1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, Scifi

Idaho Transfer (1973)

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Director: Peter Fonda
Screenwriter: Thomas Matthiesen

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2020, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and freely available online

By Roderick Heath

Peter Fonda famously left John Lennon uneasy but also creatively stirred when, as the young actor dropped LSD with the Beatle and his bandmate George Harrison, he recounted a childhood accident when he almost fatally shot himself in the stomach, reporting “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon was inspired to write his song “She Said” sporting his riposte to the utterer, “It’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.” Fonda would for his part later try, when he became a film director, to articulate his enigmatic report from the fringes of existence. Fonda, son of movie legend Henry Fonda, found himself a figure strongly associated with the emerging counterculture vanguard around Los Angeles, an association that would briefly make him a major cultural figure. After making a mark in a small role as a young recruit confronted by the ugliness of life in Carl Foreman’s antiwar epic The Victors (1963), Fonda’s embrace of the hip scene in Hollywood saw his rise to conventional stardom frustrated, but he gained starring roles with Roger Corman in cheap and spurious but fascinating attempts to court a youth audience with tales of the new bohemia like The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967).

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Fonda accepted a sense of mission in trying to convey a more authentic sense of the zeitgeist in working with his friend and fellow actor Dennis Hopper on a project that eventually became Easy Rider (1969). Fonda and Hopper’s divergent sensibilities were thrown into sharp contrast in making the project a reality even as they joined in fertile collaboration. Fonda’s ambitious and thoughtful approach saw him turn to satirical writer Terry Southern to co-write the film with an eye to making an epic portrait of assailed Americana, but Hopper would later claim it Fonda and Southern took too long and he finished up writing most of the film himself. Hopper was generally accepted as the film’s auteur and engine for its rugged, improvisatory, freewheeling artistry. Hopper and Fonda’s quarrel over both the credit and profits for the film would spoil their relationship for decades, but Fonda did get a crack at directing in his own right on the back of Easy Rider’s industry-jarring success, whilst Hopper rolled on towards glorious disaster with The Last Movie (1971).

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Fonda eventually directed three films, starting with 1971’s The Hired Hand and ending with 1978’s Wanda Nevada, with Idaho Transfer in between, a film penned by writer Thomas Matthiesen, his one and only screenplay. All three of Fonda’s films can be described, in their fashion, as oddball twists on the folklore of the Western film his father had been so strongly associated with, and are highlighted by their dry, sauntering, deeply eccentric sense of style. Whilst Fonda’s acting career was going more commercial at the time as he appeared in a number of rubber-burning action movies, Fonda’s films as director were more resolutely eccentric and none were box office successes, although The Hired Hand, with its trancelike and fatalistic evocation of the Old West landscape as a place of brutal violence and individuals afflicted with blurred identity, has slowly gathered a potent cult following as an emblematic “Acid Western.” Wanda Nevada tried to court some of the popularity of Paper Moon (1973) in transferring the theme of a roguish man and an apt young female pupil to an earlier period setting. Idaho Transfer, coming between, saw Fonda tackling an environmental theme close to his heart. Produced independently on a very low budget, Idaho Transfer never had a chance of gaining significant attention, as the distributor who took up his project folded just as the film was due to be released, leaving it scarcely screened. Fonda later regained the rights and let the film pass into the public domain, and shot a brief prologue in which he appeared extolling his concerns.

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Idaho Transfer manages a rare trick, in seeming both a pure-sprung product of its time but also still awaiting its moment, trying to nail down an ever-elusive undercurrent of the modern psyche. Fonda’s evocative palette here was applied to a science fiction parable. At the outset two young researchers, Isa Braden (Caroline Hildebrand) and Cleve (Joe Newman), are glimpsed capturing snakes and studying them amidst the craggy, sunstruck reaches of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a field of lava forms in rural Idaho. Isa climbs down through a metal door set in the ground, into a small chamber buried in the lava, and after stripping off most of her clothes and making adjustments to a control panel, is transposed into another, larger, brighter room: Isa has just travelled back in time to her present day. She is the daughter of scientist Dr George Braden (Ted D’Arms), who’s made an unexpected, and very secret, breakthrough in time travel whilst officially working on a government-funded project researching matter teleportation. Her father has assembled a team of intellectually advanced young scientists and assistants to travel through time, or “transfer” as they call it, to a point 56 years in the future, where for some reason all signs of functioning civilisation in the vicinity have vanished. Nearby towns are deserted and no broadcasts are detectable. The project team has inferred some cataclysmic event has occurred in the meantime.

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Isa is assigned to bring her sister Karen (Kelley Bohanon) into the team, and despite her father’s instructions to tell Karen everything, she avoids explaining about the potentially debilitating health effects of transferring, which are so severe the team’s doctor Lewis (Fred Seagraves) thinks it would be fatal for anyone over twenty years old, as it causes haemorrhaging in the kidneys. Karen has just spent a spell in a mental hospital recovering from an unstated crisis, and casually tells her sister she lost her virginity when she was raped by a fellow patient. Isa first takes Karen out to the lava fields in the present, to get her familiar with the environment, and they encounter some footloose hippies heading to a music festival. Karen then takes Isa forward in a transfer whilst instructing her in how to operate the machinery. In the future Isa suffers a fall into a crevice and seems badly injured, so Karen quickly brings her back to the present, but can’t get help before Isa dies, apparently not from the fall but from transferring too many times. When the authorities discover what’s been going on at the project a short time later, they move to shut it down and round up all of the personnel, but a number of the young people follow a prearranged plan to gather supplies and equipment and transfer en masse to the future.

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Despite being the son of a major movie star, Fonda’s childhood background had been anything but idyllic. His father Henry was remarkably ill-starred in his marital life, compounded by his problems with private emotional expression which Peter in particular would contend with until his father was on his deathbed. Peter and his sister Jane’s mother Frances Ford Seymour had committed suicide whilst in a psychiatric hospital after suffering from severe depression, and Peter’s near-fatal accident had occurred a year later. Peter’s recourse to both the bohemian drug culture and artistic creation might well have had an aspect of therapeutic necessity, and by and large seemed to have worked. The Hired Hand and Idaho Transfer are closely linked in their mood of blasted and alien persistence and fragmented time, and resemble an interior portrait of life as experience through a depressive lens, with the latter film engaging those aspects not just on a stylistic level but also in its storyline. “I’m hip to time,” his character Captain America famously noted in Easy Rider, and here he shows us what he meant, knowing that the passage of the ages has no substance without the limitations of human perception to know it.

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The needling signs of personal relevance to Fonda are borne out in the traits Karen shares with his mother, the film an inferring study of a state of mind, portraying the space within Karen’s head in confronting a world of anxiety about what kind of future is possible in the wake of psychological collapse and assault, and avatar for a flailing youth movement confronted by a great existential brick wall: where to next, and is there any next anyway? “I used to have nightmares that looked like this,” Karen says as she surveys the lava fields in the post-apocalyptic future, “They were beautiful nightmares.” This line encapsulates the whole film and the spirit it tries to animate. Idaho Transfer is on one level an evocative, semi-abstract portrait of people in a setting, following on from Easy Rider and The Hired Hand as experiential engagements with the American landscape, and a negative space portrait of post-human witnessing as cinematographer Bruce Logan’s camera gazes upon the wastes of Idaho with an atavistic sense of locale. The schism between those who can withstand the transfer and those who can’t, along a firm boundary between the youthful and the mature, suggests at once a metaphor for generation gaps and also for the state of youth itself, able to weather certain terrible blows and recover more easily only to later realise the wearing consequences to soul as well as body.

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Idaho Transfer’s low budget manifests in its Spartan production values and visuals, but Fonda nimbly makes these lacks part of the stark aesthetic, which lacks the overtly hallucinatory interludes of The Hired Hand, but maintains the same dreamlike aura and mood of punch-drunk dislocation as that film and portions of Easy Rider. The opening shots resemble a public TV documentary about field biologists, but the naturalistic approach helps bolster Fonda’s evocation of spacy dislocation infested by creeping dread. Fonda contrasts the bland institutional space of the transfer project headquarters, a warren of white walls, glaring lighting, and functional machinery, where all sign of nature has been exiled save people themselves, and the vistas of the Idaho scenery, a space where no sign of civilisation has taken hold save for the metallic oblong forms of the transfer units fixed in the lava. Both environs seem like places where people persist more as memories than beings, the young folk already living in a zone that shrugs them off in disinterest well before they reach the future. Isa and Karen’s encounter with the hippie travellers offers a brief moment of solidarity and cheer, but later after heading into the future, Karen contemplates their fate. Isa responds duly, “The hitchhikers? Try not to think of them. They don’t matter anymore.” Even before any cataclysm has occurred, the world is suddenly now full of ghosts who don’t know they’re dead.

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Although lacking equivalent, fastidious technique, Fonda’s efforts here resemble at points Werner Herzog’s stringent attempts to convey a similar sensibility in films like Heart of Glass (1976) and Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) with their days-of-future-past evocations and bewildered sense of humans trapped on the Earth, and anticipate where Andrei Tarkovsky would head with Stalker (1979), to which Idaho Transfer bears a strong resemblance in both mood and motifs, evoking concepts just as large with means just as sparing. Idaho Transfer also certainly fits in amongst the sprawl of films released in the early 1970s regarding apocalyptic angst, informed by a counterculture-inspired concern for ecology and nuclear war, ranks including the likes of No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man, Zero Population Growth, THX-1138 (all 1971), Silent Running (1972), and Soylent Green (1973). Idaho Transfer is however quite distinct from them except perhaps THX-1138, another, more forcefully crafted but no less idiosyncratic by-product of early New Wave Hollywood potential and effort to mate art-house aesthetics with sci-fi. Idaho Transfer avoids the usual pretext apocalyptic sci-fi narratives, to set up action-thriller stories except for brief spasms late in the movie, presenting instead a work of tensile poeticism that echoes today more in works like those of Kelly Reichardt and later Terrence Malick.

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Aspects of the story have an intriguingly prototypical aspect in terms of some sci-fi ideas nonetheless. The specific details of the transferees having to remove all metal objects and much of their clothes in order to travel without risk are very similar to those detailed in The Terminator (1984) over a decade later, and like that film Idaho Transfer rejects a jaunty view of time travel in favour of one that almost conceives of it as close to a form of death and rebirth, or perhaps more like a Caesarean section, sliced out of one reality and dumped in another. The ending is offered chiefly as a lacerating metaphor, but also lays seeds for a driving idea of The Matrix (1999), that of bioenergy tapped as fuel as a cynical answer to resource shortage. Cleverly conveying reality-twisting with the absolute minimum of resources, Fonda illustrates his central sci-fi conceit with techniques that can scarcely be called special effects, the transfer process itself consisting merely of sped-up and stroboscopic footage of passengers moving between locales and time zones. The Craters of the Moon look entirely the same in the two time periods, a natural zone oblivious to the height and passing of the human civilisation that has claimed the continent around it.

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Transferring has a certain likeness to taking hallucinogens as a means of escaping a purely liminal sense of existence (and also bears a certain puckish resemblance to the motorcycle riding of Easy Rider). Isa’s surprising death early in a film she seems to be the main protagonist of sees her sister confronted by the sight of her lifeless form with face pressed in a pool of her own vomit, a harsh vision of the physical cost of transferring and also a touch that suggests Fonda here is meditating on the downside of the drug culture and the impact of addiction. Much as Easy Rider revised the Western movie template as an inverted course through a succession of defeated dreams and The Hired Hand offered the usually celebrated wanderers of Western folklore as interchangeable and inept in creating true civilisation in terms of honouring their human obligations, Idaho Transfer literally portrays decolonisation. Fonda’s pantheistic surveys of the landscape invoke the power of the natural world to persist and shrug humanity off like an insect pest. Fonda sharply disturbs the placid ambience when the young team members are obliged to spring into action and execute the planned group transfer as government authorities visit the installation and it seems the political situation out in the world is deteriorating swiftly: Fonda films their hurried preparations for departure in lunging hand-held camerawork, the scramble for survival illustrated although the narrative eventually reveals it to be essentially pointless.

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A couple of adults including Lewis make the transfer too despite the risks. The escapees take some comfort in knowing that despite of the crackdown they might still be able to return for a time as the power supply to the transfer machinery can’t be easily cut off, but some, like Leslie (Dale Hopkins), quickly begin feeling troubled at the thought of being marooned. When the units stop working, one team member says it’s only a temporary glitch. Karen surreptitiously returns to the past and fruitlessly tries to contact her father, and then collects supplies whilst dodging security patrols. Ronald (Kevin Hearst), one of the boys on the team, transfers back to fetch her, literally dragging her away leaving dropped toilet rolls in her wake, a deft piece of physical comedy. One aspect of Idaho Transfer it’s been much-criticised for is the acting by the mostly green and nonprofessional cast, and indeed quite a few of them are wooden. But the rough, blowsy performing style largely helps the overall air of verisimilitude, and the basic theme of people who are scarcely adults trying to negotiate a forbidding future, callow and jagged, even clumsy in their emotional expressions. Karen is inducted into a crew of bright young nerds who turn a stoically observant and scientific eye on their circumstances.

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Bohanon, whilst clearly raw, nonetheless proves a striking lead, called upon to progress from a gangly and pallid survivor of troubled youth to a sturdy-looking prototype for a James Cameron action heroine in her physicality, even as her psyche matures far more spasmodically. Casting Keith Carradine, the only member of the cast to go on to a notable career, as team member Arthur signals a plain sense of personal continuity, as Fonda’s fellow progeny of Hollywood royalty, son of his father’s co-star in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Nor does the similarity feel accidental. The early scenes of Ford’s film set amidst Dustbowl squalor and ruination wove a similar mood to what Fonda chases here, one of haunted isolation and desolated place, and in Idaho Transfer plays like Fonda’s spiritual sequel. Another aspect of Idaho Transfer’s unique texture is the score, provided by Greenwich Village folk scene stalwart and regular Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne, who had also provided The Hired Hand’s music. The way Fonda shoots scenery with Langhorne’s music on the soundtrack establishes a wistful sensibility contrasted with the increasingly grim sense of entrapment gripping the humans at roam in that scenery, great natural beauty and lustre confronting the characters with their own doomed lot rather than elevating as in the Hudson Valley School painting tradition, that awed yet imperial sensibility in regarding the beneficence of the land, which Fonda evokes and disrupts.

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The team eventually decide to try heading for Portland, Oregon, with the bulk of the party under the leadership of Cleve travelling down to and along the Snake River whilst Karen and Ronald are assigned to scout out an overland route and meet up with the rest of the party further along the river. Arthur, Leslie, and another girl who’s hurt her leg, Jennifer (Meredith Hull), are left behind to tend the base camp. As they tramp across the country, Karen prods the phlegmatic Ronald to become her lover, and though Ronald at first plays brusquely and professionally disinterested in Karen’s overtures, she eventually has her way with him. Later she confesses she thinks she’s pregnant to Arthur, news Ronald seems to take with equanimity. Karen tries to hold on to fragments of hope and delight, from the thought of having a baby to delighting in an improvised woven ring someone gives her, and begins to contemplate the gender politics of a new world: “I suppose it doesn’t matter since we have a fresh start now…Call the boys girls’ names and the girls boys’ names.” Lewis separates from the larger party as his kidneys start to haemorrhage and seeks a peaceful, solitary end. When Ronald and Karen spot a train parked and rusting on a railway line, Ronald goes to check it out, and later reports the wreck is crammed with bodies wrapped in plastic bags within, which he theorises were being taken from a coastal city to a dumping point inland when the same deadly force overwhelmed the drivers.

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In this section, the narrative most clearly becomes a tragicomic lampoon of the basic proposition of the Western, the fumbling anti-pioneers tramping a path through the wilds, even encountering the dead of a massacre like many a Western hero, albeit with the enemy a negation: westward the course of empire unravels. Fonda never specifies exactly what’s caused the catastrophe, which could be nuclear conflict but seems more like biological warfare. Finally Ronald and Karen reach the river and meet up with the other team, and find they’ve brought along a girl they’ve named Anne (Kim Casper), one of a community of third-generation survivors they encountered. In a motif reminiscent of Planet of the Apes (1968), the human survivors all seem to be deaf and developmentally disabled to some degree through mutation, and yet, as one team member notes, they seem incredibly happy, and another says they’re the most compassionate people he’s ever met. Observing that, apart from hearing loss and slight motor retardation, Anne seems more or less normal, the team considers the possibility of finding an equally high-functioning male and mating them. Karen wryly suggests the men of the team should impregnate her instead for a better result, and then tells them she thinks she’s pregnant. The team drop on her a bleak fact Lewis informed them about and which Ronald didn’t have the heart to tell her: the transfer renders anyone who does it sterile, and the symptoms of pregnancy she’s experiencing are most likely psychosomatic.

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Again Idaho Transfer pivots into a psychological portrait where the exterior developments are extensions of Karen’s damaged headspace, as this revelation brutally dashes not just Karen’s emotional recompense but all hope the team might form the core of a new civilisation: they too have become just more ghosts haunting the land. Ronald’s attitude had already signalled a disdain bordering on anti-natalism when he answers Karen’s comment, “I’m a woman, you know,” as she confesses broody emotions with, “That gives you the right to have a bunch of kids?” By way of comforting her, he tells her, “Perpetuation and all the crap that goes with it is just a big hoax anyway,” and advises her to simply enjoy her own existence before letting it all fade out. This attitude to life is evoked as Fonda notes his characters skimming stones across water with an almost artistic sense of technique, trying to launch further and more gracefully each time but always destined to sink into dark. Such a forlorn and astringent attitude feels of a unit with Fonda’s own efforts to be at once unsentimental and open to experience as its own meaning, if not entirely a personal statement, as he also clearly empathises with Karen as the sensate antithesis to such taciturn logic, trying to maintain against all fact some sense of a living purpose, the character who feels the essential meaning of things rather than numbing them with intellectualisms.

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Karen decides to separate from the team, leaving early in the morning and hiking back the way she came to the base camp, hoping to see Arthur again and perhaps return to the past. When she does reach the base, she finds Jennifer’s rotting corpse in a crevice, whilst Arthur’s savaged body lies in one of the transfer units. Karen is launched upon by Leslie, who’s gone violently insane and tries to bash Karen’s brains out on the lava, but Karen manages to protect herself with her arm just enough. Whilst Leslie goes after Karen’s dropped knife, Karen dashes into one of the transfer units, and sits within bleeding and traumatised, listening as Leslie beats a stone on the hatch and crows that the units still aren’t working. Karen hears a buzz emitting from the machinery and tries it, successfully transferring to the past. She materialises before an utterly bewildered security guard, desperately explaining she wants to transfer back to a point earlier in time when she can stop Arthur and Jennifer’s killing, to the guard’s utter incomprehension and alarm. Karen frantically tries to reset the transfer machine whilst soldiers mass outside the chamber. Karen arrives back in the future but is soon confronted by evidence she’s gone much further than the earlier transfers, finding the transfer units in ruins and the camp debris old and corroded, the land now in bitter winter.

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Fonda saves his last, bitterest, bleakest touch for the very end as Karen sees what strikes her as a sign of civilisation and salvation, a car cruising along one of the ancient roads. She gropes her way to the roadside as Fonda offers flash cuts to her experiences throughout, as if her substance is breaking down. The car’s driver (Michael Kriss) stops, picks her up, and carries her back to the vehicle. Instead of putting her inside, he opens the boot, and pushes her: as the trunk hatch closes, we hear Karen’s bloodcurdling scream. The driver gets back into the car and drives off with his wife (Erica Joeres) and young daughter (Vicki Dietrich), and their dialogue makes it plain that these can-do people of the future have started using other people as an energy source. The daughter says she doesn’t think Karen was “one of them,” although the father assures her she was. The suggestion here seems to be that these “normal” people, who resemble a cold-blooded caricature of an ideal nuclear (post-nuclear?) family have been using the mutated survivors as biofuel. The unaffected ones might be people who gained shelter during the calamity or the superior offspring the transfer team wanted to foster, or even somehow might be, depending on how much time has passed and how accurate Lewis’ diagnosis was, the progeny of the transfer team. As the daughter ponders what they’ll do for fuel once their source runs out, the father says, “They’ll figure out another way for us.” “But what if that’s too hard?” the daughter persists, “Or expensive? And what if they decide they can’t change?…We’ll use each-other then, won’t we?” And the car rolls on over the horizon.

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Fonda leaves behind his relatively straight sci-fi scenario into a realm closer to fable here, illustrating his concept of civilisation coming at the cost of constantly dwindling resources and a social-Darwinian process of consumption, for a more surreal and fantastical device, although it certainly also concludes the movie’s narrative proper with an apt taste of blood in the mouth. At the same time, this is also a precise symbolic encapsulation of the psychological distress that grips Karen finally claiming her into a black pit of total nihilism. As an ending this manages to outdo the last two films Fonda had a hand in when it comes to leaving off on a dark and downbeat note, with the Idaho state motto offered, “Esto Perpetua,” or It Is Perpetual, offered as a queasy promise and threat. Even if it had gained a proper release at the time, Idaho Transfer was obviously never going to be the stuff of a popular hit even by the gritty standards of the early 1970s, and is probably still too spare, too severe, to make it as a major cult object. But if you get onto its strange wavelength it leaves an aura of blended melancholy and meditative pensiveness lingering for days. It is, in the end, as much a portrait of Fonda’s struggle with his interior world as with his worries about the outer one, but his most singular achievement in the end is to erase the difference, and the warning Fonda sounded has only grown from a dull throb of anxiety to a blaring alarm in the intervening years. Certainly Idaho Transfer represents a fascinating labour from a rarefied talent, and whilst it’s a good thing it’s available to all today, it also certainly deserves to be seen in a far more respectful state.

Idaho Transfer can be viewed for free on YouTube here.

 

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

Silverado (1985)

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Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, Mark Kasdan

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Brian Dennehy 1938-2020

Miami-born, West Virginia-raised Lawrence Kasdan had ambitions to become a filmmaker since childhood. Determined to break into 1970s Hollywood with the aim of becoming a director, he nonetheless made his play as a screenwriter. Kasdan spent stints as a teacher and advertising copy writer before he landed an agent with a screenplay called The Bodyguard, a work that would take another seventeen years to hit movie screens. The first script he had produced was the romantic comedy Continental Divide (1978), shepherded by Steven Spielberg in one of his early forays into producing. The film wasn’t a great success but clearly Spielberg was impressed by Kasdan, as he and George Lucas tapped Kasdan to write both Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strike Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), swiftly establishing Kasdan as a talent equal to the challenge of the blockbuster age, a keen and canny wordsmith and a member of the Movie Brat tribe with a deep affection for genre fare of yore. Kasdan was swiftly rewarded with a shot at directing. Despite his skill at fleshing out fantastical material, Kasdan’s own taste was more earthbound and old-school, and he would challenge himself often during his directorial career to revive waned genres like film noir, westerns, and screwball comedy with a modern edge and relevance, and finding varying levels of success.

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Kasdan’s directorial debut, the lean and mordant neo-noir Body Heat (1981), instantly grabbed him attention, and his follow-up, The Big Chill (1983), a comedy-drama rooted in Kasdan’s experiences in studying former ‘60s student radicals settling into comfortable middle age, was hugely successful and admired at the time although it eventually became a pop culture punchline. Kasdan’s later career slowly waned as he made a few too many middling comedies and smug, touch-feely dramedies. For his third film, Kasdan resolved to take a shot at reviving the Western. After the general box office catastrophe that met Heaven’s Gate (1980) and The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), the Western had been declared dead, but Kasdan felt it only needed a loving hand determined to remind the mass audience what a fun genre it could be, harking back to fare like The Big Country (1958) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Silverado is probably the high-water mark of Kasdan’s directing work, albeit one that was only mildly successful at the box office, ironically because the studio was so excited by the wild audience reaction at test screenings it was sent to theatres without a proper build-up. It even helped spark a sputtering revival for the Western, initially in the teenybopper shoot-‘em-up Young Guns (1988), and more substantially as Kasdan’s young acting discovery Kevin Costner would go on to score an Oscar-garlanded hit with Dances With Wolves (1990) and give impetus for a handful of new entries in the 1990s. Most of those didn’t land with audiences, however, and Silverado itself, despite its best intentions, might well reveal why the genre couldn’t truly return.

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Kasdan executed the film with a sprawling sense of the genre’s visual and storytelling lexicon, but still made it adhere to his own, more personal fascination with a gallery of motley characters drawn together in because of a shared cause and experience. The film starts memorably and deliberately on a claustrophobic note, with a sequence that feels close to the climax of Blood Simple (1984). Emmett (Scott Glenn) is a man sleeping in a dark and tiny cabin, when someone starts shooting through the walls at him. Emmett manages to grab his rifle and fire back, killing his attackers, and he steps outside with the reveal that the cabin is perched on a ridge above a glorious landscape of valleys and snow-capped mountains, a great moment for cinematographer John Bailey. Kasdan nods to the famous opening of The Searchers (1956) here whilst also performing his own, specific piece of visual legerdemain, releasing the Western from a cage of dolour and reduced horizons. Emmett has just been released from prison, and he’s making his way back to the town of Silverado, where some of his family reside, with the ultimate intention of reach California with his younger brother Jake (Costner). As he crosses a stretch of desert, Emmett encounters a man laid out on the sand. This is Paden (Kevin Kline), who reports he was held up and robbed by some men he was travelling with, and left without water to die. Paden seems an amiable man, perhaps out of his depth, although anyone would look like a twit in such circumstances. Emmett helps him out of the desert.

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When they reach a frontier hamlet, Paden sees one of his attackers, and hurriedly buys a poor pistol with his last dollar. He shoots the thief, revealing his brilliance as a gunman, and reclaims his horse. Another man passing through town, Cobb (Brian Dennehy), vouches for him: Cobb and Paden were once partners in an outlaw gang together, but Paden is determined to go straight. Paden continues travelling with Emmett, until they reach a more substantial town, Turley, where Emmett expects to meet up with Jake. As they eat in a tavern, they watch in interest as a black cowboy, Malachi ‘Mal’ Johnson (Danny Glover) comes in and orders a drink, only to be brusquely told by the owner to leave, and a couple of local heavies take pleasure in backing him up. Mal instead pummels all three, only to attract the attention of the town’s very English, very strict Sheriff, Langston (John Cleese), who runs him out of town. They soon learn that Langston has Jake in prison awaiting hanging for killing a man in a gunfight, which Jake swears was self-defence. Emmett resolves to break Jake out, and Paden tells him he doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of the law again, so they part amicably. But Paden spies another of his robbers, this one wearing his signature hat, and when the thief tries to shoot him Paden guns him down, which gets him thrown into the same cell with Jake. The duo work together to escape and link up with Emmett.

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The way Kasdan introduces and develops Paden signifies his clever and witty approach to reclaiming the Western. Paden is first seen stripped to his long-johns, and speaks not with a hard-bitten western accent but a polite and bewildered lilt, a seemingly absurd figure who might be at home in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) or The Missouri Breaks (1975) or any number of other mud-and-blood Westerns, or even Blazing Saddles (1974). He’s mocked by his former fellow bandits for having dropped out of their number because concern for a dog triggered his capacity for empathy. Casting Kline, better known as a comic actor, compounds the initial miscue. But once Emmett helps him to civilisation, Paden begins reclaiming both his possessions and his pride, reassembling himself and the aura of his breed piece by piece, unveiling his near-supernatural talent with a six-shooter and an unyielding and fearless streak, hard to provoke but truly fearsome once activated. His progression makes literal Kasdan’s purposeful shift from recalling the shambolic and cynical strain of the genre seen in the ‘70s and moving back in the genre’s history to restore the figure of the Western hero in all his glory. This motif threads through the film’s first third, at the same time Emmett, Paden, Jake, and Mal form together into a band and make their way to the titular town, their amity fused by their shared and complimentary talents and their common experience of various forms of injustice, of which Mal’s struggle with racism is the most blatant example, although Emmett, Jake, and Paden all face their own versions.

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The storyline, once the plot proper kicks into gear, actually uses the same basic plot as Heaven’s Gate in dealing with a range war sparked by a greedy cattleman, only in a less virulently anti-capital and more crowd-pleasing way. The opening credits, with Bruce Broughton’s grandiose, Alfred Newman-esque score thundering over shots of Emmett riding past vast and gritty-beautiful landscapes, situates the characters in a purely mythical movie zone. The films swiftly racks up a vivid sense of the genre’s classic motifs – the monumental landscape, the tough but decent heroes unveiled in all their badass brilliance. That said, Kasdan resists getting po-faced and square in restoring the classical Western grandeur, deploying a loose comedic edge to give familiar figures and ideas a new instability, particularly with an offbeat approach to casting, putting actors largely known for comedy in serious parts and vice versa. This extends to Cleese’s ingeniously droll and aggravating performance as Langston, bullying and railroading people with a very proper English manner, Basil Fawlty with a six shooter, and the diminutive Linda Hunt as Stella, the female bar owner who becomes Paden’s best friend but needs a raised platform behind the bar to serve drinks. Jeff Goldblum enters the film with his customary rubbery intonations as a gambler named Slick who seems at first like he might be an ally to the heroes but proves instead a villain. Most vitally, Kasdan gave young Costner, whose mature screen persona would often be dismayingly stolid, the part of jovial, livewire, fast-shootin’ Jake, making him an instant star.

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The film’s first third consists of a series of rolling challenges to the heroes that also draw them together, in a freewheeling and picaresque fashion that nonetheless obeys a particular logical flow. We move from Emmett rescuing Paden to Paden and Jake busting out of jail together with a goofy ruse, with the aid of Emmett, who blows up the town gallows to distract Langston and his deputies, and then with the intervention of Mal, who covers their flight from the sheriff with such frighteningly good marksmanship Langston decides his jurisdiction ends well short of the county line. This segues into a calculatedly iconic depiction of the four heroes riding abreast across the countryside with Broughton’s heroic theme swelling, all without a hint of irony. One the road to Silverado they come across a wagon train that’s been robbed by thieves posing as trail hands. Emmett and Mal’s altruism inspires them to go after the thieves, whilst Paden is more motivate by gaining the approval of one of the women of the train, Hannah (Rosanna Arquette), although she’s married to the bullish Conrad (Rusty Meyers), who, suspicious of the gang’s motives, elects himself to accompany them. The thieves prove to be part of a larger gang led by Dawson (James Gammon), but a successful combination of Emmett and Paden’s ruse and Mal and Jake’s shooting allows them to snatch back the train’s cashbox in a breezy, near-slapstick action sequence. Conrad holds the heroes up at gunpoint and demands the cashbox from them, but he is gunned down by one of the thieves.

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Eventually the four heroes arrive with the wagon train in Silverado, where they go their separate ways: Mal to join his father Ezra (Joe Seneca), who owns his own ranch, Emmett and Jake to visit their sister Kate (Patricia Gaul), who’s married to the local land registrar J.T. Hollis (Earl Hindman) and has a son. Paden pays court to the widowed Hannah but is turned off by her professed determination to build her parcel of land into a great ranch. He soon finds Cobb is not just a local business owner but also the Silverado sheriff, positions he’s reached because he’s also the chief enforcer for the great local cattle rancher Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker). Paden takes a job running the gaming in Cobb’s saloon the Midnight Star, managed by Stella, after Cobb fires and gut-punches the man who was in the job, Kelly (Richard Jenkins). Kelly vengefully tries to shoot Cobb but Cobb blows him away. Emmett has reasons to be wary of McKendrick, because he was in prison for shooting the cattle baron’s brother in self-defence. McKendrick professes to be satisfied by Emmett’s incarceration, but Emmett quickly learns the horse he’s riding, taken from one of the men who tried to kill him at the opening, has McKendrick’s brand, telling him McKendrick ordered the attempted hit. McKendrick is trying to take over all the nearby territory, terrorising the smaller land owners, including Ezra, who’s had his cabin burned down and now hides in a cave, and Mal’s resentful sister Rae (Lynn Whitfield) has moved into the town and become a prostitute. Upon Mal’s return he and Ezra stand up to McKendrick’s goons, but pay the price when Ezra is ambushed and shot dead.

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Silverado was reportedly cut down from a greater running time prior to release, and it tells in places, but it doesn’t entirely excuse the film’s lumpiness. The way plot strands and characters pile up suddenly a good distance into the running time robs it of the gallivanting charm and pace established early on, and even a screenwriter as skilful and adroit as Kasdan can’t easily negotiate the speed bump. There’s enough raw material for a film twice Silverado’s already solid length, assembling elements at a frantic pace to build up a storyline busy enough to engage all of his heroes and justify the inclusion of an array of assorted classical genre tropes. In this regard it stands in contrast with the economic structure Kasdan managed for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and unlike that film, which so sleekly performed osmosis on generations of pulp adventuring it emerged diamond-hard, Silverado rather makes you more conscious of Kasdan’s attempt to rope together clichés. Such multiplying is also proof of Kasdan’s honourable desire to offer his fun with substance, fleshing out his heroes and providing each of them with a strong stake in the drama, even the professionally disengaged Paden.

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It’s also plainly a style of drama Kasdan liked, the narrative with a panoramic sense of character and their individual straits which he visited in quite different keys in The Big Chill and later with Grand Canyon (1991) and Dreamcatcher (2002). Moreover, the film shifts gear from a romp to a more concerted melodrama as the heroes face Cobb and McKendrick, ruthless and competent villains determined to protect their interests. But some elements, particularly Paden and Emmett’s attentions to Hannah, don’t have the time to go anywhere. Hannah’s obviously been included as a sop to a more contemporary female ideal, she doesn’t really add anything to the film, unlike Whitfield’s Rae, who’s crucial to the plot and describes a neat character arc in herself. Pointedly perhaps, just about the only aspect of a good classic Western Kasdan fails then to encompass is a good romance, with Jake’s affair with good-natured saloon waitress Phoebe (Amanda Wyss) a very minor aside, whilst Paden’s quick but fierce platonic friendship with Stella ironically comes closest as a meeting of ironically inclined lost souls. Kasdan does better in racking up a number of swiftly and neatly described enemies, including Tyree (Jeff Fahey), another member of Paden and Cobb’s old gang and a more feral personality itching for a chance to take on his old comrade, and lesser imps like Slick. A string of events pitch the story towards crisis point. Ezra is murdered. In a crafty scene, Emmett is glimpsed in a regulation activity for a Western hero, practicing his shooting in a suitably quiet and deserted area. Once he empties all his guns, McKendrick’s goons suddenly spring out of hiding and attack him, only for Mal, who’s been hiding since his father’s death, to intervene and save Emmett who suffers a bad blow to the head from Tyree riding repeatedly over him. Mal is then captured and jailed by Cobb. McKendrick and more goons break into J.T.’s registrar office to burn all the land deeds, killing J.T. shot and kidnapping his and Kate’s son Augie (Thomas Wilson Brown), whilst Jake vanishes, presumed dead.

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Early in his directing career, Kasdan revealed a genuine knack for spotting star talent, and his first three films launched a handful of big names. One great and obvious pleasure of Silverado is its excellent cast. Indeed there are few movies that include such a large percentage of my favourite actors, most of whom are given carefully crafted roles, and even the relatively small parts sport actors of the calibre of Seneca, Gammon, and Brion James filling them out. Even Costner is terrific in an atypical role as the jaunty, irrepressible Jake, a strong contrast to Glenn’s weathered intensity as his brother and Glover’s everyman grit. Dennehy wields enough bluff charisma to light up Manhattan. Only Kline feels slightly uneasy in his part. He’s good when playing Paden’s courteous side and portraying crisis of conscience when push comes to shove. But when Paden’s dangerous streak is roused, Kline aims for lethal focus in his glare but achieves only woodenness. When Glenn as Emmett resolves to go out and fight, you believe it, but Kline looks like he’s biting his tongue on a witticism: deadpan is not the same as seriousness. Paden is pushed into a quandary as he tries to obey his desire to avoid trouble but finds his friends in trouble and Cobb and McKendrick’s war intensifying and costing innocent lives. When he signals his displeasure to Cobb after trying to extinguish the fire consuming the registrar office and learning of Augie’s kidnapping, the sheriff responds by making veiled threats on Stella’s life to hold Paden in check. Paden and Stella get drunk together and Stella realises this.

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Kasdan’s desire to balance aspects of the revisionist urge with a more classical and grandiose sensibility would see him return to the Western with the much undervalued Wyatt Earp (1994), on that occasion with Costner in the lead for a darker and more interrogative attempt to weld the two hemispheres, epic and expansive in form but psychological and troubled in details. Silverado notably only avoids dealing with Native Americans in ticking off genre clichés, whereas Costner with Dances With Wolves would make the issue central: between the two films they revealed that a neo-Western had to either entirely ignore Native Americans or commit wholly to examining their plight. Silverado patterns itself more after the type of Western that exploited the genre for a mythical stage for depicting social problems in microcosm: every Western town with its open main drag became a free-floating ahistorical island where moral drama was reduced to an essential scheme. Kasdan doesn’t entirely neglect this aspect despite the film’s generally high-spirited tone even. Many an old Western had the crooked sheriff and the bullying landowner, but Kasdan nudges the template along to make the heroes all outsiders to varying degrees, and where the social order often portrayed in the old westerns is made more explicitly a battle of those outsiders against corrupt blocs of power.

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Consequentially, Kasdan’s west can encompass black heroes and tough and unusual women: the emphasis on the Johnsons as black landowners threatened by racists and bullies is historically pertinent and little treated in the genre, and the subplot of Mal and Rae’s mutual resentment, as Mal returns from running off the big city, is the most substantial in the movie, and leads to Rae, after spurning her brother, trying nonetheless to save Mal from jail and getting clipped by a bullet for her pains. Kasdan works a strong if obvious visual idea in the climactic shoot-out framing Paden before the town with the white-painted church prominent in the background, whilst Cobb is pictured poised on the edge with the wild landscape behind him, suggesting one has become symbolic of the community whilst the other is the barbarian meeting his end. Part of the problems with Kasdan’s method of doubling up tropes lies in the very fact that he doesn’t quite use Dennehy, who was born to play a sagebrush feudal lord, effectively as a tyrannical figure, with villainy spread over Baker’s much less vivid and interesting McKendrick.

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This kind of imprecision chokes off the film’s melodramatic potential just when it should be building to a pitch. The relationship between McKendrick and Cobb likewise lacks a sense of their dynamic as very different men with the same purpose in contorting the world to their will, and the impact of their reign over the town is, ironically, not as sharply described as Langston’s over his. And that leads into something that goes subtly awry with Silverado despite the general excellence on display. Kasdan never quite finds the live nerve of real emotional danger and ferocity. Whilst he provides each of his heroes with a strong spur to action, the stakes tend to drown each-other out. Instead Kasdan constantly provokes awareness that so much that’s in the movie because he wanted it in there. Such trope-harvesting movie has a habit of assimilating genres to a point where they extinguish them. Witness the way Star Wars has long since subordinated the entire space opera tradition, and who knows when anyone will try to make a pirate movie that doesn’t lurk in the shadow of Pirates of the Caribbean.

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And yet Kasdan ultimately did a remarkable job of taking the most low-tech of genres and giving it a scale that didn’t feel out of place amidst ‘80s blockbusters, and he succeeded in his core desire, to make a Western that didn’t feel like a solemn chore, a lesson too many attempts since it was made haven’t kept in mind. Once Kasdan reaches clear ground to let his heroes off the leash again, the spectacle comes on hard, particularly with an excellent set-piece where Emmett and Mal ride to take back Augie at McKendrick’s ranch, with Paden finally and fatefully riding up to join them, before unleashing one of McKendrick’s cattle herds as a weapon by stampeding them through the homestead. A great gun battle ensues as the heroes take on McKendrick’s private army, with Jake reappearing and joining the fight, and Emmett managing to penetrate the McKendrick manse and save Augie whilst McKendrick himself flees to town. The heroes give chase, cueing the best of Kasdan’s shots that aim blatantly for instant genre iconography, as the quartet split apart on the separate paths into Silverado, with Augie watching them from a ridge as the incarnation of boyish admiration beholding mythologised grown-up bravery.

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Today, in this regard, Silverado feels less like a revitalisation of the Western than a very early trial run for the popularity of superhero movies, envisioning the Western hero ultimately more as the realisation of a young person’s fantasy rather than an adult’s in the way, say, Sergio Leone’s films are, nor grand panoramas of social identity in the manner of John Ford’s. The distinction is minor, perhaps, but consequential. The battle that unfolds around Silverado gives all the heroes a crowning moment whilst also piling up different kinds of action resolution. Mal knifes Slick as he threatens the wounded Rae, Jake takes out multiple foes at once with brilliantly cocky moves, Emmett battles McKendrick on horseback and gets revenge when his nag kicks McKendrick’s head in, and Paden confronts Cobb at last for a classical shoot-out. Dennehy’s man-mountain falls before Kline’s gangly animal lover, and the epilogue sees the men parting ways with Paden now the anointed sheriff, the fitting end-point of his journey from the desert, whilst Mal and Rae return to the land and Emmett and Jake ride into the sunset in search of the next horizon. It’s ultimately true that Silverado tries too hard. But it’s a grand kind of trying too hard.

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1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Sports, Uncategorized

Rocky (1976) / Rocky II (1979) / Rocky III (1982) / Rocky IV (1985)

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Directors: John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone
Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

Rocky’s genesis and success is deeply entwined with the story enacted in the movie series it birthed, and a fundamental aspect of its mystique and popularity. Sylvester Stallone, born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946, had suffered from partial paralysis in his face from a difficult birth, a debilitation he patiently tried to entirely erase as he became an actor. Stallone’s peculiarly dichotomous image had roots in his background, with his mother founding a gym for women in the mid-1950s and powerfully influencing her son’s celebration of physical prowess, even as Stallone proved himself no dunce in attending the University of Miami. His early acting days were harsh, and raw desperation drove him to appear in the porn film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). Stallone recovered to find scattered but eye-catching jobs in films like Bananas (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Death Race 2000, and Farewell, My Lovely (all 1975), usually as tough guys and thugs. Tired of being relegated to such meathead roles, Stallone resolved to write himself a leading part. He found his theme when he watched heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali defend his title against the white journeyman Chuck Wepner, who surprised many by lasting 15 rounds against the great master.

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Inspired, Stallone wrote a script, taking the basic premise of an unrated contender taking on a terrifying champion, and cobbling together bits of popular boxing lore, encompassing figures like Jim Braddock, Rocky Marciano, and particularly Rocky Graziano, whose autobiography Somebody Up There Likes Me had provided Paul Newman with his own breakthrough starring vehicle in 1956. He also knew his old movies about boxers and fighters along the lines of The Champ, Flesh (both 1932), Kid Galahad (1937), Golden Boy (1939), and Gentleman Jim (1942). Stallone’s script was initially, relatively muted with the original ending having Rocky throw his fight after deciding he didn’t really like boxing. But as the production moved along, and Stallone’s do-or-die project became a more tangible proposition, it evolved into a hymn to the ideals of persistence and hardiness in the face of adversity. In the mid-1970s film milieu, that kind of old-fashioned sentiment was unfashionable, but Stallone proved he was in the same place as the mass audience. As the Bicentennial rolled around in the immediate post-Watergate hangover, the hunger for something thrilling and affirmatory proved rife. Stallone’s script was good enough to gain a lot of studio interest as a possible vehicle for an established star, but Stallone insisted he play the role. Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, producers attached to United Artists, were able to take risks on movies they made provided the costs were kept restrained, and they gave Stallone his shot on a $1 million budget.

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For a director, they turned to John G. Avildsen, who had served a sturdy apprenticeship as an assistant director before becoming a director in his own right and was best known up to that point for Joe (1970) and Save The Tiger (1973), quintessential works of the early decade as restrained and moody character portraits contending with the battered American psyche of the time. Save The Tiger had even netted a Best Actor Oscar for Jack Lemmon. Avildsen proved perfectly in tune with what Stallone’s script offered, able to apply a potent sense of verisimilitude and muted realism to a story that ultimately offered crowd-pleasing pleasures. Rewards were immediate: the film was a huge hit, and pitched against flagship works of the American New Wave’s height like Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, and Network at the Oscars, Rocky emerged the victor. Stallone was vaulted to popular stardom. In the immediate wake he evinced warning signs of hubristic self-confidence in directing, writing, starring, and singing in the vanity vehicle Paradise Alley (1978), badly denting his standing even as he was just getting going. Stallone decided to make Rocky II, again directing as well as starring and writing. This proved another huge hit and cemented him as the biggest star of the next decade, particularly once he gained his other signature role as John Rambo. To date there have been eight films featuring Rocky Balboa as a character, and all of them are worthwhile to some degree, but it’s the first four films that constitute the most fiercely beloved portion of the series.

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Even in physical terms Stallone was a contradiction, his large limpid eyes and long, equine nose in his youth like an Italian princeling out of a renaissance portrait, jammed onto a stevedore’s frame. Rocky and Rambo became almost diametrically distinct yet closely joined concepts defining Stallone’s screen persona, the genial, covertly ferocious man rooted in community and the angry but stoic outsider, connected only by their gifts for mayhem, and embodying oddly complex and contradictory ways of conceiving patriotism. Rocky is carefully deployed as a figure out of a very specific enclave, the working-class Italian neighbourhoods of Philadelphia. Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa is introduced on a telling note in the opening scene of his first film, fighting Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), with Avildsen’s camera zooming back from a painted Jesus icon on the grimy venue wall to encompass the fighters in the ring below, immediately establishing a semi-ironic affinity: boxers bleed for the crowd’s sins, serving the function of sublimating and wielding the pent-up aggression of the fans and very occasionally rewarded by becoming a true faith. Rocky seems almost lackadaisical in the bout until Rico delivers a gash to his scalp that infuriates Rocky, and he pounds his opponent into the mat. From the start Rocky is characterised as a man whose real potency remains latent but impossible to repress once incited, an essentialised rendition of the self-image of a vast number of men.

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Pushing 30, Rocky’s problem isn’t that he lacked talent but seems to have missed the kind of kinetically exploited anger and will that fuels champions, as well as facing a general prejudice against left-handed “southpaw” boxers. Although he’s well-known and liked around town, Rocky has become a figure of familiarity to the point where his latest victory is met with the most casual interest. Even Rocky’s nominal trainer, gym owner and elderly former pug Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), is so unenthused by him now that despite his victory he strips him of his locker, a humiliation Rocky can scarcely be bothered protesting, Rocky makes his living working as a standover man for loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), but is such a soft touch he lets men he’s supposed to rough up go with partial payments. Rocky maintains a shambolic friendship with the rotund and resentful meat packer Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), and tries to charm Paulie’s painfully shy younger sister Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a pet store and sold Rocky his beloved turtles. As Rocky and Adrian stumble towards a relationship, Rocky receives a life-changing offer out of the blue, made by fight promoter Miles Jergens (Thayer David) on behalf of the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Desperate for an opponent after other contenders scurry for the woodwork and seeing the chance for a great publicity coup, Creed wants to take on a Philadelphia fighter as an exercise in Bicentennial showmanship, and chooses Rocky strictly for his great nickname, “Italian Stallion.”

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“Sounds like a monster movie,” Creed chuckles as the sound of the match-up, and certainly by the time the fourth and fifth instalments in the franchise rolled around many a wag felt sooner or later Rocky would take on Godzilla. But Rocky’s largely low-key, even ambling pace in its first two-thirds is matched to a stringent realism, and even the finale’s note of triumph is restrained by technical failure. Part of Stallone’s cunning lay in how carefully he rooted the drama in a sense of characters who prove much larger than they seem, battling those who generally prove much less awesome than they appear. Avildsen’s camera, with the great Bill Butler as DP, surveys grimy surrounds in that classic blotchy, moody 1970s colour. Paulie is Rocky if he lacked even a singular talent, used to feeling his flesh and spirit sag amidst the hanging meat carcasses, just as childlike as Rocky in some ways but with barbs, often verbally abusive to Adrian and erupting in shows of frustrated aggression. Adrian is deeply repressed and makes a bond with Rocky, as she compares the advice he often received, to work on his body because his mind was no good, to the opposite advice her own mother gave to her. The characters are adrift in a blue-collar environment that’s portrayed both in a harshly gritty fashion, filled with litter and crumbling infrastructure and patches of snow on wasteground, replete with seedy arenas for building and wasting flesh, and also extremely romantic, where everyone knows everybody and close-harmony singers hang about on street corners.

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Much of Rocky feels in close accord with Avildsen’s work on Save The Tiger, following around a character in near-picaresque encounters as he faces with sullen apprehension a moment in his life he experiences as pivotal even as it just seems to involve more of the same, the stern spiritual economics of persistence and taking punishment. The only real signal we’re not just watching something along the lines of early ‘70s bummers like J.W. Coop (1972) is at the outset as the title sweeps across the screen, Gone with the Wind-style, with Bill Conti’s instantly rousing trumpet fanfare resounding, clearly declaring we’re not just watching some bum roaming around Philly but setting the scene for an Olympian contest. Part of what makes the film work is how carefully Avildsen mediates the transition from the passive to the active as embodied by Rocky. The Rocky films would become beloved and mocked equally for their training montages, but Avildsen builds very slowly to such a point, first portraying Rocky’s early exercise efforts in laborious detail, scoffing down a glass full of raw eggs and heading out for jogs on frigid mornings. When Paulie first ushers Rocky into the abattoir and the boxer realises the potential for training by punching the meat carcasses, it comes with a sense of ponderous, punishing violence, Rocky’s knuckles left bloody and raw even as he works up the force to crack the ribs of the carcasses. A TV news crew shoots Rocky doing this, and Apollo’s canny trainer ‘Duke’ Evers (Tony Burton) watches with some apprehensive attention, but can’t attract Apollo’s interest.

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The ingenuity of Rocky as a character was in fusing his raw corporeal strength and fighting grit to a personality that’s eternally innocent, a goombah who knows what he is and yet constantly struggles to transcend it. A memorable vignette early in the first film sees Rocky trying to give a straight talk to a neighbourhood girl, Marie (Jodi Letizia), who hangs out with the rough local urchins. Rocky tries to illustrate the way reputations supplant actual people, until Marie tells him, “Screw you, creepo!”, and Rocky wanders away laughingly accosting himself with the insult. His attempts to strike a spark with Adrian nonetheless revolve around his rambling persistence, leading to a first date Paulie manipulates them into making. Gentle character comedy – Rocky gently pleads at Adrian’s bedroom door for her to consider coming out with him after she retreats in shock when Paulie springs the date on her, only for her to emerge entirely prepped for a night out – blends with a portrayal of tentative connection and finally painfully revealed need as Rocky bribes a Zamboni driver to let Adrian skate in an empty rink, before inviting Adrian into his shabby apartment. Adrian hesitates at the threshold before entering and almost dashes again as Rocky desperately appeals for her to stay, before the final melting clinch. Gloriously well-observed and trenchant as a distinctly unidyllic romance that is of course actually ideal, Rocky and Adrian’s coming together is also the subtle cue for other transformations about to spur Rocky towards greater things.

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As a character and conception, Rocky is a brilliantly definite creation standing in contrast to an irritating tendency in more recent heroic tales to make protagonists as blank and broadly worthy as possible. He’s offered as an example of a truism, that truly physically strong and imposing men often project a gentle persona. Rocky swiftly becomes as familiar as a friend in his traits and actions and reactions, his background and situation tangible, his specific mannerisms, his habits of talking around challenges and provocations and deflating verbal aggression and projection of earnest geniality that so strikingly contrasts the pith he unleashes in the ring. And yet he easily becomes an emblematic archetype. He’s there on screen readily accepting identification with anyone, anyone who’s been bullied or outcast, down and out, felt their potential waste and their souls wrung out, knowing they have the stuff to go the distance and only requiring one true chance. Rocky is again close to a secular Jesus in that regard, taking all the pops on the chin for us. Even in the most recent series entries, Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018), revolving around Rocky’s acting as trainer to Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), Rocky still dominates despite not being at the centre of the story because of what is by now the almost reflexive skill Stallone wields in inhabiting such a well-defined character, where the younger man is more defined by the things the filmmakers don’t want him to be.

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That’s especially frustrating as Apollo as inhabited by Weathers made for a surprisingly strong character too, one whose similarities to Rocky, and his differences, are totemic throughout the first four films. Many sports films negate opponents or present them as ripe assholes, and indeed that’s a direction the third and fourth episodes would readily turn in. Rocky’s grounding in the mid-‘70s zeitgeist also invoked some cultural animosities as well, with it all too easy to see Rocky as a great white hope thrown up against the juggernaut of black pride and power that Ali so forcefully identified with even whilst nimbly retaining his media star stature. Stallone quietly and cleverly deflates that sort of reading even if her perhaps still benefited from it, as he portrays Rocky watching Creed on TV in a bar. Apollo is gifted with a similar talent for media performance to Ali, and the bar owner grouchily and racially berates him as a clown, to Rocky’s offence: Rocky knows very well how good a boxer Apollo is, and offers him unqualified respect that’s oblivious to other issues. Clearly intended as an avatar for Ali, Apollo is nonetheless a rather different creature, apolitical and driven more by intense pride and ego and lacking any clear sense of communal grounding beyond his awareness that such clannishness can be financially exploited to make the match lucrative, envisioning himself as more an entrepreneur of sport than a rough-and-tumble warrior.

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One running theme of the series would become the problem of not simply achieving but avoiding the pitfalls of success. Apollo, as offered in the first two films, is not vilified but certainly embodies those pitfalls, stung to repeatedly try to swat the small Italian fly but failing to comprehend the danger lurking in a rival driven by naked hunger and spirit. Apollo’s fancy gyms and parade of sparring partners prove of less worth than the gritty, almost primal techniques Rocky and Mickey favour. Apollo’s great project in the first film is to exalt himself in the guise of patriotic celebration. He dresses up as George Washington crossing the Delaware as he enters the arena for the bout against Rocky. Apollo’s self-identification with America – he even wears stars-and-stripes shorts in the ring – carries schismatic import. His spectacle can be seen as black mockery of and subsuming of white patriotism in sectarian triumphalism, and at the same time a kind of democratic parable warning that the essence of American life is the underdog, not the fat-cat, and that regard the wheel’s always in spin as to who holds what role. Rocky IV would later signal that Apollo’s patriotic fervour isn’t facetious but rather entirely earnest, and his felling at the hands of the hulking Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is offered as a vivid metaphor for the bloodied American nose of Korea and Vietnam.

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It’s tempting to read the schism between Rocky and Apollo as Stallone wrestling with his own nature and contradictions, the canny, driven, conservative, self-made self-promoter and the struggling, belittled outsider, the arch professional and the man unsure of his place in the cultural firmament. Apollo’s slow transition from Rocky’s great foe to his pal and mentor and then finally as spurring martyr is an essential aspect of the classic quartet. The climactic bout of the first film sees Apollo shocked when Rocky knocks him down for the first time in his career, turning it from a lark to a proper fight, and soon the two men are delivering savage blows, Rocky cracking Apollo’s ribs and Apollo breaking Rocky’s proudly hawkish nose. The rematch, which sees Rocky finally, properly besting Apollo, still only comes by a thin margin after they knock each-other down and Rocky gets to his feet quicker. When Apollo steps up to train Rocky in Rocky III, he ushers Rocky out of the homey precincts of Philly to the even grittier climes of black Los Angeles, at last spotlighting the place Apollo clawed his way out of, and furthering a kind of cultural exchange in a tale of interracial cooperation, even as the uneasy Paulie makes such witticisms as, “You can’t train him liked a colored fighter, he ain’t got no rhythm.”

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The closeness of Rocky and Apollo in prowess and talent is underlined again at the end of Rocky II as Rocky wins by the narrowest of margins, as the two men knock each-other to the ground and Rocky is able to get to his feet. The motif of their close-matched machismo is finally brought to a comedic head at the very end of the third film as they arrange a secret bout far away from media purely to satisfy themselves as to who’s the best, the film fading out on a freeze-frame of the two launching mirroring punches at each-other. Rocky’s eventual amity with Apollo contrasts his fractious relationship with Paulie, who browbeats his sister and wields a baseball bat around the living room in unleashing his toxic mixture of resentment and anger aimed at others but really conveying his own self-loathing. Mickey as a character, and Meredith’s scenery-chewing bravura in the part, was one of Stallone’s plainest attempts to recapture old Hollywood flavour: the gruff and grizzled old-timer played by one, armed with folkloric traditions and disdain for hype, resplendent in wool cap and coming armed with theatrically worn hearing aid.

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As with Rocky’s friendship with Paulie, sharp undercurrents of anger and frustration define Rocky’s ultimately paternal relationship with Mickey, who answers when Rocky finally snaps and demands to know why Mickey rides him so much, that Rocky had real promise but never capitalised on it. Mickey nonetheless tracks him down to his apartment after learning of the arranged fight and offering to share his wisdom, cueing a scene of pathos as Mickey digs out ancient, yellowed newspaper cuttings recounting his great bouts in a distant past, whilst Rocky, still smouldering in resentment for the old man, ignores him and then chases him out of the building with his bellows, frustration and resentment finally released, before finally dashing out to catch Mickey and agreeing to the partnership. Mickey’s death in Rocky III comes shortly after he reveals to Rocky he’s tried to keep him away from truly dangerous opponents, an act blending aspects of care and treachery, as it only put off the moment when Rocky would have to truly test his champion standing and deepest resources of courage.

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Rocky’s shot at success is nonetheless closely entwined in narrative and character progression with his relationship with Adrian, one arming him and inspiring him with new potency for the other, and the first film’s iconic ending as Rocky and Adrian embrace in obliviousness to the bout’s technical outcome. Shire was perfectly cast as the apparently mousy woman who proves Rocky’s equal when she finally unleashes on Paulie and remains, despite interludes of fear, her mate’s rock-solid supporter. Another matchless aspect of the film’s power was Bill Conti’s score, with Rocky’s fanfare resembling Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and the driving theme “Gonna Fly Now,” a rather oddball piece of film music in fusing big orchestral sweep matched to choral vocals and touches of pop, soul, and rock, a multigeneric stew that perfectly articulates the film’s celebration of American alchemy. As the moment of the fight approaches, Rocky’s renewed verve and fight-ready prowess breaks into clear ground, dynamically illustrated in one of the most famous, copied, and lampooned sequences in cinema, as Avildsen depicts Rocky pushing his body to new heights in a montage of exercises, climaxing in him running through the streets on a cold Philadelphia morning, past smoke-billowing factories and railway lines and along streets piled with garbage, the lean and fluid intensity of Rocky’s new body contrasting the blight all about him.

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There’s a touch of genius in the way this sequence converts the film’s driving ideas into thrilling visual statements. Rocky jogging with bricks in hand with the rising sun behind as Bill Conti’s heroic fanfare rings out suggest the birth of new tidings. Avildsen films Stallone running along the waterfront, a sailing ship moored in the background as if mindful of an immigrant nation’s seaborne past, Rocky suddenly picking up speed as if the further he goes the more power he becomes, before making his iconic dash up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Variations on this sequence would inevitably recur in most of the subsequent films. One difference between the first iteration of this scene and the later ones however is the aspect of sarcasm in Rocky’s postures of triumph as he reaches the summit and dances before the dawn, Stallone deftly showing even in such an unimpeachably inspiring moment that Rocky knows very well he’s still just one lone man play-acting his triumph. The most joyous and effective variation comes in Rocky II where Rocky this time is pursued through the streets by a horde of young fans cheering him as he makes his dash, the lone warrior now folk hero.

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The climactic bout of Rocky is no elegant ballet of technique but instead an intense slugfest Rocky forces Apollo to participate in, a dialogue not just of duelling personalities but ways of comprehending life through action, taking cues less from Ali’s match with Wepner or event the near-mystical artistry of the Rumble in the Jungle than his notoriously grim brawls with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier. Apollo still wins the first fight by a split decision, but it’s Rocky who emerges as the hero. Rocky II takes off immediately after the first film as Rocky and Apollo are both rushed to hospital to recover, where Rocky asks Apollo if he gave him his best and Apollo replies that he did. Rocky enjoys the fruits of his success but spends his purse quickly and unwisely, and because of damage to one of his eyes he doesn’t want to fight again. Rocky is soon reduced to working in the same meat plant as Paulie, whilst Adrian goes back to the pet shop despite being heavily pregnant. Paulie prospers in taking over Rocky’s old beat as Gazzo’s debt collector, and buys Rocky’s beloved sports car off him after Rocky gets sacked from the plant. Apollo, increasingly stung by a general belief Rocky really won the fight, decides to goad his foe back into the ring, provocations both Rocky and Mickey eventually feel are too cruel to ignore.

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Rocky II sees Stallone nudging the material into a zone where what was previously earnest, convincing, and low-key began to give way to shtick and formula, and trying many a broad ploy to make Rocky seem even more likeable and straightforwardly good. The former standover man is now playing with kids in the street and begging for blessings from the old Italian local priest. What would soon become the ritualised killing-off of familiar, beloved characters for the requisite emotional juice was presaged when Adrian falls into a coma when there are complications with her pregnancy, intensifying Rocky’s unease in returning to fighting. This climaxes in a happily corny hair-on-your-neck moment when, after awakening and with their son Robert Jnr safely born, Adrian asks one thing of Rocky: “Win.” The second match-up of Apollo and Rocky proves a radically different affair as Mickey has trained Rocky to fight in right-hand style in order to protect his eye, only to unleash his pulverising left hooks in the last round to finally claim victory. The climactic bouts in the first three sequels have a similar shape as Rocky absorbs intense punishment much as he and his loved-ones feared, only for Rocky to gain strength as his foes cannot keep him down, and soon he’s actively taunting them with their failure and luring them into self-destructive overreach.

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Rocky made Stallone but to a certain extent proved a millstone for Avildsen, who was changed forever from a maker of artful character studies to a director constantly tapped for his ability to make rah-rah narratives work, in subsequent efforts like three Karate Kid films, Lean on Me (1989), The Power of One (1992), and Eight Seconds (1994). Avildsen only returned to Rocky for 1990’s lumpy, if perhaps undervalued Rocky V, which more or less took the series full circle. Rocky II clearly saw Stallone claiming full auteur status in the series, and meditating on his breakthrough success and folk heroic standing, and the difficulties negotiating with it. Rocky’s fast ascent and equally quick descent mimic Stallone’s immediate experience, and the film sustains the honest emotional tone of the first film by feeling palpably rueful in this regard, as well as asking the right questions about how a guy like Rocky would sustain himself after such a life twist. Stallone portrays Rocky attempting to earn money through appearing in commercials but failing because he’s a poor reader and can’t work off cue cards, which feels like a pointed dramatic translation of Stallone’s own difficulties in being taken seriously as an actor after overcoming his facial tic. Despite being a relatively green director Stallone proved himself entirely capable of mimicking and augmenting Avildsen’s style, although the film has an odd, slouchy pace at points.

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Rocky III and IV are by contrast tighter, flashier bits of filmmaking, almost to a fault, with Stallone knowing well that the essentials of the characters are now so locked down he doesn’t need to waste too much time reiterating them. If the first Rocky is the “good” movie in terms of its modest and substantial intensity, then Rocky III is the highpoint of the series as pop entertainment, the most emblematic and purely enjoyable, for several reasons. Before he got a bit too montage-happy on Rocky IV, Stallone here grasped the way Avildsen’s montage work could take a lot of narrative weight: like its heroes, once the breaks into clear ground, it can just get on with things in the most kinetic and visually fluid fashion. One vital new flourish was the Chicago rock band Survivor’s gleefully cheesy, thumping new anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” played over an opening montage showing Rocky’s successful defences of his title, interspersed with vignettes showing Rocky becoming a newly slick and confident player, now even readily making credit card commercials. Another was casting former bodyguard Lawrence ‘Mr. T’ Tureaud as the fearsome new contender, ‘Clubber’ Lang, a verbally aggressive and ferociously physical boxer.

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If Apollo represented a depoliticised, well-scrubbed take on Ali’s popular image, Lang seems more like a compendium of the less charitable caricatures of Ali, actively contemptuous of opponents and wrapping his colossal ego and resentment in coded race resentment: “This country wants to keep me down,” he declares in picking a fight with Rocky, “They don’t want to have a man like me to have the title!” He also sharply contrasts both Rocky and Apollo like the embodiment of their own dark sides. Where both of them have more or less defeated the aspects of their fighting drive like resentment and anger over their roots and experiences of classism and racism, Lang weaponises both as part of his annihilating persona. Rocky is doubly spurred because Mickey keels over and dies from a heart attack amidst the convulsive tension and furore before Rocky takes on the feral contender, long in the offing but finally provoked by Lang’s behaviour, and he then loses his match-up with Lang partly because of his worry for Mickey as well as from losing his edge. Apollo steps into the breach to train Rocky, taking him to Los Angeles to learn in the environs that made Apollo. This time around, Stallone’s personal metaphors highlight his awareness that stretching out the series risked turning it cartoonish – not that that stopped him – as Rocky is first glimpsed battling giant wrestler Thunderlips (Terry ‘Hulk Hogan’ Bollea). The rest of the film’s angst over whether Rocky really still deserves champion presages Stallone’s efforts to try and prove himself a lasting star beyond the character, and his difficulty in finding good vehicles beyond Rocky and Rambo would dog him long after.

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Rocky III’s narrative proper opens with Stallone tracking a drunk and dispirited Paulie around the old neighbourhood, getting himself jailed for smashing a pinball machine with Rocky’s face on it. Rocky comes to bail him out and after insulting and trying to punch him Paulie finally asks him point-blank for a job, and Rocky readily agrees. This vignette has a box-ticking aspect to it but also carries a sharp sense of the way success radically changes relationships and also how it can make great life problems much less complex, and so even as the series becomes more crowd-pleasing and fantastical it retains a sense of how personality and sociology combine. Stallone’s wonderfully slick style on Rocky III verges occasionally on self-satire, particularly as Rocky and Apollo train together with lots of long, luscious close-ups of their heaving muscles and emphasis on their friendly rivalry that it borders on soft-core interracial homoeroticism, reaching an apogee when Rocky finally beats Apollo in a footrace and they splash about together in the surf. Given that Rocky and Adrian’s relationship has by this time become fixed in stone, their relationship is much less vivid and central, although Adrian is given a crucial speech as she helps Rocky leave behind his lingering guilt and fear and again lends him new velocity.

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In Rocky III the climactic bout isn’t one about the fighting spirit of great boxers but a quest to slay a particularly vicious dragon. Rocky this time unwaveringly returns Lang’s gorgonizing stare, and after taking and shrugging off a few of Lang’s most lethal blows Rocky expertly turns his foe’s size and ferocity against him by revealing new staying power as well as refined strength and nimbleness, and then pounding him to pieces. In Rocky IV, Rocky’s resurgence and evolution are complete, now a rich and widely loved man, slicker in speech and confident in the world with Adrian and young Robert at his side. It’s Apollo who’s facing frustration in retirement that finds an outlet when Drago, visiting the US with his smug Soviet apparatchik manager Nicolai Koloff (Michael Pataki) and his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), provokes his patriotic pride. Apollo arranges a match-up against Drago, although the Soviets want to fight Rocky, only for Apollo to receive a fatal beating from the Russian hulk. Determined to avenge his friend and take up the symbolic contest, Rocky agrees to head to the USSR to fight Drago despite Adrian’s certainty he’ll end up like Apollo, taking Duke with him and this time training in the harsh Russian landscape.

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With Rocky IV Stallone leaned into the notion that his kind of resurgent Hollywood blockbuster was a weapon in endgame Cold War cultural contest, something many critics and commentators saw as inherent in the re-emergence of morally straightforward and expensive B movies as the Reagan era ascended. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984) had already explicitly revised Stallone’s other alter ego from outcast warrior at odds with his own society, rooted in the waning Vietnam-age angst, to avenging angel settling old scores with arrogant external enemies, underlining and even perhaps helping to author a shifted zeitgeist. Rocky, as Stallone’s more conscientious persona, tackled the same idea more generously. Rocky IV is perhaps the film most emblematic of a popular concept of a 1980s movie, replete with repeated montages offering music video-like inserts that provide visual emotional shorthand, complete with one in which Rocky drives his car at night whilst conjuring up demonic visions of a strobe-lit Drago. Rocky is reborn as a yuppie who buys a pet robot for Paulie, and now turns his attention from domestic struggle to geopolitical forums. Now Rocky’s fighting pith needs blood sacrifice to bring it to the boil.

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Drago is offered as the near-monstrous incarnation of a paranoid American concept of Soviet prowess, scrubbed of emotion and human frailty, trained with space-aged precision and liberal doses of steroid, his face festooned on huge Stalinesque propaganda banners: the übermensch as state project. Drago’s wife, with her hair short-cropped and blonde like his, suggests a slightly different model of cyborg. Clearly by this point the series had lost a great deal of touch with its initially earthy sensibility and had embraced a new, campy, high-style approach. And yet there’s still a strand of the old thoughtfulness, as Stallone alternates Drago and Rocky’s perspectives as fighters plunged into disorienting new arenas filled with dazzling lights and surrounded by forms of hoopla they don’t quite understand. Before his fight with Apollo, Drago is depicted as solitary and bewildered amidst the splashy pre-bout show featuring James Brown and Vegas showgirls, and Apollo prancing about dressed as Uncle Sam. Rocky by contrast stumbles out into an arena filled with booing Commies and the full spectacle of political import as a Gorbachev lookalike and other Presidium members settle to watch the presumed inevitable victory of their man. Stallone portrays the cold war antagonists as studies in clashing aesthetics, first signalled in the credits as two boxing bloes emblazoned with their national liveries collide and explode, and then reiterated, Americana seen as gaudy, flashy, vulgar, and lively, Soviet spirit as monumental, monolithic, and possibly more potent in its lack of such wooliness.

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The contrast is illustrated most vividly as Stallone returns to the classic training montage but this time intercutting Rocky’s exertions with Drago’s. The Soviet man is ensconced in futuristic gyms and tested with machines as well as injections of mad-scientist drug cocktails, whilst Rocky gets down and dirty in the world of a Russian peasant, running along frozen roads, hefting about farm equipment, and finally dashing up mountain flanks to bellow out his foe’s name in vengeful intent. Stallone’s showmanship is at a height of glorious absurdity here, inflating the notion of real manliness as the product of toil rather than calculation to the nth degree. There’s also a ghost of topical commentary on the general suspicion that Eastern Bloc countries had been using performance enhancing drugs on athletes for years before sports organisations began actively stamping it out. Ultimately, though, Rocky IV’s method keeps it from being as deft as the third film as the montages pile up and the dramatics prove largely supernal and rote. Adrian quickly makes up with Rocky and lets him get back to his push-ups, and the death of Apollo, a singular galvanic figure in the franchise, is quickly left behind. It’s also rather tempting to see Rocky IV’s subtext as less political parable and more a portrayal of Stallone’s amused anxiety at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent emergence as a rival bemuscled action star: Drago is essentially a stand-in for the Terminator and Lundgren’s mock-Slavic drawl evokes Schwarzenegger’s accent.

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Ironies abound around Rocky IV: as the shortest and formulaic of the films, one that even commits the crime of omitting Conti’s key themes, it’s also perhaps the most fiercely loved for its hyperbolic purity. The basic notion driving the series, the relatively little guy taking on an intimidating enemy and finding it vulnerable, is pushed to its limit as Rocky gets into the ring with the towering Lundgren, who delivers his inimitable threat, “I must break you,” with haughty dispassion, and Rocky goes through his a-man’s-gotta-do paces with grim commitment. Rocky finally impresses the Russian audience so profoundly they start cheering for him, proving crowds everywhere love an underdog. This in turn so infuriates the frustrated Drago he finally exposes himself as a failure by both communist principles and sporting ones as he angrily tells the audience he fights for himself. Rocky finally flattens him and then delivers a conciliatory message, in his own inimitable fashion, based in the changes in his attitude to the crowd and vice versa mean that “everyone can change.”

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It’s both absurd and entirely fitting that Rocky turns his big lug charm and intrinsic humanism to defusing political tensions and forging national outreach, with the fadeout on the image of Rocky literally wrapped in the American flag. The next four films in the Rocky-Creed saga would commit to reining in the pop-movie excess of Rocky IV to a more quotidian frame again, eventually seeing Rocky resettled as a fairly average Joe back in his old neighbourhood, after being nearly bankrupted by a corrupt accountant in Rocky V. Turning to training, the fifth film sees Rocky foster a young fighter who then betrays him, leading to a literal street fight between the two men Rocky manage to win. The middle-aged and widowed Rocky returned for a surprisingly good show of battling a champion in a gimmick bout in Rocky Balboa (2006), and even revisited the Drago legacy in Creed II with a newly shaded sense of generational suffering and anger. As a series the films have half-accidentally become something unusual, a portrait of a character and the actor playing him marching through the stages of life, steadily losing his loved-ones but gaining new ones as well. This fits well with Rocky’s symbolic cachet. But it’s hard not to wish the series, and life, could’ve ended with Rocky at his peak, the guy who always has one last pile-driving punch to aim at fate’s chin.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Greek cinema, War

The Travelling Players (1975)

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O Thiassos

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Director/Screenwriter: Theodoros Angelopoulos

By Roderick Heath

Until his accidental death in 2012, Theodoros Angelopoulos was regarded as one of the best filmmakers in the world, and stood as the dominant figure of Greek cinema since the mid-1970s. Angelopoulos was also the embodiment of an ideal of cinema quite different to the usual, as a maker of slow, disorienting, heartrending portraits of national histories, replete with long takes and languorous camera movements that made Andrei Tarkovsky look like Michael Bay. Angelopoulos would only admit to two main influences, Orson Welles and Kenji Mizoguchi. His approach arguably also took up where Hungarian master Miklos Jancso left off in experimenting with staging action before the camera as a series of carefully choreographed, expressive tableaux on films like Red Psalm (1972), although Angelopoulos’s detached, wandering camera matched to variably lost and assailed characters was ultimately quite different to Jancso’s dance-like synergies. Directors who have clearly absorbed and experimented with Angelopoulos’s style include people as different as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alexander Sokurov, and Alfonso Cuaron. Originally a law student, after a stint of military service and a spell at the Sorbonne Angelopoulos switched to studying film, and after a stint working as a film critic for a socialist newspaper upon returning to Greece, made his feature directing debut with Reconstitution (1970). Days of ’36 (1972) marked the first of the several themed trilogies in his oeuvre, leading the “trilogy of history” which would also encompass The Travelling Players and The Hunters (1977).

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Amongst his later films, Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) would take on the then-raging war in the former Yugoslavia. Angelopoulos was reportedly infuriated by being beaten out by Emir Kusturica’s similarly-themed Underground for the Palme d’Or that year, but as if in compensation Eternity And A Day took the top prize three years later. Angelopoulos’ early career coincided with the infamous “Regime of the Colonels,” the military dictatorship that descended upon Greece in 1967, a year before he shot his first short film, and ended just before The Travelling Players was released. That experience galvanised Angelopoulos’ leftist politics and determination to depict through art the history of dislocation, oppression, and violence that had gripped Greece and its region for much of the mid-twentieth century. Greece, long before it became the poster child for first world economic blight following the Global Financial Crisis in the past decade, had suffered badly from tides of history, particularly during the Nazi occupation of World War II and the period immediately after, when it became a proxy battleground for superpowers as Britain and the US backed efforts to suppress Communist partisans during an intermittent civil conflict, and the concurrent diaspora of people fleeing the country.

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Angelopoulos circled back to the period for his second-last completed film, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004), acknowledging how deep the wounds of that time still ran in the national psyche, whilst some of his other works dealt with the bemusement of people of his generation before younger inheritors. Days of ’36 had dealt with the pre-war regime of Ioannis Metaxas, who rose to power and tried to model his authoritarian regime on Mussolini’s. The Travelling Players, whilst nominally commencing in 1953, quickly and invisibly circles back to the waning days of the Metaxas regime and the start of country’s war with Fascist Italy. The film commences with one of Angelopoulos’ essential images, of a group of random people standing by their suitcases, avatars of all those dumped by history. In this case, however, the group are professionally itinerant, the actors of the title, a company who specialise in performing the 1893 pastoral verse drama Golfo the Shepherdess, in search of a stage. A snatch of voiceover explains that the ranks of the players have changed since before the war, with younger actors taking the place of those missing, but as they walk through the town of Aegion on the way to their lodgings they move back in time, so the players are essentially now playing the people whose roles they subsumed.

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The troupe pass by banners and boosters pumping up the post-war government of Alexandros Papagos, but by the time they arrive in the town centre, a man on a motorcycle is announcing Goebbels’ arrival on diplomatic mission, some fifteen years earlier. The players settle into the city playhouse and begin rehearsing, with young Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) uncertainly steps into her mother’s shoes in playing Golfo. During the night Electra wanders the courtyard, catching sight of her mother Clytemnestra (Aliki Georgouli) in bed with her lover, Aegisthos (Vangelis Kazan), who is also the troupe’s token fascist, whilst her brother Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) returns from military service and joins with his father Agamemnon (Stratos Pahis) and fellow actor Pylades (Kiriakos Katrivanos) in anticipating Communist resistance to Metaxas. Pylades usually plays Golfo the Shepherdess’s romantic lead, the shepherd Tassos, although Orestes sometimes takes the role when he’s with the troupe. An old woman (Nina Papazaphiropoulou) is the company’s repository of old folk songs, whilst an old man (Giannis Fyrios) is their accordion-squeezing accompanist. Clashing displays of allegiances occur as some fascist militiamen drill outside the playhouse whilst the troupe breakfast; Pylades is irritated and Aegisthos responds by standing on the table and singing a fascist anthem. Soon after, some plainclothes policemen turn up at a performance, chase Pylades, beat him in the street, and drag him away to exile.

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As the character names signal, The Travelling Players borrows a loose narrative structure by hinging on a variation on the legends that were the basis for Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, in which the children of Agamemnon avenged their father’s murder by their mother and her lover by slaying them both. Angelopoulos initially conceived of this structure as a way to fool the dictatorship’s censors as to what kind of film he was making. Such fragments of plot are used less to engage on the traditional level of psychological analysis and dramatic impetus than to provide occasional, recognisable landmarks to orientate by. It resonates on several levels, nonetheless, as the characters are obliged to fill roles in the eternal roundelay of Greek political life, a clash of schematic political outlooks payed out inevitably and brutally on a domestic level: the actors inhabit social and historical entities and exemplars as well as ephemeral identities. The mighty tradition of Greek theatre is likewise invoked, although the players themselves offer less exalted fare. The play the troupe dedicates their lives to playing reflects a romanticised evocation of the Greek landscape and pastoral stereotypes, albeit one that ends with bodies piled up in tragic fashion. The constant interruption and despoiling that afflicts attempts to stage Golfo the Shepherdess become the closest thing Angelopoulos offers to a running joke, albeit one that sets up an essential aspect of his art. During the first performance, some fascist goons swoop across the stage to bundle up Pylades. During the second, an air raid breaks out. A third sees two people shot dead on stage, life and art virtually indistinguishable.

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Angelopoulos’ characters don’t dominate or compel the story in the traditional sense. They’re mostly witnesses to and fools of fortune in the midst of an age of horror. The early scene where Angelopoulos’ camera roves the playhouse courtyard establishes his peculiar, elusive aesthetic, as Electra is glimpsed wandering about disconsolately, noticing her father left alone in his bed and weeping after following sounds of sexual passion until she sees her mother in bed with Aegisthos. We’re immersed in a little nocturnal universe where the feel for setting – the creaking wood of the building and sheltered nooks and vantages apt for a play in themselves – is as important as the people wandering about it in their little zones of sullen anger and passion. And yet every scene is charged with invocation of a specific emotional state, an overarching weltschmerz occasionally interrupted by flashes of absurdity and collective joy. The Travelling Players is as much a poetic attempt to recapture the flavour of the Greece of Angelopoulos’s childhood as it is a portrait of that past’s drama, so he sensitises the viewer to ephemeral experiences as when Agamemnon delivers a lengthy, weary-souled monologue whilst seated in a trundling, rattling, damp-ridden railway carriage. Agamemnon’s monologue recounts his exile as a young man from his birthplace in Ionia during the advance of Turkish nationalists, when he was separated from his family and never saw them again, instead finding a place in Greece as a refugee.

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The use of the antiquated device of the monologue, which recurs several more times in the film, each time with a different character, is another of Angelopoulos’ nods to the metatheatrical. He usually employs it to fill the viewer in on specific incidents that define both the experiences of his characters and also the history he’s portraying. Agamemnon invokes the tragedies of the 1922 war with the Turks; later Electra describes the “Dekemvriana” street clashes that helped spark the Civil War. Pylades recounts the brutality dealt out to him and other prisoners. Notably, Clytemnestra, who delivers the first in the film, meditates instead not on such worldly business but on days when Orestes was a boy who needed her, a far cry from her current situation as glorified vagabond with her husband and her lover, and whose daughters who hate her, ranks Orestes will soon enough join. When Agamemnon joins the army to fight the Italians, she laughs at the sight of him in a uniform until he slaps her in anger. Momentarily shocked, she splays out on their bed as if wishing him to fuck her, perhaps more in taunting than in invitation; he storms out angrily instead and Aegisthos uses it as the right moment to properly lay claim to her. After the Nazis intervene on the Italians’ behalf and occupy the country, Agamemnon joins the burgeoning resistance, as does Orestes and Pylades. Some German soldiers raid the playhouse in the night and make a show of searching for a supposed English soldier but instead net Agamemnon: Electra realises her mother and Aegisthos ratted him out to get rid of him once and for all.

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Around these events Angelopoulos stages many of his signature sequences emphasising communal rather than individual experience. When the ragged band that is the player troupe makes one of their periodic returns to Aegion, they are amused to be caught up in a celebratory street parade during the surge of patriotic zeal upon the start of the war with the Italians. Angelopoulos films citizens marching along the beach in a show of unity before winding through the city streets, waving flags and singing en masse. Such shows of mass demonstration recur throughout the film but in fatefully smaller, partisan bands, with a rising sense of menace as a threat of violence lurks behind every gesture. Angelopoulos shoots much of the film very early in the morning, with a chilly blue light in the air and pinkish hues in the clouds. This seems a choice in part to take advantage of the empty city streets as Angelopoulos choreographs his complex shows of communal action, but he also seems clearly in love with the raw, world-being-born atmosphere. As the war takes a firmer grip and an authoritarian mood reasserts itself, Electra is followed in the street by an officer who follows her into the playhouse and attacks her with arrogant prerogative. Electra fends him off by ordering him to strip of as by way of an erotic overture: in a hilarious vignette, Angelopoulos films him as get completely naked and stands in macho confidence, only to shamefully cover his genitals when Electra suddenly turns and leaves him alone, all his power stolen.

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This scene soon has its antistrophe of humiliation as transaction, as wartime privation bites hard. To get a bottle of wine for the troupe to share for dinner, Electra’s younger sister Chrysothemis (Maria Vassiliou) strips down and sings for a rich merchant with a large wine cellar as he masturbates in a rocking chair. As she leaves his house he’s promptly shot dead by a pair of resistance fighers, and Chrysothemis returns to place the bottle of wine on the table in perfect calm, well used already to the surreal twists of fate defining their lives. Angelopoulos even gives this moment a flourish of theatrical underlining as he pulls the camera back through the troupe’s painted rustic scenery. As the troupe assemble to leave Aeginos for the season, Angelopoulos films them from a high vantage as they sing a bawdy song with renewed spirits, descending a winding road amidst a snow-crusted landscape. But the moment of cheer is instantly dispelled as they’re confronted by bodies hung from a tree; dispirited and famished, the players are reduced to trying to catch a solitary chicken they spy on the snow, a moment of astounding deadpan comedy. The players fare no better once they board a bus, which gets pulled over by German soldiers, and all the passengers into an old fort they use as an encampment, plainly intending the execute them as retaliation for partisan attacks. Another note of bleak humour resounds as Aegisthos advances from the pack of prisoners, pleading in fractured German, “Me comrade!”

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Fortunately a raid by partisans forestalls a massacre and the prisoners sprint away whilst the warriors fight, although Angelopoulos doesn’t shift his camera’s gaze from a rough-hewn brick wall, conveying the fight instead with sound and flashing explosions. Angelopoulos even seems to have a totemic fascination with that wall, as a stand-in for the many such backdrops used for firing squads during the course of the war. As dawn rises on the ruins, the freed prisoners linger in fatigue and confusion, until partisans and demonstrators flood into the place, celebrating the departure of the Germans: the Nazi flag is dumped in the harbour, and the populace gathers in the town square in a show of political unity, flags of various allegiances waved until a bomb explodes, and a street battle between different factions erupts, Nazis, Communists, liberals, and Allied forces. The players are still stranded amidst all this, sneaking through the streets and trying to get back to the playhouse, cowering and avoiding the various battles, exchanges of gunfire accompanied by bellowed anthems. As they reach the beachfront the players are stopped by a patrol of British soldiers, who seem at first threatening as they search the players. The British, realising they’re dealing with actors, get them to stage Golfo the Shepherdess and provide a grateful audience on the beach sand, and even reciprocate by providing a rousing chorus of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.” But the happy moment is interrupted as a sniper shoots one of the soldiers dead.

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Interruption, as evinced in this scene, is an essential motif in The Travelling Players, as first introduced through the disruptions to the play and bleeding into life. Moments where nascent connection and outbreaks of festivity promising fertile times seem possible are rudely and cruelly terminated by eruptions of violence and volatility. Rather than the end of strife, the liberation proves to be the moment for repaying old debts and hatching out long-delayed projects. Electra heads out to find Orestes, who is hiding with some fellow Communist partisans, and brings him back to the playhouse to execute justice upon Clytemnestra and Aegisthos. This is a literal moment in the drama but also one that reverberates metaphorically, as the young Greeks attempt a political exorcism of their state by wiping out the corrupt generation, just as their legendary forbears strived to prove themselves worthy of their lineage and to enforce cosmic justice, even as they invite the same force to fall upon them. Confronting them on stage during performance, Orestes shoots them both dead. The audience, thinking all this is part of the performance, delivers rapturous applause: all barriers between performance and life, political theatre and standard drama, are dissolved.

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Electra’s description of the Dekemvriana reports, by contrast, identifies a stage-managed aspect to seemingly random and chaotic events, accusing the British commander, Alistair Scobie, of contriving a clash between left and right factions to spark war and justify intervention. Angelopoulos’ analysis of history revolves a similar line of inquiry to one Luchino Visconti pursued on The Leopard (1963), as he tries to comprehend why his country seemed doomed to see history repeat and the chance for genuine popular government constantly stymied. He diagnoses it as lurking behind a pretence to freedom that’s actually carefully doctored: democracy is acceptable as long as democracy doesn’t choose a radical alternative. Angelopoulos’ least subtle side is his political facet, entirely understandable given the moment of the film’s making as The Travelling Players mediates a baleful attitude of accusation and displaced rage. But Angelopoulos mediates it with his sense of humanity. His fascists, radicals, and foreign interventionists are all entirely human, often sympathetic in moments of absurdity or vulnerability: all become victims to a certain extent. The course of the age is etched upon Electra’s face as she becomes ever more stern and cold.

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The relative minimalism of The Travelling Players as visual experience – it contains only about 80 distinct shots spread over its nearly four-hour running time – is belied to a great extent by the vitality Angelopoulos achieves with camera mobility and staging, albeit a vitality that leaves the viewer unmoored at times. The distance between actors and camera and absence of dialogue niceties renders some players hard to identify. Most directors give clear identification of players and subdivide sequences with a multiplicity of shots and edits to construct context; Angelopoulos’ stand-offish approach beholds all but also leaves the viewer to scramble to construct context. Part of this is a result of Angelopoulos’s desire to unify theme with style. He’s portraying a national experience and his characters are merely localisations of that experience, although they’re allowed to register sharply as beings of behaviour. Their experience is one of constant disorientation and shock as the rules of their existence are constantly rewritten on the fly.

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This is an expressive universe always in flux, desperately trying to find form and locus, but so often failing. Even when the scene falls becalmed, the effect conjures a constant sense of anxious anticipation. The restlessness of the aesthetic doesn’t entirely find resolve until the very last shot, but that shot also signifies another link in an ouroboros chain. The build-up to the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos is one of the great movie sequences, as Angelopoulos precedes Electra and her summoned assassins through the streets with an epic tracking shot, a noirish scene where light and dark are at war and the aim not entirely clear until the climax is reached. Electra advances with a grim and steady pace, like a gunfighter, but the actual gunmen scurry through the shadows. The tension is punctured by a gang of gleeful revellers spilling out a tavern and dancing in the street: inchoate eruptions of joy are just as capable of intruding upon acts of evil as vice versa, but not as able to head them off. This is the sort of touch Angelopoulos often employs to escape the aridness that sometimes afflicts directors who mimic his style.

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After achieving her revenge, Electra enters her mother’s room and puts on her blood-red nightgown, as if now assuming the role of matriarch and temptress at once. The price Electra pays proves to be cruel, as heavies wearing suits and clown masks arrive and take her captive. As with the shot of the brickwork ruins, a scene in which right-wing punishers come to drag Electra away has come off sees Angelopoulos linger on an empty foyer, listening to rather than looking at the assault: the portrayal of intrusion and assault is intensified in an unexpected fashion. Fascist pals of Aegisthos knowing full well Electra and Orestes killed him and her mother, the gang hold Electra splayed on the floor of a deserted café and rape her, demanding she tell them where Orestes is. Electra holds out despite her brutalisation, and she’s dumped on the outskirts of town. Picking herself up, Electra launches into her monologue. Well before she marries, Chrysomethis takes her leave of the troupe, pausing to share a long, charged, searching look with her sister across a hallway, making it plain that Electra’s killing of their mother was a step too far for her sister; meanwhile, echoing up from below is a schoolboy’s lesson in Greek history evoking heroic moments of the long-gone days of rebellion against the Turks.

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The use of actors as the linchpin of Angelopoulos’ parable invokes artistic culture as one aspect of national identity, its perpetuation and also its mutability, as the various players are obliged to play new parts in accord with the changing times. The players sustain a version of Greece in their work that’s scarcely related to the Greece they live in, although the notes of high-flown romanticism and personal tragedy glimpsed in it certainly still seem to engage with the general spirit of place: it’s a place always torn between spectacular vistas of the soul and squalid traps of the flesh. The troupe also specialises in singing folk songs and performance styles that maintain appeal to an audience that needs them identify themselves. Chrysomethis’ song before the furiously wanking merchant even seems to register an erotic dimension to that shared imbuing of identity, as she assumes the ironic part of the eternal innocent Golfo, the sweet young thing at once left intact but also reconfigured as masturbatory idol. Such cultural totems are definers of national inclusion, even if sometimes they threaten to also become its tombstones, markers of a fixed and unyielding canon that cannot evolve. The Communists in the troupe are pals with an exiled Spanish poet (Grigoris Evangelatos). Electra and Pylades visit him late in the film, and listen to him pining for his own nation lost to fascist hegemony, with an underlying suggestion that the poet is always an exile, from the past, from idylls, from unrealised ways of being.

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Late in the film a clash of cultures that could also create synthesis is deftly described as Chrysothemis marries an American soldier. The troupe celebrate with his fellow soldiers at a reception on the beach. The elders of the troupe insist on singing a traditional wedding song, a song the Yank’s jazz-playing pals insist on taking up and radically changing, much to the bewilderment and displacement of the elders. This vignette signals Angelopoulos understands transformations are inevitable, but he also feels for the offended spirit of the classical culture as well as that of the moment, which is represented by Chrysothemis’ adolescent son, who sits silent and surly through the wedding ceremony in fuming resentment for his mother marrying one of many invaders he’s seen in his short life. Finally he stands and drags the tablecloth off, walking down the beach with the cloth trailing behind him like the forlorn standard of a defeated cause. The notion of culture as warzone recurs throughout particularly as the various political camps constantly communicate, disseminate, and clash through their songs. Angelopoulos keeps in mind the way such songs, delivered lustily by choruses of massed faithful, help keep political movements rooted in the culture about them and unifies them with shared reflexes.

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The Civil War zeitgeist is illustrated when Angelopoulos presents a scene in a dance hall where the patrons eventually split into two camps and begin duelling with songs, a scene that presents an eloquent lampoon of the famous Marseillaise scene in Casablanca (1942; a film Angelopoulos would again nod to in The Hunters). The impasse seems won for the lefties when the band singer gets her fellows to blast out “In The Mood” whilst she sings bawdy new lyrics mocking Scobie, until a royalist shoots a gun in the air. All the couples promptly depart, leaving only a gang of virtually indistinguishable reactionaries in suits and hats to command the band and start dancing with each-other. This is Angelopoulos’ last, most devastating joke aimed at the fascist spirit, framing it as one that gradually denudes the nation of anything except a hall of mirrors for bullies. This cabal files out of the hall in the early morning, parading through the streets, bawling out an anthem in which they promise not to shed Greek blood, only that of traitors, and pass by a speechifying politician, making clear that the election has been carefully shorn of real democratic meaning.

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This segues into a bizarre spectacle as a band of troubadours march and play before a jeep loaded with British soldiers, one of whom stands with two severed heads in his hands, whilst Orestes and other captured insurgents are marched through the streets to be imprisoned. We’re back now in a world Aeschylus could certainly understand, one of political messaging written directly in blood. A bleak circularity is underlined as they prisoners are loaded onto a boat and taken to the same island to be imprisoned where the Metaxas regime shipped its enemies. When Pylades is released after signing a denunciation of the radical cause, he’s a shamed and damaged man, but his recounting of the sufferings he and others were put through makes clear the impossibility of putting up a stand in the face of such dehumanisation. Finally Electra is called to the prison to collect the body of Orestes, who’s been executed without anyone being told. As the troupe bury him, they give him a round of applause, a farewell for an actor who’s played his role to the limit. The film’s very end presents a note of uneasy peace at least temporarily restored with a new generation flourishing, as the troupe return to work in the midst of the ’52 election campaign, the face of the latest uniformed conqueror emblazoned on posters around town. Electra helps her nephew prepare for taking over the role of Tassos. Angelopoulos films him through a gap in a curtain as he assumes the traditional opening pose, his head out of sight. The player has become abstract entity, the role eternal.

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1940s, Auteurs, Film Noir, Thriller

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

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Director/Screenwriter: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

Orson Welles long served a cultural function as the emblematic genius discarded by Hollywood, doomed by the wrath of the kitsch Olympians to only to manage a singular labour of creative awe, Citizen Kane (1941), before being forced to scrimp his way through a fragmentary and disappointing subsequent oeuvre. That narrative for Welles’ career has long since been challenged and revised, and whilst it’s certainly true Welles and Hollywood never got along, they continued a long, uneasy dialogue for decades, and Welles only finally abandoned all hope of making a final Hollywood film in the early 1980s. Following the infamous collapse of his deal with RKO, resulting in the dumped release of a crude edit of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles ventured to South America on a war effort-enabling goodwill tour, during which he worked on the multipart docudrama It’s All True, only to suffer another aborted project and accompanying corrosion to his professional reputation. As an actor, Welles quickly regained footing when he returned to the US, resuming stage and radio work as well as gaining traction as a movie star. He also married his fellow goodwill ambassador Rita Hayworth, who arrived during World War II as one of the hottest properties in movies.

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Thanks to arduous, self-effacing negotiations with studio honchos, Welles made his directorial comeback with The Stranger (1946), which, despite flashes of his visual ingenuity and aesthetic and thematic fixations, sufficiently fulfilled his promise to make a ‘normal’ movie. Welles was rewarded with a proper box office success, although his backers still welched on a deal to produce four more of his films. Welles went to Broadway to stage a flashy adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, only for producer Mike Todd to suddenly pull out. Welles tapped Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn for cash he ploughed into the doomed project, on the promise of writing, directing, and starring in a movie for him without further recompense. Welles took on an adaptation of Sherwood Kingsley’s crime novel If I Should Die Before I Wake, purportedly at the urging of William Castle, and Cohn gave Welles the green light to make the movie also featuring Hayworth. Cohn’s sense of prerogative over Hayworth’s career had already been offended by her and Welles’ union, which he deemed insufficiently glamorous, and he was properly livid when the resulting film’s rough cut was screened for him, revealing Welles’ new look for her with short, platinum blonde hair. Cohn didn’t much like the rest of the film either and had it extensively recut and reshot, reinforcing Welles’ reputation as a mercurial spendthrift. Although The Lady From Shanghai did reasonably good box office again, it was still fated to mark Welles’ break with the major Hollywood studios.

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Great as Welles’ films are, none of them feels quite as urgent and personally exposed as The Lady From Shanghai, save perhaps his final, pieced-together opus The Other Side of the Wind (2018). The film’s gadabout affectations, the giddy humour and overt ridicule of neat plot rhythms and Welles’ music hall Irish accent, can’t conceal the film’s real emotional tenor, one of anger – anger with love, anger with self, anger with the world. Cohn in turn was incensed by the film for good reason, as it presented, amongst many other things, Welles’ poison pen letter to the dawning atomic age and American capitalism, his bitterest, most biting commentary on the politics of sexual possession as espoused in Hollywood, and a return to Citizen Kane’s preoccupation with the insidious gravity of power and money in warping normal human relations. This time he cast himself as a lovestruck interloper rather than the all-consuming man of destiny, a choice that betrayed Welles’ jaundiced new perspective. Spurred by the slow spoiling of his marriage and his frustration in falling from boy titan to harried supplicant, as well as his unease within the rapidly changing zeitgeist in the post-war period, Welles responded with a film lit in a sulphurous glare, fuelled by smouldering, even despairing anxieties. It’s also perhaps Welles’ most stylistically extreme film, an aspect actually amplified by Cohn’s reediting, and the violence of technique enters a feedback loop with the overtone of emotional burnout.

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Welles happily occupied a contradictory position as an artist, the frustrated classicist and tragedian who delighted in playing comic book heroes and who grasped the epic potentials in pulp fiction. The Lady From Shanghai and its companion piece Touch of Evil (1958) saw him collapsing boundaries between high and low cultural argots, turning the seamy, worldly obsessions of film noir into high Shakespearean evocations of love, treachery, and penance. Welles initially turns King’s story into a jokey pastiche of knight errant tales, with his character Michael O’Hara the nominated dumb Quixote, a man who testifies in his opening narration, “I start out in this story a little bit like a hero, which I most certainly am not.” O’Hara flirts with the beautiful lady, Elsa (Hayworth), he sees trundling by in a Central Park carriage and then saves her from a gang of hoods who knock out the cabbie and try to rob and rape her. The sarcastic lilt of pre-Raphaelite romanticism, as Michael ventures into the well-pruned parkland serving as virgin forest to rescue the damsel and then commandeers the carriage to ferry her homeward in gentlemanly style, quickly collides with the grease and concrete aesthetic of a Manhattan car park, a nest of Futurist swoops and curves and blocks.

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There various imps of ill-fortune lurk and dangle, the heavy with a tragedy mask for a face, Broome (Ted De Corsia), and the dough-faced George Grisby (Glenn Anders) both on hand for vicarious jollies as Michael realises the lady he’s saved is the wife of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan), a notoriously brilliant and utterly ruthless defence lawyer, a man known to a man like Michael only as figure of awe and dark magic in anecdotes but about to become an all too familiar acquaintance. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons both revolved a stung sense of nostalgia, ransacked for discrepancy but never entirely demystified, for a slower, quieter past where iniquity was balanced by the comfort of set order, as compared to the oncoming spree of hypermodern angst, where even the go-getters and empire builders felt alien to themselves. Destructive and intransigent as they were, Charlie Kane and George Amberson Minafer were also trapped as mediating figures, spanning the days of the aristocrat and modernity, where Bannister and Elsa are pure-sprung creatures of their moment.

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By contrast, The Lady From Shanghai satirises O’Hara’s status as a man also out of time and joint, sailor, soldier. A man who, even though he’s been all around the world and killed whilst fighting fascists in Spain, nonetheless retains the aura of the eternal naïf, a man who’s lost contact with a vital piece of himself, a Hercules who partakes of eating the lotus and forgets his mission. Welles couches Michael as the emblematic working class hero, admired and feared by his pals to equal degrees as a guy who’s “got a lot of blarney in him but he knows how to hurt a man when he gets mad,” imbued with a faint lustre of legend because of “what he did to them finks back in ’39,” a lustre later turned against him with an overheard radio broadcast characterises him, in one of the film’s throwaway flourishes of carbolic wit, as “Black Irish O’Hara, the notorious waterfront agitator.” He’s glimpsed banging away on a typewriter in the seamen’s hiring hall in front of a poster that read, “We Accept All Americans,” a pointed dying echo of the credo that had during the war become something like an official ethos.

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Bannister tracks him to that place, to hire him to crew his yacht, ostensibly seeking him as a proven good guy, Mephistopheles to grasp his Faust. “You’ve been too busy seeing the world to learn anything about it,” Bannister informs Michael. “What’s a tough guy?” Jake Bjornsen (Louis Merrill), one of Michael’s sailor pals and a former comrade from Spain, tells Bannister as he applies that label to Michael: “A guy with an edge…A gun or a knife, a knife-stick or a razor, something the other guy ain’t got. Yeah, a little extra reach on a punch, a set of brass knuckles, a stripe on the sleeve, a badge that says ‘cop’ on it, a rock in your hand or a bankroll in your pocket.” Welles uses this speech to set in play not just the film’s essential plot, but also to subvert the general basis of noir storytelling in a romanticised envisioning of working class violence and the folk heroic figure of the underclass badass. Bannister’s jealousy of Michael’s physical prowess is more than outpaced by his capacity for brutality leveraged by other means, and the thug in the alley with a switchblade isn’t half as scary as an aggrieved plutocrat with his hooks in you.

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Sloan’s Bannister is one of the great screen monstrosities, a courtroom marauder who walks with canes like a mincing praying mantis, his high, crackly voice shifting between registers of slurred, liquored-up aggravation and clipped, precise assassination: the way Sloan pronounces “lover” does to the word what Exxon did to the Alaskan shoreline. The triangle of Michael, Elsa, and Bannister plays at least on the surface as a lampoon on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, down to the crippled rich man as emblem of a twisted modern age, but with woodland renascence swapped for dread-caked globetrotting and penny dreadful conspiracies where the promise of sex is part of the trap rather than a mode of escape. Welles gleefully steals imagery and textures from ‘40s travel posters and the promised high life of Hollywood’s fantasias as portrays the Bannisters’ voyage about Central and South America, with Elsa’s commodity physique celebrated in rest and motion, high-diving from rocks into the sea, splayed out the yacht deck whilst warbling a gently seductive ditty. The siren updated, coming on to Michael in playing another abused and frightened subcontractor wondering if the price paid in anxiety is worth the paycheque. Accompanying the holidays are Bannister’s nominal law partner Grisby, his hired PI and minder Broome, Michael’s pal and deck hand ‘Goldie’ Goldfish (Gus Schilling), and Bannister’s cook Bessie (Evelyn Ellis). A potent, simmering attraction seems to manifest between Michael and Elsa, but the real seduction is between Michael and Grisby, who offers Michael a wad of cash for a simple job: to confess to murdering him.

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Welles’ archly theatrical and equally arch cineaste sides, held in balance in his first films, came into conflict in The Lady From Shanghai. The film is littered with verbal soliloquies and passages of visual delirium, creating a tension that finally snaps the elastic in the finale as Michael rattles off a synopsis of the plot whilst assailed by surreal images, the lingual, factual, and experiential realms crumbling before the onslaught of images evoking surrender to the absurd, dismissing the usual mechanics of the thriller story as mere detail in a story that’s much more about consuming chaos. Michael’s narration carries much of the weight of the actual storytelling, certainly to patch over some of the editing but also investing it with a palpable sense of Michael’s bewildered and stricken romanticism. Bjornsen’s speech about tough guys is the first of several lengthy, memorable discourses delivered throughout, followed by Bannister’s acidic commentary on the power of money as a vehicle not merely for survival but revenge, and Michael’s anecdote about witnessing a shark feeding frenzy that saw the beasts turn on each-other cannibalistically, implying the Bannisters and their cohort are behaving the same way. Bannister’s commentary reveals himself as a man who himself is reacting to memories of being an outsider under the thumb of the rich, describing with relish how he destroyed a man who kept his mother out of a club he owned for being of an undesirable ethnicity, whilst also noting that Bessie prays she’ll never be too old to earn the money he pays her to support her family.

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This scene captures Welles’ coldest and most concise analysis of capitalism as a by-product of human urges, the desire for dominance and supremacy and a precise weighing of the “trickle-down” effect of wealth untinted, at least, by noblesse oblige hypocrisy. The Lady From Shanghai emerges as a more politically analytical and revealing film than Citizen Kane, even before it invokes nuclear terror as the new existential state, the bitter taste in the post-war triumphalism. Grisby hovers around, snatching privileged glimpses of Elsa and Michael’s simmering attraction and teasing them with his knowledge, before making overtures to Michael to be his fictional assassin, cover for some convoluted scheme to claim his own insurance and sail off to some remote clime where he’ll be safe “when they start dropping those bombs.” Bannister already resembles a post-apocalyptic thing, the first of the many atomic monsters that would start loping across screens in following years. Welles later reported he gave Sloan canes to walk with to give the actor, still relatively fresh out of radio, something distinctively physical to cover his inexperience, but the theme of creeping disease and sexual amanuensis is too tightly wound into the story to ignore.

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The new look Welles imposed on Hayworth, so startling and offensive to Cohn and others, anticipated the 1950s’ run of platinum blondes as the embodiment of a plush and acquisitive age’s ideal of femininity, when Marilyn Monroe would corner the market to near-mystical perfection in playing the blonde as status symbol love object. Hayworth as Elsa is the atomic bomb in human form, the flash of brilliance on her crown and blood on the lips and the black ash of fallout in her eyes. The beasts of the aquarium where Michael and Elsa meet look forward to the aquatic beds of Godzilla and the Gill Man. The Lady From Shanghai can be seen as much Welles’ metaphor for his permanent yet agonising love affair with the filmmaking world as for his faltering relationship with Hayworth, although the two things were surely linked – how could Welles entirely repudiate a change of profession that helped him marry the most beautiful woman in the world? Trying desperately to hold on to these extraordinary gifts straight out of the dream life he’d discovered, in the face of petty dictators and profit margins. Things constantly happen to Michael in ways that leave him completely mystified as to why they’re happening, the temptations and repudiations wielded by power alike wielded with capricious verve in a way that must have felt very true to experiences with the studios.

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What a fresh sense of irony Welles, the boy wonder out of pinko theatrical climes with the New Deal ideals, must have gained contending with such outsized provocations to lust and wonder in Hollywood, moving from the relatively abstract evocations of trophy wives and malign plutocrats in Citizen Kane to this electro-Hogarthian stew where the feeling is palpable. The film canters to its climax and it seems less that Michael and Bannister represent Welles and his tycoon nemeses than, finally, it represents the warring sides of Welles himself, the image-maker and the desperate husband: “Killing you is killing myself,” Bannister tells Elsa, suddenly revealed as the actual tragic lover in the story. Hayworth had, with Gilda (1946), nailed down a specific persona as the girl who seems corrupt purely by dint of her incarnation of sinful temptations, but is actually covertly virtuous, a persona she’d later be forced to take to a biblical extreme when she played Salome. Welles upended basic image expectations not just in look but in character: Elsa proves to be a killer and schemer whilst all the while seeming like an innocent, soulful and tremulous in her pathos. The desire to believe Elsa is good is nonetheless a compelling fiction not just for Michael but also for Bessie, who regards her as the poor child at the mercy of the monster, so perfectly does she embody a vessel of elevated fantasy. The name of Bannister’s yacht gives the warning – Circe, the sorceress who turns men to swine.

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Part of The Lady From Shanghai’s strange beauty resides in the way Elsa remains a creature of perfect ambiguity even after she’s unmasked, creature of manifold realities, a woman who was “taught to love in Chinese” in “the second wickedest city in the world,” (Michael nominates Macao as number one, a place Welles would finally visit for The Immortal Story, 1968). She’s product of political ructions and cultural collisions, trying to survive a uniquely cruel marriage but also determined not to be thrust back into the cold, especially when, as Michael’s pleas prove, capitalism’s gravity can only be countered by a kind of sentimental romanticism. “Now he knows about us,” Elsa says after Grisby had witnesses them in a clinch. “I wish I did,” Michael quips. Elsa’s attempt to seduce Michael into a kiss earns a slap instead, the film’s most electric moment of physical intimacy giving way to Elsa silently and shakily jamming a cigarette between her lips and lights it. A sublime piece of acting from Hayworth that manages to suggest all at once that Elsa’s far too used to being hit and controlling herself when it happens, and also the shock, not entirely disagreeable, of experiencing the real sensation, and then the equal shock of recognition: Michael’s fear. Even when exposed as a scheming murderer Elsa retains a flailing, almost pathetic quality, canary in a gilded cage trying to reinvent herself as a condor, making a hash of schemes to liberate herself. Except that everything goes awry and she has to use Michael as a fall guy.

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Writing about any Welles film is hard and The Lady From Shanghai amongst the most challenging simply in the lure to muse on the visual textures, the cavalcade of astounding and evocative shots, achieved here in collaboration with cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr with uncredited work by Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker. Welles’ desire to break away from studio simulacra saw him shoot much of the film on location with a palpable sense of place, although the result was hardly a neorealist work, the seedy glamour of the Mexican locales and the San Francisco waterfront and Chinatown instead charged with a sarcastic sense of their exoticism, albeit with the sense of strangeness inverted, such places charged with life and energy which the visiting representatives of the high life despoil. The elegance of Welles’ first two films even in their radicalisms, and the relatively prosaic grammar of The Stranger, gave way here to the vertiginous affect that would mark the rest of Welles’ oeuvre, the driving pace of editing matched to visuals that come on often with discursive jaggedness. Shots like the dollying camera tracking Hayworth as she runs, clad in swimming white, down an Acapulco street with archways and pillars breaking the shot into segments of lush yet elusive romantic fantasia.

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Or the shot of Michael and Grisby standing on a cliff edge, framed from overhead, distorting all sense of geography so that when Grisby says, “So long, fella!” and steps out of frame for a second it seems he’s jumped into the void only to leave the startled Michael as the one hovering on the edge. Moments like these only represent a fraction of the cinematic creativity on display. The sight of Elsa running away from dinner with Bannister to meet Michael in the gritty Acapulco streets sees her briefly as an illuminated figure in a special effects shot, hovering in luminosity over the dark town, a shot reminiscent of images in The Red Shoes (1948) the following year, another film meditating on the figure of the mogul as cruel magician. Their stroll through the streets together sees them passing by boles of local nightlife, cellars and taverns crammed with fervent existence even as the interloping gringos find no refuge: Michael, teased by the pursuing Broome, knocks him out, only for Goldie to turn up later with some cops hoisting Broome’s unconscious bulk demanding to know who he is. “What’s the Spanish for ‘drunken bum’?” Goldie requests in gleeful derision.

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Welles steadily builds a feeling of dizzied, intoxicated intensity often by framing the actors at great heights or having them move in reeling, criss-crossing lines in ways the pervert geographical reckoning. He combines the two as Michael has his fateful talk with Grisby. The duo climb on the heights above Acapulco, intersecting with other examples of economic exchange, like the gigolo reassuring his lady, as Grisby courts Michael for a different kind of service rendered. Welles plays an extended game with acts of seeing, through lenses, windows, and most famously in the climax, mirrors. Grisby watches Elsa through a telescope, the visuals becoming a succession of magazine-like poses, and then later on the rest of the party, rendering them specimen-like in their varying characters. The aquarium windows invert the specimen spectacle. The politics of seeing are correlated with evaluation and possession but ultimately feed back into the labyrinthine self as the funhouse mirrors rend and smear form and identity and fracture personas.

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The beach party scene is one of Welles’ most amazing sequences, a revisit to the laboriously extravagant picnic scene depicted in Citizen Kane but again invested with a more specific and vivid realisation. A grand exercise in high living curdles into a dank, tragicomic voyage into the heart of darkness – Welles’ faint revenge for his failure to film Conrad – as the picnickers canoe up tropical rivers and set up on a sunset beach with roving mariachi bands, torch-wielding partyers, and frolicking children, where the objects of rent-a-crowd exaltation sit in the fire-lit dusk and insult each-other with vicious art. Montage matches the picnickers with their animal totems amidst the sliding, flapping, squawking swamp creatures. Michael’s story conjures a whole squirming ocean full of blood and teeth even as the falling sun behind him seems to promise tropical peace. He delivers the punchline – “I never saw anything worse, until this little picnic tonight,” only for Bannister goes one better as he notes for Grisby’s benefit, “That’s the first anyone’s ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer you’d be flattered.” Bannister’s a good enough lawyer to turn his foe’s attack into his own.

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The Circe’s return to San Francisco sees Michael giving in to Grisby’s offer, hoping to entice Elsa away from Bannister with a safety cushion of cash, only for Grisby’s genuine and properly dead body to be found and Michael put on trial with his bogus confession taken for the real deal, with Bannister taking on his defence nominally to not make him seem a martyr for Elsa’s sake. Occasionally, as in Citizen Kane, Welles privileges the viewer to knowledge that he denies his nominal storyteller, most crucially when Grisby shoots Broome, who confronted him over his machinations, shortly before his own death, and conversations between Broome and Bannister establishing that both seem to be aware of a plot against Bannister’s life. Broome, seemingly a crass and threatening figure at first, proves one of the few decently motivated characters as hired watchdog who struggles even as he bleeds to death to warn Elsa and Michael against impending wheels of fate. Grisby, by contrast, with his perversions of elocution and bulging eyes set in a perpetually sweat-seeping face, seems a ridiculous figure, and whilst he really is a ridiculous figure, he’s also playing for high stakes, Elsa’s confederate in an attempt to bump off Bannister that goes awry and demands Michael go through with his role as killer. Grisby leaves Michael to go through the prearranged motions whilst heading out to the Circe, firing off a gun and attracting the attention of a horde of dancers in a waterfront tavern.

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The trial sequence is another tour-de-force of restless visual energy and satiric gall as Welles makes a mockery of justice processes in a way that again feels fascinatingly prognosticative in a different way, here anticipating the age when celebrity culture and law would become tightly entwined in acts of mass-media theatre. Bannister turns proceedings into a vaudeville routine as he affects to interview himself on the witness stand. Jurors sneeze heartily during testimony, onlookers gawk with vicarious hungers to be sated, and the prosecutor (Carl Frank) means to oblige them by forcefully attempting to brand Elsa star in a pornographic cornucopia. The closer the camera gets to Elsa’s face as the prosecutor’s questions become increasingly ruthless sees her threatening to lose substance altogether, to dissolve into a frieze of lacquered beauty, unable to play the roles required either by self-protecting social function or natural empathy – Elsa no longer atom bomb personified by the first computer, crashing from colliding streams of information and incapacity to resolve the outcome. Bannister’s sadistic intention to sabotage Michael’s defence despite knowing well he’s innocent instead fulfils the game they’ve been engaged in since the beginning, Bannister’s urgent and ultimately self-destructive need to annihilate the man who represents all the things he isn’t, having purposefully brought Michael into his fold to inhabit the role he cannot and then destroy him. Nothing sharpens the mind like the thought of being hung in the morning, as they say, and Michael learns the truth of this as imminent condemning finally grants him wisdom.

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Michael’s escape from the court house blends clammy desperation and ridiculousness as Michael sucks down a handful of Bannister’s medication, giving him a chance to escape by beating up a couple of court cops in the overseeing Judge’s (Erskine Sanford) office, trashing it in the process. The fight is offered as a miniaturised synopsis of the threatened apocalypse, civilisation crashing to bits much to the Judge’s horror complete with his neatly ordered chess pieces sent flying – Napoleon’s bust sits silently as a cop’s head crashes back against a pane of glass, shelves filled with law tomes it toppled as a weapon – before Michael escapes the building by joining a flock of jurors from another trial and the Judge is left to demand a full report from an unconscious man. The sickly humour that pervades The Lady From Shanghai also makes sport of the nominal conjuring of exotic mystery in the title, inverting the emphasis of Josef von Sternberg’s equally baroque but more wilfully fantastical entrances into Chinoiserie dreaming in the likes of Shanghai Express (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941): even as Welles depicts a descent into delirium he relentlessly demystifies, hunting the sawdust behind the tinsel. The glimpse of two Chinese-American teens at the trial, exchanging comments in Mandarin before one of them exclaims in ripe Californian, “You ain’t kiddin’!” Michael fleeing to take refuge in a Chinese opera house in San Francisco’s Chinatown only to fall into the hands of Elsa and her underworld contacts contrasts the impenetrable stylisation of the art form with the studied blandness of its audience, the gateway to the last act in the equally impenetrable drama, like the opera full of signs and symbols Michael cannot read.

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The legendary climax confirms the correlation between show business and brutal crime, if in the most outlandish dimensions, Michael’s bemoaning that either the world or he is insane gaining a grotesque mimesis as he awakens in a funfair crazy house. Mirrors reshape him, Caligari geometry maps out his confusion, slippery slides deliver him into the maw of a papier-mache dragon and dump him out on a set that looks like a Miro painting: somehow Welles manages to cram the entire experience of modern art as a response to the opening fields of the absurd in the first half of the 20th century whilst also suggesting the carnival got there long beforehand. Painted slogans – STAND UP OR GIVE UP – both demand his action and mock his powerlessness. Elsa’s torch picks him out and she draws him into a hall of mirrors where her lovely simulacra are infinite, still protesting “I love you” even in mutual awareness she was willing to sacrifice him. Bannister’s arrival, given the last necessary jab of jealousy, sees him and Elsa annihilate each-other in a fusillade of bullets.

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This shoot-out, a brief spasm of total chaos, has long since been installed as a classic cinematic moment, and films as diverse as Enter The Dragon (1973) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) have taken it as a touchstone. But few imitators have tried to match the specific visual effect Welles manages, his subdivided frames and huge images of Elsa’s ghostly face compared to Bannister’s sharp, scuttling form, amounting to a surrealist study of psychological space. The obsessive clawing at the game of surfaces can only end this way, only to find nothing left once Elsa and Bannister’s bullets crack glass and break bodies. The destruction of all illusory selves is enacted, Bannister’s belief that killing Elsa is killing himself literalised. Michael’s passivity even in the face of this grim corrida nonetheless give him the key to his real problem, to deal with his existential crisis, responding to Elsa’s nihilistic credo that “We can’t win” means “We can’t lose, either – only if we quit.” The Lady From Shanghai is, ultimately, the story of Michael’s rebirth, even as he ruefully walks away confident of being proved innocent – “But that’s a mighty big word, innocent. Stupid’s more like it.” – and knows how deep the barbs of the Elsa illusion remain stuck in his sinews. Nonetheless the irony of Michael’s basic conclusion, his rediscovery of a form of faith in confronting the void and gaining the realisation that any individual has the power of a god in terms of their own specific world but their fate would depend on how they utilise that knowledge, and that only the storyteller can properly impose meaning to life, would become the essential theme for the rest of Welles’ career. But Elsa supplies the proper trash-poetic benediction for those who can’t face such a choice: “Give my love to the sunrise.”

Standard
2010s, Auteurs, Biopic, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

And then, more time had passed than anyone realised, and suddenly things we thought perpetual are lost, and the age and its titans that stood in authority became another dusty annal.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, now aged 77, stands self-evidently as a work both extending and encompassing a key portion of Scorsese’s legacy, his beloved and perpetually influential mafia movies. The Irishman reunites the director with three actors long connected with his cinema, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as bringing in a fresh young whippersnapper named Al Pacino. The sharp pang of recognised mortality inherent in The Irishman is given a special cruelty by the way Scorsese’s cinema has long seemed, even in its most contemplative and rarefied moods, like American virility incarnate. The clamour of New York streets, the whiplash effects of urban life’s furore and the human organism in contending with it, the buzz of an era bombarded with cinema and television and advertising, written into the textures of Scorsese’s famous alternations of filmic technique, whip-pans and racing dolly shots colliding with freeze-frames and languorous slow-motion: Scorsese’s aesthetic encephalograph. The Irishman has been described by many as a terminus for the gangster movie. That’s fair in some ways, dealing as it does with a basic and essential matter very often ignored in the genre, what happens when gangsters are lucky enough to get old and die, as well as simply recording a moment when a genre’s stars and a most esteemed creator are facing the end of the road, however distant still.

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But of course, movies set amongst hoodlums and lowlifes are still pretty common, for Scorsese’s bastard artistic children are plentiful and likely to populate the cinematic landscape for a good while yet. What new tricks could the old dog still have to teach? The Irishman answers that question incidentally as it adapts a book by Charles Brandt, recounting the life story of Frank Sheeran. As biography it includes inarguable factual details, like the time Sheeran spent as a World War II soldier, truck driver, and Teamster official jailed for 13 years for racketeering, blended with assertions and conjecture about Sheeran’s involvement with organised crime, most vitally the claim he personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished in 1975. The tales in Brandt’s book have been disputed, but the appeal to a filmmaker like Scorsese, over and above the inherent drama in such a story, lies in the way Sheeran claims to have grazed against the mechanics of power underlying American history in the mid-twentieth century, and indeed have been part of the mechanism, the finger that pulled triggers but never the levers. The Irishman becomes, amongst many achievements, a unified field theory in regards to the concerns of Hollywood’s New Wave filmmakers, wrestling with the waning memory of a certain age in political and social life, as well as that cinematic era.

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And yet The Irishman is also a project that sees Scorsese negotiating with very contemporary aspects of the moviemaking scene, produced by online streaming giant Netflix and exploiting all the possibilities opened up by such a backer in making a film without compromise, and employing a cutting edge special effects technique, using digital processes to make his lead actors appear younger in sequences depicting their characters in their prime. It’s Scorsese’s longest film to date, a veritable epic in theme and scope even whilst essentially remaining an interpersonal story, arriving as a roughly hemispheric work. The first half, recounting Sheeran’s early encounters with the potentates of the underworld and evolution from scam-running truck driver to hitman and union boss, broadly reproduces the detail-obsessed and gregariously explanatory style of Scorsese’s previous based-on-fact mafia life tales, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), if rendered in a much cooler, less compulsive manner. The second half mimics the processes of ageing, slowing down until finally reaching a point of impotent and stranded pathos, ticking off fate-making moments of choice and consequence, contending with the ultimate consequences and meanings of a man’s life actions.

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If The Irishman’s tone and sense of mortal and moral irony suggests Scorsese’s tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), the famous epigraph of which Scorsese reiterates in direct and pungent terms, the method is more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (1944-58), as an expansive and surveying first portion sets up a second that proves a dark and immediate personal drama about power and betrayal. The Irishman’s narrative revolves around what seems initially a scarcely notable vignette, with Sheeran and his friend, associate, and boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a cool, wary potentate of the Philadelphia mob with great resources of invisible yet definite power, and their wives Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci) striking out on a road trip on the way to attend the wedding of the daughter of Russell’s lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano) in 1975. Sheeran’s voiceover narration readily concedes there’s a definite pretext to this trip, as Russell wants to collect various debts along the way. But the peculiarly pregnant, tense mood of the journey betrays something else in the offing, a hidden source of tension and expectation, and of course when it comes into focus the implications are terrible. The road trip accidentally doubles as a trip down memory lane, as they pass the scene where Sheeran and Russell first actually met, when Russell helped the young truck driver when he was pulled over with mechanical trouble, sparking an account of their adventures in racketeering.

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The Irishman returns to a motif Scorsese touched on in Shutter Island (2010) in contemplating the mental landscape of the so-called greatest generation of servicemen returned from World War II, men playing at fitting into a suburban world whilst invested with the skills and reflexes of soldiers, all too aware, with niggling import, how thin the membrane between settled life and chaos can be. Sheeran recounts the pathetic details of shooting German POWs with nonchalance, an experience he describes as teaching him to simply accept life and death with an almost Buddhist indifference, only to make sure to be on the right end of the gun. This experience, at once brutalising and transfiguring, proves to have armed Sheeran with not just a skill set but a mindset as well, one that makes him useful to men like the Bufalinos and their associates, including Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sheeran gains his first contacts in the underworld via the lower-ranking Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), by letting him substitute the high-quality meat Sheeran transports for his restaurant. When a load of meat he’s carrying vanishes before he can steal it himself, Sheeran is prosecuted for the theft. Bill Bufalino successfully defends his case, although he gets sacked from his driving job. After proving himself adept at debt collecting for DiTullio, he gains a more definite connection to Russell and Angelo, who sit in mandarin judgement upon representatives of a tragically unwise world.

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As in Goodfellas and Casino, Sheeran’s narrative expostulates the arts of gangsterdom in a succession of illustrative vignettes, as Sheeran begins to make himself reliable with his army-instilled smarts for sabotage and demolition, making him handy at wiping out rivals’ sources of income and power. Such gifts are illustrated in sequences touched with a sense of the ridiculous, as when Sheeran and some other mobsters try to wipe out an opponent’s taxi fleet by laboriously pushing all the cars into the harbour before Sheeran suggests less arduous means. When he’s hired by a laundry boss Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) to destroy a rival laundry only to be brought before Angelo who partly owns the rival, Sheeran is obligated to make amends and shoots Whispers in the face, kicking off his new career as a hitman, or, in coded parlance, a man who “paints houses” with blood. Some of the blackly comic hue Scorsese’s long been able to tease out of such grim situations manifests here as Sheeran notes the building arsenal of used weapons collecting on a river bottom under a bridge popular with folk in his line of work to toss away their used guns. Scorsese avoids the adrenalized fervour of his earlier films, however. For one thing, Frank Sheeran is a different creature to guys like Henry Hill or even Jordan Belfort, who delighted in their status as men apart, challenging law and fate with bravura even as they proved much less tough and canny than they wished to think. Sheeran rather fancies himself as a suburban husband and father with an unusual occupation: the circumstances that eventually make him a hitman stem from the need to feed his growing family.

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Part of what made Scorsese’s canonical gangster films vibrant was the way they offered innately interesting prisms through which to encompass other, more quotidian things difficult to make popular movies about. Friendships, troubled marriages, domestic violence, gender roles, the structure of civic life and the circuits of power that often hide in plain sight. One reason Scorsese has long seemed to have a specific affinity for the genre, to a degree that tends to drown out perception of his varied oeuvre, is because the gangster in his eyes simply represents ordinary people in extremis, bound by peculiar loyalties of family and immediate community, balancing attempts to retain certain ideals whilst contending with a cruel and corrupting world. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, with a muted, greyish colour palette, gives the most immediate visual clue to the way The Irishman disassembles the template of Scorsese’s earlier gangster works, contrasting their lush, pulpy hues and baroque evocations in favour of something chillier, more remorseless, like the cancer that eats up the flesh and bones of these old bastards in the end.

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Another vital pivot in Sheeran’s life comes when Russell sets up the opportunity to become Hoffa’s enforcer, some hard muscle to back up Hoffa’s battles with rivals and powerbrokers. Sheeran’s first conversation with Hoffa over the phone sees De Niro register with beautiful subtlety the minuscule moment of shock as Sheeran realises Hoffa speaks the rarefied language of mob euphemism, conversant in the harshest facts of such life. But Hoffa manages to retain an avuncular glamour, a sense of righteousness even when swimming with human piranha, through seeming like a general engaged in a long guerrilla war, and he also crucially reaches out to Sheeran as “a brother of mine,” that is, a Teamster. Hoffa isn’t wrong to surround himself with hard men, with lieutenants nominally under his control like Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Sheeran recounts how Pro had a rival underling garrotted in a car, cueing one of the film’s most startling visual flourishes, as the murder is glimpsed as the car moves by a moving camera, yawing mouth in silent scream and struggling bodies glimpsed in a flash and then gone. Pro is just one of many creeps and thugs who parasite off the Teamster organisation, a union built to resist the violent resistance to organised labour from management, but which has required and rewarded mob support to do so. Tension builds between Hoffa and his underworld contacts however as he tries to prevent the Teamster union fund, which bankrolled their casino projects, from devolving entirely into a ready cash pool for wiseguys. When a government investigation of Hoffa sees him imprisoned, the mob becomes more inclined to see the union go on being run by more pliable figures, like Tony Pro and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba).

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Like an updated version of the same analysis in Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese considers the tribalism of politics and gangland as they form mutually parasitical relationship through their symmetry of outlook and method, disconnected from the real musculature of the workers whose ambitions and desires fuel their empires. Hoffa’s story has already been told comprehensively on film, in Danny DeVito’s overblown but fascinating Hoffa (1992), which rendered his life as an outsized romantic epic and elegy, in complete contrast to Scorsese’s dolorous and nitpicking realism. Hoffa was upfront in exploring the way Hoffa turned to the mafia for support to counter the overt and unsubtle brutality wielded by big business, where here this aspect is more implied and seen as part of an inseparable organism: wherever human energy is turned, and money’s involved, reefs of strange coral grow, and sharks come to live. The great swathe of The Irishman’s plot encompasses titanic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Jack Huston), whose vendetta-like pursuit of Hoffa drives the union boss to distraction, and finally overt acts of petty defiance like refusing to have the Teamster flag lowered after John’s assassination, whilst it’s heavily suggested the mob arranged the assassination in revenge for the Kennedys turning on them after they helped John’s election.

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Such history also grazes minor yet noteworthy supporting players like David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), interlocutor for the Mafia support for Cuban exiles trying to retake their nation from Castro, and E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins), CIA agent and eventual Nixon henchman infamous for his role in Watergate, both of whom Sheeran meets delivering equipment to the Cubans. Sheeran’s encounters with such people illuminate in flashes the great puzzle of power Sheeran perceives without really comprehending. They also contain Scorsese’s winking acknowledgement of the way the film encompasses cinematic as well as political history, for Pesci played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK (1991), whilst the personages and events the film touches on have provided bone marrow for a host of serious modern American movies. Such encounters are nonetheless laced with a droll sense of individual ridiculousness and everyday farcicality contaminating all facades and postures. Hunt gets upset when he thinks Sheeran is staring at his infamously big ears. Hoffa’s unwitting ride to his end, a moment of solemn and skittish tension, is tainted by the smell and run-off of a fish his adopted son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) dropped off beforehand for a friend, taunting all the men present with the reek of ludicrous fortune and imminent mortality. Sheeran’s proximity to Hoffa and the generational struggle he represents is the most concrete and meaningful of his brushes with renown, and even sees him write a page of history.

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And yet Sheeran’s presence is actually defined by his absence, his being the incarnation of impersonal power, his carefully maintained readiness to be erased the key to his success as a killer and functionary. There’s an aspect of the self-mortifying and self-annihilating in Sheeran’s makeup, only purveyed for worldly rather than spiritual ends. Hoffa keeps him in his hotel room so his visit to the city for strongarming is completely without record, a trick that’s eventually turned on Hoffa as it’s revealed the true purpose for Sheeran and Russell’s road trip in 1975 is to set up a situation where Sheeran can be flown to Detroit to kill Hoffa. His talents as a killer demand taking some real risks, particularly when he’s sent to take out Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), a strutting, defiant figure of the underworld who happily ignores its laws as much as the straight world’s and who’s had a potentially difficult Teamster boss killed during a rally. Scorsese nods back to the gun purchasing scene in Taxi Driver (1976) as Sheeran selects the ideal weapons for the attack and considers how to pull it off with method. Sheeran elects to kill Gallo in a restaurant, avoiding gunning down his family members about him whilst taking out his bodyguard, before chasing Gallo out to the sidewalk to deliver the coup-de-grace as he’s sprawled on the concrete. This scene captures Sheeran’s abilities as a hitman at zenith, as well as illustrating his personal myth, seeing himself as a kind of good guy according to the world he lives in, eliminating fools and scumbags and sparing the innocent. It’s a mystique eventually stripped from him in the rudest possible manner.

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Although hardly a repudiation of his bravura stylistic flourishes, The Irishman sees Scorsese and his ever-ingenious editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivering a sinuous and measured work of high style. An early shot ushering the viewer/camera down the corridors of the nursing home Sheeran’s exiled to in his dimming days has the quality of a visitation by a reluctant but curious acquaintance; when this shot is repeated close to the end, it has a lacerating effect as now it’s clear that when the camera abandons Sheeran he is left in utter solitude, deserted by all he once claimed as friends and family. Scorsese repeatedly interpolates sequences shot in extreme slow motion, in one case in portraying percussive violence as Gallo’s goon shoots the Teamster official, bullets puncturing his flesh in spurts of red blood whilst hands desperately wrap about the assassin, but in each case with a sense of languorous absurdity even when describing tragedy, like the survey of seemingly mundane but despicable visages at the wedding after Hoffa’s killing: the wistfully twanging tones of a guitar cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and some doo-wop giving such scenes with a sardonic quality, at once melancholy and mocking. Throughout the film Scorsese puts up titles identifying various characters with their nicknames and the date and manner of their death, almost only violent. In the film’s slyest joke, one man is blessed with a title describing him as “well-liked by all, died of natural causes.”

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The cumulative effect of this device is to emphasise not just the incredible brutality of the mob world around Sheehan but also his ultimate luck, which might not be luck at all, in outliving all of them; suspense is removed from the equation, and instead we’re made to understand Sheeran as a man living in a city of memory crowded with ghosts. The mob community, one that eats its own, is a perverse family that has its deep rituals of belonging and expulsion. But the rubbing out – erasure – of its members is reproduced in terms of actual family as Sheeran secures his position but with consequences. Of his four daughters, Peggy, growing from a small girl (Lucy Gallina) to a middle-aged woman (Anna Paquin), matures as the mostly silent but incessantly aware ledger of culpability. She regards Russell with suspicion, knowing him for the monstrosity he is, and remains wary of her father ever since witnessing in childhood the spectacle of him beating up a grocery store owner who treated her brusquely, an act that left her feeling less like the well-guarded princess than an unwitting bringer of violence and horror. Peggy’s gravitation to Hoffa, even idolisation of him gives special sting to the way Hoffa embodies for Sheeran a more idealised version of himself, a man with feet planted in the mud and bloodied knuckles but with the stature of a working class gladiator turned statesman.

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The shift of The Irishman from case study review to something more intimate and tragic is managed over the course of a central sequence where Sheeran’s tenure as a Teamster Local boss is celebrated. Hoffa is present, out of jail and pursuing his utter determination to win back “his” union from Fitzgerald, Pro, and the mob heavyweights who want to maintain the new status quo. Hoffa glares daggers at Russell and Salerno whilst sawing up his steak, and carefully fends off Sheeran’s mediating warnings about giving up, insisting with simple assurance that for him abandoning such a cause, so deeply infused with his sense of being and mission, would be tantamount to dying in itself. Peggy watches the play of glances and conversation as she dances, long used to divining through such tells of language and posture. Sheeran is ennobled when Russell gives him a ring that signals his induction into the innermost circle of the mob along with Russell himself and Salerno, a gesture that indicates permanency and security in terms of that family, but which soon proves to actually be a nomination and bribe, as Sheeran is being commissioned without realising to be Hoffa’s assassin.

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The vein of pitch black comedy, blended with a forlorn sense of human vileness, is particularly icy here as Sheeran is essentially wedded to Russell via the exchange of rings, a gesture that contrasts in fascinating ways both men’s relationships with their nominal wives and families. Russell is married to a princess of mob royalty, a detail noted as it makes Russell seem for all his gathered strength like someone who just lucked out and married the boss’s daughter, whilst Sheeran almost casually seems to swap his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for his second, a little like getting a car upgrade. Hoffa’s wife Josephine (Welker White), who gets fired from her Teamster bureaucratic job in the escalating tit-for-tat, winces and imagines a car bomb blowing her to smithereens as she starts her car before the engine roars calmly to life, just another moment in the life of a foot soldier in a game of spousal ego. Late in the film Sheeran ruminates with tragic sting on how another car, one he loved, became responsible for his imprisonment. The men in The Irishman, at least until it’s too late, tend to adopt a fiercer sense of loyalty to the measures of their social status than their human attachments, from Hoffa’s obsession with “his” union to Pro’s anger at losing his Teamster pension despite being already being rich through to that car of Sheeran’s, his personal cross with Corinthian leather seats.

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One of the wisest decisions Scorsese made in tackling The Irishman, possibly even the reason he made it, was also one of costliest and most troublesome, in offering a movie that serves as a grace note not only for Scorsese’s career but for his stars. Though he’ll surely make more movies, perhaps many more if he keeps at it like Clint Eastwood, The Irishman relies in a manner reminiscent of something like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) on emotional association with its stars and the sense of an era ending. Scorsese first worked with Keitel on his own debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967), and his associations with De Niro and Pesci, stars of several of his best regarded works, seem virtually umbilical. Scorsese spent a lot of time and effort on the de-ageing effects even as the stiff and angular movements of the actors, as well as the often plastic look of the effects, betray reality. It’s a more convincing approach than using make-up probably would have been for actors in their seventies, but the artificiality is still patent. In practice it’s clearly just a theatrical nicety, not trying to fool the audience but negotiate with our knowing in a way that Scorsese couldn’t have managed if he’d cast other actors to play his protagonists when young as is the usual practice. Scorsese needs the sense of continuity, wants us to perceive the corporeal reality old men lurking within facsimiles of young, potent bucks, in a tale where what age does to self-perception is a key aspect of the drama as well as artistic nostalgia. The quality of the mask-like in the effects underscores Peggy’s keen capacity to penetrate such veneers, and time just as assiduously uncovers the face men carve for themselves.

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Hoffa conceives time as a literal form of wealth, a notion that provides both a thematic thesis – everyone’s time is running out – and also essential characterisation, as Hoffa’s anger is stoked by nothing quite so much as being made to wait, in part because he knows that waiting is something you only do for someone who presumes to have control over you. Which is why Pro calculatedly infuriates him by turning up late to a meeting, adding fuel to their feud. Pacino, ironically finally appearing in a Scorsese film despite being very much another Italian-American product of 1960s New York’s cultural vitality and long associated with gangster films, is particularly well-cast not only for his capacity to project potent, larger-than-life charisma but also embody in Hoffa a being who, whilst capable of speaking over the gap, nonetheless inhabits a slightly different continent to the gangsters, a man corrupt, compromised, but proud, not cynical in his authority even when cynical in many of his actions. Pesci by contrast is intriguingly cast as the most contained and calm of the major characters here after playing eruptive firebrands for Scorsese in the past, his Bufalino charged with terseness edging into easily stirred disgust, as he deals people who can’t work to the very specific rule their world demands, like an aged priest with unruly seminarians. One of the most arresting vignettes in The Irishman is also one of its most casual, as Russell orders Sheeran to hand over his sunglasses before he boards a plane to go kill Hoffa. Russell knows very well that the sunglasses are part of a killer’s uniform and shield, where he knows Sheeran needs the appearance of complete simplicity to pull off the hit, and moreover the discipline imbued by not retaining such a shield. Treachery must be entirely honest.

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De Niro’s specific brilliance, in a different key again from his two great costars, manifests in playing a man who feels no particular emotional urgency until it’s far too late for him to do anything about it. This reckoning comes in two great, mirroring moments, first as he regards Russell in silent grief and reproach even as he also plainly acquiesces to his command to kill Hoffa, and then later as he struggles to maintain a feined veneer of bewildered concern through a conversation with his family over Hoffa’s vanishing, before calling Josephine Hoffa to offer reassurances. The film’s heightened commentary on paternalistic values, where old men’s capacity to make conversation is a very obvious marker of their power and various characters ultimately reveal their foolishness and impotence by talking out of turn or too long, crystallises here as Peggy, who has noticed everything whilst adhering to the rule of being seen but not heard, rips off her father’s façade with a few pointed words, “Why?” the question that registers like the point of an ice axe into a glacier. Sheeran makes his call, an action of duplicity and false hope he’s still quietly hating himself for making as he waits around to die decades later: “What kind of man makes a call like that?” he asks of an oblivious priest seeking his confession in the nursing home.

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The most fundamental thread of Scorsese’s cinema has been the hunt for spiritual and aesthetic clarity in desperate conflict not just with the necessities of existence within a society but also with physical and emotional hungers that lead in the opposite direction from sainthood, even whilst stemming from the same impulses. Scorsese knows about such things; he took on Raging Bull (1980) as a project after being hospitalised for a cocaine overdose, and that film’s alternations of dreamy meditation and raw savagery have infused his mature oeuvre ever since. The Irishman follows Scorsese’s masterful study of cultural and religious clash, Silence (2016). Where that film seemed a capstone on a loose trilogy studying belief after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), The Irishman rounds out Scorsese’s study of mafia lore in Goodfellas and Casino, chasing their concerns to one logical end. The unexpected quality of The Irishman is that it also unites the two bodies of work. Scorsese returns to the figuration of Judas and Jesus Scorsese wrestled with so controversially on The Last Temptation of Christ in Sheeran’s treachery towards Hoffa. This comes with an inherent sense of irony – no-one here is exactly Jesus – whilst extending Silence’s contention with devotion and betrayal, the costs of adhering to a faith, with inverted propositions, and like so many of Scorsese’s films it contends with a character who eventually faces the essential situation of being left alone to do battle, Jacob-like, with their contending angels and devils.

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The ideals of religious faith, humane and yet eternally defined by individual conscience, high-flown, transcendental, necessarily defined ultimately by a person’s solitary confrontation with their conception of eternity, have always warred in Scorsese’s vision with a different brand of faith, a social devotion defined by communal ties, hierarchy, expectation, and ruthless punishment for deviation. Religious faith, which in Scorsese often bleeds into other faiths, like labour organising in Boxcar Bertha (1971) as well as in The Irishman, contends with social faith in direct contrast: religious faith is punishment of self where social faith is punishment of others. Father Rodrigues in Silence suffered just as much and met his end just as solitary and battered as Sheeran, but his retained grip on faith into the grave signalled his most vital stem of being, no matter how tortured, retained a sense of worthiness in his life mission. By contrast Sheehan is left by the end of The Irishman entirely stripped of any illusion his choices have ultimately been worth the cost, and stripped at the same time of the things that make such costs worth bearing. The Irishman could be seen as a classical winter’s tale as Shakespeare might have recognised it, even as it refuses to become such a tale. Those are supposed to be about conciliation and natural cycles, stories where the bite of the frigid season matches the gnawing proximity of death and the necessity of making peace to facilitate rebirth. The Irishman is about the consequences of rudely assaulting nature, and instead becomes something far more like King Lear, a tragedy where a once ferocious king is left bereft and pitiful and exiled from home and kin because of the long, lingering memory of his own lessons.

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Hoffa’s actual death nimbly turns from deadpan realism, as Sheeran shoots him in the head in an awkward and rushed jumble of motion, to a precisely composed renaissance pieta, as Sheeran leaves the arranged corpse and gun lying in the foyer of an empty house. Scorsese lingers on the sight after Sheeran leaves, the weight not simply of violence and crime but of dreadful absence, the negation of Hoffa’s presence and will, forces that compelled the world. The hit excises a roadblock to easy business but also echoes as an act of violence that consumes the men who committed it. Sheeran is forever excommunicated by Peggy, refusing to speak to him again even as he shambles after her in withered age in a bank where she works, whilst the destabilisation of an equilibrium vibrates through the mob world, with authorities prosecuting and jailing everyone they can, including Sheeran and Russell. Their figurative marriage becomes more like a real one as they’re left only with each-other in a cold and cheerless old age, withering within prison walls, two men who quietly despise each-other for the compromises forced and the implied lack of forgiveness in return, chained together in a caricature of amity into the halls of prison and then the grave.

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The viewer must watch with both a touch of scorn and half-willing sympathy as Russell, dying, reveals he’s turned to religion as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair for treatment, as if he’s found a way to mollify the big boss. No major American director has dealt so sharply with imminent old age, the reduction of the human form and mind by the entirely natural predation of ageing, although in taking up such a theme in what’s nominally supposed to be a true crime thriller recalls Eastwood’s similar evocation in J. Edgar (2011). Sheeran’s corrosive experience of solitude and humiliation even after being released from prison sees him fending off two calls for purgation by confession, from the priest (Jonathan Morris) and federal agents, whilst he picks out coffins and resting places, still hunting a last echo of worldly status even into the grave. But the framing suggests Sheeran is confessing to someone, perhaps the audience, a surrogate for Brandt, a craned ear hungry for forbidden lore. All these legends lose their immediate meaning as their actors die off, even as the labour they’ve been part of, equated with both the society they comprised and the movie they appear in, persists, carrying lessons that cut many ways for those who follow. Sheeran recounting his story is one last attempt to leave a certain mark, to give experience any form of meaning. Scorsese grants him no absolution, but does offer a small consolation.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, like Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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