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

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

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

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Proof (2007)

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Director / Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Producers (1968) / Blazing Saddles (1974)

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Targets (1968)

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

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Peter Bogdanovich 1939-2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy

Licorice Pizza (2021)

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Director / Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Titane (2021)

Director / Screenwriter: Julia Ducournau

By Roderick Heath

Film festivals are in an odd position these days. Given the wealth of venues for viewing movies we have now, the idea of gathering everyone together in one place to watch the new crop threatens to feel passé. And yet critics and cognoscenti still look to the major film festivals to winnow down the ridiculous number of movies produced each year, to showcase and gate-keep for the supposed crème-de-la-crème. The Cannes Film Festival has been the premiere event in the international cinema calendar since the late 1940s, providing a great crossroads for the many artistic streams around the world, but it’s still had a bumpy ride in the past few years, with a large number of Palme d’Or winners failing to make much impact. Recently, however, Cannes has managed to reverse that to a degree, first with 2019’s anointed Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and this year’s Titane, both choices well-attuned to capitalise on contemporary cultural talking points, much as the Venice Film Festival created a stir with its 2019 choice Joker. Such choices, however good as actual films they are, nudge awareness that current film discussion is animated as much by the way art is framed as much as by what it does in itself. The way movies are sold to us today is in terms of cultural discussion as important, or indeed more so, as the movies themselves, one reason why today YouTubers can make a good living fossicking through trailers interpreting the signals blockbuster movies are transmitting into the populace, and in art-house cinema touching on hot-button issues can make a movie seem vitally important even if its message is something like, “greed is bad,” and when you’re desperately trying to make up for a roster of seventy-odd previous Palme d’Or winners where only one was directed by a woman.

All that doesn’t really have much to do with Julia Ducournau’s Titane beyond noting that it’s very easy these days to be pulled into reviewing the way a movie is framed by external factors rather than the movie itself. But today we might well be facing cinema that plays this game within itself. On YouTube it’s common to see movie trailers that start off with a kind of miniature trailer within a trailer, a little grab-bag of moments of action and spectacles offered as a taster presumably offered to instantly capture the attention of attention-deficient young people. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with Titane, except that the film’s narrative approach reminded a little of this: Titane is frontloaded with elements of attention-getting intransigence before taking a swerve into something for the large part more conventional. Ducournau emerged in 2017 with the gruesome, stylish Raw, a portrait of a girl attending a veterinarian school, who contends with the abusive social strata in the student body and begins to develop voracious cannibalistic traits. Ducournau immediately declared herself in the running as one of the many possible heirs to David Cronenberg as the founder and champion of “body horror” on the current scene. Ducournau is also working in a familiar stream of outrageous, carnally and intellectually provocative French filmmaking long plied by the likes of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, and Jean-Claude Brisseau: Ducournau borrows Vincent Lindon to play a similar character type as he did in Denis’ Bastards (2013), the igneous but weathered exemplar of Gallic manhood.

Body horror retains an aura of cool because it readily situates itself at a fruitful nexus of cinema’s most low-down and most exalted aesthetic vantages. Any director who dabbles in it is automatically edgy because not everyone can stomach it, but it’s easy to be considered elevated in the mode too, because body horror challenges contemporary culture’s obsession with physical wellness and beauty and easy commercialised images of such by degrading, perverting, and outright assaulting such imagery with inversions of decay, damage, and grotesquery. It is therefore intellectually and aesthetically connected with the deliberate destabilisation and defiling of form found in post-World War I modernist art. Which leads me to consider another odd contemporary trait: nostalgic attachment to yesterday’s iconoclasm, often matched by an absolute resistance to current iconoclasm. Anyway. Ducournau’s first film, in a manner that’s becoming increasingly pervasive in current, ambitious horror cinema, turned the cannibalistic theme into an unsubtle metaphor, in this case for emergent sexuality, which was something horror cinema had done arguably to more effect before, but the framing of quasi-abstract artiness made it more respectable, more discourse-worthy. One problem with body horror is that, to me at any rate, it’s a style most effective when being sparing. Many of Cronenberg’s imitators, constantly trying to up the ante of provocation and abnormality, see their films devolve into sprawls of blood and other bodily fluids without that much wit or depth to their musings, and indeed I too often get the feeling the showmanship is substituting for anything actually stimulating to say.

Ducournau is most interesting for most onlookers as a female filmmaker venturing into this zone, and both Raw and Titane are predicated around impudently twisting ideals of femaleness on screen. Actually Titane is ultimately rather old-fashioned, given the fiercely schismatic debates going on about gender and its meaning today, in what it says about the female body. Ducournau’s journey to that end is a long and winding one. She begins with a jarring scene that presents an everyday sort of life-altering disaster. 7-year-old Alexia (Adele Guigui) sitting in the backseat of her father’s (Bertrand Bonello) SUV, stokes his irritation with constant humming, fidgeting, and finally unbuckling her seat belt and flipping about. When the father turns momentarily to force her back into her seat, he loses control of the car and it crashes against kerbside barrier blocks. Cut to gruesome surgery scenes as surgeons implant a titanium cap in Alexia’s skull, which leaves her with a large scar, and Ducournau’s vision of the shaven-headed girl, encaged by a steel truss (nodding less to Cronenberg than to the vision of the hospitalised father in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, another constant point of emulation for would-be art-house provocateurs) presents her as something already ambiguous in gender and physical integrity, a fusion of human and machine, a misbegotten by-product of rage, damage, and family. As she’s released from hospital, Alexia walks to the family car, caressing it and hugging it, pressing her scar against the window glass as if in intimate communion.

Ducournau takes this basic idea to a weird and literal extreme as the adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is portrayed as erotically attracted to cars. Ducournau stages a long, dynamic tracking shot travelling through the environs of an auto show where exotic dancers gyrate atop vehicles to The Kills’ “Doing It To Death,” conjoining the fetishisation of flesh and of shiny steel for the titillation of the mostly male consumers, but Alexia has ironically taken this to the logical conclusion as her dances are to covertly get her rocks off with the machines, even as they’ve made her famous in this world. But Alexia’s strange tastes have a dangerous side. Showering after her performance, she gets her hair entangled with the nipple ring of a friendly fellow dancer, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a moment of comic intimacy; as she heads out to her car later, she’s tracked by a male fan who crosses the line between eagerness and offensiveness when he tries to force her to kiss him, whereupon he stabs him in the ear with a sharp metal file she hides in her hair like a hairpin. Ducournau seems to stoke sympathy for Alexis here, presenting her as a cold-blooded survivor who’s justified to a degree in lashing out at a sexist and abusive world. But this is soon enough revealed as Ducournau trolling the audience: Alexis is an active serial killer, murdering anyone she gets close to.

We’re obviously in quasi-surrealist territory here, even before our antiheroine fucks a car and gets pregnant by it. Or at least, surrealism in a contemporary usage. Original, authentic surrealism aimed to move beyond mere symbolism and strangeness to explore a realm of total instability, where all things can become their opposites; its aim was anarchic. Titane is not anarchic, not really: how it works as a movie depends on the degree to which one swallows the storyline’s outlandish ideas as metaphorical. We can, say, interpret Alexis’ injury and reconstruction as recovery from childhood abuse and her later persona as a resulting maladaption, her ardour for cars a symbol of a need for perverse and self-mortifying kicks, as well as offering a clear enough nod to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But it’s more fun to take literally. Alexis, infused with foreign metal as a child, has been infected with the hunger for steel, and only such fearsome penetration can satisfy her, the language of the metal beings is the one she speaks. Ducournau depicts Alexis having an actual erotic encounter with a self-animated Cadillac that demands she emerge from her dressing room, car bouncing up and down with glaring headlights and beeping horn as Alexis within has a raging orgasm, wrists wrapped in the seatbelts and tits jogging merrily, sweat flowing down her tattooed form. A bold, funny, weird, sexy image. We, and she, will of course pay a price for this. Turns out if you have an automobile for a lover you can still get knocked up.

Anyway, Alexia’s taste for violence asserts itself when she hooks up with Justine, biting her nipple with hungry force when they make out at a waterfront locale, just before Alexia vomits and realises she’s fallen pregnant by the car. When she goes to Alexia’s house and they resume their make-out session, Alexia slays Justine once again by her hair needle, missing at first and plunging it into her cheek, before a struggle that ends when Alexia manages to plant it in Justine’s ear. But she’s quickly confronted by the necessity of killing the two people Justine shared the house with, plus a random guy one had brought home for sex. Here Ducournau feels locked in the same creative zone as Raw, basically repeating its driving, punkish preoccupation with a young woman whose carnal needs manifest as a desire to kill, only sans cannibalism and with a different motivation. It could be that Alexia is supposed to be gripped with such a homicidal impulse because of her injuries, or because she’s not entirely human anymore. But the real explanation is that Ducournau simply wants to galvanise the audience with images of bloodshed and mayhem ironically committed by a young and sexy woman. When she has Alexis tussle with a topless woman on the stairway, it seems Ducournau’s trying to do an arty lampoon of trashy thrills. Alexia, deliberate as she is in her murderous activities, experiences a blackly comedy exasperation as her task keeps getting more gruelling, including killing a sweet-natured black man named Jerome (Lamine Cissokho) and one of Alexia’s housemates: a second manages to throw her off and escape. Realising she’s going to be busted, Alexia returns to her home and sets fire to her clothes, seeming to set fire to her family home as well, and flees northwards.

It’s easy to see why Ducournau kept all this stuff in her script, because it’s provided all the talking points for many critics and viewers ever since, the sort of thing that gets reported in breathless “it’s so crazy” terms, even though it only accounts for about a third of the film. The rest of Titane is an oddball take on a Shakespearean pastoral play, mixed with a variation on the Monster and the blind man scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Alexia adopts a cunning plan to elude police: a couple of times early in the movie an old missing persons case is mentioned on TV broadcasts, with the father of a young boy named Adrien Legrand who vanished several years earlier still searching for the son he still resolutely believes it alive. Realising she looks just enough like a new computer-aged picture of the boy that’s being circulated by investigators to possibly pass for him, Alexia retreats to a bus station bathroom and quickly gives herself a brutal makeover to look like a teenage boy, even breaking her nose on the sink to complete the illusion. And so she’s ironically able to use the police hunting for her to instead deliver her to Adrien’s father, Vincent (Lindon). Vincent proves so eager to find his son that it quickly becomes clear he’s willing to accept anyone in the role, refusing to get a DNA test and immediately taking “Adrien” under his wing. Vincent is the captain of an all-male squad of firefighters, and he swiftly inducts his reclaimed son into their ranks.

This portion of the film feels the most adroitly observed and successfully ironic, in the contrasting visions of people doing gruelling things to themselves in bathrooms. Alexia’s self-effacing, self-mutilating adventure, strapping down her breasts and smashing her nose and shaving her head to a ragged crop, segues into vignettes of Vincent not just forcing his body through a gruelling nightly exercise regime, but injecting himself in his bruised and track mark-riddled flank with steroids. This is his ongoing attempt to maintain his physical fortitude as the macho hero and king of the crew of professional heroes: as Alexia is trying to erase and overcome her biological identity, Vincent trying desperately to hang onto his. This works because, wild as the adult-woman-passing-as-a-teen-boy twist is and these scenes nudge zones of heightened grotesquery, it’s still made just sufficiently believable by Ducournau and the actors. I’m sure someone’s also already writing a thesis comparing the scenes of attractive women breaking their own noses in this and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow from earlier this year, an act with the quality of a last taboo. With so many women, and men, in the world desperately trying to improve their looks, to reverse their aging, to assert their inner vision of what they are over the crude material of their genetics and environmental moulding, what perverse freedom in the act.

Once this point is made, however, Titane begins to tread water, settling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of Alexia/Adrien constantly trying to avoid being caught in the altogether, first when she’s bunked down for the night when her/his “father” comes to give her clean clothes, and then repeatedly thereafter. In between are vignettes of Vincent fiercely declaring his determination to protect Alexia/Adrien at all costs, and his pseudo-offspring interacting uneasily with the firefighter squad, including when she accompanies them on an emergency call and manages to save a life. The smirking younger men take the slight and shy-eyed Adrien to be “gay.” For a moment I imagined a more farcical variation on the situation where all the nominally straight young braves start hitting on the newbie who has to keep his own secrets, but this is a supposedly serious movie. Finally Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou), the mother of the missing boy, barges in on Alexia and recognising her fraud demands a basic compact: she won’t tell on Alexia if Alexia will continue her charade for Vincent’s sake as one who truly knows how deep and painful his psychic wound is. Underlying all the superficial perversity here then is a straightforward emotional arc: Alexia, so badly damaged by her own pinch-faced father’s incapacity to control himself, finds a superior father figure in Vincent, who engages Alexia/Adrien in an extended dance of role-playing where each is entirely willing to sustain their role according to their needs, leading to moments like Vincent insisting on shaving Alexia/Adrien’s face, as well as ignoring the gigantic scar from her childhood operation on her head.

Their relationship seems to be constantly in danger from the ticking biological clock of Alexia’s pregnancy, and she finds herself increasingly, frustratingly beset by her body’s rebellion against her attempts to bury it. Eventually she’s forced to survey her mangled form, covered in bruises and gouges and with the stigmata of her unnatural pregnancy breaking out regardless as she leaks out motor oil in place of milk and blood from nipples and vagina, and splitting skin on her bulging belly reveals the infesting gleam of metal. This narrative turn reminded me, in a seemingly distant swerve of attention, of something out of ancient ritual myth, or variations transmitted in some more profane vehicle like Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973) – the seer who loses her mystic power when she’s sexually awakened. Similarly, Ducournau seems to offer Alexia as depowered by the admission of anything like human feeling, with her killings representing some sort of sovereign power – a ridiculous metaphor but okay – that she loses, although it’s her impregnation that nominally starts her down this road, an impregnation brought about by her rare nature. The trouble with this is that the early scenes of Titane seem to explicitly disavow sentimentality in terms of its characters, only to then try and milk Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s relationship for something resembling grounded pathos. Their connection is deepened when Alexia finds Vincent prone after one of his steroid injections goes wrong, and finds she can’t take advantage of the chance to kill him.

More power to artists trying to walk a tonal tightrope and reach for strange new epiphanies, but I never felt particularly convinced or compelled by any of this, despite Lindon’s vehemently committed and deeply felt performance: Lindon is one of the best actors in movies today, and he brings a depth of feeling and a palpable sense of his character’s bleary mental and emotional exhaustion and desperate attempts to keep up appearances. The greater part of the problem is that Alexia/Adrien is by comparison an empty vessel: the casually murderous entity of the first section of the film becomes a poor vehicle for exploring unexpected and unusual bonds later in the film. It might have been more interesting if Alexia/Adrien was allowed a greater degree of self-expression, but the character is stricken with an impassive blankness beyond mere registers of transient feelings – pain, anger and so forth – particularly emphasised in the long mid-section of the film where Alexis/Adrien refuses to speak lest her voice give the game away and it’s taken for a traumatic symptom. Such blankness is rather too common in contemporary “serious” movies, usually because filmmakers want characters who function as ready viewpoint figures, but Alexia remains stuck someplace else, between multifarious symbol and actual character. Alexia’s scar is constantly, improbably on show, obvious both when she’s a dancer – is that a good career move? – and later when she’s posing as Adrien, gaining no comment from anyone. Again, of course, one can read it as symbolism of a kind, but it still feels overly garish and distracting.

In Raw Marillier also played a character called Justine, whilst the two major characters framing her emergent nature were named Alexia and Adrien, suggesting those names have some totemic meaning, particularly in their ultimate pseudo-fusion. Ducournau killing off this version of Justine, who’s bold and queer, might represent some leaving behind of the past. Or maybe it’s just a precious screenwriting touch. The version of Alexia presented early in the film is completely unsympathetic; the version we get later, the quasi-Adrien, we’re asked to feel some odd sympathy for as she’s beset by increasing impotence, stricken as her body rebels on her and her former cold-bloodedness deserts her – she can’t kill Vincent and she fails in her attempt to abort her new body-infesting foetus with her hair needle. She can’t even wield the same sexual imperiousness as before – when she’s laughingly goaded by the fire fighters into dancing atop a fire truck during one of their unit’s occasional parties, her sexy dance style falls flat by the weirded-out young men. This scene aims for cringe-inducing discomfort and obtains it, although Ducournau seems to think it’s utterly verboten for a young man to dance like a sexy woman. Most guys would find it hilarious and the highpoint of the party. The repeated jabs at the raunch culture Alexia profits off feel rather dated in themselves, whilst Ducournau’s collection of firefighters looks like a gang of male strippers anyway. The cultural targets in Titane feel a bit hackneyed is what I’m saying. Alexia’s revisit of her ritual seduction dance is then followed by her attempt to get it on with the fire truck, but gains no result: Alexia has lost her ability to give or gain satiety that way.

Being inducted into the firefighter crew at least seems to offer Alexia/Adrien the chance to enter a world defined by madcap physical heroism and gutsy dedication that’s the polar opposite of her/his sharklike and parasitic existence, an induction that also sees Alexia/Adrien slowly embrace the role of sustaining Vincent’s illusions, something everyone around him seems to agree to do on one level or another. Vincent already has a surrogate son figure on his team, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who gets jealous of Alexia/Adrien. It’s not a thread of the film that goes anywhere, and Rayane is killed later when he and Vincent fearlessly venture into a forest fire and Vincent gets him to take charge of a gas canister retrieved from a caravan which then explodes. This event serves to chiefly serve to drive Vincent even deeper into his self-imposed role, even beholding Alexia naked finally but still avowing his function as father and protector. Things build to a head as Alexia tries to seduce Vincent, a move that creeps him out too much, but also seems to finally provoke Alexia to give birth, with Vincent desperately trying to coach her as her body tries to do something at once natural and inimical.

Much of Titane made me wish Ducournau had stuck to the initial epater-le-bourgeois zaniness or had started with Vincent accepting this odd changeling and had rolled from there in a more careful journey through a game of arbitrarily agreed rules in deception and acceptance. Because it feels like an uneasy conjunction of a couple of different script drafts, and there are points in the film where it comes close to – quelle horreur – a typical indie feels entry where some life-ragged people find each-other and form an oddball unit. Or perhaps it’s the dream life of the Fast and Furious films turned inside out, with their obsession with cars and family. The scene with Vincent’s ex-wife, although exceptionally well-performed by Akheddiou, nonetheless disrupts the dragonfly-skating-on-water tenor of the rest of the film’s mutually agreed reality, a veering into quotidian psychological realism that feels misjudged. Overall, as a film Titane lacks the derivative but compelling aesthetic of Raw, and in many ways feels like a classic awkward sophomore effort, even if the faults it shares with its precursor are fairly consistent: an indecisive tenor to the toggling between realism and anti-realism, and a lack of a clear sense of somewhere interesting or exciting to go after the basic conceits are employed and their elemental value expended, until a great climactic image partly makes up the difference. This climax does manage to bring many of the film’s meandering threads and depraved emotions to coherent and fitting terminus, culminating with the indelibly sick image of Vincent cradling Alexia’s offspring with veins of rippling metal running up its spine and head, ironically reborn himself as a father to some fresh hybrid whilst the misbegotten mother lying dead and mangled.

Ducournau’s attempt to restore some of the primal anxiety inherent in childbirth is fascinatingly visualised even if it remains at an arm’s length from the nominal narrative containing it. Maybe if I felt something more maniacal and wilful in Alexia, something that made her body’s rebellion and her ultimate fate feel more palpable, I might have been more persuaded by the drama overall. But I kept thinking back to the moment in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) where Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) wails “Oh no!” when she suffers a crippling injury that finally foils her brash physicality. That scene hits in a few brief seconds exactly the note Titane tries constantly to strike. In terms of the film’s nominal exploration of gender role-playing, Titane actually makes an unfashionable point – that, no matter how it’s denied, disguised, revised, and inhabited, the body is still ultimately a slave to nature. Perhaps the proper zone of ambiguity there is just what nature is, what it imposes on us, the people trapped within such cages of flesh, could be a much larger question than anyone knows. Which is a damned interesting point to chase down, and the pity with Titane is that it doesn’t really ask it until the very end.

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1980s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, War

The Keep (1983)

Director / Screenwriter: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

The Keep’s very first shot, as if tracing the path of a falling angel, describes a seemingly endless downwards pan, descending from grey, storm-ridden sky to jagged pine forests clinging to the flanks of soaring mountains, before finally settling on a convoy of grey-painted Wehrmacht trucks labouring their way up a narrow mountain pass, set to the throbbing, alien textures of Tangerine Dream’s score evoking both the roll of thunder and the chugging of the straining motors and mimicking the narcotising effect on the German soldiers rolling up the road. A cigarette lit in ultra-close-up, a shot of caterpillar tracks churning along the gravelly road, swooning visions of the mist-drapped mountain peaks. Immediately, director Michael Mann, making his second feature after Thief (1981), deposits the viewer within a dreamlike space, offering a classical Horror genre setting and motif in journeying from the mundane world into one of oneiric remove, but wrapped not in traditional genre style cues, but a hard shell of burgeoning 1980s high style cinema. The year, a title card informs us, is 1941, with the Nazi onslaught reaching its climax with armies closing in on Moscow. In this place, the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, Captain Klaus Woermann, embodied in rugged, sagging melancholy by Jürgen Prochnow, leads his men into a tiny Romanian hamlet clinging to the jagged walls of the pass’s highest reaches, to occupy and garrison an enigmatic medieval fortification there.

Actually entering the village, penetrating a veil of mist to behold a medieval hamlet, sees Mann shifts to slow motion and the score to spacy, mysterious strains as Woermann surveys this piece of another, older world cut off from the sturm-und-drang of the warlike moment and, seemingly, whole other intervening centuries. And the Keep itself, a featureless trapezoidal block of grey brick, looming over the village and a deep gorge. One of Woermann’s men complains about this unimportant detail when Germany’s soldiers are near to total victory, but Woermann assures him the real fighting is over and Germany is now master of Europe: “Does that enthrall you?” he enquires with theatrical enthusiasm. Woermann’s own ambivalence over fighting in a war that most certainly does not enthral him is something that resolves even as his situation becomes ever more mysterious and terrible. Woermann and his men enter the Keep and begin setting up their garrison. But Woermann notes, however, the building is not a defensive structure, but designed like a prison. The walls are lined with 108 silvery, crucifix-like markings that the Keep’s caretaker, Alexandru (Morgan Sheppard), warns are not to be touched, a taboo he insists upon with deadly seriousness although he doesn’t know why and can’t report any bad events in the Keep save the general refusal of visitors to stay through the night: “Then what drives people out in the middle of a rainy night?” Woermann questions. “Dreams?” the caretaker replies.

Since the time of its release, The Keep could scarcely seem more benighted. Despised by F. Paul Wilson, author of its source novel, it was also soon disowned by Mann, furious at the way Paramount Pictures threw the film away after losing faith in the project. Special effects master Wally Veevers died during production, leaving the planned spectacular finale in uneditable disarray. Finally the film proved a calamitous bomb at the box office and was generally dismissed by critics, although many Horror genre fans and scholars grasped its unique and fascinating aesthetic. Mann’s active role in keeping the film hidden away, refusing to let it be released on DVD for many years, only helped its slow accruing of near-legendary mystique for anyone who could catch it on TV or had access to its early VHS and laserdisc releases. The Keep has evolved into one of my absolute favourite films, and its evident flaws are an indivisible part of its compelling makeup. After success with the telemovie The Jericho Mile (1979), Mann made a terrific debut as a feature filmmaker with Thief, a movie that commenced Mann’s career-long aesthetic preoccupation with trying to blend classical genre cinema with a hypermodern, dramatically distilled approach, trying to place as much of the weight of the storytelling and ambience fall on his rigorously constructed imagery that often nudges a kind of neo-expressionistic minimalism. This approach generally suits his preference for tough, stoic heroes, beings who still have some of the toey instinctiveness of forest animals even in the densest urban jungle.

When, for his second film, Mann chose to make a Horror movie, he took a similarly essentialist approach, trying to make a movie describing the idea of a Horror movie as much as the thing itself. He stripped out almost all of the background lore of Wilson’s novel and trying to convey a sense of dread and lurking menace through careful visualisation, to make a fable of pure menace and mood. Mann shot most of The Keep in Shepperton Studios whilst building the Romanian village and the Keep’s exterior in a Welsh quarry, but Mann’s notorious later habit of causing budget overruns with his exacting shooting style was apparently already emerging. But, again as he would later, Mann’s exacting reach for effect justifies itself. The early shots see him weaving his style in a series of elusive directorial flourishes: that opening shot conveys place and time but relentlessly pushes the eye down a vertical access, giving little sense of the surrounds. A lake surface mirrors back the sky, turning the grand space into a trap. Woermann’s first glimpses of the village are dreamy, punch-drunk, barely liminal. The Keep itself is hardly glimpsed apart from the looming grey gateway, with only two proper wide exterior shots of the structure in the whole film. This approach lets Mann skirt location and special effects shortfalls, of course, but also conditions the viewer to a zone unmoored from any sure sense of geography and spatial stability, just as Woermann beholds a scene out of the Middle Ages, unmoored in time.

The Keep itself presents a cultural, architectural, and military conundrum: the locals who maintain it have no real idea of how old it is, who pays for its upkeep, or what its purpose it ever served. Woermann’s soldierly eye notices that for what seems to be a defensive structure it’s built inside out, with easily scalable exterior walls and the largest, strongest stone blocks inside, more like a prison. Rumours start to grip Woermann’s more avaricious men, including Pvt Lutz (John Vine), that the crosses are made of silver and other treasures might be hidden in the Keep: Lutz tries to break off one of the crosses only to receive watch detail for a week from the irate Woermann. During the night, as Lutz stands bored and lonely watch, one of the crosses begins emitting an eerily bright blue light, and looking closer at it Lutz realises that this cross does indeed seem to be silver. He fetches another man on watch, Otto (Jona Jones), and the two men claw out the granite block the cross is affixed to, revealing a narrow tunnel that Lutz crawls into. Mann’s stylistic oddness continues in this sequence, as he distorts the avaricious franticness of the two soldiers with slow-motion shots of them running to and fro amidst hazily backlit shots, all bound together in strange manner by the use of Tangerine Dream’s theme “Logos” on the soundtrack, imbuing a propulsive mood, if retaining a spacy, alien texture inherent in that classic synthesiser sound, of a unit with Mann’s recurrent passion with intensely rhythmic image-audio match-ups, the flagrant anachronism of the scoring heightening the disorientating texture.

Lutz crawls into the passage and dislodges a block, only to almost fall into a vast, dark space beyond, saved because he had Otto tie a strap to his waist. In one of the greatest shots in all of fantastic cinema, Mann’s camera retreats a seemingly infinite distance away from the soldier’s dwindling torch into the furthest depths of the abyss, a space which contains mysterious ruins of some ancient structures. Once the long pullback shot finally concludes, a surge of light swoops into the frame and coalesces into ball of light that rises up to meet the faint torchlight. Otto is almost pulled into the tunnel by a sudden, violent jerking, and when he drags his comrade out, finds only a steaming, headless trunk, before being flung away with bone-shattering force as a mysterious power floods out of the shaft and infests the Keep. Mann cuts with headlong force to the antipathetic force stirred to action: Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), awakening in a bed somewhere in Greece, eyes glowing and surging energy drawing into his body, stirred by the eruption of the entity in the Keep. Glaekus rises from bed, packs his belongings including a long wooden case, and heads to the docks of Piraeus where he bribes a fishing boat captain to take him to the Romanian coast: Mann films the boat’s voyage into dawn light in a languorously beautiful vignette.

Walking the line between intriguing hints and frustrating vagueness is always a tricky art, and for many Mann went too far with The Keep. But it’s precisely the film’s allusive sense of arcane and ageless struggle, and its near-ethereal, carefully reductive vision of perfect forms of good and evil, that makes it something unique, the hints of cosmic battles and unknowable history at the heart of the story, a vast mythic-emblematic Manichaeism pointedly set against the more immediate and definable evil of Nazism, the heart of darkness nested inside the European übermenschen dream. Paramount might well have hoped the film would prove a Horror movie variant on the supernatural anti-Nazi revenge fantasy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most broadly and obviously, the film presents a variation on the classic motif of a haunted castle. Wilson’s novel presented a Lovecraft-tinted rewrite of that founding tome of modern Horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a work that’s retained much of its popularity for the way, published just before the dawn of the 20th century, it charted so many of the oncoming age’s faultlines. Wilson made more literal the connection between Dracula and the paranoid impression of dread power and evil rising in the east of Europe it articulated, by moving the setting to World War II and drawing together crosscurrents of folklore and politics at the moment.

Mann, whilst divesting much of the novel’s superstructure, had his own take on the same idea evidently in mind. In particular, Mann seemed interested in investigating through visual and thematic refrains the link suggested by German film historian Siegfried Krakauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler between the psychic anxieties communicated in the imagery of classic German Expressionist films and the oncoming fascist mentality. The German Expressionist era was replete with contradictions, like future Nazi Paul Wegener’s obsession with the Jewish myth of the Golem that caused him to make two films on the subject, and the Nazi leaders’ worship of the monumental aesthetic laid down by the half-Jewish Fritz Lang. Krakauer’s ideas had their highly dubious aspect, but Mann found how to put them to dynamic use, making The Keep perhaps the closest thing anyone has made to a truly modern take on the Expressionist Horror style, and tethering it to a story that specifically offers meditation on the Nazi mindset and questions of how to resist it. The story purposefully unfolds simultaneous to WWII’s supreme tipping point of the furthest Nazi advance during the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the drama enacted in the Keep is both far more intimate than the war and far larger, a confrontation of primeval forces.

Mann’s casting notably has the Eastern European characters speak with American accents, to emphasise their distinctness from the Germans, who are played by a mix of British, Irish, and German actors. Mann also shifted away from the novel’s use of vampirism, which he found silly: once the entity trapped within the grand cavern is unleashed into the Keep, it begins killing Woermann’s men by absorbing their life essence, leaving charred and withered corpses. The entity, appearing after a time as a writhing pillar of fog around a stem of skeletal parts and blood vessels, builds substance out of its harvested victims. The idea of a monster slowly assembling itself a physical form echoes back to Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and would be used again in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999). Woermann’s messages of distress soon bring not relocation as he hopes, but an SS Einstaz Kommando detachment under the command of Sturmbahnführer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), which steams into the village, takes a number of hostages, and shoots them before their horrified fellow villagers. Kaempffer promises of more retaliation against them if any more Germans are killed. The irate Woermann, who is ordered by Kaempffer not to interfere, points out that Kaempffer has just killed citizens of an allied state.

Kaempffer nonetheless begins using all his arrogant prowess as a bully and killer to get to the bottom of the mystery, using terror tactics to root out presumed partisans. “Something else is killing us,” Woermann states in riposte: “And if it doesn’t care about the lives of three villagers? If it is like you? Then does your fear work?” When some mysterious words appear carved in a wall of the Keep near another dead soldier, the village priest, Father Mikhail Fonescu (Robert Prosky) recognises that the words are not written in any living language, and suggests the only way Kaempffer might get them translated is to find Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a scholar and expert in Romanian history and linguistics, who grew up in the village and once made a study of the Keep. Problem: Cuza is Jewish, and has recently been rounded up for deportation. Cuza and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are at that moment sitting in a depot with other Jews, Gypsies and sundry undesirables awaiting transportation. Cuza is crippled by a degenerative disease that makes him look far older than he really is, and Eva acts as his carer.

Kaempffer’s command brings them both to the Keep, where the SS commander taunts Cuza with talk of place he was just about to be taken to, a place with two doors out, one of them a chimney: “So you had better find a way to be of use to me in three days.” Cuza recognises the language of the writing on the wall as a language dead for 500 years, and reads, “I will be free,” a message Kaempffer immediately interprets as a rebel declaration. Woermann tries to assure the Cuzas that he might be able to sneak them out of the Keep to a safe hiding place if they can buy enough time by keeping Kaempffer satisfied: “But then again you may not,” Eva comments sceptically. Eva soon attracts the lascivious eye of a couple of the German soldiers, who track her through the Keep after she comes to get food in the mess, and assault her in a dark, lonely corridor. Mann pulls off another of his weird yet potent visual flourishes as he pans down from Eva’s body, suspended between the two would-be rapists, to the leather boot of one soldier, an almost fetishistic contrast of the soft and feminine with macho brutality. As with the appeal to greed that helped set it free, the assault on Eva only stimulates the entity’s appetite as well as its cunning: the entity, now a ball of fire and smoke reminiscent of the one that pursues the hero of Night of the Demon (1957), surges through the Keep’s innards and falls on the soldiers, who disintegrate messily as the entity absorbs them.

Mann lingers on the image of the entity, now with two burning red eye-like orbs attached to a glowing brain stem, peering out of a writhing pillar of mist, carrying Eva with tender-seeming care back to her and her father’s room, a particularly strange distillation of the classic image of the monster and the maiden, whilst the scoring imbues the vision with the overtone of angelic deliverance. The stunned Cuza nonetheless retains his wit and will sufficiently to tell the entity to release his daughter. The entity speaks to Cuza, accusing him of collaborating with the Nazis: Cuza responds vehemently that he’d do anything to stop them, so the entity reaches out and touches him, giving him a shock of energy. When he regains consciousness, Cuza finds that he’s been restored to full health and mobility, and he realises why quickly enough: the entity wants his help to escape the Keep, which still entraps him. When he again encounters the entity, whose name, Molasar (Michael Carter), is only uttered once in the film, the mysterious being refers to the Jews as “my people” and vows to destroy the Nazis if Cuza will help him escape the Keep: Cuza agrees to find a mysterious energy source hidden in the grand cavern, an object Molasar describes as the source of his power and must be removed if he is to leave the Keep’s confines.

Mann’s enigmatic approach to the entity and the supernatural drama emphasises the humans in between ultimate good and evil as enacting gradations. “You believe in Gods, I’ll believe in men,’ Cuza tells Fonescu, and yet both material and emblematic conflicts have to play out to their bitter end. Where Thief had mooted Mann’s fascination for self-enclosed, self-directing protagonists, The Keep introduced his other career-long obsession, one with with doppelgangers, characters sharing similar traits and characters who often find they have surprising kinships, yet are doomed to clash violently because they’ve become, or were born, disciples of opposing creeds. It’s a preoccupation Mann would notably take into Manhunter, which revolves around the hero’s capacity to enter into the mindset of his repulsive quarries, and Heat (1995), where the cop and criminal have more affinity for each-other than anyone else, as well as The Last of the Mohicans (1991), where the heroes and villains are linked but also perfectly distinguished by their responses to loss of home and habitat. Mann would extend his recurrent imagery and implications to the point where he’d shoot Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat (2015) in a way that would make him look strikingly similar to Glenn in this film. In The Keep Mann’s preoccupation is presented in a set of generically rigid yet unstable binaries: Woermann and Kaempffer, representing Nazi Germany’s armed forces and yet divided by completely different characters and philosophies, contrasted with the atheist Cuza and Orthodox priest Fonescu, who’s desperate to do anything to keep his learned friend safe, and gives Cuza a crucifix as a gesture of protective feeling: Cuza hands the cross on to Woermann. In the course of The Keep, the link between the overt evil of the Nazis, particularly Kaempffer, and the entity as manifestation and overlord of their diseased ideals, is constantly reiterated; Woermann likens the twisted psyches of the Nazis to the illogical forms of the Keep’s architecture, and the entity itself no mere stand-in for their sick fantasies but the secret source of them.

As the film unfolds the affinities evolve and twist: Fonescu, under the influence of the evil in the Keep, degenerates into a ranting fanaticism for his creed like Kaempffer, whilst Cuza’s physical prostration is mimicked by Woermann’s moral impotence. At the same time the shaded oppositions cast Woermann as a pawn of the necessities of patriotism in the same way the entity turns Cuza into his Faustian representative: Cuza’s desire to smash the Nazis is realised but as he flexes his fist in his new strength he unconsciously mimics a fascist salute. Behind each set of mirroring protagonists, the eternal champions of light and dark, converging in the Keep. Glenn’s Glaeken is glimpsed making his way to the Dinu Pass, frightening and intimidating a pair of Romanian border guards at a checkpoint when his eyes again flash with brilliant energy as he warns them not to touch the case he has strapped to his motorcycle, a marvellously eerie vignette. Fittingly for a character intended as the pure incarnation of good, the otherworldly Glaeken is also presented as the ne plus ultra of Mannian hero figures: mostly silent, he dominates purely by corporeal presence and baleful charisma, communicated by a stare that seems to x-ray people even when not radiating supernatural energy. Mann had Glenn base his character’s odd, halting, ritualistic speaking style on the vocalisation of electronic musician Laurie Anderson. Glaeken turns up in the village at last making claim to a room in the inn which has been promised to Eva, after Woermann and Cuza outmanoeuvre Kaempffer in getting her out of the Keep. Glaeken the eternal warrior seems to have been left to wander the earth until needed to exterminate Molasar once and for all, and he quickly seduces Eva.

Mann’s debt to William Friedkin as a source of influence on his style – one that would reverse for To Live and Die In L.A. (1986), much to Mann’s displeasure – is apparent in The Keep through borrowing of Tangerine Dream’s pulsing, estranging sonic textures and a visual preoccupation with machines in motion from Sorcerer (1977), and subsuming that film’s subtler sense of atavistic powers working behind the mask of inanimate yet strangely motivated things. Mann’s style is its own thing, that said, to a radical degree. Mann contrives glimpses of grotesque and perplexing things, like the discovery of a dead soldier under the carved words comes in an obliquely framed glimpse of the man’s head fused into the wall, one staring eye amidst a charred black face, and Eva realising she can’t see Glaeken’s reflection in a mirror in what seems a perfectly intimate moment. The colour palette of Alex Thompson’s brilliant photography is mostly reduced to a sprawl of slate greys and blacks and misty whites, tellingly broken up only by the red of the SS Nazi armbands and the glowing eyes of Molasar. The film is full of disorientating jump cuts and discordant camera angles, work to sever a clear sense of chronology and context, as precise measures of time and place cease to be relevant as if within an explosion of the innermost Id, whilst relating back to classic genre cinema and the sense imbued by works from Lang through to Val Lewton of a world gone mad: indeed the cumulative sense of isolated paranoia closely resembles Isle of the Dead (1945), with which it shares a wartime setting and invocation of imminent doom in an isolated locale that seems to have slipped off the edge of the world’s physical and psychic maps.

Molasar meanwhile poses as a saviour to please and manipulate Cuza, who’s desperate to find a way to halt the Nazi onslaught: the Molasar costume, designed by Enki Bilal, an artist for the storied sci-fi and fantasy comic book Heavy Metal, was designed to be reminiscent of Wegener’s Golem with its dark, lumpen, bulbous, stony form, and Molasar, like the Golem of myth, promises to be a righteous weapon defending the faithful and victimised, only to prove a destructive monster. Molasar needs a man like Cuza to release him because, as Glaeken later mentions when he confronts Cuza, only an uncorrupted soul can even approach the imprisoning talisman. McKellen, who after playing D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (1981) was having a brief moment as a major film actor long before his eventual resurgence in the mid-1990s, wields a noticeably plummy American accent, but ultimately gives a galvanic, impressively corporal performance in playing an intellectual hero who nonetheless experiences his world physically in his relationship with his wrecked body and frustrated will, and whose transfiguration from angry cripple to empowered and determined avenger has suggestions of both spiritual and erotic overtones – “He touched my body!” he tells Eva in describing his encounter with Molasar. This echoes again in Glaeken’s seduction of Eva, an act that has the flavour of ritual, the lovers become vessels connecting the immortal and mortal, sacred and earthly, flesh and alien substance, culminating in the couple forming themselves into a cruciform.

Prochnow was undoubtedly handed the part of Woermann because of his similar role as the intelligent and humane U-boat captain fighting for an evil cause in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), although Woermann’s ultimately quite a different character, and Prochnow gives a subtly apposite performance. Where the captain was endlessly tough and resourceful in defence of his men and his command whilst maintain open cynicism for their cause, Woermann is already bursting at the seams when he arrives at the Keep, haunted by witnessing SS men slaughtering people in Poznan, and by the wish he’d fought in the international brigades in Spain and had taken a stand against Nazism before it consumed his and everyone else’s lives. His punishment for his failures of nerve is to be stricken with ineffectiveness in protecting his men, relieved only by upbraiding the icily revolted Kaempffer, who ultimately diagnoses Woermann in turn with “the debilitating German disease – sentimental talk.” Woermann describes Kaempffer’s version of strength as having become literal in the Keep, a force of evil beyond imagining, the manifestation of all the sick psyches that have been given guns and carte blanche to slaughter. The clashes between Woermann and Kaempffer are unusually potent rhetorical vignettes thanks in part to the intensity of the two performers, inhabiting archetypal roles, the classic liberal and the perfect fascist: Woermann ferocious in his denunciations of evil but lacking the necessary edge to be truly effective, Kaempffer all too willing to do anything to make the Nazi ideal real, and willing to murder anyone who stands in opposition, including, ultimately, Woermann.

Their clash reaches its climax when Kaempffer furiously shoots Woermann in the back, just as Woermann, hearing his men screaming as Molasar assaults them, grabs up Fonescu’s cross, and he dies with it in his bloody hands. Kaempffer, plucking the cross from Woermann’s bloody hands, heads out into Keep’s atrium only to find all the remaining Germans killed, some fused into the walls, others scattered in smouldering chunks across the floor, their war machines twisted and melted, as if Molasar has become some Picasso-like modern artist working in the medium of stone, steel, and flesh to create mangled interpretations of warfare. Kaempffer is confronted by Molasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing the crucifix. Molasar seems momentarily afraid of the icon, which resembles the talisman that holds him in the keep, so Kaempffer gathers up enough of his customary arrogacne to stand and face the thing. “What are you?” he demands. “Where do you come from?” the amused hulk asks: “I am you.” He takes the cross from Kaempffer, crushes it, and casually sucks the life from him with the same pitiless ease with which Kaempffer murdered, the Nazi releasing a bone-chilling shriek as he does. This is a brilliant moment where even the utterly despicable Kaempffer earns a flash of cringe-inducing empathy in the face of such pure, inhuman malevolence.

Mann’s hope to make a parable about fascism might well have been a tad pretentious, but he succeeds within the film’s dream logic as Mann paints in visual textures the symbolic drama he’s describing. Molasar literally feeds off the darker desires in the men who release him, and in turn stirs people to more and more destructive acts. Kaempffer’s total embrace of Nazi ideology and methods makes him the human equivalent of Molasar, aiming to build “the next thousand years of history” on the bones of necessary sacrifice, but Molasar even uses Cuza’s own best qualities against him by posing as a messianic saviour figure simply by appealing to his righteous anger and hunger for revenge. The blackened, shrivelled, charred bodies of the Germans ironically resemble holocaust and atomic bomb victims, the casual victims of the war’s unleashed apocalyptic logic. Mann’s depiction of the Keep’s architecture, a strange space of uncertain angles and spaces above the mammoth, black, atavistic cavern, presents an ingenious visualisation of what Woermann describes as “twisted fantasies” of Nazism, growing out of the Nietzschean abyss, the abyss that looks back and sees right through all civilised and intelligent pretences. In this manner, Mann expands on Kracauer’s key concept of the Expressionist cinema movement as directly expressing the collective neurosis gripping Germany after World War I, which finally malformed into susceptibility to Nazism.

Mann’s concept of the Keep nods then back to the Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (1926), films that offered their stylised physical world as discrete emanations of human will and mind, beset by insane and sclerotic sectors. The Keep’s interior recalls the cavernous zones of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1923), and the windmill in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) where the good doctor performed his experiments, with alternation of spaces vast and cramped, soaring and warped, fashioned with rough and inhospitable brickwork. In most classic Expressionist Horror the weird world presented in them was the world nonetheless for the characters who exist in them, except notably in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari which laid down the template but also revoked it by presenting the key drama as the ravings of a madman. Mann does something similar in the opening moments of The Keep by emphasising Woermann’s act of seeing the village and the Keep, presenting his drama as subliminal, with a sense of passing through a discrete veil between waking and oneiric states, and everything encountered beyond there is operating on an unreal level. Whilst Kracauer’s thesis that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari expressed a collective wish for a paternal dictator to restore shape to reality remains largely unconvincing, Mann puts it good use, correlating the perverse mental projections of the Expressionist style with the reality-distorting influence of Molasar. At the same time The Keep is also a movie that was, in 1983, a work defining a stylistic moment in moviemaking, which it quite obviously belongs to with its obsessive use of diffused lighting effects and backlit shots, as well as the dreamy slow motion and music: Mann follows Das Boot not just in casting Prochnow but in annexing its blithely anachronistic electronic score.

It’s often hard to exactly pinpoint in a compromised work like The Keep where exactly directorial intention and jarring interference diverge: what is apparently true is that Mann was forced to cut the film down from two hours to just over an hour and half. Eva’s swift seduction by Glaeken is often taken to be one sign of editing, but frankly it seems to me like one of the more purely Mannian elements of the film: near-instantaneous fusion of lost and needy souls is common in his movies, like John Dillinger’s swift claiming of Billie Frechette in Public Enemies (2009). There are however snippets of interaction between Eva and Glaeken in the film’s trailer that certainly suggest their scenes were cut down. The rough transition around the one-hour mark more clearly demonstrates interference. What’s presumably supposed to be the insidious infiltration of the village by Molasar’s influence comes on far too suddenly, particularly Fonescu’s pivot from kindly, good-humoured friend of Cuza to a ranting loony who barks zealous scripture at him. Soon after, in a moment difficult to parse on initial viewings Eva goes to Fonescu for aid only to find he’s sacrificed a dog on the altar of his church and is drinking its blood from a goblet. There was also a scene of Alexandru being murdered by his sons with an axe.

Given Mann’s stylisation, however, the jagged editing and resulting elisions really only reinforce the generally unmoored mood of the tale, the sense of obscene things lurking in the corner of the eye and numinous forces working relentless influence on the merely human. What was lost from the film through cutting, as well as some of the integrity of the last act, was Mann’s attempt to film the idea of evil as a miasmic influence, meant to mimic the fascist sway picking at the stitches of society and stampeding the world towards barbarian ruin. On the other hand, most of that stuff is supernal to the essential drama: Kaempffer and Woermann’s deaths transfer the weight of the story on Cuza and Eva. Moreover, it’s apparent that when faced with cutting the film, Mann often chose to jettison plot sequences to concentrate on moments commanding his bleary and submerged sense of atmosphere – that long shot of the fishing boat sailing into the dawn, for instance, kept instead of a moment taken from the book where Glaeken kills the captain of the boat who tries to doublecross him. Glenn, the top-billed actor, is nonetheless barely in The Keep for most of its first half, and even when he does arrive at the Keep he remains detached, ambiguous: authentic good is as alien as pure evil.

Glaeken seems to wield some sort of psychic power over Eva, brushing a hand over her eyes to make her sleep as they together in bed, a subtler but equally coercive force to the one Molasar wields. Glaeken senses through Magda the nature of her father’s compact with Molasar, and when Cuza takes a chance to leave the Keep with the German guards insensible under Molasar’s influence, Glaeken warns him about Molasar’s true nature and need. Cuza refuses to believe him, and drops hints about his presence to Kaempffer, who immediately sends some of his men to bring him in. When Eva frantically protests the arrest and gets into a tussle with the soldiers, Glaeken, to protect her, begins tossing the soldiers about like nine-pins, only to be machine-gunned: splotches of luminous green blood appear all over his torso and he refuses to die, until he plunges into the ravine and finishing up sprawled on a ledge where the Nazis presume him dead. Molasar’s subsequent slaughter of the remaining Germans clears the way for Cuza to descend into the cavern and locate the talisman, which he then carries back to the surface, whilst Glaeken revives and begins climbing the jagged ravine wall.

Mann offers one of his signature sequences here, a mesmerically constructed climactic running montage set to intensifying music, later exemplified by the likes of the hero’s Iron Butterfly-scored dash to the rescue in Manhunter and the clifftop chase in The Last of the Mohicans. Mann cuts between Glaeken hauling himself up the ravine face, still covered in glowing green blood (a touch notably recycled by Predator, 1986), whilst Cuza retrieves the talisman, which Molasar can’t even look at. Cuza climbs up through the cavern, a vast, eerie space filled with unknowably ancient ruins and signs of mystique-ridden history, all set music sampling operatic choruses and a church bell-like propelling rhythm. Striding down a corridor as he re-enters the Keep, Cuza’s progress is marked by the crosses on the wall glow in reaction to the talisman’s passing. Glaeken, after escaping the ravine, opens the case he carried to the Keep and removes what appears to be a simple metal tube, actually a weapon capable of destroying Molasar. This passage is one of Mann’s greatest units of filmmaking, and reaches its apotheosis as Cuza reaches the atrium, only to meet a dazed Eva, who tries to stop him removing the talisman. Molasar, watching on as the two struggle, commands Cuza to kill her and continue out.

As if in humanistic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth, Cuza turns on the monster and demands of it, “Who are you that I should prove myself by killing my daughter?” before insisting that if the talisman is Molasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. This marvellous climactic moment closes the loop on the moral drama before the supernatural battle can occur, as Cuza’s faith in men is proven right by his own deed, refuting the famous test of Abraham’s faith whilst sticking up for the nobility of the reasoning person. McKellen’s challenge to the monster, shouting “Take it!” with the ferocity of hero facing down a demon, is every bit as epic as McKellen’s confrontation in the guise of Gandalf with Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some seventeen years later. Infuriated, Molasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka, fitting the talisman into its muzzle and unleashing energy rays that charge the crosses and drive Molasar back into the Keep. Of all the sequences in The Keep the finale was the most crudely curtailed by Veever’s death, production quagmire, and Mann’s own creative uncertainty. What was intended to be an epic showdown was reduced to a straightforward scene where Glaeken, despite knowing that “when he goes, I go,” as he tells Eva earlier, nonetheless confronts Molasar with the intention of annihilating him.

Mann interpolates flash visions that hint at alien origins for Glaeken, whose physiognomy changes to match Molasar’s (Molasar already resembling Glaeken in turn in his complete form, nudging the refrain of dualistic kinship), and a close-up of his eyes as he wields the energy weapon sees a kind of mesh grid has been exposed on them. When Molasar tries to hit his foe with an energy pulse as Glaeken glances to make sure the Cuzas are safe, Glaeken responds by blasting a hole through Molasar, who returns to a formless state and is sucked back into the cavern. Glaeken, after giving a last, forlorn gesture to Eva, is then sucked in after him, disappearing through the cavern door amidst blinding white light. And yet, once again, apart from the rather jagged edit in the brief combat of the two beings, the climax feels more consistent with the movie as it stands than a more drawn-out fight would have. The proper climax of the story we’ve been told is Cuza’s challenge to Molasar, proving that Molasar cannot ultimately corrupt everyone. Glaeken’s arrival merely delivers the coup-de-grace, although this comes complete with a memorable vision of his weapon gathering power, pulling in energy with a rising whir before unleashing primeval force.

Mann instead, typically, places the weight of the scene’s power and meaning on the intensity of the gestures and visuals, particularly in Glenn’s deliberately stone-faced yet delicately plaintive characterisation as Glaeken finally proves he’s a true white knight, fearlessly eliminating the evil despite knowing it will cost him everything, leaving behind Eva screaming in dismay. A TV reedit of the film, screened a few years after The Keep’s theatrical release, sported a restored coda based on the novel’s ending, in which Eva descends into the cavern and finds Glaeken still alive there, restored to mortal form. This was excised from the theatrical release, an odd move in itself, as presumably movie studios would usually take the more clearly upbeat ending. The movie proper instead concludes on an enigmatic note, as Fonescu and other villagers, now free of the evil influence, rush to help the Cuzas, and Mann offers a final freeze frame of Eva staring back into the Keep, as if hoping, or sensing, Glaeken is still within, still existing in some form. Again, Mann’s choice here prizes evocation over literalism, with the surging, soulful music and the image of Eva capturing an iconic impression, of triumph bought at a cost, and love as strong as death. The Keep is undoubtedly an untidy, misshapen work, but it’s also a uniquely potent and densely packed work of brilliance, and to my mind close to ideal of what a Horror movie should be.

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2000s, Auteurs, Chinese cinema, Historical, Romance

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa

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Director / Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

In The Mood For Love offered something so rare and specific amidst the frenetic climes of the millennium’s pivot it had a drug-like appeal for the international film scene. A bathe in a dreamlike evocation of the past, a tale of illicit passion played by pre-sexual revolution rules, a dose of heady exotica ready to go. Wong Kar-Wai’s most acclaimed and beloved film, In The Mood For Love has also proved a creative millstone for its maker, at least in terms of his receptive audience, as everything he did after it was largely doomed to be found wanting, and what he’d done before a mere warm-up. From a slightly longer perspective, In The Mood For Love might well be Wong’s highpoint but, if not exactly an outlier in Wong’s oeuvre, certainly an obsessive distillation of one, singular aspect of it. After his debut with As Tears Go By (1987), a resituating of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) streaked with powerful hints of Wong’s emerging sensibility, the director hit his stride with the first of his studies in romantic eccentricity and ambivalence, Days of Being Wild (1990). Not for the last time in his career, Wong found himself stymied as he tried to get an ambitious work off the ground, as he struggled to make his purposefully eccentric take on martial arts melodrama Ashes of Time (1994), so in the meantime created Chungking Express (1994), a diptych of melancholy romances that gained him significant attention in the west.

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Wong quickly followed those works with Fallen Angels (1995), a darker take on a similar epic of super-modern social fragmentation, evanescent longing, and genre film caricaturing to that glimpsed in Chungking Express. Happy Together (1997) offered a more careful and considered study in a crumbling relationship with a queer twists and an international scope. Wong again found himself unable to make one film, the ambitious embarkation in metafiction 2046, and so developed a project designed to work in tandem with it, one that would ironically see the light of day first. Wong and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, had developed a specific and very influential aesthetic on their ‘90s films that they were already leaving behind on Happy Together, with Doyle’s swimming camerawork and blurred surveys of action and settings evoking a universe in a constant state of flux even as Wong’s refusal to traditionally bracket his sequences rendered the flux perpetually past-tense, at once immediate and anxiously remembered. The calmer style of Happy Together reflected a deepening concern for the pains of coupling, that attempt to fix one’s own nature by mixing it with another, whilst also taking Wong’s fascination for people compelled to wander to an extreme.

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Filming on In The Mood For Love went on for 15 months as Wong laboured to nail down the aesthetic he was chasing, leading to Doyle departing the production and being supplanted by Mark Lee Ping Bin, but the result assimilated them both, and the halting disconuity became an aspect of its style. In The Mood For Love returned to Days of Being Wild’s milieu of the early 1960s in Hong Kong, with Maggie Cheung playing a character with the same name as the one she had in that film, Su Li-zhen. Where in that film the character had been a lovelorn shopgirl who learns wisdom after burning her fingers in a romance with a callow, self-destructive womaniser, the one in In The Mood For Love is married and proper, feeling less like a mature version of that character as a different manifestation. But if there’s one notion that flows through all Wong’s films, it’s fascination for the way a human individual is often many different people in the course of their lives, changing apparel, jobs, roles, aims, lovers, even fates, often entirely reshaped by experience but with some core being unchanged. Taken on face value, In The Mood For Love is a story of romantic longing foiled by manifold forces and principles, but fundamentally, like most of Wong’s works, it’s actually about individuals trying to escape themselves but doomed to only graze against others because of forces both within and without.

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In The Mood For Love has a story, and people who inhabit it, but it’s just as fundamentally a work of incantation, resurrecting not only people but of a specific time and place, the Hong Kong of Wong’s childhood. A humdrum colonial outpost turned by tides of history into a pivot of civilisations and way-station for the dispossessed and yearning. Long before the halogen-lit markets and swooping road tunnels Wong would capture so exactingly with Chungking Express and Fallen Angels arrived, this was a place with streets of peeling paintwork and crumbling plaster, buildings packed to the rafters with human flotsam, people thrust so close together they can barely see each-other. The cheek-by-jowl romanticism of all-night mah-jong matches, basement food courts, and rain pattering on rusty street lampshades, the infestations of period kitsch, sunburst clocks and boss nova albums. The literally translated title original title, The Flowery Years, betrays the sense of nostalgic longing for a time of blooming possibility. Before prosperity would throw up skyscrapers, getting hold of a decent apartment is a matter of deep personal achievement.

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Two married couples move into neighbouring rooms, each sub-leased from the holders of larger apartments. The Chans’ room is in the flat of Mrs Suen (Rebecca Pan) whilst the Chows lives with the Koos, who like getting drunk and playing mah-jong together. We never properly see the other – better? worse? – half of the two couples, leaving us with Mr Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Mrs Chan, aka Su Li-zhen. Their partners become abstractions, variations in an algorithm, cut off from the audience’s knowing except through signs and oblique depictions. Chow’s wife is glimpsed askew manning a lobby desk festooned with postcards, gatekeeper of the world’s promise and seller of cardboard dreams. Li-zhen’s husband has a job that takes him to Japan for unstated reasons whilst she works as the secretary for Mr Ho (Kelly Lai Chen) at a shipping company. Japan is a faraway mystic land of attractive consumer goods, the ironic key to identifying glitches in the system: the goods Su’s husband brings back are shiny and desirable and give away lapses in fidelity.

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In The Mood For Love’s narrative unfolds over a long time period, weeks and months and then years, but Wong’s scene grammar falsifies immediacy and logical connection. Telling moments clipped out of the familiar texture of time and experience and assembled in a manner that makes a sort of sense. Hitchcock’s rule of cinema as life with the boring bits cut out is both cited but also challenged: the action, the big moments of drama, are largely what’s cut out. Recurring patterns, and violations in those patterns, are instead the flesh of In The Mood For Love: “You notice things if you pay attention,” Su states at one point, not long before she subtly warns her boss into changing his tie, one she knows his mistress rather than his wife bought for him. The sensitivity to detail is engrained in the film’s texture: the languorous slow-motion sequences sensitise not just to Wong’s evocation of a lost and melancholically recalled past but also to objects and dress of the period usually dismissed as decoration, but which Wong identifies as the stuff that makes up people’s lives. The consumerist fancies that Mr Chan brings back with him are totems of another, more prosperous world – rice cookers, handbags, fashionable ties – and also lodestones of personal meaning and recognition.

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Whilst Wong never shows Mrs Chow’s face, the film represents her with the recurring sight of the workspace she inhabits, and glimpses of her bobbed hair. At one point, after Su knocks on the Chows’ door when she hears voices and correctly thinks she can hear her husband within their apartment, only for Mrs Chow to stonewall her, a phone conversation between her and Mr Chan is heard as she suggests they not see each-other for a time. Wong then privileges a mysterious, gauzily shot glimpse of Mrs Chow weeping whilst showering in some hotel room. Obsession is a matter of both display and receptivity. Chow (and Wong) is mesmerised Su’s slim form clad in a series of lush cheongsams, whilst she wears them to express stifled desire and boredom as well as her own elegantly correct sense of how to live. Chow’s colleague and pal Ah Ping (Siu Ping Lam) offers comic relief whilst representing a type of human without the same kind of governor mediating between his appetites and impulses that ultimately foils both Chow and Su.

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Ah Ping brings a touch of amoral zaniness to Chow’s life with his misadventures like getting fleeced in betting on a horse and then visiting a whorehouse all after being in hospital (“You were in no shape for sex!” “I thought it would improve my luck.”), whilst his shameless but incompetent ploys in making a play for Su contrast Chow’s more gentlemanly approach but also render him something like his personified id. Ah Ping works with Chow in a newspaper offer touched with the same atmosphere of seedy romanticism as the rest of the locales in the film, a place where tousled, barely functional men work in a miasma of perspiration and cigarette haze. Place, exile, travel, all are major facets of In The Mood For Love despite most of the drama happening within one apartment block. That building itself is a kind of way-station for people who have found a momentary toehold. Chow, Mrs Suen, and others are former residents of Shanghai now crammed on a tight little island, the old Hong Kong soon to be swept away in the mad scramble for real estate in a city-state with a very finite amount of it. Wong had to shoot most of the outdoor scenes in Bangkok for that reason. Wong had gone the other route in Happy Together in portraying its fraying male lovers at loose in the world and also adrift. He would return more ostentatiously with The Grandmaster (2013) to the mythical Hong Kong of his youth as a tide pool where folk heroes and collective memories congregated and went mouldy amidst the project of survival and hybridisation.

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Mr Chan and Mrs Chow both cover their trysts easily because they travel a lot for work, with Chan often going to Japan on errands for his Japanese boss, whilst Mrs Chow’s workstation abuts a rack of postcards. Every place is exotic to some other place, particularly when you’re going nowhere. Wong’s period Hong Kong is mysterious to itself, a mythical place created by the pressures of history and human need, a place where eastern and western sensibilities don’t so much mingle as cohabit as restlessly and energetically as its people. to Wong’s eye it was a place of bygone splendours, nondescript urban architecture with the faintest curlicues of traditional architectural style here and there, the damaged glamour of a glimpse of a cracked wall and a window frame with fading paint and the glimpse into another person’s life-space, inside of which expression blooms in riots of clashing colour and teeming decoration, ringing to a meshed music of laughter and argument and work and soft radio sounds. Wong’s fastidious, usually rigid framing keeps turning portals and passages into frames within frames, with a careful conspiracy between Lim Chung Man’s art direction, William Chang’s production design and costuming, and Doyle and Lee’s cinematography helps create this lush world, half memory, half dream, part Edward Hopper, part Matisse painting, part classical Chinese scroll art. Many shots are filmed in distorted fashion, through fogged glass or using lens effects.

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Other shots are delivered with a dazzling clarity that only renders them stranger, like a shot down a hotel corridor where red curtains gently billow on a draft and the leaves of a potted plant tremble, absent any being and yet vibrating with mysterious life. The obsessive texture is exacerbated by the music cues, alternating composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s languid pizzicato string theme and a vintage Nat King Cole recording version of the Cuban song “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” musical themes that manage to denote both immobility, the sense of arrested time and foiled action, and a dance-like sense of possibilities in play that come and depart before they’re even truly registered. Echoes here of course to one of the restless heroines of Chungking Express whose constantly played leitmotif was The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming” whilst existing within a world of escalators and shoebox apartments and hole-in-the-wall businesses. But whilst there Wong remained outside of the bubble of floating insouciance she used the song to weave about herself, In The Mood For Love is Wong’s entry into and projection of that kind of bubble. Fallen Angels was an insomniac fever-dream about people who try ever more frantically to control life’s formlessness by contriving to dispense that formlessness, trying to live purposefully alienated and rootless lives, but eventually falling victim to gravity regardless.

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In Happy Together the post break-up pains of its lovers is couched not simply in the pain of losing a mate but also in the ultimate personal act for each man in confronting their own specific reactions and quirks of character that degraded the relationship, confronting the limitations and perversities of spirit that foil happiness and turn the wealth of possibility into a debit of rueful waste and costly experience. In The Mood For Love operates as its echo and amplification as well as its inversion: the portrait of characters who maintain discipline and personal integrity sees them even more thoroughly haunted by what wasn’t. Wong’s gestures and stylistics accumulate meaning as In The Mood For Love unfolds, as Chow and Su inhabit the same discreet zone by virtue of both being mostly alone and stricken with an initially confused but increasingly certain sense of wounding and abandonment. They pass each-other in their evening strolls down to the food court, waiting out rainstorms, smoking the odd pensive cigarette, swapping the odd word of greeting.

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Early in development the project that became In The Mood For Love was titled A Story of Food, and it is that, with the food the characters eat – rice, noodles, sesame syrup, steak – made a vital aspect of how their lives, habits, and gestures of affection interact. Chow and Su’s first, and for a long time only, real conversation takes place when Su visits the Koos’ apartment to borrow a newspaper because she’s keeping up with a martial arts serial story, and Chow mentions his liking for the genre, which he once made an abortive attempt to write in. Wong here nods back to Ashes of Time, which had taken on stories by Jin Yong, a real-life Hong Kong journalist-exile turned fiction writer, and translated them into one of Wong’s portraits of drifting, disconsolate people who, when separated from the romantic glamour of their prowess as warriors, are case studies in longing and confusion. The frontier post where the master warriors wait for work in Ashes of Time likewise is a kind of way-station of fate like the apartment building here.

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Part of what distinguished Wong particularly in the 1990s was that Wong was a formalist with a sense of what style could accomplish: In The Mood For Love was perhaps the most accomplished work of high style in narrative film since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and it shares certain nagging fascinations with that film, most particular its sense of dreamy melancholy and portrayal of swarming city life. Wong’s regard for genre writing, however sarcastically reflected through his resolutely slice-of-life tales, engages here with the roots of such storytelling, noting the mid-twentieth century and its wealth of creativity as stemming from people clinging on in such places, dreaming intense dreams, fantasies of power and freedom shot through with reflections of damaged humanity. Wong’s fascination for how people inhabit an urban space together but also entirely separately is here illustrated with an intensity that renders it close to a philosophy of life, depicting people who, for whatever reason, cannot ever quite leap over the divide that separates them as bodies and minds.

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Wong would deromanticise the theme with purpose when he finally got to make 2046 (2004), as he went to the opposite extreme of portraying desperately carnal relationships only to confront the same spectacle of who people who cannot surrender themselves. When Su finally invites Chow to dinner, it’s to try and get to the truth linking them through their partners, a problem that must be approached circuitously, through laughing admissions before direct statements, as when Su final notes that her husband and Chow both have the same tie despite them being bought overseas, proof that Mrs Chow bought them both. Wong’s squared-off shots, engaging both actors in profile within the crystalline perfection of the period setting with studied back-and-forth shots of the two actors heightening the sense of formal games, before a precise violation of the style when Su finally directly queries Chow about what he thinks is going on, Wong moving the camera laterally from behind Chow onto his face, depicting the queasy, blindsiding moment of truth exactly.

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The point of connection between Chow and Su is initially a kind of osmotic attraction in shared romantic desolation and the absence of their partners. The deeper one that forms is creative. Thrown into each-other’s company as people drawn together through a mildly perverse instinct to penetrate the separate psychic and physical world of the people who are supposed to be close to them but have in fact created their own distinct pocket of life, Chow and Su vow “we won’t be like them.” as they’re quickly driven to begin role-playing in answering Su’s pondering of how the affair might have begun. Wong tips the viewer suddenly into momentarily bewildering vignettes where the two flirt and make protestations of love only to then break character because of some detail that seems off or, rather, cruelly accurate, before resuming or restarting. The two set down at dinner, each eating a meal the person they’re standing in for would usually order.

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This presents a kind of method acting offering proxy introduction the tastes and personalities of the missing person for the person filling their role, and also a casting session, seeing how well the other can fit into their assigned role. “You have my husband down pat,” Su comments when Chow uses a line on her, “He’s a real sweet talker.” These odd rituals are nonetheless ones that helps Chow and Su fumble towards understanding, creating a fiction that explains reality, whilst also elucidating Wong’s interest in the similarity, even interchangeableness, of people, the recurring codes of behaviour and the finite variations that constitute individuality. They also lead to the duo beginning to collaborate in trying to write a martial arts story, a collaboration that begins as a panacea against boredom and loneliness but soon becomes a genuine success for Chow that he sometimes privileges over his journalism. Chow’s habit of hiding from life by hanging around the newspaper office at night becomes a portal of escape into dreams of a heroic past. So compelling does this pursuit become that the two consult in Chow’s room only for Mrs Suen and the Koos and other friends to suddenly return from a night out drunk and rowdy and settle down to a marathon mah-jong game that goes on for a night and a day.

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Chow and Su are besieged in their room, afraid for Su to take a chance to dash back to the Koos’ apartment in case she might be seen, so Chow covers for her whilst ducking out to bring back food, and the two keep working on the story: Chow is inspired by the sudden arrival of the blotto Mr Koo to introduce a drunken master into the story. Finally the game breaks up and Su gets to return to her room, where she strips off the high-heels she’s been wearing with palpable relief, hoist on her own well-dressed petard. The chasteness of Chow and Su’s relationship and their toey fear of being apprehended in a compromising scene gives this vignette its irony, as well the old-fashioned brand of sexual tension inherent in their situation as a couple of good-looking people in a small room, the kind that could have fuelled a classic Hollywood romantic comedy, which is indeed one of the many retro things Wong nods to. His plot has the quality of something William Holden and Nancy Olson’s characters in Sunset Blvd. (1950) might have cooked up, or provided a solid premise for a Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle. This misadventure also inspires Chow to rent a hotel room – numbered, with totemic import, 2046 – for a time to try and get the story finished, and also perhaps presenting to Su a locale where they can meet without being found out.

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In The Mood For Love contrasted most of Wong’s previous films insofar as those were mostly tales of characters who can scarcely control an inner drive pushing them into irrational acts, people who are conduits of spasmodic behaviour. Those urges might drive them across the world, to cling to or to cruelly spurn a lover, or face a situation of life and death, in search of something that gives shape to their lives. The torment of being inescapably themselves was often simply intensified rather than cured by gaining what they want. In The Mood For Love is instead the tale of characters who pointedly can control themselves, and yet their actions ultimately come to seem just as deeply rooted in satisfying inchoate need. It’s compulsory with In The Mood For Love to note that it’s a film about a love affair without physical intimacy beyond a moment of hand-holding, at least, not that the audience is privy to. Wong’s venture back in time also accepts the idea of two people with a sense of personal honour, a gesture that feels equally bygone in its idealism and yet still reflects truth: how many of us day in and day out rein in all kinds of impulses?

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The film’s opiated haze of nostalgia, its acceptance of the past as another country, can only be sustained as long as Chow and Su don’t give in to their romantic impulses, because once they do they become of the earth again. The very lack of any momentous significance in their relationship, its everyday and ephemeral texture as light and brief as morning frost, is precisely the quality Wong sets out to celebrate, to hold as vital to the sustenance of the world as any cataclysms. It can also be read as the two lovers sharing a trait with their creator, a dislike of cliché. Chow and Su’s resolve to keep things above board seems as much about their own embarrassment in potentially getting caught being unimaginative as immoral: it would too humiliatingly crass to reproduce their feckless partners’ betrayal, although Wong’s oblique portrayal of that verboten tryst suggest it’s every bit as complex and tortured. More immediately, Wong tries to illustrate without sentiment the fate of falling in love whilst also dealing with heartbreak, leaving his two lovers trapped in a limbo where pleasure is also painful, tender gestures constantly running the risk of mimicking another, and abandoned as they have been by their partners Chow and Su serve as stand-ins for the vanished lover, to be both cherished and also farewelled.

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A montage depicting Chow and Su’s happy writing collaboration, which is also clearly signalled to be the process of their falling in love if all their happy smiles and pleasure in each-other’s company is anything to go by, also sees Wong make a constant refrain of including mirrors, often with more than one facet, in his shots. These split his protagonists into multiple versions, each imprinted with a separate reality, some branching off to become the ones glimpsed in 2046, some uglier, some more perfect. this islet of ease ends when Su gets a lecture from Mrs Suen about being out too often and asking when her husband will return. Despite there being no hint of connection between them, Su still tells Chow they should spend less time together, a moment that despite the vow “not to be like them” nonetheless echoes Mrs Chow’s earlier warning to Mr Chan to stop seeing each-other for a time. The two drift in the course of their days subsequently, Su distracted amidst raucous mah-jong games and Chow gazing out through the newspaper office window, and when the word finally comes to meet up again, Chow comes dashing through a downpour for a confrontation that finally demands the two speak honestly but also makes a choice.

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The choice is made: Chow decides to accept an offer to follow Ah Ping to Singapore. But the catharsis of admission also finally allows shows of feeling, as Su sobs in Chow’s arms and leans on his shoulder as they ride in a taxi together and hold hands, a vignette of perfection to last decades, and Wong would indeed return to it in 2046 with just that meaning. Wong shows Chow and Su on either side of the wall that separates them in their rooms engaged in listless meditation. Finally, Chow retreats back to the hotel room and leaves a message for Su to come join him there if she wants to leave with him. Chow is seen leaving the hotel room with a look of sad but slightly wry acceptance that Su never came and he must head off alone. Su eventually makes a dash to meet him, only to finish up seated on the hotel room bed alone and weeping, suffering the hellish fate in being entrapped by unwitnessed solitude and kitsch décor.

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The film’s last act offers vignettes that refuse to underscore the drama with any kind of dramatic declaration, accumulating instead as a long grace note signalling Chow and Su maintain a long and halting sense of connection, misty-eyed memory of their time together but refusing to violate the seal of perfect imperfection about it. Chow, working in Singapore, is disturbed by something missing in his room, and finds a cigarette with traces of lipstick on it. Soon afterwards Wong offers a sequence, possibly Chow’s imagining or a flashback, depicting Su entering his room and leaving these traces, a glitch in his stable reality. When she actually does call him at his workplace, he answers, but she hangs up after a moment of silence. Later they’re both drawn in turn back to the old building where they once lived. She speak with Mrs Suen, the last of the old crowd still around and herself packing up to move to the United States to help her daughter with her kids. The moment is changing, the mood: Mrs Suen is uneasy about the political situation in Hong Kong, and so is ready to move. Su herself has a son and merrily assures Mrs Suen he’s doing well, but no more is revealed. The old balance has shifted, history’s tides are rolling on. Su chooses a return to a comfortable setting, taking over Mrs Suen’s apartment.

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Chow arrives with a present for the Koos but finds them long gone, and leaves it instead with the new tenant who agreeably lets him look around, turning a wistful glance across to the window of the neighbouring apartment oblivious to the face Su has returned there. The film’s final portion is Wong’s most allusive and subtle, as he briefly interpolates some old newsreel footage of Charles De Gaulle as French President visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1966. A final flourish of postcolonial cordiality, a last glimpse of a vanishing moment of stability. Soon Cambodia will dissolve into anarchy and genocidal tyranny as the Vietnam War spills over its borders and monsters are birthed. Chow seems to be there on assignment, but we only see him visiting Angkor wat, the ancient temple-city: Chow performs a little ritual obedient to an old folk practice he mentioned to Ah Ping, of whispering a secret into some nook and sealing it away to divest one’s self of the past. This he does in a gap in Angkor’s walls and plugs with a sod of earth and grass, before leaving the ruin which accepts all such memories great and petty. Wong ends the film with a series of slow, exhaling shots of Angkor, weaving a powerful sense of the temple as something at once desolated by time but also standing as a perpetual marker of history in a violently changing world, abiding under the early-rising moon in the waning Cambodian day.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director / Screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.

Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.

Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.

The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.

Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.

Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.

There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.

Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.

Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis,  if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.

But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.

This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.

Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.

Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.

Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.

Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.

The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.

Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.

The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.

The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.

Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.

Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.

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

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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