover Victorian artist who gave himself up to the emotional logic of any scenario he turned loose on. But the conjoining aspect of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance on the level of social enquiry is the search for a way of conceiving society as a whole, a hunt for metaphors and concepts that can explain why the world is perpetually balanced between cruelty and amity. Intolerance has been described as a screed against government and authority, although that’s only partly true. Griffith’s ambivalence about authority figures, from parents to political leaders, is certainly another note carried over from earlier films, expressed in his previous works like The Avenging Conscience’s (1914) portrayal of an adoptive patriarch who is both tyrannical and pathetic, as well as The Birth of a Nation’s portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and Austin Stoneman as people who, with varying purposes and ideals, manipulate others to perform acts of violence. The French royals in the Massacre strand are portrayed as either weaklings or truly malicious, but the Jenkins are allowed some ambiguity through their detachment from the consequences of their actions and Mary’s wish to have a positive impact on the world. Belshazzar in Intolerance has impressive lustre as the cheiftain and embodiment of a state, one who mesmerises the otherwise wild and wilful Mountain Girl and leads his armies to a victory. But even he is ultimately distracted by the hedonistic pleasures available to a man in his position, blinding him to betrayal.
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The labelling of many characters by titles rather than names evokes sentimental types but also has a proto-modernist aspect, acknowledging their functions and their blank, universalised identities. The recurring rhythms of social life the film identifies also sees people obeying those rhythms, and so subject to forces beyond their control. This is balanced by Griffith’s tendency towards homey moralism, as the present day narrative celebrates Dear One’s ability to maintain her virtue until marriage in contrast to the Friendless One’s decline into being a gangster’s moll, whilst the indulged sensuality of Babylon can be seen as an aspect of its decadent vulnerability. But Griffith keeps in mind the processes that mould people. The Friendless One, as her title indicates, is an outsider whose eventual recourses and crimes are rooted in experience and ambiguous social ostracism: she shoots the Musketeer in part to protect The Boy, who was kind to her, as well as jealous anger for the Musketeer’s lust for Dear One. Dear One’s childlike innocence is the product of a doting father, but as circumstances change she’s tempted to mimic the provocative walk and dress of her flashier rivals for male attention around the slum. This enrages her father, and he tries to sock The Boy when he catches him romancing Dear One. Her father dies soon after, unable to endure his collapse in fortunes, leaving Dear One to navigate her own path. The sequences where Dear One resists both The Boy’s sexual overtures in an attempt to penetrate her room, result in some deeply corny stuff – “Help me to be a strong-jawed Jane!” Dear One pleads heavenwards.
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The Nazarene portion of the film gives Griffith, despite its brevity, the chance for direct and specific comments on moral disparity, Jesus’s generosity at the wedding and intervention on the behalf of the fallen woman offered in stark opposition to the self-appointed economic and moral dictatorship of the Jenkins and the De Medicis, and his crucifixion also helps imbue the other stories with an aspect of symbolic force. The Boy and Dear One’s steady lurch towards matrimony is contrasted with the Wedding at Cana as an evocation of the pleasures of a custom well-obeyed, whilst Griffith cuts from the Foundation women’s planning aggressive interventions with Jesus intervening to save the adultress from her persecutors. The crusaders, labelled “The vestal virgins of Uplift,” even launch a crackdown on dancing, turning a bustling and lively dance hall into a deathly dull restaurant. The portrayal of the Foundation crusaders is a touch ungracious as it basically accuses them of being ageing pests, big, burly matrons and nasty cows, introduced with the same touch of a slow dissolve from an empty institution to one at full flight of business Griffith used with the black-dominated state congress in The Birth of a Nation. The context of Intolerance’s making, as women’s suffrage was making headway and the push for Prohibition was gaining speed, lends it both an aspect of reaction – damn these bossy mannish women trying to run us! – and also justified caution at attempts to use state-sanctioned force to make people behave themselves.
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The anger Griffith evinces at certain forms of sanctioned bullying and coercion to achieve supposedly beneficial results is plain and livid, and the crucial scene of Dear One’s child being essentially kidnapped is both straightforward melodrama and punchy social protest. Charlie Chaplin, one of Griffith’s admirers, would channel this sequence for his own take on slum life and parental care, The Kid (1922). Both Griffith and Chaplin understood clearly the intimate terror for people living in poverty of having their children taken away as an immediate underpinning for drama. Coercive power is wielded equally by the Musketeer, who frames The Boy when he cuts him loose, and by the gang of stern crusaders who bail up Dear One in her rooms, using details like the fact she’s been drinking nips of whisky to deal with a cold against her. “Of course, hired mothers are never negligent,” an intertitle notes acerbically when Dear One is reduced to trying to catch a glimpse of her baby through the barred windows of the Foundation orphanage. Griffith’s use of the close-up, swiftly becoming identified with his specific cinematic touch, provides his great weapon in evoking the emotional straits of his characters, moving in for visions of Marsh’s gleaming, teary eyes and Cooper’s brittle visage betraying a fracturing soul. Intolerance sees Griffith perfecting the language of cinema as we know it as a dialogue of distance that alternates description and experience, humans as beings in a setting and as personas in isolation.
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As if taking up the challenge of Giovanni Pastrone’s moving camera on Cabiria, Griffith and his stalwart cinematographer Wilhelm ‘Billy’ Bitzer went one further when time came to unveil one of the grand set-pieces of set design and crowd manipulation, by hoisting their camera on a crane and staging an advancing, descending dolly shot, a common filmmaking touch today but one that must have hit the audience of the day with vertiginous force. Griffith plainly liked this moment so much he repeats it a few times. The cross-threaded narrative that so challenged the audience of the day is to contemporary eyes entirely coherent thanks to an intervening century of being schooled and stretched with film language, but it’s still relatively rare in its method, cutting between each story, noting rhymes and deviations of fate and meaning. Inevitably for a film that takes on such a theme as Intolerance and with such evangelical fervour and disgust for inequity, the stories all have a rather dark cast, with three of the four tales concluding with their protagonists dead and their causes defeated, and the fourth, the modern story, putting its heroes through utter hell. In the Massacre story, Brown Eyes becomes the exemplary victim of Intolerance as her family is slaughtered around her. Prosper’s desperate dash through the streets to try and reach her is stalled so often she’s raped and slain with sadistic relish by a mercenary soldier who’s been awaiting his chance. Prosper, clutching her body, strides out into the street and bellows abuse at the soldiers, who respond by gunning him down.
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The Babylonian portion of Intolerance has always been its most famous, the source of its most anthologised and emblematic images and its repute as a great moment in moviemaking hype. To see the enormous recreations of Babylon’s walls and temples is indeed to feel like you’ve seen the apex of a way of doing things, the climactic ceremonies of invocation for the city’s propagation doubling as an act of pure cinematic worship executed at a time when labourers and extras were cheap as chips. Less than a quarter-century after cinema’s birth it was reaching its zenith in production ambition, and since them its horizons have only shrunk in such terms, preferring today to execute such visions through computer pixels. The lavishness isn’t just in terms of set construction, but extends to Griffith’s portrayal of the Babylonian court, where Belshazzar’s “Princess Beloved” (Seena Owen), who has encouraged the worship of Ishtar over Bel-Marduk, is the king’s living idol and mate. The pageantry and minutely detailed décor and dress overwhelm the eye, replete with marvellous shots like one of Belshazzar petting a pet leopard clutching a stem of white roses in its jaws.
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The intensifying editing rhythm of Intolerance’s later reels in moving between the stories is given extra propulsion by utilising the dancing of the Babylonians to give physical, human counterpoint to the rush of cuts and evoke a gathering, hedonistic frenzy, movements and gestures propelling the cinematic edifice itself. The city’s “Temple of Love” contains a coterie of heavy-breathing Sapphic priestess-concubines, proving sex stuff wasn’t beyond the prim Southern Baptist Griffith and anticipating his rival-follower Cecil B. DeMille’s similar excursions, although Griffith’s images are arguably racier than anything DeMille ever dared. Griffith doesn’t labour to be condemnatory either, but generally considers this mostly fictional concept of a bygone society on its own terms. He even expresses a certain outrage that Babylon is destroyed through betrayal and rapacious imperialism, and considers Belshazzar and his court as representing one apex of civilisation in beauty and good living. The story revolves however around the feral outsider The Mountain Girl, whose pluck, daring, and idolisation of Belshazzar stand in fascinating contrast to Brown Eyes’ incarnation of a standard damsel in distress and Dear One’s wan and victimised incarnation of a more passive and Victorian-era feminine ideal.
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Griffith’s receptivity to the energies of his female cast members and interest in woman-driven stories seems to have been one secret to his success, and his best-received subsequent works, Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), revolved around young women trying to survive a mean and battering world. Talmadge’s startling energy and expressivity comes damn close to stealing the whole film despite the structure’s resistance to such things. Talmadge pulls off a comedic coup in the scene where she casually makes a mockery of her brother’s attempts to have her sold off in marriage, when The Mountain Girl first sees Belshazzar and spins off into rhapsodies of romantic expression, and later anchoring the high tragedy of the story. And yet The Mountain Girl and Dear One are ultimately linked by their determination to fight for the man they love and their attempts to penetrate a mystery. Just as Dear One talks a friendly beat policeman (Tom Wilson) into helping her find who really shot the Musketeer, so The Mountain Girl uncovers the Bel-Marduk High Priest’s treachery by tracking his chariots out to Cyrus’ camp, and tries to warn Belshazzar. Caught in the middle is The Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton), a proselytiser for Bel-Marduk who falls for The Mountain Girl despite her disdain for him: “Put away thy perfumes, they garments of Assinnu, the female man. I shall love none but a soldier!”
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Intolerance presents The Mountain Girl as perhaps a creature that could only exist in the distant past, although she also seems designed to speak to all the eager young proto-flappers of the day. As Cyrus brings his armies to the gate, The Mountain Girl’s skill as an archer proves valuable in helping with the defence: Griffith cuts from The Mountain Girl hurling stones at the attackers to the more decorous if no less partisan Princess Beloved in a frenzy of inspiring fervour. Later The Rhapsode, drunk and thrilled by being chosen as one of the circle in on the High Priest’s plans, boasts to The Mountain Girl about the plot. The echoes of the ancient tale in the present-day one see aspects of Belshazzar, Princess Beloved, and The Mountain Girl in The Musketeer, The Friendless One, and Dear One, if greatly reconfigured, and the drab squalor of the slums sharply contrasts the splendour of the ancient world, if not the poshness of the Jenkins’ mansion. Belshazzar’s harem is sarcastically equated with The Musketeer’s pornographic décor and solitary concubine. Broken Blossoms would both narrow the focus of Intolerance’s preoccupations but also intensify them on a key frequency, reducing the matter to the outcast man, delicate woman, and brutal authority figure. The result was perhaps the purest statement of Griffith’s poetic streak, as intimate as Intolerance is grand.
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But aside from passages of the Babylon siege, which becomes interludes of pure spectacle, Intolerance retains its focus on the human level remarkably well; truly, Griffith’s feel for cinematic art seemed to intensify all the more precisely the more he was chasing a direct, near-physical relationship with his audience. The siege scenes are nonetheless still amazing, coming on with such ferocity in staging and cutting and shooting it’s hard to believe at points they were staged: where Pastrone’s siege sequences, whilst obviously the model, were nonetheless rather static and clunky, Griffith unleashes pure cinema, with shots of warriors plunging off the walls and siege towers blazing in the night. He even weaves touches of comedy, like two defenders getting knocked out by catapulted stones and falling into each-other’s arms like sleeping babes. The siege, dominating the middle half of the film, contrasts not great climaxes in the other stories but rather passages of imminent crisis, in The Boy’s return home from jail and conflict with The Musketeer, and Catherine swaying her son to order the massacre.
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The Boy’s trial and imprisonment awaiting hanging sees Griffith kicking up the rhythm another notch, as Dear One and the cop look desperately for a way to save him, and The Friendless One clearly eddies in guilt and confusion. After following Dear One and the cop to the governor’s house, The Friendless One confesses to them and joins their efforts to chase down the train the governor is on. Griffith unleashes his most frenetic and dazzling editing as he switches between this pursuit, Prosper’s dash to save Brown Eyes, and The Mountain Girl trying to outpace Cyrus’s chariot horde to warn Belshazzar. Griffith’s epiphany here, semi-accidental perhaps, involves modernity’s possibilities for altering ancient realities: where The Mountain Girl can’t save the day, arriving too late to rouse the Babylonians to a proper defence, the present-day dashes succeed by gaining the aid of a race car driver who outpaces the train. The Mountain Girl dies valiantly but forlornly in defending the palace, riddled with arrows whilst Belshazzar and the Princess kill themselves, and Cyrus howls in glee as he announces himself master of the city.
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The climactic image of the Babylonian story is possibly Griffith’s greatest, of the dead Mountain Girl, a look of sublime bewilderment on her face, resting amidst the carnage in Belshazzar’s palace, a pair of yoked-together doves from Belshazzar’s pet menagerie nestled by her body, oblivious animals detached from the human drama whilst also emblemising all its romantic tragedy. Griffith, to try and generate some more revenue out of his huge folly, would later release the Babylon section as a standalone feature called The Fall of Babylon, this time with The Mountain Girl surviving and escaping; he also released the modern story separately and toned down the anti-business and strikebreaking scenes. Only the present day story ends happily out of the narrative sprawl in Intolerance, albeit still with a bloodcurdling aspect. The Boy is saved just before being hung, and he and Dear one are reunited in the prison yard, her wild pleasure as she embraces him contrasted by his dead-eyed shock. The prison scenes see Griffith using blocking and framing to create semi-abstract effects – bustling bodies of convicts in striped uniforms enclosed by stark brick walls, faces appearing through barred portals – that carry on some of Griffith’s experiments on The Avenging Conscience in not just using editing and decor to construct his storytelling but also manipulations of what he puts before his camera to evoke shifting psychological landscapes.
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Carl Dreyer, another filmmaker profoundly influenced by Griffith, might have remembered these in the stark images of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), as well as the transfiguring close-ups, and they also anticipate Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock’s explorations of dehumanisation through similarly skewed visual language. The film concludes with a coda diverging into outright allegory and summative preaching, echoing the similar note at the end of The Birth of a Nation but greatly expanding it for a dreamlike vision of warfare and bloodshed, complete with shells shattering urban buildings in fascinating special effects shots. Griffith here is reflecting on the omnipresent reality of the war consuming Europe at the time, and even sensing America would soon be drawn into it, with the resulting fear of the same destruction being wrought about its cities. But, again echoing the end of Cabiria if with a more dynamic use of the motif, an angelic host appears above a battlefield, arresting soldiers in the middle of mutual murder. The host initiates an age of loving peace, where prisons crumble to green fields and people celebrate by dropping flowers from ghostly zeppelins. A bizarre, silly, joyous end to a film that feels like cinema’s ever-flowing wellspring.

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

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

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

…and then there was Tarantino.

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

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

Blue Velvet (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: David Lynch

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

Standard
War, 1960s, Romance, Auteurs, Epic

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt

By Roderick Heath

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

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

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

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

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Film Noir, Thriller, Auteurs, 2010s

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

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

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