1980s, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Scifi

Repo Man (1984)

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Director/Screenwriter: Alan Cox

By Roderick Heath

Writing about Repo Man might be like trying to dance a Picasso or sing about the Taj Mahal. So why am I trying, you ask? Hey, up yours, anyway.

Alex Cox could either be described as one of cinema’s true rebels, a man who determinedly forged his own, uncompromising path when he proved too much for Hollywood, or a filmmaker whose stubborn attitude prevented him from living up to his great early promise, leaving him with one certain sui generis classic and a couple of other cult objects to his name. Given his tell-it-to-me-raw punk affiliations he might well accept both descriptions in equanimity. Cheshire-born Cox, after a stint as an Oxford law student, turned to studying filmmaking. Doubting he was going to get anywhere in the ‘70s British film industry, Cox winged away for a stint at UCLA and made the short artist-versus-the-world film Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies. Cox’s first feature, Repo Man, which he originally hoped to bankroll on a tiny budget, was realized thanks largely to former Monkees member Michael Nesmith, who acted as his executive producer and talked Universal Pictures into ponying up a $1 million budget. Repo Man slowly groped its way out of initial obscurity to becoming an underground hit thanks in part to the popularity of its soundtrack album stirring up an interested audience, setting Cox up for a brief spell as a potential major filmmaker.

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Cox’s follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), gave Gary Oldman an early push to stardom and applied a potent blend of authenticity and stylization to recount the legendary tragic punk romance. His career went awry as Straight to Hell (1986) and Walker (1987) were greeted as clumsy, self-indulgent attempts to get polemical and blend familiar genre modes – spaghetti westerns and road movies in the former case, war movies and historical biopics in the latter – with jagged po-mo aesthetics and harsh, blatant political commentary on Reaganite policy in Latin America. He next made Highway Patrolman (1991) in Mexico. Those films, like Cox’s generally ultra-low-budget output since, have maintained a small but fervent cadre of proponents. From today’s perspective it feels even more unlikely that an imported anarchist spiv like Cox even managed to get Repo Man made, never mind parlay it into a brief accord with studio filmmaking. But Repo Man remains a glistening gem, cult cinema about as pure as it gets. In many ways it’s an updated spin on ‘60s free-for-all satire with spiritual and procedural links to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Lester’s early films, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1972), Christian Marquand’s Candy (1968), and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees-perverting Head (1968), which might partly explain why Nesmith was able to grasp Cox’s vision. The old lysergic template was given a punk-era makeover, and produced soothsayer art, as Repo Man anticipated the age of the internet with startling precision.

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The age of democratized information. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good information, relevant, interesting, fulfilling, just information. Repo Man, in its way, is like plugging your mind directly into the stream of internet downloads; a frightful, glorious, semi-comprehensible overload of stuff. Accumulating in the brain like pieces of animal and plant in sedimentary silt, bits of things, shards of art, memory, politics, philosophy, design. All was churned together with the full panoply of Cox’s artistic and socio-political obsessions, as well the pinpointing perspective of an acerbic outsider. Like the age it portrays and the one it anticipates, Repo Man is in search. In search of a viable code, in search of meaning, wading through that sediment of endless information half-heard and quarter-understood, trying to put the pieces together in a manner that works. It takes place in a landscape cast over with the scattered rubble of the Cold War, religion, the New Age, pop culture, post-‘50s paranoia, and sci-fi positivism, and grasps to convey a clashing, riotous mix of different social and philosophical groups; punks, hippies, suburbanites, fascists, revolutionaries, whites and Mexicans and blacks, rich and poor and in-between, all charted with the concision of a Victorian realist novel, if not the method.

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The opening credits are backgrounded by green outlines of ordnance maps spotlighting places of specific association in the legend of American nuclear imperialism, zeroing in on Yucca and Los Alamos. The opening scene purveys essentialist American iconography as an unstable and dreamlike conglomeration – a Chevy Malibu with its jaunty, crisply coloured lines bespeaking of some place that always in a blithe mid-‘60s American summer, a highway motorcycle cop clad in fascist steeliness, a trunk full of the same glowing, annihilating stuff that carved a path through the macho men in Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), scorching the hapless cop down to his briefly highlighted skeleton and his smoking boots. The Malibu is driven by J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a nuclear scientist who claims to have invented the Neutron Bomb, armed with an insane smile, one lens missing from his sunglasses, and a trunk full of alien corpses stolen from New Mexico, giving off mysterious energy sufficient to vaporise anyone opening the hatch.

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The gritty sprawl of Los Angeles’ industrial zones, much fetishized by filmmakers in search of hip climes hunting for authenticity in the ‘80s, found their rarest auteur in Cox, and their great documenter in imported cinematographer Robby Müller, cut loose in the American wilds as every indie up-and-comer’s heroic shooter of seedy, sun-kissed glamour. The boxy empty warehouses with the faintest patina of art deco style, the freeway stretches and overpasses painted strange hues by street lighting, high-rise buildings glimpsed away in the distance like a neo-Stonehenge for money worship amidst a city otherwise preoccupied with all its tribal business. Our “hero” Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is introduced as a punk archetype, a young man frustrated with shitty jobs and pointless schooling. He tosses in his job as a supermarket shelf stacker in a fit of pique after his coworker and sort-of-friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) drives him to distraction singing a 7-Up jingle and the boss Mr Humphries (Charles Hopkins) chews him out for various infractions. Seeking fellowship with his punk friends who get wasted and screw in Kevin’s parents’ house, Otto instead finds himself driven from all solace when, after briefly breaking off making out with his girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) to get beer, returns to find his pal Duke (Dick Rude) has taken his place. Otto returns home to try and extract a payment of $1,000 his father promised in a bribe him to stay in school, only to find his burnt-out, pot-addled ex-hippie parents have given it all to a television evangelist Reverend Larry (Bruce White) to send bibles to El Salvador in exchange for having their names inscribed on “The Honor Roll of the Chariots of Fire.”

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Wandering in depression and solitude, Otto encounters Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a man sitting in a car who offers him money to drive another car, which he claims to be his wife’s, out of a bad neighbourhood. Otto gets into the car and starts it up, only to be assaulted by a furious man, forcing Otto to drive away at speed. Bud works for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, a repossession service, reclaiming cars from owners who have missed their payments. When he realises what business Bud is in, Otto pours out a can of beer on Helping Hand office floor, a gesture of contempt that instead impresses Bud and others in its commitment. “I’m not gonna be no Repo Man” he says; the company’s Girl Friday secretary Marlene (Vonetta McGee), only for her to coolly inform him as she hands him a wad of cash: “Too late – you already are.” As the paradigm of aimless, disaffected youth rather than someone who is by intellectual or even natural leaning a rebel, Otto is of course totally ready to fall for the first thing to come along to satisfy his urges for sex, money, power, and belonging. Whilst his friends Debbi, Duke, and Archie (Miguel Sandoval) take off on a life of crime, Otto is schooled in the Repo Man creed, a lifestyle where the antisocial vicissitudes are as alluring as the fiscal recompense. Kevin’s efforts to act the good little employee with ambitions play out as a fragmentary subplot, as he becomes a naive pump jockey and is last glimpsed briefly dazed and battered on a hospital gurney, Cox offering his and Otto’s tales as his answer to De Sade’s Justine and Juliette.

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The essence of Cox’s sardonic mythos lies in the ambivalent attitude that is the Repo Man way, which both exemplifies an all-American sensibility whilst also charting underlying faultlines, a fantasy of an ancient way somehow persisting in the ruined modern landscape. Otto initially takes the Repo Men for sleazy representatives of narc capitalism, only to find them ruled by a uniquely clannish sensibility with a charge of unexpected cool, cavalry roaming the urban badlands out to punish the deadbeats, living by their wits and doses of greedily snorted speed. The Repo Men take themselves for contemporary versions of the Lone Ranger, risking assault and even death. They lead lives practically indistinguishable from criminals, doing drugs to stay awake, concocting intricate ruses to rip off cars, keeping a step ahead of cops and gun-wielding owners. Unsurprisingly, they idolise John Wayne, even when Miller declares “John Wayne was a fag,” and tries to inform that that he once got hired by the Duke to install two-way mirrors in his bedroom and came to the door wearing a dress, details the Repo Men dismiss: “Plenty of straight guys like to watch their buddies fuck!…I know I do.”

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Bud, a lanky, high-strung, blow-loving maverick, sees himself as the exemplary Repo Man. He anoints himself Otto’s mentor and conceives of his job in an overtly high-minded, even philosophical way, evoking everything from the Bushido to Isaac Asimov as he declares the basic credo as he conceives it: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm – it’s what I call the repo code, kid.” Such a warrior ethos is informed by necessities; keeping alive, keeping cool, doing the job well. Bud loathes any code not run to the same pragmatic standards as his own (“No commies in my car!…No Christians either!”), Hawkeye in a hot Pontiac. Venture capitalism as a sort of moral mission: if a man has to risk his body and soul in life, that risk might as well be represented by reward, and reward might as well be money. Bud pursues repo-ing not just for the pay but also because it allows him soil to nurture his need to remain removed from the mass of humanity. The job gives him satisfaction in his loathing people in debt (“If there was just some way of finding out what they owe and makin’ ‘em pay,” he muses ruefully whilst surveying slum dwellers) and, by extension, the world of credit and plastic that has replaced the world of thrift, work, and honour. He’s a hothead who hates his rivals the Rodriguez Brothers because he sees them as the degeneration of his profession. Part Repo sage, part burnt-out middle-aged bore, Bud is the best at his job but wants to get the hell out of it and be the guy with the lot instead of the guy who just brings the cars in.

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Not every Repo Man adheres to the same ethos. Lite (Sy Richardson) offers the black perspective, no-nonsense and expedient, warding off threatening debtors with blank cartridges, hotwiring vehicles, and schooling Otto in seamier tricks of the trade like tossing a dead rat into the car of female targets: unfortunately one reacts coolly to this ploy and squirts mace in his face for his pains. “Only an asshole gets killed for a car.” The Helping Hand encompasses a cross-section of types; besides Otto, Lite, and Bud, there’s sweaty, laugh-at-his-own-jokes boss Oly (Tom Finnegan); Miller (Tracey Walter), a hippie mechanic with a line in esoteric musings; Otto Plettschner (Richard Foronjy), the rent-a-cop fascist who “died in two World Wars” and whose first name suggests the sort of creature Otto might become with the right incentives; and Marlene the double-agent secretary with a line in Blaxploitation action moves. Marlene’s in with the Helping Hand’s great rivals, the Rodriguez brothers, Lagarto (Del Zamora) and Napoleon (Eddie Velez), Pancho Villa-esque alternatives to the Repo Men, complete with quasi-revolutionary outfits as they become Guevara-like urban guerrillas in the closing scenes. When the Helping Hand crew elect to settle their hash during a nocturnal encounter on the road, the Rodríguezes easily rattle them by threatening to sue for injury and damages. The apparently madcap plotlines begin to bundle together when the government agents tracking down Parnell and the Malibu post a reward of $20,000 for return of the car, a prize all the Repo Men leap at, and everyone has their moment in possession of the literally hot car.

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Cox’s use of repossession, the grimy, coercive end of the capitalist centipede, as a vehicle for exploring arch individualism is smart-assed enough in itself. Around this motif he wraps an acidic negation of consumerist values. All the food and drink products seen in the film are bluntly packaged with descriptive names rather than fancily labelled: when Bud suggests to Otto they get a drink, the next shot is of cans simply labelled Drink. Cox goes several steps further to consider an epoch where everything has to a certain extent become commercialised and alienated from its original nature. Christianity has been pulverised into self-mockery, as Otto’s cranially-nullified parents watch the phony televangelist without blinking. The Scientology-mocking ‘Dioretix’ book presents “the science of mind over matter”, adopted variously by Repo Men and FBI agents, is a pseudo-scientific religion perfect for the new-age mindset that tends naturally to believe in things unseen because why not. Science proper is busy creating neutron bombs that “destroy people.” Country, repressing the truth, monitoring your life, employing torturers, perverts, and homogenous minions. Otto wanders the streets of LA seeing men in hazmat suits retrieving corpses, the collateral damage in an ongoing apocalypse. Hippiedom, represented by Miller is beautiful but written off as a form of benign madness, a contrary blot in the corner whilst harbouring keys to the universe. The United Fruitcake Outlet, cover for an organisation for alien conspiracy nuts, waits patiently and hopefully for transcendence to come in the form of relief to come of aliens. Which, funnily enough, it does.

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Otto encounters one of the UFO faithful, Leila (Olivia Barash), as she’s dodging the government agents. Leila and others in the UFO are trying to make contact with Parnell, intending to get the aliens publicised, dreams of dissident glory written up in tabloid ink. Otto chuckles mercilessly at the whole set-up but still sees in Leila a comely lass of just about equal age and level of horniness. Otto’s come-ons lack finesse but finds Leila’s certainly up to screw in the backseat of a repo car in broad daylight out the front of the UFO headquarters. Otto has both enormous cynicism but also a youthful lightness to the way he treats life, like his fumbling attempt to get Leila to give him a blow-job when next he visits her; when she slaps him he can’t help but laugh. Otto’s values, though fractured amidst the random bizarreness of his existence, slowly gain form. He believes in fairness, which he shows by offering to not take a car he thinks belongs to a poor old black lady and then, when he finds it actually belongs to her big musician son and his band of equally big friends, tries to rip it off. Only they catch him and beat hell out of him. When he won’t say who did it to the Repo crew, they in turn beat him up to get the name because it’s their code this should never happen. So Otto gives the name of Humphries, his ex-boss at the supermarket, cueing one of the film’s most bluntly hilarious jolts of black humour as the Repo team visit Humphries’ house and clobber him with a baseball bat. Meanwhile Leila is taken prisoner by Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes), the haughty, pinstriped dominatrix of the government team trying to track down Parnell who comes across: in a nod to Dr Strangelove, she has an artificial hand to which the punks bow down like a pagan fetish.

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Meanwhile Walter’s sublimely kooky Miller, the hippie repairman and shaman for Helping Hand, performs healing rites for the battered Otto and delivers monologues composed of sci-fi accented mysticism involving flying time machines, blended with contemplations of Jungian synchronicity as an expression of the cosmic unconscious, all recounted as he burns up junk in a rail yard. He does so to Otto’s bemused and cynical interest: “Did you do much acid Miller – back in the hippie days?” Miller’s illustration of synchronicity involving “plate” or “shrimp” or “plate of shrimp” gains a throwaway refrain later as a diner window sign advertises, yes, “plate ‘o shrimp.” Such finite yet precise detailing flows all the way through Repo Man, a film which sees no essential distinction between big particulars and small in a manner that’s akin to a narrative cinematic version of certain modernist art styles, perspective removed, only the map of mysterious relations left. The wonder of it all is that for all the rambling, often scarcely connected flow of individual sequences in the film, its plot ultimately unfolds with a deft sense of mechanism, the fragmentary becoming a unique whole in much the same way that the alien power in the Malibu evolves from destructive to transcendental force. Miller’s raving about “threads of coincidence” becomes the stuff of Repo Man’s story. But what gives the most ironic and clandestine form to the story is the way Cox delivers a version of an Arthurian Grail quest, with the Repo Men as the most devolved version of the Knights of the Round Table, Otto as spaced-out Galahad to Miller’s Percival and Bud’s screwball Lancelot.

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The joke of the federal agents all having the same blonde quaff is reminiscent of the interchangeable jocks in The Graduate (1967), albeit weaponised with acid political inference. The White Superman is under assault from all directions; from youth, the Counterculture, the Underculture, all the non-Gringos, whilst the Establishment’s hordes look they’ve been constructed en masse by Mattel, is too busy trying to keep a lid on the Great Secret of alien life, far too shocking and discomforting to be broadcast on the news between the commercials. Cox sees all theoretically polarised factions as actually porous in nature, because humans are collections of impulses and divided natures, each attitude containing its antithesis. Otto the punk joins the square-dressing Repo Men. The feds mock Marlene and the Rodriguez Brother’s failure to run down Rogersz like they were Repo Men themselves. Leila the radical conspiracy theorist happily signs up with the feds’ mission and tortures Otto. All of them are ultimately driven to look for ideal missions suiting their personal wants and instincts, and what draws them to one group isn’t so far from what might draw them to any other. Leila, excited by the subversive thrill of excavating hidden evidence of alien life and all the pseudo-religious implications therein, is of course attracted to being a fascist.

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Then there’s Parnell, rescuing the alien remains for Leila, hoping to redeem himself in the act except that he’s too far gone, flesh leeched by poison, brain sliced and diced, at once high priest of the western death-dream and victim, obsessed by radiation with apocalyptic delight and fear. He’s been to the mountaintop of modernity, having endeavoured to create what he describes as something “so monstrously immoral just working on the thing can drive you insane.” Parnell’s job was to weave the spectre that seems to hang over the entire scene, as if life on Earth has a limited shelf-life, or at least men will make sure it has one. Perhaps it’s also true to the film’s punk ethos that it also mocks punk itself mercilessly. Otto himself quickly falls from the faith when the blithe, unruly punk ethic bites him on the backside. The young barbarians gather to gyrate and smash glass in post-apocalyptic locales. Otto’s friends degenerate into bandits who sound like poseurs, the poshly accented Debbi and the preppie-sounding Duke, who in a shocked moment vows a really criminal act: “Let’s go get sushi – and not pay!” Otto knows damn well that not only is modern life rubbish but as a hopeless middle-class stowaway he’s part of it too. “Society made me what I am,” Duke gasps whilst dying; “That’s bullshit,” Otto replies with realistic contempt, “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” “But it still hurts,” Archie protests in his dying gurgle, summing up the whole problem.

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Repo Man gained a lot of its immediate cred from the soundtrack, with a chugging punk surfer-noir theme by Iggy Pop added late and the spacey guitar tracks by The Plugz gifting the film some of its unique texture, at once louche and spry in propelling the movie with aspects of aural lampooning as well as mood-weaving. Repo Man came out amidst the strong moment for unusual, cultish, low-budget projects that was 1984, as the independent film movement was gathering steam. Jim Jarmusch’s breakout with Stranger Than Paradise presented kin in pokerfaced cool; John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet anatomised contemporary society with sci-fi metaphors. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas offered a simultaneous survey of the American landscape shot by Muller and featuring Stanton in all his bedraggled glory. Much as fans of all three movies might hate to admit it, Repo Man also had affinities with Ghostbusters in making sport of the post-counterculture meltdown and rise of yuppiedom amidst a tale of fantastical cosmic collisions, and with James Cameron’s The Terminator, tearing about the tech-noir LA streets dodging time travellers and metaphorical Cold War-age fallout. If science fiction’s success in the Star Wars age had come at the expense of largely losing the socially critical veneer it had wielded throughout the previous decade, Repo Man helped restore the balance, point the way forward to similar mixtures of urban gothic and satirical screed in the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1986) and John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Hell, there’s even some of The X-Files in there.

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Cox’s style, inimitable as it was, would also have definite impact on Quentin Tarantino’s early work in freely mixing deadpan realism closely attuned to LA’s street feel, genre film quotes redeployed in quotidian contexts, black humour, and surf guitar music twanging on the soundtrack. Similarly, Cox had already gotten to places where David Lynch was going in stewing together retro Americana and surrealist blindsiding, pre-empting the absurdist theatre of Mulholland Drive (2000), if with a far more playful bent, and aspects of his TV show Twin Peaks, down to the association of atom-age sin with contemporary dislocation. The formal chic of Muller’s photography with its acrylic textures undoubtedly helped imbue Repo Man with its oddball poise. Flashes of surprisingly intense and kinetic filmmaking, like a liquor store shootout and a chase in an underground carpark, are contrasted with many a shot where the camera sits removed at a cool distance from the actors and action to accentuate the absurdist flavour. One essential example arrives late in the film as the heroes flee a hospital with feds pursuing, the camera remaining rooted to the spot in filming the flurry of action, only for the Malibu, releasing bolts of blue energy that strike down the feds, cruising by as a brief and tantalising glimpse of the utterly surreal. Cox takes a squared-off perspective on roadsides and house fronts so often it becomes a system of sorts, the viewpoint of the Repo Manas cruising along the road, surveying the facades of the everyday, both compelled and repelled by the geometry of LA and its ideals of possession, eyeing the shiny objects parked without.

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The film has an inexhaustible supply of brilliant, throwaway comedy skits and vignettes laden with bemused and mysterious texture. Otto being berated for knocking over garbage bins by an old English lady (Dorothy Bartlett). An agent screaming, “Not my face!” as Marlene prepares to thump him with a chair. A scooter-riding gang trundling up a midnight street to the quoted strains of “Born to Be Wild,” and a refrain of “Ride of the Valkyries” accompanying Duke, Debbi, and Archie as they flee a drug warehouse they’ve raided, Archie pausing to shake hands with a derelict man on the way. “Born to be Wild” resurges later with cruel good humour as Otto tries to take off with the musicians’ car, only to realise the back wheels are jammed on props. Miller ministering to Otto after he’s beaten up by the musicians with mystic chants and ribbons. The Circle Jerks, of which Schloss was a member, appearing as a lounge act warbling atonal and cynical ditties in vicious mockery of the old crooner style. Duke gets gunned down when he and Debbi rob a liquor store, sparking a gunfight that also sees Bud wounded. Duke is already dead, flash-fried by the alien radiation when the crew steal the Malibu. They stole the car off the Rodríguezes, who stole it off Parnell, who then regains his ride after Archie’s death. Otto finally spots the Malibu and chases it on foot until Parnell stops and gives him a ride. The scientist him with radiation factoids and explains how he got lobotomised to slow his overheated brain down, before suddenly expiring from a haemorrhage.

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Throughout all the craziness runs the spasmodic blend of amity and frustration that defines Bud and Otto’s partnership, not quite friends, not quite surrogate father and son, more different versions of the same generational task, each as rudely unfinished and unique as the other, evoking Ethan and Martin in The Searchers (1956), a film Cox would later make a pseudo-sequel-cum-interrogation in trying to explore his fascination. Taking at first to being Otto’s mentor, Bud ends up exasperated: “I thought I could teach you something!” Bud, tired and hungry for enough money to become the boss, is scarcely a model of world-conquering success himself, a prototype already outmoded, and in the very end it proves Miller rather than Bud who takes Otto for the next, greater step in his journey. However Bud’s method of handling things proves revivifying; where Otto finds the Malibu, Bud just rips it off and waves his gun at anyone who disagrees, and when he falls with a belly full of machine gun bullets, only calmly asks for a cigarette. Otto has a young man’s quick sense of the absurd balanced by his longing for something authentic and worthy. He is as often bewildered and out of his depth as is he is knowing and cynical; indeed he’s largely a weak and silly hero (like when he explains to Duke that he never came to see him in juvie because “I was working!”) specifically because he’s also young. But he is, ultimately, a pure grail seeker, ultimately worthy to travel with Miller in the Malibu because of his willingness to keep seeking something uncompromised which overpowers all his other instincts.

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The riotous climax lays waste to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in reclaiming the transcendental encounter with alien powers for the fantastical revolution for social outcasts, whilst the representatives of state security and other institutions wither and cringe before the might of such energy as represented by day-glo paint and gaffers tossing around ice cubes. The radiation-suit-clad feds burst into flames and even the good Reverend Larry bleats “Holy sheep-shit!” as the energy fries his bible. It is ultimately Miller’s vision that wins through, his kooky reports of time machine flying saucers that proves pertinent. Where Bud makes a last stand (“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees!”) and get shot for his pains, it is Miller the cracked mystic who ultimately knows what to do with this star vessel, the man on the scene with the understanding. He invites Otto to come with him to the stars. “What about our relationship?” demands Leila. “Fuck that,” Otto replies before climbing aboard. The glitter of the LA skyline glimpsed from a flying car is wonder enough. Nothing left to do but look up and charge into the void. One of the great movie finales, and one of the great movie beginnings.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Comedy

Airplane! (1980) / Top Secret! (1984)

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Directors/Screenwriters: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Coscreenwriter on Top Secret!: Martyn Burke

By Roderick Heath

Known collectively as ZAZ, the writing and directing team of brothers David and Jerry Zucker and pal Jim Abrahams started their careers in that comedy Mecca, of Madison, Wisconsin, where they were key members of a satirical sketch troupe called the Kentucky Fried Theatre. The burgeoning American, Canadian, and British fringe comedy scenes of the 1970s became a proving ground for so many of the talents who would become stars in in the 1980s, but ZAZ were some of the relatively few from such scenes who found their place behind the camera. They graduated to the big screen in collaboration with John Landis on the 1978 film The Kentucky Fried Movie, and soon were given the chance to make their own movie. The trio decided, rather than simply offer a string of sketches as they had in their previous outing, they would present a mostly coherent lampoon of a specific type of movie and use it as a scarecrow to hang their jokes on. ZAZ, with their encyclopaedic sense of pop culture and authentic streak of movie buff fondness for the sorts of films they would nonetheless ransack for camp and kitsch, decided to take a whack at sending up the disaster movie genre that had been huge business throughout the 1970s for Hollywood. The resulting concoction, Airplane!, released in 1980, was a hugely profitable hit and quickly became enshrined amongst the most beloved comedy cult films.

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By comparison, ZAZ’s 1984 follow-up Top Secret!, a panoramic swipe at spy, war, and Elvis movies, gained a comparatively muted response and lingered more quietly on video store shelves and occasional TV showings, although it too eventually gained veneration. The trio also stumbled with their attempt to create a TV series, Police Squad! (1982), but gained their revenge when they adapted it as a movie, The Naked Gun (1987), and scored another popular hit that birthed two sequels. After tackling a script written by others on Ruthless People (1986) whilst still a team, the trio split to take on solo directing works: Abrahams tackled Big Business (1988), Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990), and the more ZAZ-like Hot Shots! films (1991, 1993). Jerry Zucker proved the most willing to go off-brand with the supernatural romance Ghost (1990) and Arthurian tale First Knight (1995), before stalling with Rat Race (2001), a tribute to one of the ZAZ stylistic influences, Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). David directed the first two Naked Gun entries, worked with the creators of the very ZAZ-like TV series South Park on BASEketball (1998), and later took over the Scary Movie franchise from the Wayans brothers, before undoing himself somewhat with the right-wing patriotic screed An American Carol (2008).

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With Airplane!, ZAZ reinvented the movie parody genre, one that had only known sporadic stabs anyway over the years, and which was generally left to television, which could speedily assimilate and produce a send-up and move on. A good feature-length lampoon, by contrast, had to amass decades’ worth of clichés and points of reference to work. Bob Hope had made his name in movies poking their tongues out at other movies, with the likes of the horror movie burlesques The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), the Western-disassembling farce The Paleface (1950) and its Frank Tashlin-directed sequel (1952). Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) had made sport of the gothic horror revival of its day and the Carry On films had often revolved around making fun of familiar genres, from historical epics to spy movies. ZAZ spurned however the relatively traditional approach of many of these, for they also channelled the bristling linguistic and behavioural anarchism of the Marx Brothers, frenetic zaniness of H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the free-for-all aesthetic of MAD Magazine, the protean, associative strangeness of Looney Tunes, and the provocative black comedy of Harvard’s National Lampoon, which was also trying to leverage a turn to the big screen around the same time as ZAZ.

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ZAZ’s immediate forerunners as Jewish wiseacres turned comedy auteurs had been Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had many of the same influences. Allen had leveraged his own movie career with genre-specific send-ups like What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) and Take The Money And Run (1969), whilst Brooks, with the Western survey Blazing Saddles (1974), had kicked off his own popular imprimatur as a movie satirist with a willingness to distort cinematic reality through a jarring blend of retro mores and contemporary attitude, even with meta-movie twists in Blazing Saddles. Where ZAZ went one better than him was in adopting an ever faster pace of gag deployment, and in adding an extra zest of panoramic social satire. One reason for ZAZ’s success in this regard lay in their eager embrace of simultaneous styles of humour: Airplane! maintains its giddy rush of gags simply by trusting that one funny thing is as good as another. For lovers of older movies, the impact of the ZAZ style, like that of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be a mixed blessing, as it can be hard to appreciate the particular pleasures of the sorts of movies they aimed at without feeling a little hectored. And yet, unlike the Monty Python team, who with their films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), liked to deconstruct stories in time with assaults on social conventions, ZAZ maintained a less cynical affection for the movies they liked to pull apart, and honoured despite their sarcasm the basic story logic of such models.

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Undoubtedly, the greater part of Airplane!’s success lay in the way it offered a machine gun volley of jokes without rhyme and scarcely any reason, a velocity of laughs that made Brooks look positively lackadaisical. But the pace of humour disguised other, deftly organised principles. One smart move was in avoiding directly mocking any particular entry in the ‘70s disaster cycle, instead taking as its basis a lesser-known progenitor to give it a proper narrative backbone. Arthur Hailey, who had written the novel Airport that was filmed in 1970 and kicked off the disaster movie craze, had dabbled in the theme of aerial crisis years earlier, with the Canadian TV play Zero Hour, adapted into a film starring Dana Andrews in 1957. That film, with its story of a war-damaged flying veteran pressganged into landing a passenger plane after its aircrew go down with food poisoning, offered a perfect narrative structure, because it allowed the disaster situation to be at once static and open-ended. Airplane!’s power derives from the way, despite every impediment it throws in his path both plot-wise and comedic, it still credits protagonist Ted Striker (Robert Hays) with a traditional hero’s journey as he tries to overcome self-doubt and trauma and win back his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in the course of saving the day, an aspect enabled by Hays’ skill in both delivering deadpan humour and evoking everyman empathy. But perhaps the deepest source of Airplane!’s specific pep lay in its driving sense of ironic contrast, between the slick neatness of Hollywood narrative and the bizarre lilt of modern American life circa 1980.

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The Kentucky Fried Movie had already unveiled ZAZ as a team with a delight mixed with derision for the commercialised accoutrements of the ‘70s lifestyle obsession, spawned from the team’s old habit of leaving their VCR recording late-night TV and making sport of the esoterica they found that way—Zero Hour being such relic. Airplane! is obsessed with many of its characters as free-floating bodies of unhinged wont, from Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) as a discerning reader of Modern Sperm magazine and advanced-studies purveyor in paedophilic overtures, to his wife in bed with her equine lover, and the rank of people delighting in a chance to deal out some brute force to a hysterical woman. The famous early gag of two announcing voices on a Los Angeles airport PA system, whose disagreement over what the various zones are for soon shades into an argument over the woman getting an abortion, exemplifies this aspect: drab functionalism warps into a deeply personal spat over the fallout of sex and intimacy, inspired by aspects of Airport. ZAZ consciously set up two ways of experiencing movies in opposition. The old, square, WASP style was represented by the cadre of actors once regularly cast as stern and serious types, including Leslie Nielsen, Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack. They collide with a more contemporary landscape, one infected with a polyglot of rich and perverse players. Stack’s adamantine action man Rex Kramer, once a battler of enemy nations during “The War,” is now reduced to calmly hacking his way through a score of pestering new age proselytisers.

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The Airport films had already displayed distinct aspects of knowing camp, which made sending them up, like the Roger Moore-era James Bond films, a difficult task as they were already in essence self-satires: nobody could take Helen Reddy as a singing nun entertaining a deathly ill Linda Blair seriously. Airplane!’s dichotomous strategy helped it pull off the trick. Many ‘70s disaster movies fed parasitically on a faded ideal of movie glamour and star power, casting former big-name performers and finding creative ways of killing them off. ZAZ by contrast dug up actors to get them to repurpose their images, ironically doing better by such actors and even transforming Nielsen and Bridges into late-career comedy stars. This approach rewarded viewers who also remembered and delighted in those old, cheesy movies, and even ones that weren’t that old – Nielsen’s presence was directly inspired by his contribution to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – but worked just as well if you didn’t: I dare say that as a kid watching Airplane! (when I knew it by its Australian release title, Flying High!) was the first time I’d encountered many such performers and conventions, thus also making it a kind of miniature film school. It also contrasted the more traditionally comedic, hammy, neo-vaudevillian shtick Brooks was keeping alive. Not that Airplane! suppresses that shtick as an influence. The film’s most perpetually quoted exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” is so pure in channelling those roots you can easily imagine Groucho and Chico Marx uttering it, but it’s given a very specific quality here via Nielsen’s utter conviction in delivering the punchline. Only a highly professional actor with decades of experience in the soul-weathering art of making terrible dialogue sound vital could truly do it justice.

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Some of this explains why immediate precursors to Airplane! didn’t gain nearly so much traction. Neil Israel’s Americathon (1979) had a very similar pitch of exacerbating zeitgeist trends with a strong dose of randy, post-yippie smart-assery, but it had an inverse proportion of political and lifestyle satire to pop culture joking to Airplane!, and its shots at the latter aspect were too vaguely observed to offer the same frisson. James Frawley’s The Big Bus (1976) beat Airplane! to the punch in mocking the disaster movie craze with a very similar approach including casting self-satirising stars and mixing in a panoply of genre movie influences. Indeed, it took on some common touches with enough effect ZAZ didn’t have to bother with them, like the smarmy lounge singer act, but played a much cleaner game and lacked the later film’s all-encompassing licence. ZAZ’s twists tend not to just take a cliché and reproduce it for smirking recognition but build on it, like the notion of a couple of non-English-speakers in the midst of disaster causing contention for the crew here offered via the two black men (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) who speak only in incredibly dense jive argot. This is then given further layering by making the unlikely translator for their native language Barbara Billingsley, the mother from Leave It To Beaver, and then having them regaled by The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974) songstress Maureen McGovern in the guise of a singing nun whose version of “Respect” inspires profuse vomiting.

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One further aspect of Airplane!‘s special brilliance lay in the way ZAZ revealed themselves as proper filmmakers, with ready ability to balance comedic performance with cinematic movement. They shift nimbly between set-ups to give each joke its necessary space in a way that strongly contrasts the tendency of today’s comedy filmmakers like Paul Feig to indulge rambling pseudo-improvisation and any-shot-will-do indolence to contain the humour. Some of Airplane!’s best gags, like an airline mechanic (Jimmy Walker) tending to the plane like a gas station hand in the background of a functional scene, or a mockery of beatifically smiling faces leaning into frame as they listen to a beautiful song including one man descending from overhead, depend on a poise of visual exposition beyond many comedy directors. Airplane!‘s willingness to go off-brand in sourcing its laughs, if one that from a certain standpoint refuses to obey any ground rules and so seeming a touch mercenary, nonetheless helped to free up its reflexes rather than merely offer a checklist of honoured cliches. As well as disaster movies Airplane! sidesteps to take swipes at old war movies and then-recent hits, most hilariously illustrated by Ted’s flashback recollection of meeting Elaine in a seedy nightspot, the Mogambo, “populated by every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta – it was worse than Detroit.” This sequence ticks off such familiar flourishes of the old movie dive bar as the sexy sauntering legs accompanied by saucy jazz (the owner of the legs here blowing a lick on a trombone) and two soldiers getting into a fight over a card game (except the uniformed battlers here are a pair of girl scouts).

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This skews unexpectedly into a mockery of John Travolta’s famous dance scene from Saturday Night Fever (1977) as genuinely ebullient as it is pitiless in excavating the postures of contemporary urban warrior fantasy encapsulated in the model, as well as its dodgy showmanship, knowing full well the Travolta vehicle sold the notion of the modern cowboy as a duellist on the range of slick moves and quick sex. Airplane! incidentally depicts once-suppressed subcultures becoming conversant with each-other, an idea made into literal jokes with the Jive dudes and the sight of a nun and a kid each reading a magazine on the other social subset’s lifestyle, but extended throughout the narrative more implicitly as ZAZ obey Terry Southern and Lenny Bruce’s project for American satirical comedy as an unveiling of the basic hungers of US society in a way unadorned by high-flown cant. Johnny (Stephen Stucker) is deployed later in the film to wield shafts of camp anarchy (“Fog’s getting thicker!” “And Leon’s getting laaarrrrgggeeer!”). In perhaps the film’s funniest and filthiest sustained gag, Elaine has to refill the plane’s inflatable Automatic Pilot (Otto) in a literal blow-job that leaves the intruding Rumack bewildered and concludes with both lady and dummy smoking in suggestive bliss. This scene works as a totally random excursion into sexy humour but incidentally offers a sharp capsule summary of the Airport series’ preoccupation with contemporary sexual mores: Elaine getting it on after a fashion with Otto is also an act of sensual liberation commensurate with Ted’s recovery of his manly mojo.

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Some jokes don’t fly so well now. Ted’s account of his and Elaine’s stint trying to school a remote African tribe takes a poke at white self-congratulation as Ted suggests his “advanced Western teaching techniques” help the tribe learn basketball when they clearly, instantly grasp and master the game, but also feels a bit graceless in taking on racist cliché. ZAZ’s tilts at ‘70s licentiousness also mediate the looming spectre of ‘80s Reaganism. The many pot-shots at the about-to-be-President, including a running joke based on his 1940 film Knute Rockne, All-American (“Go out there and win just one for the Zipper!”) bespeak ZAZ’s suspicion that the desire to vote for Reagan was also the desire of an America tiring of contemporary lunacy to live in an old movie. Indeed, David Zucker’s later conservative turn suggests he might have empathised with it even then. The mid-film pause for a sing-along as stewardess Randy (the splendid, astonishingly underemployed Lorna Patterson) comforts heart transplant patient Lisa (Jill Whelan) sees her belting out Peter Yarrow’s internationalist anthem “River of Jordan,” an affirmation of general idealism hilariously undercut by not noticing she’s knocked out Lisa’s IV tube. Here ZAZ identify with lacerating exactitude not just silliness of the model scenes in Airport 1975 (1974) but also the way the ‘60s version of poptimism became supplanted by Me Decade obliviousness.

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Similarly, Kramer’s rampage through the pestilential proliferation of airport badgerers depicts exhaustion with the whole panoply of consciousness-raising and social issue-mongering. Airplane! ends gleefully with Ted landing the plane safely and the pompous Kramer continuing to explore the nature of trauma over the radio (“Have you ever been kicked in the head with an iron boot?”) past the point of necessity, and the lifestyle aspect is given its last wink as Otto gains an inflatable mate and takes off to the wild blue yonder. Elmer Bernstein’s ingenious score gives the film a deal of cohesion as he imbues even absurd scenes with a dramatic tenor equal to that of the square-jawed old actors, and sends the film out with a grandiose march that underlines the carnivalesque sense of all-American good-humour. Top Secret!, when it arrived four years later, was already contending with a different social landscape. The old-fashioned values ZAZ had made fun of were regaining currency in mainstream movies; Ted Striker’s redemptive arc soon became that of John Rambo and John McClane and Martin Riggs. The kinds of old spy and war movies the story was based in had already been bundled together with extra lashings of action and spectacle as well as wry knowing in the Indiana Jones films.

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The film’s Elvis stand-in, Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, making his movie debut), has made his name performing trend-riding, sub-Beach Boys hits. The opening credits depict a music video for his hit song “Skeet Surfin’”, a ditty explaining the pleasures of blasting clay pigeons whilst hanging five, complete with random shots slicing off beach umbrellas and bringing down hang-gliders. Nick is invited to East Germany to participate in a cultural festival being held by the local Commie Nazis as a last-minute substitute for Leonard Bernstein. The festival is being staged as cover for a plot to unleash a device that can wreck NATO warships, a device invented by the imprisoned Dr Paul Flammond (Gough). Flammond’s daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) is an agent in the underground although he thinks she’s in the Stasi’s hands. Nick becomes involved when he saves Hillary from an assassin during a ballet, arrested by the authorities and imprisoned, where he encounters Flammond and learns of the plot. He and Hillary make contact with a resistance cell led by an agent who proves to be Nigel (Christopher Villiers), the man Hillary grew up with whilst shipwrecked on a desert island but whom she presumed to be dead. Together they launch a mission to rescue Flammond from prison, but of course someone in the resistance ranks is a mole.

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The relatively substantial plot and carefully developed visual and verbal parodying clearly advances on Airplane!. But there remains a similar free-form mix of jokes, with gags based in such random epiphanies as revealing men’s ballet costumes, with a ballerina prancing upon a raft of bulging crotches. One of the most magnificently odd sight gags in movie history comes half-way through when Nick and Hillary sit in a park with a giant statue of a pigeon, upon which flying men land and defecate. Other jokes are based in more specific reference points: Omar Sharif’s spy character Cedric is trapped and crushed in a car a la Goldfinger (1964) only to turn up later stumbling along encased in the crumpled metal. The standard moment in Westerns where some horses are stampeded to forestall pursuit here sees Nick shooing off a herd of waiting pushbikes. Ian McNeice appears as Cedric’s underground contact who poses as a blind seller of novelties and party tricks, several of which he inflicts on the hapless spy in the name of covering their communication. Despite the German setting, Nigel’s underground cell is filled with French resistance warriors whose names are all Francophone clichés: “This is Chevalier…Montage…Detente…Avant Garde…and Déjà Vu.” “Haven’t we not met before, Monsieur?” The unfortunate member Latrine constantly turns up in a state of bloodied suffering.

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The horrors of repression and torture are often found to be less terrifying than some more prosaic forms of torment — after a terrible dream of being back in High School, Nick is blissfully relieved to awaken and see he’s only being whipped by Stasi thugs. Said thugs are a terrifying prospect: “Bruno is almost blind, has to operate wholly by touch. Klaus is a moron, who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” Top Secret!’s relative failings in comparison to its predecessor take a little teasing out. Whilst it offers a similar survey of familiar actors mocking their stock personas, including Sharif, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough, most of their contributions aren’t as sustained or clever. Whilst Top Secret! still takes a time-out for a send-up of a recent popular hit, in this case The Blue Lagoon (1980), it’s a reference point that offers no similar opportunity for a discursion as dynamic as the Mogambo dance. Where the very end of Airplane! gives the film’s comedy and its relative straight aspects a perfectly entwined send-off, Top Secret! seems more to just stop. Whilst the film still contains some good riffs contending with sexual mores and perversities (the Anal Intruder) and satirical jolts, it lacks the cohesive comic substrata that aspect offered in the earlier film.

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That said, other aspects of Top Secret! improve on Airplane!. The running jokes are developed with more patience and sneaky wit, like the constant difficulties with language and translation in regards to both languages and spy codes. The choice of tethering a send-up of films based in geopolitics to the fantasy vision of Elvis Presley’s movie vehicles (particularly Harum Scarum, 1965), with their implicit promise of carefree deliverance through worshipping the beautiful idol of rock’n’roll, turns Top Secret! into a sustained interrogation of America’s place in the world at the height of renewed Cold War tensions. Top Secret! offers American leadership in the post-WWII era as a sustained act of show business. Nick repeatedly makes an impact upon the hidebound East German establishment by dint of his rocker showmanship, beating a Soviet tenor to the punch in performing for a ritzy audience, winning over everyone except the fuming military chiefs (even the elderly house band quickly adapts to a rock ethos) and rocking out a pizza parlour when the resistance fighters demand proof he’s not Mel Torme. Nick’s performance at the festival sees him cranking up James Brown’s theatrical desperation with gestures like trying to hang and gas himself. By contrast the East German anthem is a hymn of sinister caution (“Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first”) set to the music from a Wisconsin high school’s song.

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The cultural satire here echoes a lot of overt propaganda issued around this time about the west’s free and easy attitude compared to the browbeaten tenor of the eastern bloc, with the twist from ZAZ that acknowledges Nick’s espousal of freedom was considered quite a distance from what a lot of western leaders felt desirable too just a few years earlier. By implication ZAZ consider Hollywood moviemaking and pop music potent forms for creating a mythology for combating repressiveness whilst also perhaps blinding people to the west’s own failings in this regard. That’s a frontier of satire ZAZ mostly shy away from, except when Hillary, explaining her own father’s narrow brush with political collapse as an immigrant to the US: “He was one of the lucky ones, he managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency,” and decries how disengaged US youth is: Nick can only protest in counterpoint that his high school history class once spent a week in Philadelphia. The alarm over Reagan’s rise mooted in Airplane! is now solidified: Cold War politics are now plainly being administrated as if in an old movie in broad strokes of morality. Meanwhile the returned Nigel delights Hillary as she measures up various parts of his anatomy and aggravates the nonetheless understanding Nick, although Nigel seems to be harbouring pretty happy memories of being ravaged by the sailors who rescued him from the island. Of course, Nigel turns out to be the mole in the unit, obliging him and Nick to fight it out.

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By comparison with Airplane!’s targeting of films still fresh in the public memory, ZAZ felt Top Secret! might have stumbled in comparison by taking movies greatly receded in pop culture’s rear-view mirror. This aspect nonetheless reveals the second film as a work more deeply ensconced in a film buff’s sensibility, and casual gags hide riches for fellow travellers. Like Cushing’s Swedish book store owner, first glimpsed with a huge bulging eye glimpsed through a magnifying glass only to lower the glass and prove to actually have a huge bulging eye: this works as a casually surreal visual joke but also happens to recreate and mock an image from a couple of Cushing horror vehicles. A glimpse of a looming telephone Kemp’s army bigwig picks up turns out to actually be ridiculously large rather than a product of dramatic forced perspective. Whilst Airplane! showed ZAZ had abilities as visual jokesters, Top Secret! is a much freer, far more deftly staged work of physical comedy and moviemaking style, closer to the style of Richard Lester (to whom Top Secret! nods by tossing in a singing horse that warbles “A Hard Day’s Night”), with some touches even approaching the likes of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, with reaches of staged comedy Airplane! only briefly reached for in moments like the plane crashing through a terminal window.

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The film’s very start offers the sight of Cedric and a German soldier battling atop a train, with Cedric ducking to allow his foe to be swatted off by a bridge only for the bridge to crumble around the soldier. Nick’s introduction sees him trying to paint the rural landscape from his train window and proving to have skilfully recreated the motion blur. The Resistance’s battles with the Germans sees the hulking, cigar-eating Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe) knocking out squads of enemies with improbably good shooting. Later he causes a German armoured car to swerve off the road with his shooting, although it takes the car slightly tapping a parked Pinto to cause a devastating explosion. A stop at a train station as Nick and his manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) sees the platform itself start rolling away leaving the stationary train and a passenger chasing after it, in a poke at the set-bound action of a lot of classic Hollywood movies. Kilmer and Gutteridge perform a ridiculous traditional dance whilst arguing politics, a very Brooksian touch. The to-and-fro dashing of the Resistance fighters pauses to become a Broadway kick routine. A German soldier tossed off the prison battlements hits the ground only to shatter like a plaster statue. One of the best violations of the fourth wall in any movie comes when Nick rattles off all the improbable events that’s befallen him and Hillary, and she acknowledges, “Yes, it all sounds like the plot of some bad movie.” Whereupon she and Nick stand stiff and awkward with their gazes turning ever so nervously towards the audience.

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Kilmer’s physicality and authentic movie star lustre are invaluable to the movie’s energy, Kilmer performing Nick’s dance moves and dashing through the comedy action scenes with a gusto no other film’s ever asked of him, not even his sorry outings as Batman and The Saint. His performance of “Straighten Out The Rug” in the pizzeria sees Nick do a breakdance spin so well he saws a hole in the floor, whilst dancing guys swing rag doll partners around their heads. Kilmer is almost too much the real deal for a burlesque. The brilliantly strange climax sees Nick and Nigel fall off a truck as they fight it out and plunge into a river where they engage in an underwater fist fight in a sunken Western saloon, a sequence that must have taken some extraordinary effort to achieve. Nick knocks out his foe and strides out through the swinging doors to the Bonanza theme. The very end feels abrupt in a way that suggests problems with editing, and indeed ZAZ did leave a lot on the cutting room floor, but it does honour its models again as Hillary contemplates with sad wisdom, like many an old war movie heroine before her, whether to stay in the fight or wing away to a new life: “Things change. People change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate.” The fight for freedom in a world where an actor or TV celebrity can be elected president goes on.

Standard
1960s, Comedy, Drama, Greek cinema

Zorba the Greek (1964)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis

By Roderick Heath

My father Douglas Heath died late in 2018 at the age of 71. Dad was a lifelong cinephile. Many of the films he held in fierce affection were movies he saw during his late teens and twenties, a time when he was often homeless and constantly adrift in life, but also intellectually voracious and consuming culture in any way he could. He told me he knew my mother was the woman for him when he took her to see Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967) at a revival screening and she loved it (a previous girlfriend had walked out during the opening credits). Later in life when asked what his favourite movie was, he tended to name one of two films as his favourite. One was the Robert Wise-directed, Val Lewton-produced The Body Snatcher (1945), which he held in particular esteem in part because of its dreamlike evocation of the Scotland he’d been forced to leave as a child when his father decided to emigrate. But the movie he most consistently named was Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek. It’s not hard for me to see why Dad was so particularly passionate about Cacoyannis’ film. Like Zorba, my father had done every job known to humanity, could make friends in an empty room, had talents he wouldn’t sell, and those he did usually left him rolling amidst the wreckage wondering what went wrong. I remember the first time I watched the film with him, as a kid, and being confused at the switchbacks of high tragedy and knockabout comedy throughout. I asked him what kind of movie this was. Dad responded, “It’s life.”
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Cacoyannis’s oeuvre in general and Zorba the Greek in particular perhaps need revival these days. Alongside American blow-in Jules Dassin, Cacoyannis captured the world’s attention for Greek film, well before the arrival of Theo Angelopoulos and the current brace of figures like Yorgos Lanthimos and Rachel Athina Tsangari. If Zorba the Greek still has any cultural cachet it’s certainly thanks to its famous theme by composer Mikis Theodorakis, which became emblematic for the post-WWII Greek diaspora and introduced something of the spirit of Greek rembetiko music to the world at large. Ironically the theme’s popularity might have done the movie few favours, perhaps making it seem like escapist exotica from another age along with the likes of Black Orpheus (1959). Cacoyannis’ reputation meanwhile never quite recovered from the bruising reception to his follow-up to Zorba the Greek’s great success, The Day The Fish Came Out (1967), a film which, in spite of its gutsiness in trying to be a queer-themed comedy at a time when that was still pretty outre, still can’t even claim cult status. But Cacoyannis’ career also included great, highly underappreciated adaptations of Euripides, including Elektra (1962) and The Trojan Women (1971), and he reunited with Zorba the Greek star Alan Bates in the early 2000s for a version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
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The film was an adaptation of the novel The Life and Times of Alexis Zorba by Nikos Kazantzakis, (called Zorba the Greek in English-language editions), who had earned international interest for contemporary Greek writing up until his death in 1957. Kazantzakis’ art was built around apparently contradictory precepts, contradictions that gave his books their feverish sway. As a Marxist writer Kazantzakis wanted to dig into the authentic character of Greece’s working and peasant classes, and he initially annoyed cultural watchdogs by writing in demotic or popular modern Greek. But Kazantzakis was also compelled by a defiantly personal religious sensibility, which gave birth to his other best-known book, The Last Temptation of Christ, filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1988: the infamy that met Scorsese’s film had already been anticipated by the reaction of religious authority to the novel. Zorba the Greek was Kazantzakis’ attempt to summarise the vitality of the national character, so long buffeted by poverty and oppression since the ancient glory days, presented through the title character who’s uneducated but possesses great wisdom after a long, hard-knock life, and sufficient unto himself. Somewhat ironically, the character was bound to become synonymous with the Mexican-Irish actor cast in the film role, Anthony Quinn.
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Quinn was another man who identified deeply with the character nonetheless, as an actor who’d lifted himself out of a childhood of grinding poverty through creative talent and achieved a career as one of Hollywood’s perennial supporting players, in large part thanks to his ready capacity to play any ethnicity under the sun. Quinn owed some of his early career traction to marriage to Cecil B. DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine, and the filmmaking titan gave Quinn a lot of work, eventually producing Quinn’s lone directorial outing, a remake of his father-in-law’s The Buccaneer (1958). Quinn eventually captured two Oscars in the mid-1950s for Viva Zapata! (1952) and Lust For Life (1956), playing the more degraded brother of the folk hero in the former and Paul Gauguin opposite Kirk Douglas’ Vincent Van Gogh in the latter. But it wasn’t until Federico Fellini cast him in La Strada (1954) that Quinn gained traction as a leading man and became a popular figure in European as well as Hollywood film. Often cast as a Latin roué in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the grizzled and thickening Quinn became exalted for his ability to play strong, earthy, eruptive personalities, usually with a brutish streak, who thrive at the expense of the more neurotic, delicate, or victimised people they orbit. By playing Zorba, Quinn tried to revise his screen persona in inhabiting a similar role who nonetheless tries to pass on some of talent for life to others.
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Cacoyannis laid specific claim to the material with his emphases. Cacoyannis came from Cyprus and his father had been closely involved the British administration of the island at the time. Cacoyannis spent much of his youth in Britain, including a stint in the RAF during World War II, and so the novel’s narrator and viewpoint character Basil became a half-Greek, half-English intellectual trying to get back in touch with his roots. A subplot involving his ill-fated romance with a local widow was emphasised and refashioned into a tale within the tale close in nature to one of the classical Greek tragedies sporting a female figure of titanic suffering Cacoyannis was so compelled by. Basil, played by Bates, is on the way to Crete, having inherited a small property there that belonged to his father incorporating a seaside shack and a disused lignite mine. When the ferry to Crete is delayed by a storm, Basil waits with other passengers in the terminal; Cacoyannis offers the subtly weird touch of the sound of the storm abating as Basil senses a strange presence, and notices Zorba staring through the fogged glass. Zorba, on the lookout for an opportunity, quickly attaches himself to Basil, offering to serve him in any capacity he requires. Zorba seems initially a sort of vulgar, unctuous grotesque borne out of the storm, but Basil quickly takes a shine to his energy and gains increasing respect for him as he reveals surprising turns of personality, like his refusal to offer his talent for playing the santuri: “In work I am your man, but in things, like playing and singing, I am my own – I mean free.” Basil employs Zorba specifically to get the mine working again, and they board the ferry together.
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The corner of Crete where Basil’s land is proves poverty-stricken and defined by a finite balance the two arrivals find themselves doomed to disturb. The two men spend their first night in the town in a crumbling guest house amusingly styled the Hotel Ritz, owned by Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), an aging former dancer from Parisian nightclubs and courtesan who airily regales them with accounts of her once-wild life. She dances saucily with both men, although it’s Zorba who ends up in bed with her, after Basil, with the heedlessness of youth, humiliates her when he can’t help but laugh at her increasingly overripe anecdotes. After setting up home in the shack on Basil’s property, he and Zorba hire some workers and tackle the mine, but find the wooden props are too badly rotten to risk starting operations, after Zorba is almost buried alive twice. Spying a large forest down the coast, Zorba travels there and finds it’s owned by a monastery; after befriending the monks, he hits upon a plan to use their lumber to rebuild the mine, requiring a large zipline to be built down the side of a mountain. Basil sinks the last of his capital into supporting Zorba’s plan, whilst Zorba, who considers passion a veritably holy thing, in turn encourages Basil to romance a young and well-to-do widow (Irene Papas) who’s the object of desire for every man in the village, but only the young stranger has a chance with her after he aids her gallantly.
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Zorba the Greek revolves around fundamental oppositions, represented most immediately by Basil and Zorba, the difference between head and heart, reason and instinct, proletarian and intellectual, modernity and archaic lifestyles. Basil’s cautious and thoughtful manner stands in near-perfect opposition to Zorba’s gregarious, life-greedy sensibility, but the two men become inseparable precisely because they’re such natural foils, and has something to offer the other. Basil’s stiff Anglo-Saxon half wants to steer clear of intense and potentially unstable situations, whilst Zorba believes that’s the only way to go: “Living means to take off your belt and look for trouble.” The essence of Kazantzakis’ book, a dialogue of values and viewpoints between two long alienated ways of approaching the world represented by two mismatched yet amicable avatars, comes through. Zorba has plenty of literary antecedents, of course, as the voice of common wisdom, stretching back to Hamlet’s graveyard digger. Zorba the Greek never proposes that Zorba is a saintly character, although he also has aspects of a holy fool: he’s a sexist whoremonger and spendthrift, given to expansive inspirations and notions that don’t ever quite seem thought through. The main lesson he teaches Basil is that tragic moments in life can’t be avoided, and it makes more sense to celebrate living as something sufficient in itself than to live in fear of consequence or search for absurd designs behind it all.
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Zorba’s own melancholy history is grasped at intervals, as he memorably answers Basil question whether he ever had a family with the admission, “Wife – children – the full catastrophe.” Later, after one of his frenetic moments of incantatory dancing, he confesses to Basil that he danced the same way after his young son died. In a drolly comedic sequence, he becomes something like a literal Pan figure, as he goes to take a look at the monastery’s forest and scares the hell out of some of the monks when they find him hiding, so filthy from his forays in the mine they think he’s a literal devil rather than his mere advocate. Zorba plays this to his advantage as all the monks come out to hunt the demon only to finish up getting drunk with him. Zorba pronounces, with dubious theology if certain feeling, that the only sin God won’t forgive is if “a woman calls a man to her bed and he does not come.” Zorba gets along like a house on fire with the lusty, romantic Hortense, who subsists in a bubble of melancholic recollection of her glory days as exalted concubine for warriors and statesmen, an embodiment of forgotten belle époque and spirit of sensual exaltation who remembers being bathed in champagne by her harem of naval officers who then proceeded to drink the liquor off her body. But Zorba has no intention of marrying again or settling down, taking up with a young tart when he goes to Chania to buy tools and parts for his project. Basil semi-accidentally commits Zorba to marrying Hortense when she insists on hearing the contents of a letter he writes his friend, substituting romantic feelings for Hortense for Zorba’s actual boasts of erotic adventuring.
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When Kazantzakis wrote his novel he was trying to bridge the ways Greeks had of looking at themselves, and to forge a new literary zone for himself and followers to inhabit. When Cacoyannis made his film, he faced the task of making a relatively esoteric piece of regional portraiture interesting to international viewers. Cacoyannis had been directing films since 1953’s Windfall in Athens, but with Zorba the Greek caught a similar wind to what had made Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Dassin’s Never on Sunday (1960) big worldwide hits. Cacoyannis absorbed the new lexicon of New Wave cinema, as Zorba the Greek is replete with jump cuts, zoom shots, and interludes of hand-held shooting, and took to the latter technique in particular as a way of getting close to his characters and evoking their extreme emotions. Over and above that, Cacoyannis might as as well have been trying to reconcile principles of early ‘60s art cinema style with more traditional theatrical understandings of performance and character. Moreover, Zorba’s unpretentious and expansive sensibility repudiated the navel-gazing tenor of the Italian “alienation” mode and the hyperintellectualised aspects of the New Wave, and anticipated the oncoming age of the counterculture, when Kazantzakis’ writing would find many new fans.
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Cacoyannis’ interest in behaviour as an object of study in itself distinguished his work from much other filmmaking of the period however, and laid down a blueprint that countrymen like Angelopoulos and Lanthimos would explore in their own diverse ways. Cacoyannis stands off for long stretches to watch Quinn or Bates in character eddying in moments of private compulsion and eccentricity, as in a scene in which the bored and bothered Basil tries falteringly to recreate some of Zorba’s exultant dance moves, Zorba’s own seduction of Hortense. Scenes of rollicking comedy, reminiscent of the likes of Rossellini and Buñuel, retain the same method, in Zorba’s encounter with the monks, and engaging in teasing sensual overtures with the young prostitute. When Zorba returns from drinking with the monks, he starts dancing in Basil’s shack, confronting his friend with the near-deranged force of his passion and need to unfetter the forces straining within him, and some wandering musicians, seeing Zorba on the move, start playing to whip him up and drive him on. Quinn and Cacoyannis locate something disquieting, even menacing, in this scene, as the camera reels about the room with Quinn and captures something noir-like in the heavy shadows and increasingly haggard, frantic look of Zorba. Even after Basil chases off the musicians Zorba keeps dancing and the fugue only climaxes when Zorba collapses exhausted on the sand and narrates to Basil the story of how he danced just this way after his son died. Zorba alchemises both physical and mental passion into direct expression, moving into a state of being without past or future.
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Basil’s situation, trapped between languages and adrift in a place where little of meaning is actually spoken aloud anyway, except by Zorba, ironically gave Cacoyannis licence to play much of the film as a kind of silent movie or theatrical pantomime, with dashes of classical theatre and ballet incorporated as well. Such method is plain in the humorous sequences but also defines the most crucial dramatic moments. The sequence when the widow makes her first significant appearance unfolds almost entirely in silence, as she chases her escaped goat only to find several of the village men have herded it inside a tavern to hide it, vibrates with an evocation of repressed lust and hatred turning to a toxic stew, as the widow scans the men with haughty challenge, the camerawork turning madcap amidst the laughing and jostling as she tries to catch the animal. The foul tenor of the episode is only dispelled by the grace of Basil handing the widow his umbrella, a simple gesture of gentlemanly feeling that quickly defines both their lives. The widow has a sort of servant in the mute and stunted villager Mimithos (Sotiris Moustakas), who has a faintly Chaplinesque quality, or perhaps an extremely devolved version of the pantomime character Pierrot, slavishly enthralled to beauty.
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Zorba encourages Basil to make a play for the widow because “I saw how she looks at you,” the only true barometer, and Basil’s subsequent encounters with her unfold on a level of gesture, as when she sends back his umbrella along with food and rosewater, and then encounters him on a trail, charged with mutual awareness. The quality of the gaze obsesses Cacoyannis, sometimes furious, sometimes challenging, baleful, exalting, desirous. The sequence in The Trojan Women when he would stage a chorus recitation with the faces of many women staring into the camera is presaged by the sure sense here that eyes might be the windows of the soul but are also its cameras, demanding and excoriating in return. Another striking moment of mimed intensity comes when several of the villagers, infuriated by the knowledge Basil is spending the night with the widow, cruelly tell a young man of the village who’s obsessively infatuated with her, Pavlo (Yorgo Voyagis), holding him down in his tavern chair and whispering in his ear as she struggles and resists the knowledge as if he’s having evil spells cast down upon him. Meanwhile Basil’s time with the widow is a scene of pathetic displays, the widow experiencing a fit of inexplicable grief, followed by Basil suddenly and desperately grasping her naked form when she seems to feel embarrassed, revealing himself, and the depth of his feeling, for the first time.
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Gesture is just as important as gaze in Zorba the Greek, precisely where Cacoyannis identifies much of life actually happens, in silence, in cues and exchanges that have their own meanings. Acceptance of one thing is also rejection of another, however implicit or unintentional, and the widow’s affair with Basil drives the maddened and despairing Pavlo to drown himself, a tragedy which his father Mavrandoni (George Foundas) and other village men blame on the widow rather than Basil. They carry his body up to her door as if in accusation: Mimithos stands on her garden wall ready to defend her, only to fall off and be mocked by one of the old women of the village, “Is he her lover too?” Sometime later a gang lies in wait to ambush her as she goes to church. Mavrandoni bars her from entering, and villagers hurl stones at her, before one of the angry and offended men, Manolakas (Takis Emmanuel), moves to slay her in an honour killing; the circle of eyes that surrounded the widow in the tavern sequence has now grown and become malignant, a hydra now ready to devour. Basil, alerted from inside the church by the ruckus but unable to break through the cordon about the fateful scene, instead sends Mimithos to fetch Zorba, and he arrives just in time to save the widow from his knife in a trial of strength that sees Zorba victorious. But as Zorba stares down the other men and leads the widow out of the cordon, Mavrandoni springs upon her and cuts her throat.
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Cacoyannis’ love of tragedy and grand theatre certainly found its element in this movement of the film, and it’s a hard scene to take, in its portrayal of virulent communal misogyny and the cheerless confrontation with the truth that, however much moral and physical authority Zorba has and intellectual refinement and purity of spirit Basil retains, both are finally, easily outmatched when an entire community decides to consume its own. Basil confesses in a disorientated mumble his utter incapacity to help. Basil and Zorba are reduced to mere bystanders in someone else’s grim fate; indeed, the narrative implies, that is all anyone is, each in turn. One notable difference between source and film sometimes targeted by commentators is that Kazantzakis held Crete in greater affection, and balanced his portrait of the island’s inhabitants with more forgiving and indulgent aspects, whilst Cacoyannis seems much more prosecutorial of the Cretans he surveys in their brutal, hypocritical morality and vulture-like greed when they flock to raid the dying Hortense’s possessions. That said, Cacoyannis’ camera readily contextualises such behaviour, where scarcity engenders a form of madness that readily breaks out if the forms designed to keep life processes in play are disturbed. The widow’s commodity of beauty is retained chiefly because she doesn’t have to labour in the fields like the other women. Hortense’s pretences to keeping alive a little corner of romantic beauty are paltry by comparison with her dreams but might as well be royalty to her poorer neighbours.
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In Cacoyannis’s eye Zorba seems nonetheless less the archetypal common man than an exceptional one, one forged by a hard life of being used and absorbing such cruel lessons. An earlier scene in the film sees Basil facetiously accuse Zorba of being unpatriotic (in part to deflect Zorba from asking questions about the widow’s gifts) because he readily cited “a wise old Turk” as one source of his wisdom, stoking Zorba’s anger as he reports having “killed men, raped women” in the name of patriotism, led through paths of painful wisdom in a long life of being used to the conclusion that only his own sense of good and bad, right and wrong should guide his actions. The widow’s murder has no apparent consequence in the film (in the novel, Mavrandoni was hunted and eventually arrested), and of course there is nothing to be done: no rite or process breathes life back into a corpse. Basil and Zorba are left only to confront their own anguish, sparking one of the great dialogue exchanges in cinema, as Zorba demands Basil explain why the young die: “What’s the use of all your damn books if they don’t tell you that – what the hell do they tell you?” “They tell me,” Basil replies oh so poetically, “About the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.” To which Zorba retorts with all his peasant defiance, “I spit on their agony.”
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Quinn and Bates play off each-other beautifully throughout the film, and Bates, whilst cast in the far less eye-catching part, nonetheless gives the film its true centre. Carefully suggesting the lingering sorrow of loss and the wordless sense of need that drives him to Crete and makes him hire Zorba, Bates, with his inimitably lucid gaze and capacity for suggesting roiling emotions at war with cool intellect, balances Quinn’s evocation of bravura with a portrayal of a man for whom self-expression is like watching a golem trying to fashion its own clay. Papas, who had worked with Quinn on The Guns of Navarone and with Cacoyannis in the title role of Elektra, was always an astounding movie presence and she’s mesmerising here, her Widow a force of sensual imperative incarnate, glowing-eyed in the dark amidst the olive trees of her estate, until she’s revealed as all too human as Basil ventures close. Director of Photography Walter Lasally’s close-ups, particularly of Papas, are something close to shamanism in their enthralled study of intense and remarkable faces.
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Kedrova however emerged with the only Oscar for the film’s actors, with her marvellous blend of absurdity and pathos. Zorba’s decision to try and make Hortense happy, as he realises she’s dying, by actually agreeing to marry her, becomes another raw lesson in accepting loss. After she ventures out in rain to see Zorba, he goes through a mock wedding ceremony with her, and then looks after her as she becomes dreadfully ill. As it becomes clear she’s dying, the villagers flock to the Hotel Ritz as because Hortense isn’t officially married and has no relatives, the state will claim her belongings. The moment she expires, they begin stripping the valuables out of her house, leaving Zorba to only her corpse splayed upon her bed and her caged pet parrot in an otherwise completely bare room, a hyperbolic depiction of life and death as states of being and not being. Zorba’s simple reaction is take her parrot in hand and leave with Basil, after drinking a toast to her soul offered, with silent and conciliatory meaning, by Manolakis.
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Although Theodorakis’ theme is so well-known, it’s worth noting that his work throughout the film is excellent, snapping into lockstep with Cacoyannis’s images, investing hints of disquiet and abnormality as well as local flavour and comedy (Theodorakis became a significant voice of opposition to the military regime that took control of Greece in the late 1960s). An early scene, as Basil and Zorba travel on the ferry to Crete, becomes a kind of dance sequence as the passengers are tossed to and fro about as the ferry ploughs through heavy seas, reeling motions and editing choreographed with comic effect and Theodorakis scoring it like a madcap hoedown. Theodorakis’ scoring is also of course utterly vital to the film’s end. Zorba’s zipline proves to work a bit too well when they finally get around to testing in a moment of great ceremony and spectacle for the village, and the logs come flying down so fast they keep breaking, or ripping away and crashing, before shaking the whole array to pieces. Basil, aware he’s got no choice now but to go back to England, nonetheless asks Zorba to teach him to dance, and finally obtains the same talent Zorba has, laughing at disaster and determined to actually live life. Cacoyannis’ iconic final shot zooms back on the sight of the two men dancing on the beach, Theodorakis’ theme plucking away merrily on the soundtrack, two dancing idiots delivered from a sad world.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Planet of the Apes (1968)

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Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenwriters: Rod Serling, Michael Wilson

By Roderick Heath

Although overshadowed in appreciation amongst high cinephiles by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2018 brings the fiftieth anniversary of another hugely popular and influential science fiction film: Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. 1968 was a pivotal year for sci-fi cinema, as the success of the two films coincided with Ralph Nelson’s Oscar-winning Charly, helping to make a genre which had known a vogue in the 1950s, but remained generally regarded as trashy and negligible, suddenly gain a level of respect. These films also helped inaugurate a new phase in the genre, and Planet of the Apes arguably had the greatest impact on the following decade or so of sci-fi films. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on satirically tinted speculation about where the human race had come from and where it was going, the film helped provoke an age of allegoric, often dystopian sci-fi that was to a certain extent drowned out by the arrival of Star Wars (1977) but which has never really gone away. The Apollonian, transcendental fantasia that was 2001: A Space Odyssey gained its shaggy, cynical sibling in Planet of the Apes, a more overtly popular approach to genre that nonetheless squarely struck the zeitgeist and proved a huge hit, spawning four immediate sequels, a 2001 remake helmed by Tim Burton, and then a new series of acclaimed variations on the original film’s string of sequels, inaugurated by Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).
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Planet of the Apes owes its status in turn to the peculiar battery of creative hands who made it, and the way it remixed some familiar genre modes into something new. Author Pierre Boulle was best-known outside France in the 1960s for penning the novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, a book based loosely on true events and inspired by Boulle’s own time as a prisoner of the Japanese military during the war. The novel provided the basis for David Lean’s 1957 epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which Boulle himself was awarded an Oscar for its screenplay, although the script had actually been penned by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. In spite of the seemingly wide conceptual gulf between that novel’s recent, worldly concerns and the fantastical territory annexed by Boulle’s 1963 book La Planète des singes, the similarities are telling in the emphasis on captivity, mutually uncomprehending cultures, and shoe-on-the-other foot reversals of imperialist domain and dominance. Boulle took on a basic sci-fi what-if conceit, in this case, the notion that the relative place on the power scale of homo sapiens and other great apes was reversed.
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Rod Serling, who had gained rare standing as a TV dramatist even before he created and hosted the weird fiction anthology show The Twilight Zone, loved those kinds of inverted familiarities, and his famous show is still a by-word for ironic, sting-in-the-tail narrative punch-lines. Arthur P. Jacobs, an up-and-coming producing talent at Twentieth Century Fox, had seen potential in Boulle’s novel and hired Serling to adapt it. Serling’s unique ideas were retained although Wilson was later hired to revise the script, in part because Serling’s script reproduced Boulle’s concept of a sophisticated ape society, which would have been too expensive to film. Wilson’s revisions strengthened the project overall, however, in part because he found clever ways to dovetail the mercenary needs of budget with the conceptual grafts Serling had made to Boulle’s basis. Charlton Heston, looking to escape the treadmill of outsized historical epics he had become synonymous with, became interested in the project, and he recommended Schaffner to helm it, as he had directed Heston in the sober, dramatically intimate medieval tale The War Lord (1965). Schaffner had served in World War II and was an unlikely filmmaker to appeal to the counterculture-inflected pop culture of the era. But his fascination and affinity with characters violently at odds with a greater society was another factor that allowed him to put Planet of the Apes across to the crowd. Most of his subsequent films revolve around prickly protagonists who have become detached from civilisation around them due to a blend of both exterior hostility and interior rebellion, and who are left trying to knit together their identity and sense of meaning in the face of ruination.
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In Planet of the Apes, Taylor (Heston) perfectly exemplifies this figure, a misanthrope who ponders at the outset whether “Man still makes war upon his brother” and who ventures into space in search of “something better than Man.” A prologue strikes a meditative, even dreamy note, as Taylor prepares for his great trip, that is, about to enter cryogenic stasis to sleep away his craft’s long voyage through space, along with three other astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart (Dianne Stanley). “Time bends,” Taylor notes: “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.” Taylor, as we learn in good time, is a man both at odds with his world, his species, his nature, and an apt representative of such; his reaction against a universe that weighs upon identity and a rival species that denies it is to kick back with ripe arrogance, all the traits he condemned coming out with instinctive readiness. The space voyage, unfolding behind credits in pulses of energy and colour, betrays an impulse identical to that shared by 1968 brethren 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella, in conflating space travel with psychedelic voyaging. Here it’s most explicitly treated as a trip into the self, to emerge in what Taylor will eventually call a madhouse. The astronauts have been sent out to colonise the stars with their mobile, in-the-name-of-science orgy: “She was to be the new Eve,” Taylor later states, “With our hot and eager help of course.”
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Awakening is rude indeed. The spaceship plunges into the atmosphere of whatever planet it’s stumbled upon in its wanderings, and crash-lands in a lake, in the heart of a desolately beautiful landscape. Stewart is dead, a withered corpse thanks to a crack in her cryogenic capsule: the sight of her ghastly remains is accompanied with a weird screeching sound, and for a split second we’re in one of Roger Corman’s Poe films, the encased body of the departed feminine emitting a creepy memento mori. But the sound proves to actually be a different malediction, as seals fail and the lake water comes pouring in: the oneiric is invoked only to be displaced by the palpable. The three men paddle ashore after watching their last link to the world they’ve left sink, and begin a trek across lifeless and barren surrounds. Taylor is quietly exultant to be at loose in the great unknown and teases the all-American Landon, whilst Dodge “would walk naked into a live volcano if thought he could learn something no other man knew.” Eventually the men encounter a beautiful totem, a single growing plant, close to where menacing scarecrow-like figures have been set up, confirming something intelligent lives on the planet and wants to defend it domain. The astronauts enter the fringe of a verdant tropical area that might as well be Eden. Eden has its inhabitants, wild, harmless-seeming, mute humans who steal the astronauts’ clothes as they bathe. “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet,” Taylor announces.
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Famous last words. The humans stand still and listen as if alerted with some preternatural instinct. A strange and terrible sound echoes out of the underbrush. A wild and violent hunt begins. The hunt sequence is a masterful bit of cinema, tying together the graphic clarity of Leon Shamroy’s photography, Hugh S. Fowler’s editing, Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive, jangling scoring, and Schaffner’s shaping. The first half-hour’s general air of ambling mystery and punch-drunk discovery, where the framing of the three survivors often sees them threatening to ossify into the landscape of jagged stone like Tolkien’s trolls, gives way to a sudden assault of precise violence and surging threat: the shock of fight-or-flight necessity gives new, ironic potency to the question of survival where before the trio of discoveries barely knew whether it was worthwhile staying alive. The sequence builds to its big reveal, the sight of an anthropomorphic gorilla riding on horseback, armed with a gun, captured in a zoom shot reproducing Taylor’s viewpoint with both a sense of conveyed shock as well as iconic exactitude. Dodge is shot dead, Landon hauled away in a net, and Taylor shot in the neck. “Smile!” one of the gorillas tells his fellows in the hunt as they pose for a photo, provoking ironic laughter as the inversion is complete, the dead humans trophies for smugly triumphant hunters. Taylor’s bedraggled shorts, made of strange material, attracts assessing eyes, saving him from the usual fate of captive human specimens: gruff, workaday doctor Galen (Wright King) saves his life by giving him a transfusion from a human female, at the request of inquisitive scientist Zira (Kim Hunter).
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Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, in terms of audience appeal, lies in its familiar aspects. High-minded notions and stinging satirical ideas are grafted on a narrative that has obvious affinities with any number of exotic adventure tales by the likes of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. A heroic explorer is plunged into a strange land and tormented, and must survive with his wits and forge alliances to survive. Many such stories already had a faint through-a-glass-darkly qualities as they zeroed in on fantastically framed metaphors for social structures, with heroes who encounter fanatical high priests or swaggering warmongers, often in a way that caricatured “primitive” civilisations being encountered by imperial colonisers but which also attempted to comprehend the similarities and often arbitrary differentiations between different societies’ ways of knowing. Planet of the Apes satisfies on the basic level even as it tries to be more rigorous and overt in presenting the ape society as a mocking mirror of familiar things. This is partly justified by the way the ape society is defined on a most fundamental level entirely by reaction.
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Planet of the Apes has an evident basis in a very European style of satirical comedy, one that revels in perversions of social practices and expectations: there is, for instance, a certain similarity in effect to Luis Bunuel’s surrealist comedies where a bourgeois family might invert habits of eating and defecating, or the tradition of Rabelais where priestly orders could be founded to explore sin in all its most delightfully vulgar dimensions. Serling and Wilson’s revisions and Schaffner’s visualisations didn’t just make the tale more cinematic and popular, however, but also repositioned it in a more distinctly American tradition. Indeed, they helped create perhaps the best-known and popular version of a theme that had been explored in Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series of paintings which depicted the rise of a society from aboriginal hut dwellers to high civilisation to decaying, shattered ruins. Cole helped defined a peculiar brand of morbidly ecstatic fascination with the notion that national greatness was a finite thing, a state of mind that dogs the American political imagination (tellingly, the film’s sequels extended the Americanisation by rendering them more and clearly as parables for race). Planet of the Apes hit upon a narrative structure that allowed all stages to be seen at once: the prelapsarian simplicity of the humans, the inquisitive, Aristotelian minds of Zira and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), the hypocritical self-righteousness and stolidity of most of the mature ape society, and the mocking, burned-out husk of the old world Taylor stumbles upon, that singular, crystallising image which makes sense of everything that has come before.
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The ape society is explored in quick, deft strokes, but solidifies to the point where it quickly begins to feel intimately familiar, in its prejudices, its outlook, its wilful blind spots and its sophistications. The apes are defined by a general blend of accomplishment and strange lacks – the apes are superlative at surgery and ballistics but believe flight impossible and maintain intense taboos, like their avoidance of the wasteland the astronauts landed in, which the apes call the Forbidden Zone, ostensibly because of its desolateness but also because the bones of the past poke out of the ground there. Their chief scientist, Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), is also their “Defender of the Faith,” a priestly enforcer of orthodoxy. The apes’ stature as cruel masters of the apparently simple and harmlessly devolved humans is not just reflexive arrogance but an official aspect of their communal identity, defined by their legendary Lawgiver who handed down his Sacred Scrolls, filled with imprecations against man and unhealthy forms of knowledge. Cornelius, an archaeologist, is already flirting with blasphemy when he’s confronted with Taylor, as his ventures into the Forbidden Zone to make exploratory digs have turned up the remains of an advanced civilisation filled with to obscure relics. When Taylor finally sees these, he recognises the craftsmanship of his own species, defined by both its arts and its weaknesses. One of the film’s longest, drollest sequences sees Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius hauled before a panel of officials, all staffed by pompously mandarin orang-utans including Zaius and a chairman (James Whitmore) who orders Taylor gagged when he tries to explain himself.
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Sequences in which the apes use both overt physical brutality and a battery of cultural and linguistic cudgels, like the extended use of circular logic from a state prosecutor, to keep Taylor silent reveal the film as still razor-sharp in analysing and depicting the manner in which hegemonies are enforced over subaltern voices, and closed loops of pseudo-logic wielded to dismiss disturbances to them. The scene’s punch-line, improvised by Schaffner on set, sees the orang-utan adjudicators reproducing the proverbial figuration of the three monkeys who hear, speak, and see no evil. Taylor suffers for some time before he can even compel his captors to that degree, as his injury leaves him mute for a time, trying to communicate with Zira, who dubs him “Bright Eyes” for his eager, communicative expressions. Taylor’s efforts to establish contact include writing his name in the sand when he’s jammed into an exterior pen, only for his fellow humans to foil him in their clueless mimicry and ready violence. Zaius completes the act by erasing a remaining portion of Taylor’s words, a clear signal that he knows a lot more about Taylor and what he represents than he’s letting on. Zaius, nimbly played by Evans, plays Grand Inquisitor protecting his kind from transgressing in the same ways that humans have, when they progressed out of what Cole called the “Arcadian or Pastoral State” stage of civilisation, the one considered ideal by many Enlightenment thinkers. The Lawgiver stands as a Moses figure wielding stern and intractable laws, although the film’s sequels would eventually circle around to a point where Cornelius and Zira’s son Caesar would emerge first as a Maccabee and then as a Christ figure, embodying the chance of reconciliation and evolution, and also the eternal pain of the idealist before the persistence of base instinct.
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Cornelius and Zira are two of the best-realised characters in sci-fi cinema and one of the most appealing couples in movies in general, with McDowall and Hunter ingeniously projecting enough intelligence, humour, and foibles onto their characters to render them more human than human. Many kids who love this film, like myself back when, perhaps did so because they’re almost a perfect concept of what you hope your parents might be like – open, eternally curious, loving and, whilst hardly unafraid of the expectations of the world beyond, nonetheless finally sufficient unto themselves in their convictions and will. They appeal through their curiosity, their openness to where thought and experience lead them, their familiarity as a loving couple – constantly bickering and yet gripping each-other’s hands in moments of fate – and as individuals facing severe crises in facing breaks with their society. Zira is the more intransigent of the pair, the bolder, the one whose outspokenness Cornelius is compelled to try and dampen down: they’re conceived as a pair of young campus academicians where the wife’s attraction to radical causes is counterbalanced by the husband’s circumspection. His very reasonable anxiety gains political inferences as they’re both faced with punishment for taking their mutual discoveries to logical conclusions, evoking both the bygone days of religious heresy tribunals and the much more recent phenomena of McCarthyism. Cornelius is both a bold and visionary being in his field but also one with a notably timorous anxiety, an awareness of how one wrong word or gesture could trash his and Zira’s future together.
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Speech is a afforded status as a weapon of power and identity with singular force in the film: Taylor’s famously outraged cry as he dangles in a net, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, are his first since being taken prisoner. The cry shocks and astounds his captors and rocks the very presumptions their world is based on to their foundations, and similar moments resounded through the follow-ups, like Nova crying out Taylor’s name, suggesting when it’s already too late that humans can rise again from their waned and pathetic state, and Cornelius recounting the fateful moment when an ape slave emitted the word “No” to his human masters. Taylor forms an attachment with the human woman whose blood he received when Galen saved his life, dubbing her Nova (Linda Harrison). Nova is a mute and uncomprehending yet expressive being, fluidic in her in reactive empathy. Confronted by the unexpected annoyance of a man of her species speaking, she presses her fingers to his lips. Of course, power is measured by more direct scales too. Taylor is beaten, netted, shackled, stripped. His understandable response is nonetheless tinged with aspects of hypocrisy, as he takes Zaius captive and painfully binds him, stoking protest from Zira and Cornelius, on the grounds that Taylor was assumed to be inferior whereas Taylor knows well Zaius is a very intelligent being. Then again, real hate and real contempt can only be evinced between the intelligent, and Taylor knows something Cornelius and Zira do not, that Zaius knew well what he was, and did not care.
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When he manages to stage a breakout from the holding pens, Schaffner uses the ensuing chase scene not just to give the film’s long middle act a jolt of action, but also to give further insight into the ape society, as Taylor crashes a funeral for “an ape to remember” and eludes pursuers in the halls of a museum where stuffed humans are set up in illustrative dioramas, and Dodge’s body is now one of the exhibits. The style of the ape city conflates Mediterranean city-state acropolis and adobe architecture, suggesting a sophisticated, intimate society that has remained purposefully close to roots in natural forms, and Schaffner’s camera explores it with dynamism, dollying and weaving its way along with his actors through columned spaces and striking vertiginous angles in observing the frantic tussles of bodies, human and ape. Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, of course, stemmed from the groundbreaking prosthetic makeup created by John Chambers. Where Kubrick’s labours on 2001: A Space Odyssey invented a newly convincing argot for portraying space travel, Chambers managed something similar on a far more intimate scale, creating a convincing non-human set of characters that nonetheless allowed the actors to mediate and transform their performances: although today the media has advanced to the point where the makeup looks a bit rubbery in blu-ray prints, it’s still invaluable in creating the context of this illusion, the feeling that Zira, Cornelius, Zaius and the rest are real and palpable beings.
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Schaffner’s work on Planet of the Apes vaulted him into Hollywood’s upper echelons. After making the interesting if facile political study The Best Man (1964), a film that might have earmarked Schaffner for a career similar to John Frankenheimer’s, Schaffner revealed here a great eye and talent for evoking space and scale on the cinema screen that soon earned him comparisons to David Lean, although his approach to dramatic essentials remained rather more conventional. His 1970 Best Picture champ Patton (1970) is dotted with moments of raw visual power achieved with fearlessly wielded big movie infrastructure, but more often feels like the kind of TV play Schaffner had begun his career making, greatly inflated. Soon he was helming big-budget epics like the unwieldy Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Papillon (1973), which rivals Planet of the Apes as his best film. Schaffner’s stature as a maker of big-budget epics and studio flagship films during an unsettled, rambunctiously creative era in Hollywood earned him a critical lethargy that’s never really dispelled, and it is true he settled into making entertaining but heavy-footed prestige pictures like his academic take on Islands in the Stream (1976) and the fun but lumpy thrillers The Boys From Brazil (1978) and Sphinx (1980).
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And yet Schaffner earned his stature marrying the lightest edge of New Wave-era and pop art-influenced optical inventiveness to the familiar, architectural solidity and straightforwardness of big-budget Hollywood film on Planet of the Apes. This is evident in its opening scenes, with visions of deep space and time travel expostulated through vaguely trippy light and colour effects, a crash-landing that’s depicted in a series of dizzying, spiralling, point-of-view shots, and of course the very last shot, an encapsulating visual ideogram that functions as a perfect pop-art emblem. Something of the same spirit is also visible in Patton’s famous opening with its hero presented as a free-floating placard before a colossal American flag. Schaffner’s energetic camerawork here is another plus, like the spectacular helicopter shots that punctuate the crash scene, wheeling away from the downed spaceship as it sinks into the lake, its metal hull a glistening obelisk of manufactured beauty in the midst of a red, rugged landscape of great rock forms, an image that locates the nexus between the western, as Schaffner evokes John Ford’s vistas, and sci-fi. The film’s connection with the western genre, just beginning to wane at the time precisely because the revisionist urge taking hold of academia and culture creators was starting to press some uncomfortable points in the genre’s basic appeal, is an aspect of Planet of the Apes signalled in Schaffner’s annexation of Ford’s landscapes. In keeping with the film’s cinematic translation of Cole into genre film terms, Planet of the Apes portrays what could be called a radical decolonisation of the American landscape, delivering it up to the apes who, as the series continued, became a catch-all metaphoric emblem, ranging from Catholic dogmatists to black power militants.
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The casting of Heston as Taylor was one of the film’s great coups, and not just because as a big, strong, intelligent actor he could retain bristling force even when his character is voiceless and unclothed. Heston brought with him a strong association with a squarer genre of film he was trying to get out of. By this time in his career every step he took carried with it the memory of Moses and Judah Ben-Hur and El Cid, titanic protagonists who stood as interlocutors between the human and divine and the individual and the historic. Heston had been trying to work his way around this image, playing a very ordinary man caught up in big events in 55 Days in Peking (1963) and crumbling he-man in Major Dundee (1965). But none of those roles quite played on it as deftly and cruelly as Planet of the Apes, where Taylor is eventually compelled to see his own powerless triviality in the face of biblical-scale evidence of Armageddon and reapportioning of Creation. Taylor’s swaggering arrogance at the outset stems not from certainty that he’s a fit representative of a noble race but rather his status as self-appointed rebel and critic. It requires being treated like chattel to move him to defend his species: “He was here before you – and he was better than you!” he accosts Zaius as they explore the relics of the old civilisation – only then to be forced to behold just how right he was at first, victim of a cosmic-scale joke. Taylor’s various eruptions of rage, including his climactic bellow of “Damn you all to hell!”, hinge upon Heston’s ability to play great twisted masses of muscle and emotion right out of a Michelangelo painting. Heston had just played Michelangelo, in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1966), and several scenes here almost play as parodies of that film and Ben-Hur (1959). Where the great artist travelled out alone into the landscape in Reed’s film and saw the elements of his great artistic parable etched out in the sky, communicating divine will to a translator Genesis, here Taylor beholds rather the wreckage of his own civilisation, the rescinded will and proof of his own, perfect impotence.
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The Planet of the Apes series stands out as perhaps the most pointedly and thoroughly misanthropic major sci-fi property proffered by a major Hollywood film studio. The series was driven along by the conviction that humankind is doomed not merely to destroy itself but then repeat its mistakes when given the chance to avoid them, whilst the apes are our possibly, morally superior inheritors, but still evince the same grim traits even after all efforts to suppress and retard them. Although the series eventually circled around to a point of ambiguous optimism, the problems of will to power are diagnosed as the true original sin, something generations and species try to claw out of their makeup without sure success. The series leavened the bitterness by several means. The apes are usually attractive in their ability to seem both rather cute and nobly charismatic even when they’re being obnoxious or destructive, whilst the first film in particular offers a lot of humour. The more self-conscious comedy injected into the script, with dialogue like “Human see, human do,” and introducing Zira’s hippie nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), who throws out lines like, “You can’t trust the older generation!” and “Beards? I don’t go in for fads,” was reportedly provided by uncredited writer John T. Kelley. These supply the film with a self-lampooning edge, and although it nudges it towards flippancy now and then, it might well have helped to sell it to a mass audience in taking care of the humour value inherent in the storyline on the film’s own terms, as well as giving the film extra appeal to the young audience of 1968. Superior jots of humour come more from the fruitful coincidence of character and situation, as with Zira’s admission that Taylor is “so damn ugly” before allowing him to kiss her in gratitude – and the hiss of jealousy Cornelius gives as they do. Or my favourite off-hand moment, the ape priest officiating at the funeral Taylor crashes, left staggering in bewilderment as all hell breaks loose in the midst of a solemn ceremony.
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The darker aspects of the tale are hardly obscured. Humans are ruthlessly slaughtered, vivisected, and grotesquely maimed by the apes. Even kindly Zira makes a living cutting up specimens, her humanitarian interests placed nonetheless at the service of a genocide-minded, theologically-justified state program. Taylor is appalled when he finds Landon has been rendered an idiot by Zaius’ brain surgery, a deft move by the Chief Scientist and Defender of the Faith to get rid of a troubling specimen after another makes himself known to the whole city. Taylor himself is aware his attraction to Nova could be considered something close to bestiality as he tries to puzzle out just how awareness is left in his species (“Do you love, I wonder? Can you love?”), whilst his caging and separation from Nova, the closest thing he has nonetheless to a companion, wickedly reproduces the state of general alienation (“Lots of lovemaking, no love.”) that is his recollection of his own world. Zaius is at once aggravating in his stiff-necked self-righteousness and magnetic in his assured authority, thanks in large part to Evans’ canny performance. The upshot of the entire storyline eventually demonstrates that he is, if not right, then operating from a very reasonable point of view: there really is good cause for the apes to fear humans, to maintain a regime of wilfully repressed knowledge in the fear that one day apes will follow in their footsteps, like a medieval theocrat frightened of what new fields of horror new worlds and new ideas will open up.
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Taylor helps Cornelius and Zira prove their notion that the planet was inhabited by a human civilisation before apes as they flee authority and enter the Forbidden Zone’s wastes, pursued by Zaius and his gun-wielding fellows. He even manages to outwit Zaius and use him as leverage to ensure his own escape. But Zaius calmly reclaims authority and condemns his young colleagues to trial and disgrace anyway, in the belief that he might just be saving their future. Meanwhile Taylor rides away with Nova into the sunset, only to be confronted a great, rusted, blasted hunk of metal that mocks everything he’s done: the Statue of Liberty jutting from the beach sand. This was hardly the first time such an image had been deployed, but it still wields incredible power thanks to the way Schaffner deploys it, leaving it until the very last shot until just what has humiliated Taylor so vividly is seen, and seen, tellingly, through Nova’s blank, estranged gaze, before the fade-out comes with only the sound of breaking waves playing on the soundtrack, evoking one of those counterculture-era albums where the band mockingly remains silent “on the anniversary of World War III.” It’s one of those rare twists that makes perfect sense of what has been seen before – really, Taylor was pretty thick not to realise it before – and also an improvement on Boulle’s ending, an ending which Burton restored to his remake only to be met with dim stares of bemusement.
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In the days before franchising became so common in moviemaking, Planet of the Apes spawned a string of sequels fuelled by a fervent fan base. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), takes up where the first film ends. Although entirely watchable, the whole project has a rushed and clumsy feel, as if the film was shot before anyone thought it out properly, whilst Ted Post’s direction lacked personality. The episode’s best aspect was its most novel, offering a society of terribly scarred, psychic human mutants who live in the ruins of old New York and whose literal worship of the atomic bomb presented a clever tweak on the apes’ abhorring theology. Heston’s limited involvement saw James Franciscus cast as Brent, a bland fill-in for much of the running time, and Cornelius and Zira only feature briefly (with David Watson filling in for the absent McDowall). The nihilistic climax has a certain aptness in taking the series’ themes to their grimmest possible consummation, whilst restaging the end of Bridge on the River Kwai on an apocalyptic scale, as Taylor avenges the murdered Nova and Brent and dies cursing Zaius by igniting the mutants’ cherished doomsday bomb. This conclusion also took to a limit the apocalyptic note found in immediate precursor films of the age like The Wild Bunch and Castle Keep (both 1969). But it all plays out in a rushed, impatient manner, like the production ran out of time and money, and the filmmakers just decided to kill everyone, whilst the ban-the-bomb motif swallowed up all dramatic and satiric nuances.
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The third episode, Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), was faced with the unenviable task of giving the series new life. The British screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had written Beneath…, brought something of the British sci-fi tradition with its distinctive fascination for social dynamics to the series, and he managed to extend it through the clever ruse of having Cornelius (played again by McDowall) and Zira revealed to have escaped the Earth’s destruction thanks to a fellow savant, Milo (Sal Mineo), who found and repaired Taylor’s spaceship, and accidentally travel back in time to the human age. Competently directed by former actor Don Taylor, Escape… is good fun as it observes the impact of the two simian harbingers upon 1970s Earth society, with great jokes like Zira finding accord with feminists, and Eric Braeden’s villain mirrors Zaius in his conscientious but covertly hysterical choice to perform monstrous acts. The film turns tragic as the beloved couple are murdered in the name of heading off ape dominance, although the impact is blunted by the rather predictable way it all plays out, in an entry that fails to wield anything like the conceptual breadth of the first two entries. The final reveal that their infant son Milo has found haven with a kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) opened the door for a fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which saw hardy old pro J. Lee Thompson take over as director and bring some real muscularity to proceedings, and Dehn filled out a scenario sketched out in the previous film describing how apes came to be first domesticated, enslaved, and then quickly evolve into thinking beings and begin revolting.
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Although lacking the furtive wit of the earlier movies, Conquest… proves perhaps the ballsiest and the most urgent: Thompson’s energetic direction subversively recreated news footage of urban riot and revolt and links it justified rage over the legacy of slavery and oppression. The now-grown Milo (also played by McDowall) rechristens himself Caesar and leads his fellows in insurrection after Armando is killed by an increasingly fascistic state. A reshot finale took some of the edge off, but did again allow a fifth episode to be made. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is set after war has devastated the old human cities: now Caesar oversees an uneasy cooperative commune peopled by both apes and put-upon humans. As thuggish gorilla warrior Aldo (Claude Akins) stirs up prejudice and conflict, a gang of armed, radiation-scarred human survivors attacks the commune, sparking a fight that feels, very appropriately, like an attempt to portray the last war of history as looking a lot like the first, a tribal squabble fought with any weapon at hand. This under-budgeted entry tries to ply an okay script in the face of a scrappy production, with a rushed climax. The grand narrative ends on a note of tentative optimism, as Aldo’s carnage convinces Caesar that apes share the same dark heart as humans, denying any species’ exceptionalism. Centuries later, the Lawgiver (John Huston) is seen speaking to an audience of both species, suggesting that the timeline has been successfully deviated. But the ultimate weapon still lies in the hands of the mutants (as shown in an initially excised, later restored scene), and the last shot depicts Caesar’s venerated bust releasing a solitary tear, in fear the warlike impulse will never be entirely extinguished. This very capstone to the series is a bit corny, but does finally annex the metaphysical zone the series had long evoked. Whilst the individual entries were certainly uneven, as a whole the Planet of the Apes series still stands as near-unique in mainstream sci-fi cinema, as a cycle that stood assured on very human foundations whilst following its ideas through with weirdness, toughness, and intelligence.

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2010s, Biopic, Comedy

The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Director/Actor: James Franco

By Roderick Heath

When I wrote about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) in 2011, I finished up my commentary with a flourish of mock-epic prose:

The Room finishes, and yet its all-pervading awfulness remained with me. Everything seemed to grow darker, tainted by its touch. The likes of Michelangelo and Leo Tolstoy would have had their faith in creative endeavour shaken by it, and afterwards I started seeing the inner Wiseau in many a great artist, as if all efforts lead into an immense heart of crappiness.

It seems I wasn’t the only person to feel a personal implication of all artistic ambition in Wiseau’s intrepid failure, and to be compelled against my will by this fragmentary, heartfelt yet farcically inept by-product, the misshapen offspring of an intended, serious piece of artistry. Since then, in the strange fate that befalls certain movies, The Room and its manifold absurdities have only gained ground as a common touchstone, a rite of passage for students and movie fans, and its inanities, so beggaring on first viewing, swiftly became old friends – the non sequitur dialogue and plotting, the random impulses of emotion and gesture, the screw-loose bravura and shambolic majesty of Wiseau’s lead performance and the valiantly outmatched efforts of his supporting cast.
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After years of speculation and interest as to just how in hell this car crash of a film came into being, Wiseau’s friend/accomplice/bewildered collaborator Greg Sestero worked with writer Tom Bissell to pen and publish The Disaster Artist, an account of the film’s making, Sestero’s adventures as a young wannabe about Hollywood, and his alternately stirring, ruinous, ultimately triumphant acquaintance with Wiseau, in 2013. The book dished a lot of dirt on the production of The Room, and the man who made it. It was also surprisingly entertaining and revealing in its depiction of Sestero’s own period as a try-hard model-turned-actor, a rare portrait of coping with failure in the city of stars after many elusive promises and chances for success, before he reluctantly joined forces with Wiseau for his bull-in-a-china-shop foray into the world of independent filmmaking. Yet it also revealed Sestero by and large just as confused, stymied, and awed by Wiseau’s enigmatic stature as the rest of us. In supreme irony, the book’s often hilarious but just as often melancholy and disillusioned narrative gained accolades Wiseau might have dreamt of, earning Sestero and Bissell awards and now a prestigious adaptation. Yet the book could only have existed thanks to Wiseau’s failure, and the transformation of that failure into an icon of delighted ridicule.
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James Franco seems to have empathised. Like Sestero and Wiseau, he’s been the ardent fledgling actor who worshipped at the altar of James Dean, although Franco actually made the leap to playing the legendary star in a 2001 TV movie. Like them, he’s laboured to escape type-casting and prove himself an adventurous and serious artist on multiple fronts, making a string of movies in the past few years that have often been met with withering contempt, although in Franco’s case the often hyperbolic dismissal of his works far outstripped their modest merits or failings, or at least for those I’ve seen. Franco’s directorial efforts up until now seemed mostly happy as marginalia, using his movie star status to bankroll movies as rough drafts of creative endeavour in the same way a budding painter might tear through dozens of pages on sketches preparing for an ultimate endeavour. His film of The Disaster Artist wields ironies in itself, a ploy for a broad audience built around celebration of a niche cult object, working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. That said, The Disaster Artist plainly unites several frames of reference already apparent in Franco’s work. Following in the wake of movies like The Ape (2005), Sal, and The Broken Tower (both 2011), it’s a study of troubled and striving creative endeavour. Like Child of God (2013), it’s a portrait of a gnarled, thwarted, inarticulate, furious outcast trying to stake a claim in the world. It follows Interior. Leather Bar. (2013) as a study in the cinema aesthetic itself, conjoined with a contemplation of cultural priorities.
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Franco casts himself as Wiseau and his younger brother Dave as Sestero. It’s the sort of idea that seems at first like a Saturday Night Live skit writ large, but proves in practice more like a performance-art conceit, shaded by dint of the brothers’ careful, convincing impersonations of their respective avatars. They render Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero as parts of a fragmented persona, the bland but likeable all-American boy meeting his intense, destabilising, immigrant partner in yearning. Not that the disparity entirely disappears, nor does James want it to. Franco stages Greg’s illustrious first encounter with the typhonic force of Tommy as a momentous epiphany, complete with rumbling, epic scoring suggesting great forces gathering, although what we actually see are Greg’s awkward, rigid performance for a San Francisco acting class and then Wiseau’s unhinged, almost literally scenery-chewing rampage as he offers his own interpretive dance take on the famous “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Most onlookers are stupefied and amused, but Greg is fascinated by Tommy’s energy and willingness to put himself out there, and suggests they play a scene together in class.
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Tommy responds by inviting him to lunch and then getting him to read lines in the middle of a crowded restaurant, overcoming his shyness and discovering his inner hambone under the aghast and bemused attention of other patrons. The two men become fast and solid friends, as Tommy seems to be fired up by Sestero’s blonde, cheery inheritance of all natural fortune, and Greg by the older man’s enthusiasm and go-get-‘em energy. They watch touchstone movies together and drive all night to visit the scene of James Dean’s death as a shrine after watching Rebel Without a Cause (1955). On the spur of the moment, Wiseau suggests they both head to Los Angeles and get busy making it as actors, casually revealing that he owns an apartment there they can share. Greg is too thrilled by the idea to pay attention to his mother’s (Megan Mullaly) concerns about Tommy’s intentions, catching wind of homoerotic interest in Tommy’s references to Greg as “babyface” and liking for hanging about with a handsome younger man. Later when they do shack up in Tommy’s apartment he does seem to make a come-on to Greg, only to then laugh it off as a joke. Soon they settle back into amicable, brotherly mutual boosting, but it’s a friendship where Tommy is well aware Greg can only grasp his chances with both hands because his generosity allows him to go for them.
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The two men dedicate themselves to the endless, crushing roundelay of auditions and more acting classes, a process that sees Greg quickly snatched up by a top talent agent, Iris Burton (Sharon Stone), purely by dint of his looks. Meanwhile Tommy chafes increasingly against the common opinion he’s got the makings of a terrifying screen bad guy, believing himself far more the stuff of romantic heroism. “You all laugh,” Tommy retorts to an acting coach (Bob Odenkirk) and his sniggering class after one of his performances and resisting their attempts to pin him as a natural heavy: “That what bad guy do.” Soon, with neither of their careers going anywhere, Greg tries to keep Tommy’s spirits up, and he hands his friend a flash of inspiration–the notion of making their own movie. Tommy, with his mysteriously deep pockets, realises he can make it happen. All he needs is a script, so he bashes out his magnum opus and gets Greg to read it over lunch. In his determination to ensure his production has the stature of a great cinematic enterprise, Tommy approaches camera equipment providers Birns & Sawyer and instead of simply renting their gear insists on purchasing all manner of cameras and shooting his movie on both film and video. The staff realise they have a major-league sucker on their hands, and convince him to utilise their small film studio too.
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An inevitable point of reference for The Disaster Artist is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), another biographical drama about a much-hailed cavalier of terrible cinema. The differences between Wood’s adventures as a no-budget huckster and Wiseau’s mogul pretences are as marked as the similarities, however. The Disaster Artist portrays the gruelling shoot for The Room as a process not beset by the fly-by-night anxiety and enthusiastic fellowship Burton found in Wood’s forays, because Wiseau’s money furnishes him with largely competent collaborators and a cast of anxious hopefuls who, just like their self-financed auteur, are hoping to carve a niche for themselves in the industry. And yet the result proves to be just as deliriously out of tune as anything Wood made, stricken with the same fascinating blend of cynical and deeply personal impulses. Tommy tries to encourage the cast and crew he hires to follow him on a grand creative journey, but it soon becomes clear to all involved, even the ever-supportive Greg, that Tommy has no idea what he’s doing, quickly earning enmities with imperial egotisms like a specially constructed personal toilet and turning up late for shoots. He also loses his bravado in performing when it comes time to do it before cameras, spending most of a single day trying to shoot a scene involving one line (All together now: “I did not hit her. It’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not.”).
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Script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), who is initially surprised when his pay check actually clears, is obliged to take the film in hand when Wiseau is before the camera, but Tommy studiously ignores his directions and finally, unceremoniously boots him and some other pros from the production. At last, Tommy’s overwhelming desire to realise his perfect fantasy of living in a movie leads to ugly moments like him clashing with the crew when he goes mental over a pimple on the arm of his leading lady, Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor). Tommy is beset by the simultaneous need to express himself creatively and report his emotional travails to the world, whilst also trying to remain shielded against its prying eyes and judgements, unaware that show business, although a business of image and affectation, also requires a fine human touch to navigate. Tommy never reveals the source or extent of his fortune and steadfastly refusing to reveal his age, claiming to be the same age as Greg. Tommy, like some exploitation movie version of Jay Gatsby, believes American success and self-invention can be extended onto all stages of life, that the image one creates of one’s self can become the reality, and his desire to venture into acting and moviemaking betrays an ambition to escape the aspects of identity he refuses to admit, the foreignness that’s patently obvious to everyone else.
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Tommy’s neediness extends to both wanting to use Greg as his avatar in the world but also getting peevish when Greg reaps the sorts of successes he wants, as when he lands a girlfriend in the form of cute bartender Amber (Alison Brie). Later on, when they’re trying to shoot Tommy’s passion project, Greg’s announcement to Tommy that he’s moving in with Amber sparks a tantrum from Tommy that echoes the climactic moments of The Room, except that apocalyptic desolation plays out in life as kicking a few vending machines and cradling a throbbing foot. Greg’s discussions with the other actors about the characters and their possible real-life inspirations suddenly highlights that many of them could be versions of Greg himself, and beyond that, projections of Tommy’s shifting ideas of Greg, possibly the one true human contact he’s had in years. Finally Tommy’s controlling streak manifests destructively for Greg when he refuses to bend from his shooting schedule to allow Greg to keep the beard he’s grown long enough to shoot a role on the TV show Malcolm in the Middle offered to him after a chase encounter with Bryan Cranston. Soon Greg loses his temper with Tommy whilst shooting second-unit footage (such as it is) in San Francisco, prodding him over his own refusal to open up, finishing up with the two men getting into a scuffling, spiteful yet still rather brotherly wrestling clinch in the middle of a scene shoot. After time apart, Greg is stunned to see Tommy’s mug gazing down from a colossal billboard ad in downtown LA, and soon the man himself comes to invite him to the film’s premiere.
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With Interior. Leather Bar., Franco and documentary filmmaker Travis Mathews collaborated on a nominal attempt to recreate lost material filmed on New York’s gay scene for William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), footage reportedly hacked out of that film because it was too racy, in the name of reclaiming the world it recorded from the realm of sordid legend. Franco’s interest in film as an artefact in this fashion, the desire to capture lightning in a bottle twice, finds a vehicle here that allows him to extend that kind of avant-garde conceit whilst playing the entertainer. He painstakingly recreates Wiseau’s footage and the hapless acting recorded by it utilising talented, experienced, and famous thespians, including Jackie Weaver as Carolyn Minnott, Juliette’s on-screen mother, Josh Hutcherson as Philip “Denny” Haldiman, and Zac Efron as Dan Janjigian, the actor playing fearsome yet negligible drug pusher Chris R. In much the same way that Wiseau absorbs scenes in Streetcar, Rebel Without a Cause and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) into his creative lexicon, Franco simulates and transforms Wiseau’s images. At film’s end Franco offers the original scenes alongside his recreations to compare both the success and the failure of the reproduction, the slight variances in timing and actor delivery and camera angles coming with logarithmic variance. Filmmakers who do this sort of thing rarely put their labours on the line in such a fashion, and I get the feeling it’s very much part of what Franco was after in taking on the project, a desire to grab the raw material of this compelling piece of outsider art and disassemble it to see how it works, to apply exacting competence to incompetence.
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What Franco lacks that Burton brought to his contention with Wood’s threadbare oeuvre is a definite directorial signature to utilise in mediating the stylistic mimicry. Franco’s shooting style, developed on the run on his many projects, has arrived at a baseline of fly-on-the-wall realism conveyed with darting, often hand-held camerawork, affecting gritty and happenstance casualness. It’s the exact opposite of the tony, polished, yet utterly stilted professionalism Wiseau spent about $6 million of his own money achieving. Franco brings specificity to the work more through the associations he can leverage with his casting and his contexts. But Franco does make some sport out of reproducing elements of Wiseau’s visual syntax. Unsurprisingly for anyone had ever seen the infamous football-throwing sequences in The Room, Sestero revealed in his book that Wiseau barely knew how to play the game and yet fetishized it as a symbol of Americanness, so when the Francos’ impersonations try to play a clumsy game of catch, Franco reproduces Wiseau’s square-on, middle-distance viewpoint, revealing awkward cinema is rooted in incomprehension of what exactly was being filmed. The sweeping view from the roof of Tommy’s LA apartment block is presented as the obvious inspiration for the blue-screen panorama constantly seen in his film.
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A prolonged and purely cringe-worthy sequence in which Tommy spots Judd Apatow at dinner in an LA restaurant and harasses him with his garbled reading of a Shakespeare soliloquy, sees the brusque producer squirming in his seat in please-make-this-end discomfort, and then attempt to fix Tommy in the eye and make clear to him that he will never be the stuff of stardom. Franco’s own self-mocking subtext here acknowledges Apatow as the man who gave him his break on the TV show Freaks and Geeks. This scene suggests a closer relative to The Disaster Artist than Ed Wood might be The King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese’s ruthless portrayal of obsessive fandom and its ambition to assimilate the vitality of the famous. Except that unlike Rupert Pupkin, Tommy has the money to make his own show happen, to impose his weird, theoretically romantic ayet actually deeply masochistic fantasies. Tommy’s own likeness to a vampire is a repeated quip throughout, fleshing out the suggestion he sucks the life out of anyone fool enough to come into his orbit, most particularly Greg.
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James’ performance as Wiseau has to walk a narrow line, because it must be integral to his approach, moving beyond mere skit-like impression but also conceding its status as performance, to find realism in artifice. He manages to walk that line with impressive fixity, nailing aspects of Wiseau’s persona as his peculiar speech mannerisms where the line between old accent and recent nerve damage can’t be entirely distinguished, the slightly dead-eyed gaze, the anxious, robotic laughs and full-on eruptions of hot feeling that suggest a barely-suppressed volcanic heat at the base of the man’s belly. Dave gives a fun performance playing Sestero, but in many ways he has the harder job in playing the man constantly drawn in the wake of Tommy’s eccentricity. And he can’t quite inhabit Greg: the real Sestero, in spite of his general aura of real geniality and loyalty, looked nonetheless born to play the role of blithe betrayer, with all those sculpted planes to his face under ocean-blue eyes, the entitled surfer boy hunk and white-bread heartbreaker one can so well imagine inspiring Wiseau with existential terror, the being he wants to point to every time someone calls him a villainous-looking dude and say, but that’s what threat looks like to me. The smile Sestero put on when first glimpsed without his beard has a quality of rictus to it; you can see, as he reports in the book, his sinking feeling that all his acting dreams are at an end, and no actor can quite reproduce such a look. Franco ultimately shies away from pushing The Disaster Artist to the extremes of discomforting and dismaying absurdity of Scorsese’s film.
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The galling if querulous misogyny that flows through The Room is also for the most part elided, regarded as an aspect of the paranoid general misanthropy. When the cast of the film talk about what Tommy’s trying to get at in his script, Juliette describes Lisa as essentially symbolising “the Universe” and its treatment of him. But Franco makes sure to depict the casting process for the film consists of Tommy getting the young actresses auditioning for the role to jump through hoops of behaviour including actions like blowing on a saxophone and licking an ice cream, filled with salacious innuendo, suggesting Franco knows very well Wiseau displays some of the tendencies that attract men like Harvey Weinstein into the movie business. On the other hand, Franco also notes and entertains gleeful complicity with Wiseau’s desire to objectivise himself on camera, to offer his own flesh, both anxiously and narcissistically, as a paradigm on manhood on screen. And so, of course, the moment in The Room that gains the most appalled groans of intolerance is of course when Franco/Tommy’s butt is displayed in colossal detail upon screen, granting the viewers the sensation less of having gained an erotic moment of self-exposing bravura than the feeling that, well, someone’s just forced a theatre of people to look at his ass.
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The book was filled with Sestero’s musings on his pal and his shadowy past and modes of income, which are also left out: like many fans of The Room, it’s the very inscrutability of Wiseau that compels Franco, his status as a fever dream sprung directly out of some Eastern Bloc kid’s idea of an American success story made flesh and compelled by his own warring identities to both risk himself and hide all at once. Given that the 21st century has been so far an age of obsessive public fascination with celebrity, with performance of the self as enabled by technology in in all its illusory promise of instant and easy adoration, it’s certainly not hard to see Wiseau as the age’s court jester, its perfect and perfectly absurd embodiment. Less comfortingly, he might even be a fitting antihero for the Trump age as a man who uses a shady fortune to glorify himself and subordinate others to his will. Wiseau’s collaboration was inevitably required in making the film, probably meaning Franco felt obliged to go reasonably easy on him.
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And also because in the end, although hopes are dashed, feelings bruised, fools made, Tommy himself is ultimately the one wounded most, this bedraggled yet weirdly gutsy, prosperous yet pathetic avatar of every weirdo who’s longed to be anointed by a more glamorous world, only to become a figure of fun. “Even if you have the talent of Brando,” Franco has Apatow tell himself as Tommy, “It’s a one in a million chance you’ll make it.” Sestero emphasised in his book the way Wiseau’s efforts added up to a form of therapeutic self-rescue, whilst in Wiseau’s pathos Franco sees something more universal but also quite personal, the lot of every creative person, their desire to reveal themselves, to take risks, but on their own, controlled terms. Where Ed Wood had to imagine a sarcastically triumphant ending for its hero, Franco turns the premiere of The Room, the ego trip as objet d’art no-one ever through would actually make it to a movie screen, as a microcosm of the film’s journey from wince-inducing, career-killing calamity to the subject of horrified fascination, and on to become a source of fiercely beloved merriment and communal joy, its creator suffering through ultimate humiliation only to immediately reinvent himself as the proud maker of a deliberately shoddy piece of punk comedy. Whilst he’s simplified and homogenized the phenomena of Wiseau and The Room to a certain extent, Franco can at least claim, in addition to making them into the stuff of a damn funny and entertaining film, to capture the essence of their curious appeal. And now, thanks to it, you don’t even have to actually watch The Room. But I will. Again.

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1970s, 1980s, Auteurs, Belgian cinema, Comedy, Experimental, Romance

Me, You, Him, Her (1974) / All Night Long (1982)

Je, Tu, Il, Elle / Toute Une Nuit

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Chantal Akerman

By Roderick Heath

Chantal Akerman’s death in 2015 at the age of 65 was a wrenching moment for many movie lovers, and closed curtains on a career beloved in the most studious corners of the world cinema scene. Akerman staked her claim to such loyalty with her most famous work, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a three-hour situational study of a woman slowly succumbing to inchoate and murderous impulses even whilst seeming to subsist in a humdrum life of domestic trifles interspersed with casual prostitution. The film’s implications as a tract against domesticity and determination to place the minutiae of such drudgery at the centre of the cinematic focus made it a clarion work of feminism as well as artistic ambition. Akerman herself, queer, Jewish, daughter to holocaust survivors, knew very well she could represent an outsider for every occasion, even as she sometimes fought to avoid being pigeon-holed by such moulded identities, instead using them as vantages for peering, alternately fondly and ruthlessly, at the world about her. The depression that finally ended Akerman’s life seems to flow through her work like a subterranean river, but so too does a note of spry and endlessly fascinated contemplation of the habits of humans being, whether alone or in pairs or as communities. The essence of a creative person’s life, which involves a great deal of being alone and wrestling with webs of memory and thought, became a key component of Akerman’s often self-reflexive approach to her art, and many of her films are, if not necessarily autobiographical, quick to foreground themselves as self-portraiture. With the inevitable extra dimension of awareness that quite often an artist is never being more elusive than when seeming to put themselves at the centre of their art.
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Akerman, born in Brussels, began a peripatetic life, first heading to Israel and then to New York for a time. She took inspiration from filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, whose Pierrot le Fou (1965) sparked her desire to make movies, Jonas Mekas, and Michael Snow. According to legend she financed her early short films like Saute ma ville (1971), by trading diamond shares in Antwerp and even stealing cash from a porn theatre where she worked. Akerman’s labours soon advanced to over the one-hour mark with the quasi-experimental feature Hôtel Monterey (1972). Je, Tu, Il, Elle, or Me, You, Him, Her, looks like a crude sketch for the aesthetics she would advance on Jeanne Dielman, although it would not see proper theatrical release, ironically, until the year after the subsequent movie. The subject is isolation amidst a theoretically bustling world, and the fate of those whose habits and hungers seem to exclude them from a supposed main flow of life nobody is sure actually exists anyway. Je, Tu, Il, Elle wears its limitations on its sleeve as reportage from the fringe, with the faintest echoes of literary progenitors ranging from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” but stripped of overt neuroticism and all but the faintest dramatic development and sociological inference. Whilst undoubtedly distinctive and an original force, there are qualities to Akerman’s filmmaking that calls readily to mind that peculiar trove of Belgian surrealism practiced by painters like Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux and the writer Jean Ray. Their creative worlds were replete with strange, transformative mythologies in the midst of an utterly banal and buttoned-down urban landscape, apt for a tiny country pointedly cut off from the greater continents of self-mythologising that are luxuries of bigger nations, where stolid surfaces and crepuscular indistinctness gave rise to somnolent fantasias where sensual selves threaten to bust the fabric of overwhelming stultification.
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Je, Tu, Il, Elle plays as something of an accidental companion piece to, and temperamental inversion of, another major French-language film shot around the same time, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973). Both films share a harsh, basic monochrome visual palette and deal implicitly with the ramifications of upheaval amidst young bohemia following the end of the ‘60s and resettlement with a fresh but thorny set of problems of self to overcome, particularly in the realm of sexuality, played out in bland rooms and confines of the new cityscapes. That said, the differences are as marked as the similarities. Where Eustache’s film is gabby and floridly intellectual in its approach to the politics of lust, Akerman wends at an opposite extreme, with an artistic approach she dramatizes in the first half-hour of Je, Tu, Il, Elle. Akerman plays her own protagonist, Julie, her lucid eyes jewel-like in the black-and-white photography and traces of sceptical humour always sketched around the corners of her mouth. The film’s first spoken words, “And so I left,” sarcastically suggest we’re watching the end of something rather than the start, and Julie spends a great bulk of the film in a state of retreat, boxed up in the tiny room she has rented. The title offers a basic map of the narrative, such as it is. We have the Je, that is, Julie (J-E). Il and the Elle come later. Tu remains vague, a missing fourth party, which could be whoever Julie has left at the start, or who she begins writing a very long letter to, or the composition itself. It’s also, of course, the audience, watching her through the screen.
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Akerman’s early works had been defined by her fascination with and unease in those functional spaces, the average room – not for nothing had she made two shorts both titled Le Chambre during her first sojourn to New York in the early 1970s. Julie begins a rigorous process of divestment, at first getting rid of some items of furniture, then all of it, including her drapes and only leaving herself a mattress to sleep on. She even supposedly changes the colour of the walls, although that can’t register to the camera. “I thought the space looked bigger,” is the only explanation she offers for this process. Akerman’s activity here mimics her own approach to cinema, in trying to strip out affectations and reduce the proposition of the art itself to a basic matter, to give its expression the new lexicon she sought. Scenes flit by in a succession of lengthy shots where Julie’s voiceover describes all the action that will occur depicted in quick missives and then play out duly and at length, with the pace of shots only timed by what Akerman confessed was her purely instinctive internal clock. At the same time, Akerman also satirises her efforts, as Julie tries to write a “letter” that seems to become thesis, confession, and manifesto as it goes on, and after several pages – perhaps a reference to her own juvenilia as a director – she realises she’s been saying the same thing over and over. Slow fade outs punctuate most shots as time loses function and space becomes a mere containment for exploration of the interior world. As time ceases to exist for Julie, so does any notion of sociability or propriety. By the end of the process she’s become some kind of entomological phenomena, existing purely on raw sugar whilst scribbling down her thoughts.
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The biggest event on one of her days comes when she accidentally spills some of the sugar over her pages and has to scoop it back in spoonful by spoonful. When she finishes writing her epistle, she spreads the pages out on the floor and reads them, and then takes off her clothes. Akerman proceeds to film her nude self in postures and compositions reminiscent of Degas, Botticelli, Vermeer. The act of communication leaves one entirely naked, and yet still not defenceless. Julie’s window remains her portal on the world, and also the world’s portal on her. When she sees a man pass by the window, she remains close to the glass for hours attempting to attract someone’s else’s eye to verify her existence. The window becomes the cinema screen itself, actualising the problem of trying to create something interesting enough to fill it with Akerman’s stark tools. All Julie’s view offers is a dull and snow-crusted suburbia, where humanity barely ever appears, whilst the view from without for anyone who might notice is of a near-naked woman. Akerman turns her very body into a canvas and yet reveals nothing. There’s also has the added aspect of a joke about forlornly frustrated sexuality, a joke that echoes on through her work. Julie’s free advertising yields no customers but when she ventures out into the world she finds an agreeable sexual transaction to make. Finally Julie is driven out of her room after realising she’s been there for nearly a month without excursion. Her entry into the world is represented by a single, hilariously cheerless vision of a highway junction on a rainy day, traffic flowing this way and that in the grey and hazy morning. This is the first proper exterior shot of the film, 33 minutes in. Julie hitchhikes into inner Brussels, and is picked up by a truck driver (Niels Arestup, in his film debut; he would much later star in films like Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophet, 2009, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, 2011).
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Julie and the driver find mutual accord in their initial disinterest in any form of conversation, as both are engaged in a form of sanctuary involving their labours, Julie as someone who’s excised herself from common reality by her creative perspective, and the driver as a workman who’s used to the silent, solitary vicissitudes of his job. The funniest vignette in the film comes when the driver pulls over and the two eat in a diner whilst watching an American thriller on the television, the blaring sirens, gunshots, and funky music filling both diner and soundtrack (I’d swear I heard Clu Gulager’s voice in there somewhere). Julie and the driver eat wordlessly as they gawk at the action playing out on the screen, saving them from the tyranny of human beings’ propensity to remain utterly alien to each-other. Akerman is both wry here about the frenetic business of entertainment whilst also acknowledging its appeal in a landscape that is otherwise entirely devoid of stimulation. Julie spends most of the time travelling with the driver admiring his neck, which seems to her beautiful in its firm and rigorous masculinity, whilst he’s hunched over wrestling the wheel of the truck. Later the driver takes Julie into a roadside bar he frequents and introduces her to this little world of working men. Finally, she jerks him off when they’re parked. “You see,” the driver gasps as she works away, face contorting in pleasure-pain: “The only thing that matters.” When he ejaculates, he narrates the experience with a deft poetry: “It came in little waves.”
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Akerman shoots this scene in such blazing intimacy the sound of the camera can be heard on the soundtrack. The poetics of banality are Akerman’s field of play throughout Je, Tu, Il, Elle, as she offers this transient world of incidental intimacy and grimy, quotidian peregrination with a perverse fondness for the desolate environs she surveys, rendering all the more intriguing, and frustrating, the free-floating atolls of humanity she encounters. Julie’s time with the driver is both amiable for the most part but also desultory: the driver demands nothing more from Julie than that salutary hand-job and offers no more than a cheap ride to wherever. He does finally become chatty afterwards, and describes his life in a long monologue, recounting his happiness in his early married life when he and his wife were frantically horny, but bit by bit he’s had his sex life choked off by his work and his children. He finds himself both amused and annoyed by his insolent eleven-year-old daughter’s nascent, taunting sex appeal, so he takes whatever pleasure he can with hitchhikers like Julie. Julie listens to all his story, even the perturbing parts, with a grin of midnight solidarity and patience. Later, Julie watched the driver shave with an electric razor in a truck stop bathroom, finding something epic and sensually gratifying in the act of witnessing this arcane male ritual.
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Finally the driver drops her off in a town, and Julie seeks out a female lover (Claire Wauthion) who lives in the vicinity. The lover tells Julie she can stay the night but has to be gone in the morning. Julie accepts the condition and then speaks aloud for the first time in the film: “I’m hungry.” So the lover make her a sandwich. “More,” Julie demands. Love is making someone else a sandwich. Or is it? Julie’s reduction to a strange kind of barely-speaking beast by this point, ejaculating blank requests, suggests the odd kinship between her and the driver. In the end, all that matters is who can sate one’s hungers. The film’s last fifteen minutes is almost entirely devoted to the spectacle of Julie and her lover in bed, lost in a gleeful tangle of limbs, providing a climax in both senses of the term. This sequence probably had some confrontational kick in the context of 1973 in offering an unblinking view of lesbian sexuality unparsed by pornographic impulse. Now it’s a perfectly straightforward and charming depiction of physical joy and evident emotional fervour painted on the faces of Akerman and Wauthion. Even here however Akerman, whilst seeming finally to resolve the ache at the centre of the film in its contemplation of the spaces between people, maintains ambiguities. Akerman’s sparing approach to giving any dramatic context forces questions as to why the lover is so insistent Julie cannot stay. She seems to live alone, but may have other lovers, or she might simply have great affection for Julie that isn’t quite enough to blind her to Julie’s self-involvement. Perhaps as well as “her”, she’s also the “you” of the title.
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The film closes off with a quotation from the poet A.E. Housman – “We’ll to the woods no more. The Laurels are all gone.” – that gives the film both a grinning quality as another sex joke, for Julie has gathered the laurels and then some, but also a covert note of despair, for Housman’s poem is one of prospective death for an elderly man, and even in the wake of great pleasure and fulfilment Julie is all too aware that solitude and fate are still stalking her. Nine years later, Akerman would return to the theme of watching people try to connect in a twilight world with Toute Une Nuit, when her style had much matured and her budgets had at least increased enough to shoot in colour. Toute Une Nuit’s approach to coupling and the life nocturnal is radically different in other ways to that in Je, Tu, Il, Elle, as here Akerman, instead of offering monomaniacal focus upon a version of herself, now moves at high speed through an entire panorama of vignettes, most describing some particular moment and method of loving. The setting is an inner suburb of Brussels. Some of the vignettes are returned to as the film unfolds, eventually coalescing into a disjointed quasi-narrative, but most are not, left as precise thumbnail sketches of what could be called moments of truth. Some moments are comedic, others tragic, still more wistful and sexy.
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Although her narrative approach retains an edge of abstracted essentialism and her visuals remain stark and unfussy, the mood Akerman weaves in Toute Une Nuit has a peculiarly classical feel, calling back to a bygone romanticism of directors like Max Ophuls, Vincent Minnelli, Billy Wilder, Jean Renoir. Ophul’s La Ronde (1950) seems a particular touchstone, or, if you prefer a less high-falutin’ reference point, call it all Love, Belgian Style. Her women are quite often seen in flashes of retro chic, swathed red dresses and silk nightgowns, and sport heels that crack out a nervy beat wherever they tread. Men wear baggy suits ready to perform a Gene Kelly dance routine in. The film’s dark palette and Akerman’s mostly removed camera, with a paucity of close-ups, means that many of the people remain vague. Their interchangeableness as well as their pining specificity is part of the point, and their adventures overlap and intermingle like charts of logarithmic variants. A couple of familiar faces flit by – Aurore Clement, who had already played another Akerman avatar in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) is in the mix, as is a young Tcheky Karyo. Otherwise we’re navigating here less by faces than by landmarks, the places that become lynch-pins for the dance of night – the square at the heart of the neighbourhood, the tavern and apartment buildings and shops that front it, and a host of houses a distance down radiating streets.
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The film’s title comes from dialogue in one vignette, in which an infuriated husband walks out on his wife; she chases him, he embraces her, and as they stand clutching each-other on the pavement she murmurs, “We can’t stand here all night long.” To which he replies, “The hell we can’t.” The intensity of the need for others that drives people wild is a basic and insistent note sounded throughout the film in its daisy-chain of fierce embraces and ruptures. The concentration on a nocturnal atmosphere, the visions through windows at brief sketches of behaviour, evoke Edward Hopper’s gently suggestive blend of naturalism and surrealism and fascination with the gallery of the urban as a window into manifold souls. The first few episodes quickly establish a comic rhythm and temperament for the film which the rest of it shades and revises without spurning. A woman (Clement) in a red dress treads fretfully in her room, calls up a man, but hangs up without saying a word: she murmurs desperately, “I love you—I love you,” and then catches a taxi and stands in the square, gazing up at the silhouetted object of her affection as he paces about his apartment. Later, after returning to her room, she hears a knock on her door, and opens it to find another man who’s in love with her. She invites him in in spite of her disappointment it’s not the other man.
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In the bar, a woman in a coat the same shade of red sits waiting alone at a table. Her man turns up at the door, clutching a suitcase, and embraces her. Meanwhile a young man and young woman occupy nearby tables, obviously both lovelorn and in their body language intensely aware of each-other. The man gets up to leave and walks out of the frame, then dashes back and embraces her. They dance around the bar in close and clingy fashion. A trio of teenagers occupy a booth in the bar, two boys and a girl. One of the boys irritably gets up to leave, the other two follow him onto the pavement, and the first boy makes a demand of the girl to choose between him and the other boy. The girl’s silence drives both boys off in different directions, and she waltzes on her own path. A small girl leaves home with a suitcase and her pet cat in hand. Another insists on dancing with the bar owner to a cheesy Italian pop song that recurs throughout the film, beckoning, like the cop show in Je, Tu, Il, Elle, with fantasies of a larger, more intense way of living. One teenage girl flees her family home with her boyfriend, glimpsed hopping the back fence through a window.
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The shrugging, carefree, protean spirit of such youth contrasts the generally older, more fretful tenor of the unions Akerman surveys. Some happy and tranquil couples are noted, whilst people who are feeling the pinch of solitude or sweltering in troubled relationships are also portrayed. Akerman casually allows queer relationships space. A lesbian couple is sundered when one woman finds her partner has a man in her room. A gay male couple are awakened in the night as one has to make an early start on a journey, and his partner gets up again a few hours later to a dismally empty apartment, so he settles down to write a letter to his absent lover. One middle-aged wife turns off the television and suggests to her husband they go out dancing, and he happily agrees, so they head out hand in hand. Another husband packs up and walks out during the night. A wife does the same thing, leaving her sleeping mate in bed, donning some lipstick, and then marching out into the dark. She’s glimpsed occasionally throughout the rest of the film. She rents a room at a hotel, and flops down on the bed in her room, only to then abandon this domicile too and wander about the square, and at last returns home. She slips back into bed next to her husband who has remained oblivious throughout her odyssey, seconds before her alarm clock goes off and stirs her to start her day proper with pitiless regularity.
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This lady might well be the most luckless and forlorn in the film, her homecoming charged with a bitter taste, although the seamlessness of the chain of motions that puts her in bed and then draws her out again gives a grand comedic aspect too, like a Jerry Lewis or Jack Lemmon character who’s bitten off more than they can chew in their lifestyle. And how many times has she traced the same roundelay, obeying the call to some other life and then trundling wearily back to the old one that at least offers structure, even in such voyages? Akerman notes a similarly phenomenon with another couple who, after knowing a night of passion, propose to run away to Italy together, only for the woman to dash off whilst the man pays his hotel bill. Like Julie in Je, Tu, Il, Elle, who comes from nowhere and returns there as far as the camera is concerned, so too do the people witnessed in Toute Une Nuit. On one level the film is a sleek and lovely entertainment, but it’s also one that sees Akerman finding an honourable, even revolutionary way of mating the theoretical bent of her early work with more populist impulses. The contained and singular self Julie offered Akerman as avatar in Je, Tu, Il, Elle is here also split across manifold persons, as different characters repeat gestures seen in the earlier film.
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Akerman’s reticence in revealing much about the hows and whyfors of what we’re seeing, carried over from her earlier work and instead insisting merely on observing moments in all their random and fleeting fascination, might make such vignettes seem lightweight, but somehow their concision instead imbues a sense of privilege upon their witnessing. The artistic process of plumbing the mysteries of things glimpsed and voyeuristically observed is both exposed and also imposed upon the audience, an openness that invites the viewer to paint in their own assumptions about what drives many of these characters and define their problems. Like Julie, they’re both contained safely in and tormented by the spaces about them, the oppression of walls and windows, and eventually most flee their confines to snatch at their chances in a shared zone. Romance isn’t the only thing Akerman scrutinises, as she also contemplates the drives and motives that lead some to be alone. She notes a man who seems to run a textile store putting his accounts in order, working into the wee hours, tapping away remorseless on his adding machine. Eventually he falls asleep at his post and awakens later to wander the store, surrounded by the stuff of his trade, rough and unmade sheathes for the bodies at large in the film sprawled ghostlike about him. A writer awakens in the darkness and sits in sleepless agony as he parses his artistic problems. Matched patterns and unconscious acts of mimicry are noted as Akerman trains the camera up from the square to notice two men in stacked apartments, both perched upon their balconies in meditative angst. Perhaps the most magical moment comes when a couple who may be splitting up hover at separate windows as a thunderstorm approaches, lightning strobing upon their semi-clothed bodies, the curtains billowing as ethereal beings as they would in a Delvaux or Hopper painting, the couple facing each-other in charged physical awareness that cannot quite transmute into intimacy.
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The storm that threatens to break upon the town proves mild, however, and the night’s epiphanies are interrogated in the morning. The writer who hovered in angst during the night settles down and attack the page with new zest. The very end of the film circles back to the same woman it started with, still dogged by her obsessive fascination with her tormenting non-lover even as she dances with the real one before her, and an ambiguous final phone call she receives sees her finally fall into an embrace with him on a mattress just as stark and paltry and essential as the one Julie lolls upon throughout Je, Tu, Il, Elle, declaring the connection between the two films in the processes of Akerman’s mind. Akerman’s influence on some filmmakers is laid bare by both Je, Tu, Il, Elle and Toute Une Nuit, particularly upon Jim Jarmusch, who’s spent his entire career pursuing Akerman’s attitude of wistful, crepuscular dispassion. The imprint of Je, Tu, Il, Elle is notable on Jarmusch’s early efforts like Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986), whilst the collective vignettes and starkly filmed nocturnal settings of Toute Une Nuit echo throughout Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991). Claire Denis paid tribute with her Friday Night (2002), whilst Kelly Reichardt and Sofia Coppola have admitted their debts. There’s even a dash of the Toute Une Nuit in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut’s (1999) insomniac hunt for love to the end of night, and Sang Song-Ho’s behavioural studies like The Day He Arrives (2011). The laurels grow and bloom still to be picked.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Baby Driver (2017)

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Director/ Screenwriter: Edgar Wright

By Roderick Heath

A heist scene, both in life and in movies, is traditionally a scene of fear, ferocity, chaos, and sometimes bloodshed. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver kicks off on the other hand with a sequence of startling formal artistry and glib humour as its hero, who remains for nearly the entire film known purely by the sobriquet of Baby (Ansel Elgort), sits behind the wheel, waiting in a car whilst criminal associates pillage a bank, bopping and miming along to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s thunderous rocker “Bellbottoms.” Once the proper bandits, Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his wife Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and ally Griff (Jon Bernthal), dash back to the car and cry for Baby to step on it, the young ace takes off and leads the cops on a merry chase through downtown Atlanta, wreaking choreographed mayhem, the raucous yet fleet and graceful action carefully interwoven with frenetic music. Pile-ups are neatly contrived, a row of tyre spikes neatly flicked from under Baby’s wheels under the the tyres of a pursuit vehicle like a soccer player flicking a ball off their heel, rules of man and physics casually subverted in a car chase that exploits the layout of Atlanta’s streets to turn them into a zone akin to Pac Man’s classically boxy, labyrinthine field of action.
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Baby eventually delivers himself and his charges in safe, slick fashion to their rendezvous with fence and heist planner Doc (Kevin Spacey). When performing his usual post-job ritual of fetching coffee for all, Baby strides down the street, now to the swing-and-slide saunter of Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” The streetscape snaps into the groove filling Baby’s ears, the whole world taking on a funkified rhythm, the actions of the pedestrians and the variegated colourings of the street suggesting the choreography in a Vincent Minnelli or Jacques Demy movie without quite bursting out into proper song and dance. It’s more as if Baby’s immersion instead helps him see the natural music of life about him, keen to the manifold forms expression intersecting in metropolitan life. Baby halts for a moment to mimic the pose on a sprawling work of public art, and the lyrics to the song he’s listening to are written on street lamps. All setting the scene for a moment that will change Baby’s life, as he sees the girl of his lifetime, Debora (Lily James) striding past the coffee shop.
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Edgar Wright’s directorial feature oeuvre to date – A Fistful of Fingers (1995), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2011), and The World’s End (2014) – testifies to a talent whose gifts emerge in a devious fashion, realised best when taking seriously things many other people would never pause to think too hard about. On top of formidable visual skill, his films have been thus far both burlesques upon and valentines to beloved movies, music, games, and comics, but are also case studies of people caught in varying stages of development, often arrested but not always unhappily or unproductively, commenting with a good–natured humour that often belies the concision of his satiric streak on the state of modern being in which the tests of character and fortitude that come our way in contemporary life tend to be random, even surreal. Shaun of the Dead reprocessed the basic notions of George Romero’s zombie movies but critiqued their critique, negating the appealing edge of macho fantasy and stern, straighten-up-and-fly-right tenor of most such survivalist horror tales, to celebrate our right to be slouchy slackers when life offers little else that’s more satisfying. Hot Fuzz, the most overt spoof amongst Wright’s films, walked cop and horror clichés through the anxieties of characters who feel stymied in their careers and cheated of the best uses of their gifts, whilst Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World described the problems of trying to reconcile the drug-like power of romanticism with hard truths and the hunt for authenticity via a series of gaudy comic book situations and virtual reality adventures. The World’s End introduced an edge of middle-aged hysteria to his template as it mocked Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style tales but also analysed its heroes’ bilious refusal to change in the face of their own abused and decaying flesh and intractable natures.
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Wright is one of the few filmmakers to take heart Quentin Tarantino’s most interesting facet, the one intrigued by the tension between lived experience and the cheering embrace of our cultural touchstones and obsessions, icons in a life journey that lend coherence to the way we see ourselves and orchestrate our days. Wright’s comedic touch has native aspects too, however, in such diverse fields as the sardonic, parochial touch of the Ealing comedy styles, the neurotic potency of the British sci-fi and horror schools, and the puckish, kinetic buoyancy of Richard Lester’s early swinging London adventures. For me, The World’s End failed to quite bring Wright to a new threshold of maturity, as it was also his most curiously misshapen and tonally indecisive work to date. Baby Driver, named for the saucy Simon and Garfunkel song that plays over the end credits, declares with its title an intention to conjure a legend of youthful vivacity, and sees Wright returning to North America for what is in part a romp through a landscape of cultural canards, and like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, his last foray there, focuses on a hero in the awkward space between childhood and manhood. One difference between Baby Driver and Wright’s earlier work however is its new approach to genre storytelling; Baby Driver is a tale of crime and revenge given a day-glo paint job, but still one that takes its pulp imperatives seriously.
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Baby Driver’s antecedents are fairly obvious, as the film belongs to a subgenre of crime film that owes many of its tenets and essential ideas to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), which essentially created the modern archetype of the stoic and emotionally uninvolved crime professional who is pushed at last into a personal struggle. Wright’s more immediate touchstone here, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), which retranslated Melville’s precepts back into native American noir traditions (Wright gives Hill a cameo late in the film), and which owed a debt itself to Richard Fleischer’s first attempt to meld these styles, The Last Run (1971). Wright gives this a distinctive twist, of course, in his approach to Baby, whose veneer of detachment is not that of a world-weary pro but a happy-go-lucky kid who’s somehow gotten himself into a deadly line of work. The gimmick at the heart of the film revolves around Baby’s love for music, a love that has practical, even therapeutic aspects. He’s dogged by tinnitus and haunted by the death of his parents, particularly his chanteuse mother, both the result of a car accident that occurred during one of their many, often violent arguments. But music is also his way of keeping a clamouring, insistent, rather evil world at bay, of ordering and structuring his day, of imposing coherent limitations on jostling chaos and impositions. As long as the music is playing, Baby’s universe makes sense.
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It’s very plain what Wright actually has in mind with Baby even as he conveys his experience through the trappings of thrills and spills: the experience of being a creative young man trying urgently to maintain equilibrium and a bubble of personal space when surrounded by thugs, bullies, and other energy vampires. Other criminals look askance at Baby’s habits. Griff takes on the role of schoolyard creep in trying to break into Baby’s private world, harassing him, tugging out his earbuds, slapping off his sunglasses, and trying to make him flinch with false punches. Baby successfully maintains his glaze of cool in the face of such predations, however, as he always has another pair of sunglasses and another iPod stocked up with killer tunes to retreat into. Wright contextualises Baby’s strange life as the film unfolds, revealing him as orphaned at a young age, placed into foster care with a deaf and elderly black man, Joseph (C.J. Jones), whom he now cares for in response. Baby grew up with a predilection for stealing cars, and developed his miraculous driving gifts eluding the cops that way. The notion of a white boy brought up by a black man has an overtone of cultural inference in addition to servicing character development. As well as evoking a sense of natural empathy between outcasts, as an avatar of pop culture in general, Baby is son of a rich and fecund sprawl of cosmopolitan artistic heritage, rejecting the brutal inheritance of his biological father, who beat his mother, in favour of celebrating his mother’s creativity and his adoptive father’s soul, making literal Jim Morrison’s comedic boasts about being the son of an old blues man. Baby has obtained his second, rather more Fagin-ish patriarch in the shape of Doc, who deliberately allowed Baby to jack a car of his with some valuable property aboard simply to admire his form and then announced to him he was going to work for him until he’d paid off what he cost him.
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Baby expects to go his merry way once he’s finished working off the debt, and even confidently takes a job driving pizzas to please Joseph, who detests Baby’s involvement with crime. Meanwhile Baby sublimates his way of interacting with the world into fashioning pieces of artisanal, purely personal art: he records conversations and uses a pile of dated machinery to create brief, groovy mixes that turn the stuff of his life into art. Baby also mediates his own social dysfunction by utilising the same methods of sampling and remixing to fake his way through conversations, as when he uses some dialogue out of Monsters, Inc. (2001) to mollify Doc. Baby of course soon learns Doc has no intention of letting such an asset go, as Doc delivers threats to his person and loved-ones unless he keeps driving for him, a pivot that seems to render Doc’s status as his defender and arbiter entirely false. Baby’s emotional imperative to find a way out of his predicament gains new impetus as he falls under the spell of Debora, when he encounters her working at the diner he frequents because his mother once worked there too – from the moment Debora walks in singing the refrain of Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” it’s plain Debora is the woman for our hero, and it helps she’s a charming chatterbox who readily falls into a rhythm with the usually silent young man. Wright offers a vision of Debora hovering before a mural depicting a couple in a car racing for the sunset in a vintage roadster and Baby begins to experience faintly David Lynchian fantasies in black and white involving realising the moment with Debora. Wright conjures idealised girlfriends better than any director since Cameron Crowe, and some of the pictures he offers of Baby and Debora’s romancing, their feet bopping in sublime accord to the tune they’re listening to through shared earbuds and their fingers making music with the glasses on a restaurant table, are both expert pieces of observed behaviour with an added lustre of romanticism that plugs into the film’s almost religious sense of musicality.
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The idea of making an action film that works like a dance film has an obvious magnificence to it, and the best and most frustrating aspects of Baby Driver are wound in with this idea, as Wright sets up the conceit but never follows through on it in quite the kind of mighty, silent movie, Keystone Kops-esque set-piece it seems to demand. Wright instead keeps the musical motif more like a metronomic pulse for the action, in keeping with Baby’s specific use for the music to structure and time his escapades. Baby gains what seems to be an exact polar opposite and natural adversary in the form of Bats (Jamie Foxx), a flashy hard-ass who quickly reveals a paranoid and ruthless, murderous streak. Bats commands a crew on the heist that marks what Baby thinks will be his last, also consisting of Eddie No-Nose (formerly Eddie Big-Nose; played by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and hapless JD (Lanny Joon). JD’s various screw-ups on the job, including leaving his shotgun in a car they flee and accidentally buying Austin Powers masks instead of Michael Myers of Halloween fame masks to wear in their robbery (“This is Mike Myers!”) earn him a brutal death at the hands of Bats (can anyone whose nerd lexicon is so poor survive long today?). Baby is handed the job of disposing of body and car in a junkyard press. Baby’s unavoidable humanity is the one roadblock he can’t navigate, natch.
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Wright’s method of developing emotional involvement in Baby Driver is relatively smart and supple: Baby keeps gaining short, judicious glimpses of obscene violence, the stuff he’s so urgently trying to tune out whilst taking care of business. And yet he also shares with his director a quick and lucid eye for the stuff of everyday life that puts no-one in contempt until they earn it. His world is essentially one that’s kindly, filled with beaming cashiers, mothers with children, and other, casual passers-by, the people who tend to be knocked over, if they’re lucky, by careening and careless criminals. Baby is even so decent that in one scene when his life’s depending on it he delays his getaway a few moments to give the old lady whose car he’s stealing her purse. Even JD’s pathos is noted as Baby asks him about a tattoo that’s been altered from “hate” to “hat” to increase his chances of employment (“How’s that working for you?” “Who doesn’t like hats?”). Baby is left standing staring at the metal beast chewing up JD and the car, with nothing to do except drift away into the day, turn up the Commodores (has any other film ever wrung such poetic grace from the easy-listening manifesto that is “I’m Easy”?), and get on with the business of being alive.
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Baby Driver is of course at heart a fun and carefree entertainment, but it’s not one that’s mindless. In fact it often struck me as having more to say about how many live now than quite a few more serious films, in its blithe and zipless fashion, faithful to the ephemera of behaviour – who hasn’t sat behind the wheel of their car bopping to a favourite song? The modern world offers a peculiar ability to us now, to be at once at large in the world but also to keep it at bay, something an invention like the iPod made easier, more freewheeling, less tethered than ever, and Wright plainly reveals a great affection for this invention (one whose era already seems to be ending) that at last realised the audiophile’s dream of carrying their record collection with them and never having to submit to the indignities of muzak and muffle the abuse of the world to a dull rumble. Wright even seems to gleefully court the diverse reaction people in the audience will have to Baby’s affectations, which will strike some as like self-portrait and others life a mass of infuriating tics and traits, reactions that might depend, perhaps, on one’s age and life experience – anyone who’s been ticked off at a teen relative who won’t divest themselves of their headphones or sniffs at hipster affectations like Baby’s craft-art collection of outmoded technologies might well react in a phobic manner to him. But Baby Driver isn’t merely about such cloistered pleasures. It’s most fundamentally about the moment that comes, or should come, in every life, when you have to turn the music off and abandon the personalised survival mechanisms that one develops when young, and pay proper attention to what’s happening in front of you. This even seems to me to be a general existential state at the moment.
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As Doc forces him to continue with his life of crime, Baby nonetheless finds himself plunged back into the company of an all-star team of Doc’s pet badasses, including grizzled and wary Buddy, bombshell-in-both-senses Darling, and batshit Bats. Doc assembles this crew as he intends a robbery of a downtown post office to get hold of blank money orders, and gets Baby to scout the post office in the company of Doc’s young but already canny nephew Samm (Brogan Hall). Where the bullish and impatient Bats can barely restrain his contempt for Baby, Buddy seems to feel a certain affection for him, asking him about his tunes and revealing a similar youthful love for cars, a love that always has to be accompanied by a lucky driving song, which Baby reveals to him is Queen’s theatrical epic “Brighton Rock.” Bats puts the crew through a multiplicity of ordeals, seeming to kill a service station worker to make a robbery, snidely grilling Buddy about what he presumes is a yuppie lifestyle that’s slid into less dignified crimes (“Y’all do crimes to support a drug habit, I do drugs to support a crime habit.”), and threatening to shoot Debora when the crew visit the diner when she’s working there, an act Baby forestalls at risk to himself. Bats has already forced Buddy, Darling, and Baby to aid him in massacring an outfit of gun sellers they meet in an abandoned warehouse, upon the realisation they’re cops, without also realising they’re crooked lawmen in league with Doc (Paul Williams plays the showy frontman of this team, a character dubbed the Butcher, which could be the most unlikely match-up of actor to role since, well, Williams played the Mephistophelian Swan in Phantom of the Paradise, 1974).
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The dichotomy of Buddy and Bats as they relate to Baby proves a miscue, at least to the extent that Buddy eventually proves far more dangerous to Baby. Although nominally a shift of ground into a less fantastical style than Wright has offered to date, Baby Driver picks up the running idea of all of his films, in which the adventure offers a coherent metaphor for the maturation, or lack of it, for the heroes, and even presents a variation on the essence of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World where he must face and defeat a doppelganger, and Buddy is Baby’s, with similar background and loves, but one hardened into an underworld swashbuckler. Buddy’s potently carnal relationship with the younger but more than equally loco Darling sits in stark contrast with Baby’s tentative flirtations with Debora whilst also suggesting what they both might become a few years down the track if they are given up to a seedy and destructive world and lose all moral compass. Trapped between varieties of threat, Baby has to run a gauntlet as his beloved, utterly private hobby is exposed and subjected to merciless inspection by his confederates, as when he tries to sneak home to see Joseph he’s caught by Buddy and Bats, who also finds his tape recorder, and enlarge upon their roles as schoolyard bullies engaging in a glorified game of keep-away as they raid Baby’s apartment, steal his tapes and Joseph’s wheelchair, and force Baby to play his tapes and prove they’re merely harmless fodder for composition.
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Baby’s attempts to be true to his own code even whilst swimming with sharks eventually forces crisis, as he warns away a pleasant cashier he spoke to whilst casing the post office. The cashier promptly fetches a cop, who arrives by Baby’s car just as Bats, Buddy, and Darling emerge with their haul. Bats shoots the cop dead, and the appalled and enraged Baby for a long moment refuses to move the car even as Bats points his shotgun in his face. When Baby does finally gun the motor, he slams the car into the back of a truck, impaling Bats upon steel poles and setting all hell loose. Police cars arrive and Buddy and Darling start a gunfight in the street, machine guns blazing in downtown as Baby flees on foot, desperately attempting to elude the pursuing cops in a parkour-tinged sequence that readily finds the same electric sense of motion and staging as the car chases. Baby inadvertently prevents Buddy and Darling’s escape again when they both try to steal cars in the same parking lot, and Baby rams the couple’s car, an accident that results in Darling being gunned down as she turns her own weapons on the approaching cops again. Buddy blames Baby for her death, and even though both manage to elude the law at last, Baby finds himself outcast and hunted with no-one to turn to but Debora, and finally Doc reveals his truest colours by melting in the face of true love. It’s more than faintly amazing to me that Wright manages to get such an effective lead performance out of Elgort, who had seemed like the biggest hunk of white dough not yet even baked in the first couple of parts I saw him, whilst the rest of the cast about him delivers superlative work, particularly Foxx in all his character’s supine aggression and Gonzalez as a pocket full of crazy, plus Hamm finally unleashing that long-suppressed edge of the maniacal he constantly hinted but kept buttoned down in his Mad Men days.
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It would be fair to say that Baby Driver starts to run out of ideas in its last twenty minutes, and like The World’s End it betrays Wright’s uncertainty about where exactly to draw a line with his narratives, as he insists on following through to a coda that eventually delivers a happy ending after making Baby (whose real name is finally revealed) jump through hoops of law and prison. And yet the finale proper manages to build up such a note of frenetic, maniacal confrontation that subsequent hesitations don’t matter too much. Buddy and Baby battle in an increasingly pathological manner, Hamm’s glowering visage of vengeance bathed in red light, lethal blue stare glaring through shattered glass and flecks of water. Although still nominally in noir-action territory, Wright’s staging here is reminiscent in its colouring and plumes of steam and smoke of sci-fi works, including THX 1138 (1971) and Aliens (1986), whilst also reminding me of a near-forgotten film, Metal Skin (1994), the ill-fated second feature of Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright, which similarly resolved its tale of freedom-seeking hotrodders in increasingly gladiatorial surrounds. Although villain is defeated and heroes left to lick their wounds and find a future, Wright delivers a moment of exacting and totemic punishment, as Buddy robs Baby of his hearing by shooting off his gun on either side of his head. This cruel exacting recalls some of the film’s less noted antecedents, particularly two other tales young hotshots going up against the world only to pay a harsh price in physical coin, Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks (1960) and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). Here, in this vision of youth and age in conflict and the spectacle of losing something you love but learning how to live with it, Wright signals that he might be finding his way through to a new maturity with more elegance than he managed with The World’s End. But it’s finally most apt that Wright’s final image returns to fantasy realised as a reunited Baby and Debora drive off in a roadster, pop cinema and pop music rediscovering their place of birth, out on some dusty southern back road. It might not prove the best film of the year, and yet Baby Driver left me with the feeling that it might well be the only one they’ll be teaching in film schools in twenty years.

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