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

Titane (2021)

Director / Screenwriter: Julia Ducournau

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean. Lean and Foreman eventually suffered a clash of vision of Foreman, and when he pulled out of the project Foreman suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony when it comes to the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, with a screenwriting Oscar eventually instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

Standard
1960s, Comedy, Drama, Indian cinema, Religious, Romance

The Holy Man / The Coward (1965)

Mahapurush / Kapurush

Director / Screenwriter: Satyajit Ray

By Roderick Heath

On the international film scene of the mid-Twentieth century, Satyajit Ray represented India in much the same way Ingmar Bergman represented Sweden, Akira Kurosawa Japan, and Federico Fellini Italy. In general perception today Indian cinema is virtually synonymous with the popular ‘Bollywood’ style with its gaudy storytelling, free-form sense of genre, and interpolated song numbers. But there’s been a long tradition of a more traditional dramatic approach in the country’s cinema, and Ray stood for several decades as its preeminent exponent. Ray came from an old and respected Bengali family. His grandfather had been a thinker and the leader of a social and religious movement, whilst his father had been a poet and children’s writer. Young Satyajit would inherit their polymath gifts, and would sustain a career as a writer alongside his more renowned movie career, as well as often writing the scores for his films. Born in Kolkata, then Calcutta, in 1921, Ray lost his father early in life. When he attended university he became interested in art and worked in an English-run advertising firm, and also becoming a designer of book covers, in which capacity he helped put together a children’s’ version of the famed novel Pather Panchali, which would eventually become the basis of his debut feature film.

 

 

Ray helped to found the Calcutta Film Society in 1947, and it became a nexus for British and American servicemen and locals to mingle and share their love of movies amidst the fervent and transformative climes of the independence moment, a zeitgeist Ray’s cinema would soon become a major component of. Ray met Jean Renoir when he came to India to shoot The River in 1951 and helped him scout locations. When he was sent to work in London by the advertising firm Ray encountered Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), and later reported he walked out of the movie theatre determined to become a filmmaker. It took two-and-half-years for Ray and the inexperienced movie crew and amateur cast he put together upon returning to India to film Pather Panchali, mostly through lack of financing. But with some support from John Huston, who hailed a great new talent when Ray showed him an assembled portion of the movie, and a government loan, the film was completed. When released in 1955 it proved an instant and galvanising success, screening for months in its home country, where critics felt it transformed the national cinema, as well as around the world. Pather Panchali also helped introduce the score’s composer Ravi Shankar to international audiences.

 

 

Ray’s blend of unvarnished authenticity and humanist intimacy in depicting the hard luck of young hero Apu and his family gave poetic depth to subject matter that might have proved off-putting for many potential viewers in portraying the threadbare genteel pretences of the Brahmin but broke family. Pather Panchali and its follow-ups forming the so-called Apu trilogy, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), still largely dominates appreciation of Ray, one of those compulsory viewing exercises for cineastes. But Ray continued making movies for another forty years, and where the Apu films concentrated on rural poverty and the uneasy march of India into the modern world in a manner that however well-done also suited a certain external view of the country, Ray’s filmography veered off into all sorts of movies, taking on comedy, romance, adventure, children’s films, and magic-realist fantasy, very often struggling with the tension between cosmopolitanism and traditionalism. He also often studied the psychology of people involved in making movies, and those who watch them, with a fretful sense of the relationship between art and life, image and truth, and the incapacity of such anointed people to transcend weakness in offering simulacra of life, studying a matinee idol in The Hero (1966) and a screenwriter in The Coward

 

 

Ray often portrayed characters from the city who travel into the country and in the tradition of the Shakespearean pastoral find their fates taking jarring twists, a sense of connection strengthened by the prominent glimpse of a volume of Shakespeare in The Holy Man, as well as the local literary tradition. Ray remained throughout his career a prolific adapter, with his last film a transposition of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1991). The Coward and The Holy Man were made as immediate follow-ups to Ray’s Charulata (1964), reportedly his favourite of his own films and generally regarded as a highpoint in his oeuvre. The Coward and The Holy Man are two quite short films, at just over an hour long each, made independently but often exhibited together, their rhyming titles in Bengali helping make them seem well-matched as a diptych of portraits. As films they nonetheless reveal something of the breadth of Ray’s ambitions and talents. Where The Coward is a curt but definite masterpiece portraying frustration, solitude, and heartbreak, The Holy Man is a gently satirical comedy officially making sport of another important facet of Indian life, religion, but really rather examining cultural deference to people who seem to know what they’re talking about, a problem hardly limited to India.

 

 

The Holy Man, adapted from a story by Rajshekhar Basu, is generally regarded as lesser Ray and that may be true enough, but it’s a wry and well-made divertissement that stakes out its basic approach in the opening scene: The Holy Man of the title, the so-called Birinchi Baba (Charuprakash Ghosh), is farewelled at a railway station by a crowd of admirers who cheer for him and crowd close. The Babaji tosses chillies to people in the crowd they swear are blessed with healing properties, before sticking out his big toe for people to touch and gain their blessing as the train pulls out of the station. This is a good visual joke that’s also a perfect example of Ray’s economic style, immediately giving the game away as to Birinchi Baba’s lack of sanctity and the tendency to unthinking and slavish devotion turned towards figures like him. Settling in on the train with his perpetually awestruck-looking disciple Kyabla (Rabi Ghosh), the Baba fascinates a man sharing the compartment with him with his ritual of spinning his fingers in counter-rotations and acting as if he’s managed to will the sun into rising. The witnessing man is Gurupada Mitra (Prasad Mukherjee), a prosperous lawyer travelling with his less than credulous-seeming daughter Buchki (Gitali Roy).

 

 

Mitra is nonetheless fascinated with the Babaji and soon confesses to him his great pain and confusion following his wife’s death, which have made the former arch pragmatist suddenly spiritually curious. Unwittingly, Mitra has placed himself at the mercy of a man who specialises in hooking people like him, and Mitra soon becomes not only his host but his acolyte too. A little while later, Nibaran (Somen Bose), an intellectual, plays host to his little clique of friends, including his perpetual chess opponent, the insurance agent Paramadha, the money-hungry accountant Nitai (Satya Banerjee), and friend Satta (Satindra Bhattacharya). Nibaran knows about Birinchi Baba’s sway over the Mitra house because he is the lifelong friend of Professor Nani (Santosh Dutta), the husband of Mitra’s eldest daughter. Casually making fun of the Babaji’s supposed divine powers, he tells Nitai about how the Babaji specialises in regressing people back in time to 1914 to let them discover troves of scrap iron left over from the war and make a fortune, only for Nitai to be convinced to try his luck with Birinchi. Satta is much less thrilled by Birinchi’s apparent new home and following, because he’s in love with Buchki, and she seems intent on joining the ranks of Birinchi’s followers along with her father.

 

 

Nibaran, a sceptical and distractible hero for the story who proves formidable once roused, feels like an avatar for Ray himself, or rather Ray’s ironic sense of himself as a thinker in a world not always so terribly interested in thinkers, a cigar smoker with his pile of books in many languages and penchant for playing chess, a game Ray himself loved (he’d later make a film called The Chess Masters in 1977), teetering on the fine line between engagement and withdrawal. Nitai spots what is possibly an erotic picture of a woman peeking out from behind a pile of his books, a gently humorous hint of non-intellectual interests furtively lingering behind the learned veneer, but the intrigued Nitai is interrupted before he can reveal the whole picture. When he visits Nani, who has a sideline playing crackpot inventor who’s trying to synthesise a new foodstuff by oxidizing grass, Nibaran becomes increasingly disturbed and appalled when Nani reports to him Birinchi’s absurd pronouncements, and Nani plays a tape recording allowing Nibaran to hear for himself. Birinchi claims to remember all his past lives and has had experiences with great figures through the ages including Jesus, Buddha, and Albert Einstein, whom he claims to have taught the E=mc²  equation, as well as being an internationally regarded peacemaker: “He’s solved a lot of problems in Czechoslovakia.” Nani also explains the idea behind Birinchi’s signature finger-twirling habit, symbolising his concept of the present as the mere, perpetual grazing point of past and future. Nibaran is annoyed Nani didn’t stand up for science when listening to the Babaji’s claptrap, but Nani is far too enamoured with any kind of fascinating jargon to critique it.

 

 

True to the spirit of the Shakespearean pastoral, The Holy Man centres on some good-natured older men trying to help a younger fellow win a girl, in this case Satta and Buchki. The problems of communication between the young lovers echo the integral themes of The Coward, but in a teasing, upbeat fashion. The film’s jests as the expense of the over-educated as well as the gullible and the dishonest skewer the irritable and proud Paramadha, the fuzzy-logic-loving Nani, and Satta, who has attempted to write a marriage proposal to Buchki but his letter was too obscure, filled with bewildering quotations from poets, for her to make sense of. Buchki seems irritated enough with him for such stodgy romancing to make good on plans to become a priestess. Satta is reduced to constantly trying to sneak messages to Buchki, and finally he gets a smuggled note back from her stating she know well that Birinchi is a fraud but cannot defy her father. This aspect of the film, the place of women under patriarchal control, is another connective theme between the two films. Satta reports with good humour to Nibaran after gaining Buchki’s reply, reporting his adventure in sneaking up to the Mitra house to try and deliver one of his notes to Buchki, tossing it to her as she seems to be rapt in one of Birinchi’s mystic rites, in which he waves flaming brands around and seems to invoke a manifestation of Shiva in his holy dancer form Nataraja.

 

 

By this point in his career Ray had moved away from the blend of neorealist starkness and flashes of intense poetic visual metaphor – the flock of birds flurrying away at the moment of the death of Apu’s father in Aparajito always leaps to my mind – found in the Apu movies, towards a style more open-flowing and relaxed in engaging his actors and the space around them, expertly using a widescreen format to enable this approach to filming. The Holy Man pauses for a rather French New Wave-like visual joke as Nibaran’s efforts to explain the knot of character relationships with a graphic aid joining pictures of the various cast members including the gormlessly grinning Satta gazing at Bucki’s picture. The influence of Renoir’s cinema is apparent with the architectural integrity to compositions that are nonetheless allowed to form according to behaviour. A perfect example is the introduction shot for Nibaran and his friends, with Nibaran and Paramadha playing chess on a bed with the moaning Nitai sitting at a remove as the apex of a compositional triangle, literally and figuratively interrupting the game. Ray often refuses to cut unless doing so for a specific purpose, and yet there’s nothing dull or static about his work, preferring subtle camera movements to stop his shots becoming rigid. The Holy Man allows a certain level of indulged theatricality to manifest in Bhattacharya and Rabi Ghosh’s performances, the former marvellously, effetely mocking as he explains how he came to “see Brahma,” the latter eddying in boredom and misfiring energy as he wanders about his and his uncle’s rooms, half-naked and partly wearing his costume for playing the manifested Nataraja.

 

 

Soumendu Roy’s cinematography on both The Holy Man and The Coward offers a deceptively limpid, deep-focus mise-en-scene that can nonetheless suddenly unveil treasures in careful lighting and camera movement. Particularly fun is the scene where Satta spies on Birinchi’s fire invocation, filmed in expressionistic shadow-and-light-play. Birinchi is transformed into an ogrish vision wielding arcane powers before the appearance of the bogus apparition behind him, a sight that drives Mitra to ecstatics, all background to Satta’s industrious attempts to communicate with Bachki. This scene could well double as a touch of lampooning on Ray’s behalf of horror movie imagery as well as portrayals of eastern mysticism in many Hollywood films. Birinchi’s sermons are comic set-pieces entirely relying on Charuprakash Ghosh’s ability to suggest fatuous delight under a veneer of transcendental bonhomie, declaring when asked about her veracity of Jesus, “People say ‘crucifixion’ – I say ‘crucifact’!”, before swerving suddenly into a show of anguish as he claims to have admonished Jesus for contradictory messages only to feel regret after he was put to death. Asked by another seeker whether the path of urge or the path of satisfaction is the better, Birinchi gives a ridiculously convoluted answer involving ancient sages that eventually winds up justifying consumption because “there can be no satisfaction without consumption.” But he refuses to help Nitai when he makes his appeal, bemused by his request and telling him to spend years master his meditation first.

 

 

The Holy Man is often criticised for not being particularly funny, and it generally isn’t in a laugh-out-loud way, more on a level of spry and sardonic sense of flimflam and character as a lodestone for mirth. It’s hard to get across the film’s tone, except to quote a moment like when Nibaran decides to help Satta and resolves to expose the phony sage: “He must be exposed, because if he is not exposed, they will also not be exposed – those who are going and falling at his feet, encouraging him, letting him grow.” Satta replies, immediately fretful at having his clear-cut romantic objective entangled with a quest to reveal truth and exact justice, two things someone Birinchi is an expert at subverting, “You’ve just increased the scope of our work.” When Ray finally offers a glimpse of Birinchi and Kyabla behind the curtain, they’re revealed as a pair of actors who have to live their act, moving like locusts from one feeding ground to another, Birinchi reading H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History to harvest his anecdotal pearls, whilst Kyabla longs to go see a movie. Nibaran is cautious about just how to expose them in his awareness that Birinchi must have formidable memory and improvisational skills to do what he does. Nibaran’s eventual method of exposure involves staging a fake fire during Birinchi’s nightly descent into a supposedly unbreakable divinity-enforced trance, with Nibaran, Satta, and Nitai joining in with the nightly audience at the Babaji’s sermon, teasing the housekeeper acting as doorman with their own little show of uncanny skill and playful promise.

 

 

The climactic moments when the fire is started and Nibaran turns out the lights to increase the confusion and panic gains the desired result as Birinchi immediately awakens from his “trance” and cries out: Ray spares an empathetic close-up for the dazed and appalled Mitra. This scene allows a brief burst of loud filmic technique in blending jump cuts and quick zoom shots to create a sense of chaos, with glimpses of the hilarious sight of Kyabla, caught in the middle of applying make-up for his appearance as Nataraja, suddenly dashing through the darkened house with false arms still strapped to his back. Nibaran grabs the abandoned Birinchi by the feet and wiggles them until Birinchi loudly protests, before telling him to get out and not to try plying his act around his district again. Meanwhile Satta takes up Bucki in his arms and carries her out in an act of “rescue.” It seems like a clear-cut victory for the forces of rationality and good as Nibaran and his friends share a smoke and celebrate their success, but Ray appends a final, mirthful  sting as Birinchi, glimpsed fleeing the Mitra house over a fence, meets up with Kyabla, who has stolen all the wallets and handbags left behind by fleeing guests, some dangling from his fake hands. “Towards the future,” Kyabla advises, “Let’s go.” Birinchi, with a fleeting expression of fatigue quickly replaced by the resolve of a natural survivor, shuffles away with his nephew.

 

 

The Holy Man most obviously connects with Ray’s preoccupation with portraying actors and people who weave fiction for a living. But there’s also a manifestation of interest in the concept of a person with moral and intellectual authority trying to expose chicanery and do people a good they don’t necessarily want done: Nibaran as a protagonist prefigures the embattled truth-teller in Ray’s filming of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1989), albeit winning through here because it’s a comedy. The appeal of fiction, of immersion in an alternate reality of potentials, is an ironic zone existing within and alongside of Ray’s realist streak, a zone loaned particular urgency by the problem of India as a place becoming something, a place that must be invented day to day in the course of patching together its manifold cultural reference points and contradictions. Language is unstable in both The Holy Man and The Coward, characters switching seemingly randomly between Bengali and English, tracing out faultlines not merely in education and social sect but also modes of thought and expression, a counterpoint that bespeaks much about the still-lingering impact of colonialism but also grasps a certain assimilating power.

 

 

Similarly, having worked on the Apu films where Shankar’s strict classical Indian folk style suited the evocation of a communal past but proved difficult to attach to his images, Ray started composing his own scores blending aspects of western and eastern music to create a more cohesive expressive accompaniment for his films. The spare, jazz-inflected scoring of The Coward helps weave a melancholy mood, just as his more sprightly and traditional-sounding score fits well with The Holy Man. The Coward, whilst occupying a very different space in terms of tone and outlook, is nonetheless similar in the basic precept of its central character, Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee), a travelling purveyor of fictions, in his case a screenwriter travelling for research, taken in by a generous host with needs of his own, and contending with over the fate of a woman. Amitabh is travelling rural Bengal and heading for Hashimara where his brother-in-law lives when his car breaks down and is told by the mechanic it will be at least a day before he can fix it. Amitabh accepts the offer of the hospitality of a friendly local tea planter, Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bandopadhyay), who’s making a phone call from the car mechanic’s office and overhears his predicament.

 

 

The Cowards’s opening shot is a sublime example of Ray’s efficiency and simplicity, sustained for over five minutes including the credits, but without any kind of ostentation. Ray simply moves his camera with Amitabh as the mechanic gives him the bad news and then up to the office window, forming a frame within a frame that now includes Gupta as he talks on the phone and Amitabh gets the bad news, and then following the two men as they descend from the office and get into Gupta’s jeep. Gupta is fascinated when Amitabh explains what he does for a living, intrigued by the kind of story he might be writing, but Amitabh isn’t terribly chatty, so the beefy, middle-aged Gupta happily does all the talking. Gupta sets about getting drunk as he hosts Amitabh at dinner and complains about the wearing boredom of being a planter – “It drives you to drink!” – and the limited social circle he’s obliged to keep amongst neighbouring planters, and his general sense of frustration, disdaining Bengali films and claiming that “Bengalis of this present generation have no moral fibre.” He introduces Amitabh to his wife, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), and they have dinner together. Gupta presses Amitabh to drink with him despite Amitabh never having been a drinker: when Karuna asks why he’s insisting, Gupta replies, as if he and Amitabh have entered into some psychic pact involving composing a story, that “the protagonist in his story has his first drink, right?”

 

 

The Coward plays to a certain extent like a theatrical chamber piece, Chekhovian in its blend of dramatic simplicity and emotional complexity, but with the interactions of the actors matched throughout to a subtle yet deeply expressive cinematic approach. Consequential details in dialogue fall by the wayside, with Gupta casually mentioning that Karuna said she knew someone named Amitabha Roy in college when he first mentioned the name of their guest, and Karuna’s biting comment that her husband won’t travel to Calcutta or let her do it either despite his complaints about isolation. It’s the camera that tells the real story waiting to manifest: when the trio speak after dinner with Gupta increasingly sozzled, Ray frames him leaning forward in the frame, his puffy face crowding space with a tiger skin on the wall behind like a captured standard from another age, before Ray shifts to a delicate but endlessly consequential medium close-up of Amitabh, the camera performing a dolly shifting focus from Amitabh to the silent, boding-seeming Karuna: the hitherto only vaguely suggested connection between Amitabh and Karuna, the former’s intense and queasy awareness of the latter despite acting the polite guest, and Karuna’s own, evidently curdled disposition are all immediately established.

 

 

Later Amitabh confronts Karuna when she shows him to their guest bedroom, protesting that he can’t stand her acting so formally and falsely with him. Soon enough the secret drama is spelt out in a flashback as Amitabh collapses in a self-pitying meditation. Karuna was once Amitabh’s sweetheart, and back when he was struggling she came to him with the news her uncle and guardian wanted to move with her to Patna as he was getting a transfer and also, she suspected, to separate her and Amitabh: Karuna gave Amitabh the chance to marry her then and there, but Amitabh was ambivalent in being put on the spot, and so they separated. That’s the smooth description, anyway, of the complex dance of emotions, crossed wires, and quietly raw drama glimpsed when Ray offers this scene in flashback, unfolding in Amitabh’s squalid little apartment. Amitabh’s sense of inadequacy as a potential provider is exposed as he mentions that he knows Karuna is used to comforts, whilst Karuna’s slow-dawning heartbreak as she realises what she thought was a beautiful leap of faith has been met with ambivalence manifests first as teary intensity and then a calcifying removal that becomes in turn maddening for Amitabh. “My house?” Karuna retorts to Karuna’s statement of scruples: “Did you see the person in it?” The fatal kiss-off when Amitabh asked for more time: “What you really need isn’t more time, but something else.”

 

 

The coward of the title is most visibly Amitabh, his failure of nerve before Karuna’s ardent appeal a turn of character that haunts the lives of all three people at the film’s heart, although Gupta never seems entirely cognizant of just why his life is a quagmire he can’t work up the will to escape. Nonetheless the topic of cowardice is woven through the film, from Gupta’s accusation of the lack of “moral fibre” presaging his own confession to being unable and unwilling to disrupt the class barriers bequeathed unto him and his fellow planters by the departed British, to what’s eventually revealed to be Karuna’s method of switching off from reality. Cowardice is a constant aspect of existence, Ray suggests, everyone’s life marked by things they conscientiously ignore, chances untaken, ignorances cultivated, and it’s a state of being that can infect entire populaces, and perhaps not even a bad thing. The choice of making the main character a screenwriter invites a sense of emotional if not literal autobiography, one that resonates on both a metafictional level and a more pragmatic one. As with Bichindi Baba, Amitabh is a professional fantasist, albeit unlike the conman he is gnawed at by his conspicuous compromises.

 

 

The Coward gets at something about the lives of creative people, those who don’t yet or won’t ever have the kind of success that opens up worlds, in observing the constant emotional holding pattern they’re obliged to subsist in, where every potential gesture must be weighed for how it will ultimately impact their professional life, and their interior one, that one that always threatens to take over anyway. The Coward complicates the familiar motif of the struggling artist who loses a lover to a rich person who could uncomplicatedly fulfil worldly needs. Whilst more subtly portrayed than the comic characters in The Holy Man, Gupta is like them as carefully captured type, a man struggling in awareness of his blowhard tendencies and the slow sublimation of his better qualities into a cliché as he overindulges drink. Otherwise he’s a charming and solicitous host who even jokingly states that if Amitabh ever stays with them again he can be the one who talks all the time. It’s easy to feel a certain amount of sympathy for him even as Amitabh justifies plotting to win away his wife by only concentrating on his bad traits.

 

 

At the same time, The Coward also resembles a fiction composed by Amitabh in his mind, roving the countryside and creating a scenario for their reunion involving coincidences and strange meetings from the threads of private preoccupation. Gupta’s invocation of a kind of conspiracy of accord between him and the writer suggests this aspect, whilst the planter and the writer seem to long after a fashion to live each-other’s lives, whilst his jokey reflection on basic plot patterns – “Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl.” – becomes a nagging leitmotif on repeat in Amitabh’s head. After recalling their last meeting, Amitabh awakens in the middle of the night in a muck sweat, and leaves his bedroom. He finds his way into the Guptas’ living room, a space where filtered light from gently swaying curtains plays on the wall like the ghosts rummaging Amitabh’s mind. Amitabh soon makes appeal to Karuna to abandon her joke of a marriage and run off with him, telling her he still loves her and feels utterly desperate at being thrust back into her company again. But Karuna remains aloof and taciturn, refusing to plainly answer his questions about whether she’s happy or not: “Fall in love again,” she comments whilst strictly brushing her hair: “Am I to blame for that?” She gives a practical remedy for his sleeplessness, loaning him a bottle of her sleeping pills. The next morning, Amitabh receives news that his car still isn’t ready, so Gupta and Karuna drive him to the railway station.

 

 

The Coward, whilst articulated with a blend of candour and lightness of touch that’s entirely Ray’s own, suggests Renoir’s influence most keenly, recalling his A Day in the Country (1936) in its brief but concise portrait of romantic disappointment and sense of journeying through both life and physical space. One of Ray’s more interesting formal touches is the way he deploys the flashback vignettes of Amitabh and Karuna’s relationship, starting with the moment of crisis and then later depicting a crucial moment in falling in love, when Amitabh helped out Karuna by buying her a tram ticket back when they were both students: the seeds of the affair’s end are planted when Amitabh jokingly notes it would be a bad thing if she didn’t pay him back: “I study economics – I can’t look at things philosophically like you.” This memory is provoked when Amitabh gazes fixedly at the back of Karuna’s scarf-clad head as he rides with the married couple in the back of their jeep. When he sees her touch Gupta’s shoulder, her finger festooned with a fanciful ring, he recalls one of their dates when he read her palm, an act he admitted he performed purely for the chance to hold her hand.

 

 

Karuna admitted she let him do it for the same reason, and Amitabh went off on a tetchy rant spoken by a million young would-be intellectuals decrying timidity and adherence to outmoded mores, speaking of how couples act in England. Karuna irritably decried, “They take it too far!”, but it’s plain that Amitabh’s boldness of thought was part of his great appeal for her, a boldness that in the end failed at its most crucial hurdle. Moreover this sequence helps give depth to Karuna’s reaction to Amitabh’s failing, highlighting the way she’s caught in an odd situation where she wants to escape her anointed role as obedient female without quite having the courage to escape it without the help of a man, Amitabh anointed in her mind as the man who can allow her to both fulfil an expectation to a degree whilst also defying it. Recollection of such moments when things were still possible are the queasy burden Amitabh keeps a lid on whilst play-acting friendliness with Gupta. When Gupta pulls over on a stretch of road passing through a stretch of forest by a river to get water for the radiator, the trio settle down for a picnic. Amitabh gazes in heartsick longing at Karuna as she sits on a rock watching the cascade whilst Gupta asks of the writer, “How’s the story coming along?” “It’s coming,” Amitabh answers with a thoughtful metre. Ray and Roy’s careful use of deep focus with looming foreground elements giving Gupta an imposing quality reveals its purpose as dramatic strategy in one shot as Amitabh looks towards the snoozing man and sees the cigarette burning down in his fingers, knowing he has a very short time to make his move.

 

 

Once Gupta falls asleep, he pens a note he tosses in her lap when she won’t look at him, saying he will wait at the train station for her to show up until the last possible second if she wants to leave with him. Amitabh, once finally dropped off at the railway station, waits alone until the sun sets. Chatterjee was Ray’s favourite collaborator having played the adult Apu in the second two films of the trilogy, and he’s crucial to the success of The Coward in the way he plays Amitabh’s suffering here: you can almost feel him eating away at his internal organs in his stewing regret and borderline pathetic admission of need. Ray dissolves from a shot of Amitabh sitting on a bench with face in hands to almost exactly the same pose after nightfall, only for Karuna to march into the frame. Amitabh rises to his feet beaming as he thinks she’s come to leave with him, only for his smile to fade as he registers her stern expression, and she states her purpose in coming, to get her sleeping pills back from him. Karuna’s simple words, stating she needs them and requesting, “Let me have them, darling,” gives a cruelly subtle answer to all of Amitabh’s ponderings: no, she’s not happy and yes she still loves him, but choices were made, and must be lived with. Ray leaves off with a close-up of Amitabh’s utterly gutted expression but with his features blurred and out-of-focus, a startling final note of pain and bewilderment. The Coward is damn near perfect in the economy and incision of emotional blows, and for any other director would count as a crowning achievement.

 

Standard
1940s, British cinema, Drama, Horror/Eerie, Religious, Thriller

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directors / Screenwriters: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

By Roderick Heath

The incredible string of great films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced in the 1940s was charged with a quality resembling proof of faith. Throughout the war the films the duo made, from the relatively straightforward rhetorical counterpoints of The 49th Parallel (1941) through to the epic historical and cultural surveys knitted into The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), they fought on just about every conceivable level to articulate what about their society was worthwhile and worth fighting for, counting small, individual experiences and epiphanies, even perversities, just as worthy expressions of that worthiness as ancient buildings and grand principles, in contrast to the pulverising fantasies of totalitarian projects. Powell and Pressburger, who had formed their legendary The Archers production outfit and begun officially collaborating as directing partners on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), got in trouble with Winston Churchill for portraying a decent German and also acknowledging the dark side of certain aspects of English history in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as well as finding a shocking level of sympathy for their outmoded and old-fashioned hero. To them, Clive Wynne-Candy’s ridiculous and antiquated streak was the essence of everything worth defending about their world.

Both the cost and necessities of fighting the war with Nazism, and the aesthetic dynamism and textured humanism The Archers packed into their movies in this face were created as and intended to serve as cultural arguments. After the war, Powell and Pressburger inevitably wrestled with the question of what all that grim and sadomasochistic commitment had cost, but through distorting lenses: Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (1948) presented female protagonists who give themselves up to lives of extraordinary dedication only to run into problems of distracting passion on the way to facing a crack-up. Powell himself came close to identifying the peculiar motive inherent in the two films when he noted of The Red Shoes’ success that after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, that film told people to go out and die for art: the only coherent answer to years of dedication to war was to dedicate equally to the passions of peace. The Small Back Room (1949) finally dealt more directly with the war experienced as existential exhaustion, a last way-station before the 1950s began and the Archers hit bumpy road in trying to understand a very different zeitgeist start with the vastly underrated Gone To Earth (1950).

Black Narcissus is far more than just a metaphor for post-war psychic and moral fatigue, of course. The basis was a book by Rumer Godden, a dance teacher and novelist born in Sussex but who had spent most of her life in India. Her books often contended with the uneasy meeting of east and west in the physical space of India, a space teeming with sensual potency. Black Narcissus, her first bestseller, handed Powell and Pressburger a lucid metaphor for the great moment of dismantling of Empire just beginning for Britain, and a mythopoeic account of a battle between the sacred and profaning urges, as well as simply purveying a vivid human drama. Most revealing: the essential humanity Powell and Pressburger celebrated in their wartime films here begins rebelling, not consciously or controllably but in process that begins as termiting and concludes with another matter of life and death. Black Narcissus commences with a scene that can be read as a lampoon of the kind of war movies where a team of talents is assembled for a dangerous mission in enemy territory: Powell and Pressburger even punctiliously note the location with an onscreen title as in many such movies, with the Reverend Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta calling in Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to give her mission and assigning her a team comprised of different strengths to back her up.

Such assets are notably different to wartime heroes, of course: Dorothea surveys the nuns in the convent dining hall and apportions members of the team according precepts including strength, in the hale and hearty Sister Briony (Judith Furse), popularity in the good-humoured Sister Blanche (Jenny Laird), called Sister Honey by her fellows, and a green thumb in Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), ingenious and stoic cultivator. The Reverend Mother also assigns to her retinue Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), absent from the dining table, to Clodagh’s immediate protest that “she’s ill,” but the Reverend Mother wants Ruth included not to benefit the team but be benefited from being on it, noting “She badly wants importance.” The Reverend Mother readily tells Clodagh that she doesn’t think she’s ready for the job she’s been given, seemingly by other powers in the Church, and advises her, “The superior of all is a servant of all.” The seeds for the failure of the mission are sowed right at the outset. Clodagh senses being saddled with Ruth is a mistake and the Reverend Mother correctly senses Clodagh does not yet have the skills for nurturing required to head off such an end.

The actual assignment Clodagh must fulfil is to head to the principality of Mopu, situated at the edge of the Himalayas’ highest regions, and set up a convent to be called St Faith’s in a building donated by General Toda Rai (Carl Esmond), ruler of the locale. The building, the Palace of Mopu, was built specifically by the General’s father as a home for his concubines, long since cleared out leaving the palace a draft-scored husk cared for by Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), a crone who longs for the return of the old, sensual thrills of the past, and is instead dismayed to be obliged to help the nuns set up their convent, which the General wants installed so the nuns can offer schooling and medicine to his citizens. Some monks, Clodagh learns quickly enough, previously tried the same thing and fled. The General, his English expatriate agent Mr Dean (David Farrar), and the bellyaching Ayah prepare for the nun’s arrival, with the General announcing with businesslike simplicity when Ayah demands to know what to feed them as he points to some crates he’s had brought in for the purpose: “Sausages…Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.” The cultural joke here is also an ever so faintly phallic one, rhyming with all the ripe and pulchritudinous figures painted on the walls of the palace, decorating halls and corridors where the incessant wind, gusting from the vivid white shoulders of the great neighbouring mountain called The Bare Goddess, stirs the old curtains and the dust, and the air never settles in a semblance of tranquillity.

Powell and Pressburger’s penchant for unusual rhythms of storytelling and discursive narrative gestures evinces itself early on as Clodagh’s reading of Dean’s explanatory letter to the Reverend Mother becomes narration and the hot, ordered confines of her office gives way to conjured visions of Mopu, its people, and the palace itself where Ayah stalks alone save for the many caged birds she keeps and mimics, a sort of devolved version of the harem she used to oversee. Clodagh’s mission immediately feels haunted by the looming presence of the palace, its environs, and the people connected to it. The soaring ice-clad peak opposite and the deep green folds of the valley are glimpsed, the interior of the palace with its empty halls: place is imbued with the boding knowledge of a person. Dean himself is also characterised through the wording of his letter as well as the intonations of Farrar’s voiceover: “It’s not the first time he has had such ideas,” he says of the General, hinting at his wry and cynical awareness, as well as a touch of poetic insight, saying of Ayah that “she lives there alone with the ghosts of bygone days.” The ghosts are loaned voice by Ayah’s caged birds chanting her name. Dean’s sociology is minimal but contains hints of his worldly perspective and promise-shading-into-warning for the approaching do-gooders: “The men are men. The women are women. The children, children.” Only after this conjured survey does the film return to the Reverend Mother and Clodagh as they begin selecting her team.

The nuns the Reverend Mother gives Clodagh form a collection of traits that could be said to symbolise the ideal balance of traits in her own personality, even Ruth with her need for importance, with the Reverend Mother advising Clodagh to “spare her some of your own.” It’s signalled here that Ruth is Clodagh’s dark side, her daemon, the side of herself still tormented by earthly needs. Into the high and rugged place the sisters of St Faith’s march with confidence: Clodagh with her clipboard instantly becomes the eminent cliché of a British tendency to take charge and put things in order regardless of whether they want to be. She immediately finds the landscape replete with perturbing phenomena. There’s Mr Dean himself, swanning about in shorts and often bared chest, refusing to bend at all to pious authority but rather making constant, barbed innuendos, as when he comments that “You’ll be doing me a very great favour, teaching the local girls English.” Dean soon brings a young woman named Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a penniless but pretty waif who’s been hanging around his house on the hunt for a husband, to be employed and hopefully segregated from other prospective males until proper match can be made.

There’s also the old and wizened mystic encamped above the palace on a perpetual vigil on levels far beyond the apparent, bastion of an alternative kind of faith both in the scriptural sense as a Hindu and in a more immediate one, offsetting the sisters who belong to an “order of workers,” the ancient schism inherent in religious tendency exposed on several strata. Despite his immobile and apparently disengaged state, the ancient mystic holds an authority over the local people the nuns find intimidating, even, as Dean puts it, worrying the General at all times of day with the feeling he should do the same. Indeed, the swami is his uncle, a former warrior and man of great education, but who has cast off all the affectations of the world and reduced himself to a nerve of metaphysical communion. The mystic continues his unwavering vigil, lending the night something like a benevolent but disinterested consciousness, from the mountain top even as the sudden cessation of the pulse-like drums in the valley indicates that the General’s elder son and heir has died of the fever he’s been suffering from.

This vignette shifts the cultural gravity of the locale, as the General’s second son Dilip Rai (Sabu) now inherits the unofficial but consequential title of “Young General” and is called back from his Cambridge education. The Young General hopes to continue learning with the nuns, and despite her rules and misgivings Clodagh concedes to taking him in. Farrar’s Dean is presented as the male equivalent of a femme fatale from the noir films of the same time, a physically, morally, and mentally provocative being. Dean teases the scruples of the nuns and ultimately provokes, however inadvertently, acts of madness and murder. Dean hasn’t exactly gone native in the old parlance but he does seem to like his life far away from the mores and morals the sisters insistently embody, seemingly a natural and committed pagan if not entirely lacking nostalgic affection for the paraphernalia of Christianity. Immediate provoked by Clodagh’s imperious piety and challenging glare, Dean plays soothsayer of failure (“I’ll give you ‘til the rains break.”) but also starts lending a hand, called out by Philippa when she finds him trying to install plumbing for their much-needed convenience.

Dean’s allure is concrete: he knows the lay of the land, is sufficient in forms of practical enterprise the nuns aren’t, and he seems to feel drawn to help them out through some rarefied sympathy which could also be connected with the definite sparks he strikes with Clodagh from the first, attraction that must register as antipathy because of their polarised identities. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you’re dying to ask me?” Dean questions Clodagh with sly import when he brings Kanchi to her threshold. The arc manifests more agreeably in a flash of shared humour over Briony’s professed but dubious coffee-making talents, lending an almost conspiratorial quality to the reluctant reliance Clodagh must seek from Dean. Later, when Dean is fetched back in a moment crisis despite being coldly chased away on his previous visit, he comes in this time shirtless as if in a deliberately provocative gesture, and Powell and Pressburger allow Ruth to slowly lean into the frame with him with woozily hungry glances at his torso, not that far from a Friz Freleng caricature of lust.

Dean’s willingness to help the nuns and their increasing reliance on him comes to an ugly halt when he turns up to their Christmas mass, lending his hearty baritone to the carols and momentarily giving Clodagh the thrill of seemingly having brought him back into the fold, only for him to prove rather drunk and still full of sardonic comments. Clodagh’s infuriated accosting has a charge of personal offence that seems sourced in her equally double-edged memory from a Christmas of yore, whilst Dean’s affectation of blasé receipt masking a deftly expressed edge of offence and wounding that hint he’s used to such accosting, says much of how Clodagh willingly incarnates despite herself everything he’s fled in the lowlands. His provoking revenge is to start his way down the mountain warbling a bawdy ditty declaring, “No I cannot be a nun! For I am too fond of pleasure!” The setting of Black Narcissus is certainly a predominate character in the drama. Powell and Pressburger, their production designer Alfred Junge, and cinematographer expended all their ingenuity on realising the setting thousands of miles from the actual Himalayas.

Cardiff’s brilliantly diffused lighting helps render the set looking completely real and exterior even as the lushly hued matte paintings create the landscape of Mopu with a flavour of the near-dreamlike, particularly the famously dizzying vantage of the palace campanile, perched right on the edge of a soaring precipice, fervent jungle and sheer rock below: the nuns using this bell as their signal and call to prayer must negotiate with the infinite, the fear and temptation, every time they ring it (honestly, folks, nail on a bloody rail). The cavernous, draft-ridden halls of the palace with the fading glories of royal décor and teasing, ghostly forms of semi-naked women festooning the halls, has a strong touch of the dream like to it, a feeling exacerbated when Powell and Pressburger shoot Simmons’ Kanchi dancing through the halls in a rough draft for the fantasias of space and movement in The Red Shoes.

Powell’s fascination with isolated communities and discreet local cultures predated his partnership with Pressburger, already apparent in some of his early B movies like The Phantom Light (1936) and The Edge of the World (1937), and burgeoned as the war wound down again with I Know Where I’m Going!, where the filmmakers noted that the corners of the British Isles themselves were as foreign and strange to Londoners as India. This was also a natural viewpoint for the transplanted Austrian Pressburger, whose simultaneous romanticisation and observant criticality of his adopted culture intensified Powell’s. Acts of journeying correlate to changes within for characters, naturally. A Canterbury Tale rendered that idea in echoing the Chaucerian theme of pilgrimage ironically rearranged for an age at once more profane and more urgent in its need and seeking. Black Narcissus is in part a revision of I Know Where I’m Going! in again tracking a heroine dedicated to a project journeying to “the back of beyond,” colliding with unexpected attraction, albeit with wry romantic comedy and gentle sublimation into a new way of life swapped out for seething neurosis and cross-cultural incoherence. The sisters of St Faith’s bring in foreign religions, not only Christianity but also scientific, medical, and cultural, strange and exotic and incoherent in themselves without being aware of it.

But the great project of Empire and colonialism rather attempts to resist such correlation: instead it aims to act more like a great act of inoculation, inserting alien DNA into other cultures. The sisters are soon perturbed to learn the great turn-out for their infirmary and school is because the General is paying his citizens to attend, overcoming their disinterest. The General hopes, as Dean spells it out, to make it a ritual or custom for people whose lives tick by according to rhythms entirely imposed by nature in place where one must “either ignore it or give yourself up to it,” a line that doubles as a commentary on the Raj where the ruling English maintained themselves as a transported pocket, unable to countenance adjusting to other values and so expelling them altogether. Soon the sisters are lying awake at night as the cold wind wafts in through the palace windows and their skin breaks out in blotches denoting not disease but a startling and unfamiliar level of purity, as if civilisation is a disease they will expiate from their flesh whether they want to or not. Attempts at meditation and sublimation are soon enough recolonised by their suppressed worldly selves. Philippa shows off the callouses on her hands, worked raw in trying to escape her reveries even as if compelled she plants the palace terraces with riotous alternations of flowers rather than vegetables, a creative and decorative urge bursting out in ignorance of the practical.

Seeds of a poisonous breakdown are meanwhile sown when Ruth dashes into a meeting Clodagh is having with Dean and Briony, her white habit stained red with blood, excitedly reporting that she managed to stop an injured local from bleeding to death after much struggle. Rather than praising her and elevating her struggling sense of self-worth, as the Reverend Mother wanted Clodagh wanted her to, Clodagh angrily retorts that she should have called in the more medically experienced Briony. Clodagh isn’t wrong, but her instinctive sense of what her authority is immediately proves the Reverend Mother’s point about her own unreadiness, reacting more like a bossy, know-it-all older sister to Ruth’s flailing need for validation and pride in achievement and unable to concede that sometimes risks need to be taken to help anyone mature. Dean instead casually spares Ruth a kind word in registering the moment of crucially dashed pride, a flash of recognition that gives Ruth’s psyche something to cling to, if less like a flowering orchid than a parasitic vine. The attentiveness of the film’s designers registers in the stiff, almost tentlike habits of the nuns, contrasted violently by the red of Dean’s shirt and the mottled gore on Ruth’s habit: the stain of blood is spreading, Dean and Ruth’s moment of sympathy marked by fate.

Not that Clodagh is unwarranted in her testiness with Ruth, whose internal tension and need to feel superior sometimes makes her intolerant and mean-spirited, calling the locals stupid-looking and, after catching a whiff of the Young General’s handkerchief doused with the eponymous scent of Black Narcissus, an exotic fragrance ironically bought from the Army and Navy Store in London, deciding the perfume’s name is apt for the man too. Moments like Clodagh’s connection with Dean over Briony’s bad coffee similarly deny the popular cliché of the surprisingly good-humoured and earthy religious figure, the kind Bing Crosby had just won an Oscar playing in Going My Way (1944). Clodagh’s lack of ease signalled by her incapacity to bend in that direction in any way. Clodagh’s drifts into personal reverie during prayer present biography in fragments mixed with deeply sensual associations, the cold water of a lake she once fished in, the thrilling rush of riding a horse in a fox hunt, the chill of snow and the glow of lantern light on Christmas Eve in singing with carollers.

Clodagh’s memories crowd into her head even as she leads her fellow nuns in prayer in the convent chapel, recollections of such thrills filling in for any hoped-for divine ecstasy. Such memories are connected with her long and finally ill-fated romance with a son of the same clique of landed gentry in Ireland, Con (Shaun Noble), who Dean plainly reminds her of as another lanky, tauntingly ambivalent rooster, a man who chafed at being expected to play prospective lord of the manor rather than make a career in America like his brother. Clodagh’s lips twist up ever so slightly in sardonic awareness as she remembers protesting her desire to live just in the place she comes from forever, and yet here she is.

Black Narcissus nudges aspects of both the haunted house movie and the slasher flick even as it holds itself aloof from any sure genre identity: the film is also a comedy of manners, a romantic melodrama, character study, satire, and parable. I’m often struck by the similarities between Black Narcissus and the Mark Robson-directed, Val Lewton-produced horror film Isle of the Dead (1945). Both films are set in old, isolated buildings where psyches fray and conclude with a maddened woman falling to her death after a bout of homicidal intent, walk a fine line between psychological narrative and entering a more irrational and symbolic zone, and are replete with shared images, atmospherics, and an ingrained subtext contending with the moral fallout of war and awareness of mortality. Hard to know if Powell and Pressburger ever saw the other film, of course, but the similarities are pronounced enough to signal commonalities of thought. Powell had lampooned a certain kind of spooky tale early in his career with The Phantom Light, but also laid down precepts for this film, the fascination with the bastion of mystery and the mystified interloper.

Black Narcissus might also have had a notable influence on horror films that followed it, including the “nunsploitation” subgenre and more deeply on the Hammer Horror aesthetic, and anticipates Powell’s shift in a horror direction for Peeping Tom (1960). Of course, its progeny rank far and wide, echoes in everything from Powell’s former mentor Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) to his generational alumnus David Lean’s globetrotting dramas of searcher heroes flailing amidst social and historical fluxes, and eventual acolyte Martin Scorsese’s entire oeuvre. Black Narcissus initially charts seemingly basic binary entities – man/woman, east/west, sensualism/asceticism, religion/unbeliever, sex/chastity – and tests them until their common roots lie exposed, each reflex, instinct, custom, and construction sourced in twinned relation to its opposite. The ideal of pious, sexless world-love the nuns practice is purposely against nature, that being its very point, and can sour into a kind of narcissism, but obeying nature brings no-one great happiness either.

Cynical as the film trends in regards to virtuous ideals, the film never really stoops to any kind of Buñuel-esque anti-clericism but regards the avatars of religion as merely, painfully human: “Yes, we’re all human aren’t we,” Clodagh comments sadly in response to Dean’s comment, meant as praise, that she’s become moreso since her arrival. Also avoids is any kind of ecumenical openness of religious experience, writing that off as a fantasy ignoring how much religious precepts are grown in native soil. The story ultimately states that no system of belief or practice can successfully deny nature without resulting in schizoid self-destruction, it also allows that it’s also a most human thing to resist descending to a level of insensate and primal appetite to fuck and kill. Such a fate ultimately consumes Ruth, just as she is the mere inversion of the old mystic, who has cleaved himself out of the physical world. Everyone else subsists on the scale on between. The abashed Young General, after his experience with Kanchi, abandons his desire to prove himself a fit citizen of a new era and decides to give himself up to the old order and expectations of his creed: it’s simpler and requires less personal moral and intellectual bravery. He’s not alone. Everyone in the film essentially finishes up foiled on some level, their attempts to transcend themselves failed, finding some comfort in their essential creeds.

The film’s commentary on the clash between eastern and western sensibilities contrasts many such stories of its time in plying the contrast mostly for dry satire and gentle comedy that only slowly shades towards darker, more confronting episodes. Rather than climaxing with some sort of outbreak of war or violence, crisis on this level is precipitated when Briony disregards Dean’s advice and treats a badly sick child who then dies, but despite Dean’s warnings of potential violent consequences this doesn’t result in riot of murder, simply the end of the locals’ trust and interest in the interlopers, leaving them without clientele and students. By the tale’s end it is rather the faultlines within the heads and hearts of the interlopers that results in tragedy. Until that point the film drolly charts incidents like Kanchi’s and the Young General’s initiation into the school, as well as the appointment of an official translator in the form of Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley Jr.), son of the General’s cook and one of the few bilingual people bout, a boy who estimates his age as between six and ten. Joseph Anthony’s sly glances around at the vignettes unfolding about him even as he coaches his fellow local urchins in fastidious pronunciation of the names of weapons and flowers, as when he notices Ruth staring down at Dean speaking to Clodagh through a lattice from the schoolroom, anoint him as young but quick-study incarnation of artistic observation and subversive intent.

The film’s anti-generic form contributes to what might be its only real fault, that it sometimes threatens to dissolve into a series of vignettes: it’s chiefly Powell and Pressburger’s overwhelming sense of style that gives it form until the key psychodrama finally erupts. Black Narcissus nods to familiar elements and clichés of the kinds of exotic melodrama popular back in the day, with visions of drum-beating Mopuris in the jungle night (The drums! Don’t they ever stop?!). Even as it takes care to place such things in a steadily evolving sense of context – the drums have a specific cultural and religious function to the Mopuris – they take on a different, more fervent and obsessive meaning for the nuns. We have passed through a veil into a zone where the psyche expands to fill the universe and everything becomes a function of the overheated inner life. The teasing games of erotic sparking and quelling that play out between the nuns and Dean are given their contorted reflection in Kanchi’s furtive attempts to catch the Young General’s eye, whilst the Young General himself taunts Ruth’s nose in the classroom with Black Narcissus.

Sabu’s terrific semi-comic turn as the Young General presents a lad enthusiastic to learn about the world, trotting up to the school with a programme for his education that contains unwitting double entendre and prophecy: “One PM to three PM, French and Russian with the French and Russian sisters, if any; three PM to four PM, physics with the physical sister.” Kanchi volunteers as the physical sister, looming sylph-like over lattices and under desks as the incarnation of enticing pulchritude, true to Dean’s comment that she’s surely heard the folk tale “The Prince and the Beggar Maid” and has the stuff to alchemise legend into reality. Eventually Kanchi and the Young General run away together, an incident which, along with the child’s death and Ruth’s decision to not retake her annual vows, seems to signal the complete collapse of the convent’s efforts. As well as speaking of the breakdown of imperialist projects in the face of different cultural norms and general human nature, there are overtones of satire in the film that might be aimed closer to home: the Old General’s determination to make his citizens care about things like ringworm can be read as a send-up of the post-war positivism and reformism being foisted in Britain and elsewhere, the challenge to old orders and the difficulty in shifting them noted.

Tempting to see autobiographical qualities encoded in the film, too, Powell and Pressburger’s more sarcastic anticipation of Fellini’s harem in (1963), the storage place of every real affair and masturbatory fantasy. Powell was making a film with his ex-wife Kerr, was married to Pamela Brown whom he had left her for, and commenced an affair with Byron during the shoot. The on-screen bevy are all save Kanchi nonetheless defined by their nominal untouchable status, the ever-teasing disparity in the idea of the sexy nun given a self-castigating gloss. Dean makes for an ironic projection for Powell’s masculine self-image, less a playboy despite his affectations of wolfish assuredness and more a kind of unwitting fetish object. “I don’t love anybody!” Dean finally bellows to Ruth when she tries to seduce him, a moment of denial that also feels like an unwitting self-exposure: Dean’s self-sufficient aspect, his air of male independence to the nth degree, is also the ultimate incapacity to give himself to anyone or anything. His sexual detachment gives an ironic dimension to his impersonation of the detached Englishman, subsisting within another culture but never at one with it.

Ruth, who leaves the order and dons a red dress she’s ordered by mail, recreates herself as the antithesis of what she was, playing Hyde to Clodagh’s Jekyll, and conceives of them both engaged in a war, at first psychic but eventually quite mortal, to possess Dean. Ruth’s rebellion against the army she belongs to and enterprise she represents results is ultimately self-defeating, but at least it most definitely is rebellion. Black Narcissus embraces its lexicon of religious images and concepts even as it tests them to the limit, eventually playing out as a no-holds-barred battle of the assailed sacred and the consuming profane. Much of Black Narcissus’ still-potent appeal for film lovers lies as much or more in sheer, lustrous quality as a piece of visual filmmaking as well as its dramatic richness. Movies had made great and artistically worthy use of Technicolor before Black Narcissus of course, but Cardiff’s work on the film might well have been the first work in the medium to prove a film shot in colour could be richly, subtly textured and flexible in expressive palette in the same way great black-and-white photography could.

Cardiff manages to create a style that matches Powell and Pressburger’s unique ability to be realistic and stylised, palpable and fairy tale-like all at once. The shooting style bears the imprint of Expressionism, particularly in the film’s last third as the visuals become increasingly shadow-riddled and split into multiple hues and shades of light and colour, the far mountains, sky and cloud in shades of blue and white, the crystalline amber hues of light from lamps and fires, and the slow spread of infernal reds, betrays an aesthetic sensibility created with unique care. One shot of the lantern-carrying nuns congregating in the forecourt of the convent after trying and failing to track down Ruth is particularly great, their lights jiggling and casting pale light of fire on the cobbles, recalls academic-mythological paintings of the Pleiades searching for their missing sister, whilst also evoking the metaphysical and psychological struggle before them, trying to keep the lamps of their faith alight in a vast and crushing night.

Dean singing his bawdy, calculatedly insulting song as he departs the Christmas mass is filmed sarcastically as a most perfect Christmas scene, a man on a mule lit in a precious lantern field, moving slowly down through a snow-caked landscape. Ultimately the camera zeroes in on sections of Byron’s physiognomy as Ruth’s lunacy hatches out and her identity fragments even as her body becomes ritualistically exalted. Close-ups of Ruth as she first challenges Clodagh see the lower half of her face in shadow whilst her eyes blare out with feral pleasure. Later, she delivers another calculated insult and repudiation to Clodagh by making her watch as she daubs her lips in red lipstick, an act that Ruth seems to think is an act of war and defiance but instead sees what’s left of her personality subsumed by the daemonic impulse. Finally Ruth’s mad, red-rimmed eyes fill frames, blazing out from the shadows at her objects of lust and hatred, reducing her from person to a kind of malevolent entity inhabiting the convent, flitting up steps as a shadowy, barely-glimpsed wraith.

Ruth’s venture through the jungle to reach Dean’s house becomes its own, brief waltz through a Freudian id-zone, guttural sounds possibly from tigers echoing through the bamboo. Still time for some observational fillips, as Ruth pauses to don thick and sturdy hide boots that somewhat despoil the image she tries to present, at once the ardently desirous mate and the red-draped, fire-lipped succubus. The war of gazes reaches a climax where at last the camera takes on Ruth’s point of view as Ruth chants Clodagh’s name in fury and the screen is literally flushed crimson as Ruth sees red. Ruth’s show of clenched calm after fainting before Dean is more alarming than her brittle hysterics, and sure enough when she climbs back up to the convent she assaults Clodagh as she rings the bell for morning prayers. Ruth’s savagery extends to not just trying to push Clodagh off the cliff’s edge but picking her fingers off the bell rope to which she desperately clings. Clodagh’s will to live drives her to regain footing even as Ruth unbalances and falls into oblivion, Clodagh’s horrified gaze driving down into the shadows, before the film resumes an indirect method and Ruth’s striking the valley floor far below is signalled by the flapping of some alarmed birds and the cessation of the thundering drums.

As a climax this more than fulfils the essential requirements of the film’s many levels of narrative, good and evil in a deadly grapple, the segments of a psychotic culture trying desperately to find resolve, and the sorry sight of a priggish but essentially decent woman fighting a victim of mental illness for her life. The melancholy of the coda scenes, as Clodagh encounters the chastened Young General and then Dean as she departs expecting demotion and ignominy, becomes a reckoning with lost illusions and cruel tutelage, even as the tacit connection between her and Dean finally achieves something close to authentic mutual understanding and sympathy. Clodagh charges Dean with the responsibility of tending Ruth’s grave and gives him her hand as a final gesture of affection. Dean’s sad and salutary gaze after Clodagh as she and her escorts vanish into the curtains of rain just starting to fall evokes an extraordinary pathos, Dean finally learning to miss something but also left with a kind of treasure in his hand, evidence that once something and someone meant something to him. And that’s ultimately the deepest and most resonant theme in Black Narcissus as it takes stock of the inevitable age of disillusionment after the one of mortal struggle and contemplates a new era where the old structures will be dismantled. Some lessons are not just hard but truly wounding, but whatever is left after them can be called the truth.

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy, Drama

On The Rocks (2020)

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Director / Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…well, sort of

Sofia Coppola’s latest film obviously harkens back to her breakthrough success with Lost in Translation (2003) in reuniting her with Bill Murray and casting him again as the well-lived father figure to a woman experiencing a tailspin of life purpose. But On The Rocks is far from just a sequel-cum-revision or an attempt to recapture old magic. Coppola’s seventh feature is an oddity. On one level I felt like it was another of the films she’s made in the past decade that hasn’t lived up to her potential and seems at first glance conspicuously unambitious; and yet at the same time it’s another that works some kind of extra-dimensional emotional kung fu on the attentive viewer. This simultaneous feeling, that Coppola is at once an underachiever and a remarkable film artist on a finite level, has kept me both wary of and engaged in her cinema. The spry, elegant, cultural tourist mode she explored in Lost in Translation and the post-modern historical pageant of Marie Antoinette (2006), still my favourites of her films, has nonetheless given way appropriately to attempts to ask more questions of scenarios involving characters on the losing end of situations defined by an excess of options and indulgences for others, and how they rebel.

On The Rocks is also the second film by a major director this year, after Woody Allen’s A Rain Day in New York, to chase what could be described as the cinematic equivalent of a Chet Baker vocal performance, jazzy in a dry, minimalist way, loping in intonation and self-deprecatingly melancholy: Coppola even opens the film with Baker singing “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” On The Rocks revolves around Laura (Rashida Jones), who at the outset is seen having just married Dean (Marlon Wayans), two good-looking young people on the cusp of great undertakings who duck out from their own reception and sneak through the halls of a palatial hotel. Finding a swimming pool fringed by brass statues and clinging ivy, Laura jumps in still wearing her veil to join Dean in the water, leaving a trail of her stripped bridal finery behind her. A lush and witty little vignette that nods to the high life fantasias of Coppola’s early films and her intrigued delight in the accoutrement of female sensuality, as well as offering a thumbnail for Laura and Dean’s early relationship, depicting an Edenic state they must inevitably fall from.

Cut to several years later: Laura is a writer with two kids, glimpsed after the title is flashed treading her way gingerly cross a floor littered with rubbish and picking it up with parental diligence. Dean is an entrepreneur, whose blurrily defined business is beginning to grow very successful and chew up more of his time, obliging him to jet off to locales like London and Mexico for “big deal” conferences and meetings. Laura, stuck in the domestic role despite having her own career purely by dint of being the one working from home, is stricken with writer’s block as she’s trying to work on a book she’s sold but not written, sitting at her computer but mostly staring out the window of their spacious Manhattan apartment. When Dean returns from a business trip to London, he finds her in bed and kisses her, only to retreat, seemingly surprised or disorientated by some aspect of the reunion. Disturbed, Laura begins to theorise that in his jetlagged state he thought she was someone else, someone he’s been having an affair with.

On The Rocks sees Coppola shifting from the Hollywood scenester mirth of Lost in Translation, Somewhere (2010), and The Bling Ring (2013), to the tonier climes of New York, a move that ironically threatens to rob her work of its specificity, great as she has been at describing the absurdities of celebrity culture whilst constantly noting something more ambivalent and pathos-charged behind it – the rich and famous are people too, you know. Whereas here Coppola incidentally moves into a stratum of American cinema that’s been growing of late set amidst the haute bourgeoisie of New York as practised by directors including Noah Baumbach, Tamara Jenkins, and Azazel Jacobs, directors laying claim to being Allen’s heirs as observational artists hovering in that specific milieu of the creative and pretentious and making movies blending drama and comedy. Unlike most of that breed Coppola doesn’t have a penchant for theatrically loquacious characters and has too elegant a filmic touch for the mumblecore crowd. Laura’s status as a generic, well-educated, arty-lefty type who could readily fit into such movies is part of the point here: she knows what a cliché she’s threatening to become, and moreover she has to be the stuck-in-the-mud counterpoint to Murray’s bon vivant.

Coppola’s deftly observational and satirical eye and ear are still fine-tuned enough to let her spin a movie out of a minimum of dramatic elements. Coppola wryly indicts Laura as the type who’s married to a swashbuckling black capitalist and has stickers for Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams on her apartment door. Early scenes depict Laura moving through a roundelay of big city mothers’ play groups and schools, and efficiently paint a phase of life as inevitable for most people as it is alternatively a joy and a chore, when one’s own wont is submerged in the business of corralling kids. In a recurring role reminiscent of Anna Faris and Leslie Mann’s hilarious character turns for Coppola, Jones’ former costar in the sitcom Parks and Recreation Jenny Slate appears as Laura’s acquaintance from such settings, Vanessa, who insists on narrating her dating life to Laura in such situations as cueing in school corridors: the whole arc of her latest, absurd relationship is charted in fragments. The crucial early scene of Dean’s suspiciously alien kiss is given a strong charge by the way Coppola films it, capturing the mood of somnolent and spacy intimacy, and then the lack of it: the key point of uncertainty that dogs Laura after this is whether Dean through he was kissing someone else or rather that he realised he wasn’t kissing the same person in Laura herself, that she is growing into someone she isn’t entirely sure she recognises.

Laura’s simmering anxieties are raised a few degrees when she lunches with her grandmother (Barbara Bain), her mother (Alva Chinn), and her sister (Juliana Canfield), who ask pointed questions about Dean travelling with his “new assistant”, actually his account manager, the posh and glamorous Fiona (Jessica Henwick). This potential liaison seems to gain some credibility when Laura finds a bag of Fiona’s stuff in his suitcase, which he claims she asked him to carry because her luggage was full. Later Laura attends a birthday party thrown for Dean at his workplace where she registers the discomfort of some of the women who work with him in meeting her, whilst Fiona presents Dean with his birthday cake. Laura rings her father, Felix (Murray), an art dealer by profession, gadfly and roué by habit, to ask him for his opinion: he unreservedly agrees with her suspicion, and dashes to New York to offer emotional support and investigate at the absolute faintest sign of interest, arriving outside her building in a town car with his stoic chauffeur Musto (Musto Pelinkovicci) behind the wheel.

Laura’s struggle with the fate of being inserted into the domestic realm echoes the theme of young women cocooned from the flow of life in The Virgin Suicides (1999) for whom self-destruction is ultimately their only gesture of self-actualisation. On The Rocks avoids such melodramatic gestures, preferring to posit itself as a tribute to jauntier old movies like George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient (1964), Blake Edwards’ farces, her own father’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1967), and the gadabout chic of ‘60s Italian cinema, in unleashing its dynamic father and daughter duo in a comedic romp around New York and, later, Mexico, trying to prove Dean’s perfidy. But On The Rocks ultimately isn’t that kind of movie: indeed it can be described as a movie about people who want to live in that kind of movie. Felix’s choice of roadster, a vintage red Ferrari, underlines the lineage, and for a few brief moments when Felix hits the accelerator and gives chase to Dean and Fiona in a taxi through the streets of Manhattan the fantasy becomes enveloping. Ultimately On The Rocks’ palette is more ironic and realistic. Felix is rich and cunning enough in handling people to live out such fantasies to an extent, but even he finds himself subject to consequences. That exhilarating cross-city chase ends abruptly when Felix is pulled over for speeding.

The film’s first dialogue, heard in voiceover over the black screen, presents Felix as laying perpetual claim to his daughter even as she’s about to marry. Two watches given as presents signify Laura’s dual fealties to father and husband. The elephant in the room when it comes to On The Rocks of course is the temptation to take it as a self-analytic struggle with being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and perhaps also her relationships with some famous beaux like Spike Jonze and Quentin Tarantino, high-powered male artists all. Sofia had dealt with the feeling of living in the shadow of a father whose very presence shifts the gravity of the world around him more allusively in earlier films but here directly contends with the theme of trying to forge a separate identity from a man who’s a genius at charming and dealing, whose ethos is extraordinarily hard to reject because it’s so blithely attractive on many levels. Coppola doesn’t however designate Felix as an artist, but rather a merchant of culture, so his adventures are immediately rendered less epic, despite his plain sense of pride and achievement as he recalls selling his first major artwork. Felix’s method of talking his way out of a speeding ticket, cleverly creating a sense of familiarity and intimacy between him and one of the cops through pretending to have known his father, depends on a certain roguish confidence that he can wriggle his way out of many a situation lesser mortals will be consumed by. “It must be very nice to be you,” Laura comments with sour amusement.

Laura’s conversations with Felix are regularly punctuated by his flirtations with waitresses and strongly charged encounters with some of his female buying clients as well as one of Laura’s fellow moms despite his advancing age. Laura is irked as she perceives how adroitly he weaves webs of contacts that allow him to sell artworks even whilst helping her out. Felix is a show that doesn’t stop, leading to the perhaps inevitable moment where Murray-as-Felix sings, regaling a crowd of tourists with a rendition of “Mexicali Rose” that walks along the edge of absurdity and yet keeps its footing. Of course, Coppola is also satiating the audience’s presumed desire to hang about with Murray, relaxing within the electron field of his dryly witty, pseudo-blasé persona whilst also harnessing it to make a deeper point about Laura’s journey. Felix’s skill with keeping people and children entertained is repeatedly evinced, including one shot where Coppola captures him sprawled like an Orientalist painting’s harem girl on the floor of Laura and Dean’s apartment with their kids in trying to teach them to play cards, completely relaxed in his personal bubble. Meanwhile he regales Laura with his opinions on the impossibility of sexual monogamy for men with facetious bravura: “That’s hardwiring. Keeping the species alive. The woman passes through an emotional filter. Man doesn’t pass through the emotional part. It goes directly from the eyes to the ass.”

Of course, as the film unfolds the self-serving edge to Felix’s rhetoric is gradually unwound, more about justifying his own appetites and lapses than arriving at some deep truth about human sense and sexuality. He likes reciting the kinds of scientific theories about sex and evolution Sunday newspaper editors love (“When we finally stood up two legs, it was the women with the rounded breasts that mirrored the haunches that were most exciting to the males.”) His advice on how to avoid losing a man to Laura is to retain her own sense of sexual worth and charisma, advice that Laura of course is having a small crisis in not being able to follow. In Lost in Translation Coppola’s avatar was similarly suffering through worrying about her husband’s fidelity and the problems of being subsumed into a marriage, but where there Murray provided a liquid-state all-purpose celebrity pal /father figure/boyfriend here Felix is a more specific dramatic creation, one reminiscent of the role Jim Jarmusch gave him as the aging lothario in Broken Flowers (2005). Laura’s decision to contact Felix after being weirded out by Dean proves more consequential than she suspects as he, actually rather lonely and bored, is all too happy to jet in from Paris to the rescue to energise and upset his daughter’s life, but what’s really in play is a story where father and daughter slowly work their way towards a reckoning that’s been a long time coming.

On The Rocks tries to deal with some states of mind and being that are by and large difficult to make movies about, something Coppola has managed before, achieved in such striking and sinuous contrast to her father’s grandiose visions of society and history as achieved in epics like The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (1979), but not so far from some of Francis’ personal films like The Rain People (1969) or One From The Heart (1981). Sofia rejects even the stylistic grandeur of such movies: Coppola chases singular, crystalline portraits of emotional and psychological straits. More exasperatingly, On The Rocks faces a particular problem in that its core theme doesn’t feel fresh: in fact, it lies well over the border in a realm of the hoary. Tales about the offended offspring of carelessly priapic papas have been a dime a dozen from Gen X writers and directors, constantly avenging the allure of the missed sexual revolution with their latchkey kid angsts. What makes the film work, and partly if not entirely escape the scent of mould, is the way Coppola goes about telling it. Setting up the investigation theme almost inevitably proves to actually be a chance for father and daughter to come to terms with each-other and to reach a moment of catharsis, both characters projecting their neurotic impulses onto Dean who proceeds oblivious to the whole enterprise, and indeed emerges from the whole exercise smelling like a rose.

On The Rocks is a difficult film to pin down in giving an overall verdict because I both liked what it managed to pull off, whilst also wishing Coppola had developed it more. Laura’s emotional journey doesn’t compel as much as it might because it ultimately affirms her choices to an almost hermetic degree. On the other hand, it does manage to chart the mood of frazzled emotional tension and mental exhaustion that’s pretty accurate to the moment. It’s a movie that manages at once to be a break of escapism and one of piercing pragmatism. As a work of emotional autobiography the film feels at once like an addendum to her woozy remake of The Beguiled (2017), a film which didn’t work for me overall but certainly conveyed Coppola’s choice to leave behind the perma-adolescence that afflicted many of her earlier characters and contend, through the viewpoint of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed spinster losing the bloom of youth aroused and then terribly spurned by the fox in the henhouse, with the pains of getting older and losing what gave you hope without yet having gained what you need. On The Rocks pursues a similar evocation of questioned sexual self-worth whilst also wrestling with Laura’s sense of poisoned expectations of marriage.

Such expectations ultimately stem from Felix’s infidelity and break-up with her mother, and their conversations throughout the film zero in on this topic with increasingly revealing and truthful layers. Murray’s restrained but still potent showmanship dominates, but it’s Jones who has to stitch the film’s human drama together. Part of what hampers On The Rocks is that Laura isn’t a particularly entertaining or vital character: she’s a writer but her profession feels a bit too much like one of those jobs sitcom characters have, and too often Coppola uses her as the sounding board for Murray-as-Felix’s monologues. To be fair, that’s part of the point: I’ve known some wilted progeny of high-powered, egocentric personalities. Jones’ excellence, stuck with playing the potentially thankless role, forces it into focus. Jones expertly counters Murray in their game of acting chess with subtle body language, as in the way she stiffens and takes on a languid air of indulgence when Felix first starts off on one of his sexual theorems, and registering Laura’s air of forlorn panic as when Felix informs her that his sources have told him Dean bought something from Cartier’s, the sensation of her borderline irrational fantasies suddenly becoming more tangible and her face stretching out ever so finely as if all the blood in her body just fled down to her feet and nearly dragged her expression with it.

Laura registers Felix’s past actions as specific crimes against her sense of familial security whereas Felix describes them as the result of a simple parting of the ways between himself and her mother in terms of where their lives were heading, before noting with finite heartbreak that the woman he left her mother for, his former assistant and an artist, died earlier in the year, and becomes clear that Felix has reconnected with Laura because he desperately needs someone around to help ease his own sense of panic in mortality. It’s this steady, refined, almost imperceptible accumulation of personal and emotional detail that makes On The Rocks work. Coppola winnows the film’s emotional texture down to one astounding shot of one of Laura’s tears falling into her martini in languorous slow motion whilst Baker’s version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” murmurs on sound. This is close to Coppola’s finest, most exactingly crafted bit of directing to date.

The air of forlornly romantic desolation connects with the general adoration of New York as a physical and psychological space, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd as a great bauble of glass and metal and colour, hovering always in promise and also alienation, much as Coppola filmed Tokyo and Versailles. Eventually Laura and Felix follow Dean to a Mexican seaside resort where they hope to catch him with Fiona, a place where Felix seems in his element regaling tourists with songs, casually arranging potential big sales, and calling greetings to new friends from the hot tub, whilst Laura sits locked in a Hopper composition in her bedroom, stewing in disquiet and detachment from the phony conviviality. The actual climax of father and daughter’s quest is gained in comedic diminuendo as Laura receives a cell phone call from Dean, who’s had to dash back to New York, just as she and Felix sneak up on his booked room where they’ve glimpsed Fiona swanning about. The film comes close to another major cliché in this sort of thing insofar as the film doesn’t quite reveal Fiona to be a lesbian, although she introduces Laura and Felix to her “friend” in equivocal manner.

But again Coppola rescues things by delivering a sly punch. The sting of humiliating self-revelation here proves perhaps worse than uncovering infidelity, as it shows Laura that her own neurosis and Felix’s glib propulsion have brought her to such an end. Laura soon unloads on Felix for taking things over and encouraging her worst impulses, and dresses him down for his many failings. “You can say it to my face now,” Felix says, in a brilliant little bit of acting from Murray, twitching ever so slightly as you see Felix forcing himself to turn off any temptation to retort or defend himself and withstand Laura’s upbraiding. “What happened to you?” Felix eventually does comment with a sad, isolated gaze: “You used to be fun.” Which might indeed be Coppola’s way of defusing that question of her own artistry: growing up is always a prickly, often joyless process. This sequence is also superbly shot by Le Sourd, capturing the strobing of lightning out to sea and the sparks of beachfront bonfires, wind-twisted curtains and jutting agave plants, touristy affectations of the picturesque accumulating genuine dreamlike beauty. Laura finally falls asleep on the waterfront and awakens in the bleary morning, forced to accept herself for company. The script doesn’t finally paint Felix as any sort of villain; quite the contrary, his confessions throughout eventually indicate that his rhetoric is a way of shielding himself from still-bewildering cruxes of behaviour where the real pain lies in the way he can’t quite see how they couldn’t have happened, even if he’s not exactly let off the hook. Ultimately, frankly, his pathos ultimately feels more substantial and intriguing than Laura’s.

The ultimate frustration of On The Rocks is that in spite of its quality and honesty you’re still left with the feeling Coppola could and perhaps should have done more with the themes and actors she has in play: too much of the film left me with the feeling of Murray and Jones caged when they should have been unleashed, the nods to exploiting their talents as farceurs left as just that, nods. Some of On The Rocks’ concluding shorthand gestures feel a bit obvious and vestigial, too. We know when Laura complains that she can’t whistle since giving birth she will be whistling very well by film’s end and it never stops feeling like a device. The symbolism of the swapping of watches, Felix’s vintage gift boxed away in favour of Dean’s flashy Cartier present, reminded me of the rather clunky opening of Somewhere that showed its hero literally going in circles: for a subtle artist Coppola can try a too hard. It could also be said that Dean ultimately never feels like a particularly convincing character. Wayans plays him well enough, broadcasting on a low-wattage frequency of affection for Laura that makes it difficult to take seriously the idea he’s really having an affair, but he’s still something akin to Schrodinger’s Husband. Dean could be revealed to be loyal or adulterous and either way it wouldn’t give him much defining characteristic and Laura is ultimately willing to think he’s unfaithful because otherwise he’s a bit too good to be true. The note of romantic mystery sounded at the outset, the arc of bewilderment and seeking sounded in that fateful kiss between husband and wife that opens up gulfs of identity to be explored, suggests possibilities that the film ultimately swerves around. Perhaps that’s a field of exploration for Coppola’s next film.

Standard
1960s, Drama, Political, Thriller

Medium Cool (1969)

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Director/Screenwriter: Haskell Wexler

By Roderick Heath

Over fifty years since its release, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool remains one of the great unrepeated feats in cinema. Perhaps that’s a good thing: no-one should expect filmmakers to thrust themselves into the midst of a real, live riot for the sake of art or reportage, as recent events have proven. But Medium Cool is much more than just a unique record of cinema verite happenstance. During the fervour and fractiousness of the late 1960s, many filmmakers felt obliged to try and connect directly with the zeitgeist and get involved, to create movies with a direct connection in method and message with the cultural and political furore of the moment. The Chicago-born Wexler had a long and fruitful career as a much-lauded cinematographer. He initially gained regard for his incisive and palpable black and white shooting on films like Irvin Kershner’s Hoodlum Priest (1961), Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for which he won his first Oscar. His textured colour on In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) helped define movie cinematography for the next decade in blending a documentary-like sense of immediacy and utilisation of diverse light sources with a rich and sensitive palette, reinventing glossy Hollywood moviemaking for a new era.

In the 1970s Wexler would win Oscars back to back for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory (1976), and later worked with Terrence Malick, Dennis Hopper, and repeatedly with John Sayles, who had, ironically, signalled himself early in his career as a Wexler acolyte in making his script for the glorious B-movie Alligator (1980) into a sort-of sequel to Medium Cool. Simultaneously, Wexler, an unabashed leftist with an edge of the provocateur, essayed an equally respected career as a director, mostly of documentaries, beginning with his 1963 record of a Freedom Rider excursion, The Bus, winning yet another Oscar for his Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), and interviewing members of the fugitive Weather Underground for the 1976 film Underground. His only two feature films as director were to be Medium Cool and Latino (1985), a film about US involvement in Nicaragua.

Medium Cool infamously saw Wexler, his crew, and actors staging portions of their movie amidst the Democratic Party’s 1968 National Convention in Chicago. Partly through serendipity and partly through his cultural antennae working at a fine pitch, Wexler was on hand to film the swaggering repression dealt out upon the anti-Vietnam War protestors who had gathered in the city streets by the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard. The event both exemplified and amplified schisms between protestors and authority, factions in the Democrats, and the national and international political dialogue at large, to a degree that still echoes in fundamental ways. Wexler’s immediate inspiration was writer and theorist Marshall McLuhan’s treatise on the emerging age of mass media and television as the new, primary delivery system for it, diagnosing it as a medium that tended to dampen any sense of immediate emotional and social connection: the “medium cool” of the title referred to McLuhan’s description of TV as a cool medium, lacking urgency for all the speed it could deliver news and connection with.

Medium Cool unfolds partly as a traditional dramatic narrative, partly as a documentary, and overall as a kind of thesis statement on the nature of visual media, methods and styles colliding until they form their own integrity, speaking to each-other with their own forms of authenticity. Wexler’s focal point, John Casellis (Robert Forster), is glimpsed at the film’s opening taking footage of a car crash he and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) have chanced upon on the freeway, shooting the bloodied female driver slumped upon the ground whilst the jammed car horn blares out impotent alarm, before returning to their car as John comments in blasé fashion, “Better call an ambulance.” Wexler strikes a note here that’s become a pervasive cliché since, in questioning the motives and engagement of news collectors who seem more dedicated to feeding the beast of the mass-media with marketable images of gore and chaos than to the reality of what’s in front of them, but at the time it surely struck hard as a cold repudiation to the more familiar portrayal of heroic journalists solving public ills in so many Hollywood movies. But the scene is more neutral than it seems in also offering the lot of the reporters as one where they always become witness to tragedy and strangeness that has usually already occurred, recording the visual evidence for posterity with frigid bewilderment.

The film’s title appears over a shot that was something of a signature for Wexler as a cinematographer, an out-of-focus zoom shot of blurred lights, in this case the hazard lamps on the rear of the news crew’s van, redolent of a bleary and abstracted sense of the modern world’s strange textures. This segues into a stark yet mysteriously epic sequence unfolding under the credits as a motorcycle courier takes the film of the crash from the roving new crew back to the TV station for broadcast, traversing the empty streets of early morning Chicago, mapping out the city in a deserted and near-eerie state in pointed contrast to the later scenes of the film as the streets become an amphitheatre of human conflict. Wexler, oddly, stated this sequence was inspired by the otherworldly motorcyclists of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949), a film which blended mythical concepts with a buried metaphor for the experience of Nazi occupation. Both facets inform Wexler’s quotation in context of his movie: the sense of blurred zones of life and death encouraged by technology as well as the more immediate portrayal of political violence and repression. John and Gus are next glimpsed as party guests as they and other journalists talk with guests, arguing over the vicissitudes of their profession and its impact upon society at large. “All good people deplore problems at a distance,” a black intellectual comments. A producer comments the approach of news programs with their emphasis on fragmentary episodes of calamity excises analysis and understanding out what leads to such events.

Medium Cool dedicates itself in part to portraying precisely what lies behind the climactic images of riot and affray in a manner contradicting this statement about the limitations of TV news, with Wexler utilising all the resources at his command, including both authentic footage of real events, recreation, improvisatory performance and scripted exchanges to present a coherent panorama. Wexler offers footage of the training of the riot responders working with a horde of people hired to stand in for a unruly horde of anarchic hippie protestors. The training session sports a surprising degree of good-humoured satire from the mock-protestors, particularly the man pretending to be Chicago’s then-mayor Richard Daley, who tries to mollify protestors: “I let you use the swimming pool every Fourth of July! We’ve operated the liquor stores at a minimum of profit!”, even as the National Guard file in with fixed but sheathed bayonets and jeeps festooned with barbed wire-clad bumpers, the hard edge of a militarised response to expected unrest revealed with a sense of foreboding. The relative jollity of the preparations and the pleasant and optimistic demeanour of the Robert Kennedy boosters interviewed in the Chicago downtown still bespeaks however a sense of things still working largely as expected.

Kennedy’s assassination is portrayed obliquely as Wexler surveys the functioning steaminess of a large kitchen, evidently supposed to be that of the Ambassador Hotel, as the cooks and staff go about their business whilst Kennedy’s speech is heard on the soundtrack. The door to the kitchen bursts open and a brief tumult is glimpsed, men jostling and TV lights glaring, as Kennedy, team, and media prepare to pass through, just before his killing. Wexler cuts hard to TV equipment already set up for his funeral parade, with John noting with queasy irony how good they’ve gotten since Jack Kennedy’s death at preparing for such events. Wexler’s eliding approach here relies on the audience to grasp the context as well as the unstated mood of dislocation and confusion that follows it, contrasting the infamous TV images of Kennedy’s bloodied form on the kitchen floor. Medium Cool purposefully weaves in a sense of workaday banality with the sense of history careening. Much like the kitchen staff whose activities directly adjoin a violent spasm of history, John and Gus shuffle their way through a variety of momentous events, plodding in mud as they try to capture a Civil Rights demonstration in Washington D.C. (with Jesse Jackson glimpsed amongst the rallying). The electrifying images that form posterity through news and documentary footage, however authentic, are themselves the carefully parsed remnants of events composed largely of milling distraction, confusion, and boredom.

It could be argued that Medium Cool reached back to an older ideal in documentary filmmaking less concerned with recording strict reality than with attempting to offer a panoramic concept of life in a given zone, associated with major practitioners of the form like Dziga Vertov, Robert Flaherty, and John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, filmmakers who espoused the possibility of finding poetic form and expression in carefully crafted fragments of reality. “Did you know for every man in Washington D.C. there are four-and-a-half women?” Gus notes as he and John ready for another day on the job in covering Kennedy’s funeral, whereupon Wexler works in a Vertov-ish visual gag as he cuts rapidly between four different women filmed on the street and just the legs of one to register the “half.” The scripted and improvised scenes offer connective tissue that tries to present Wexler’s perspective on what he thinks the events he captures mean, which is to a certain extent a repudiation of the general supposition behind much documentary cinema, that it can be and should be a passive and neutral record of fact, whilst also contending with the basic question of what fictionalising means.

Forster rarely had so good a role after making an early mark in films like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and he was only slotted into the role after John Cassavetes, who was going to appear under his own name – hence the similarity in the character’s name – dropped out. John makes for an intriguingly astringent avatar for its photographer-author, with Forster embodying the miner at the coalface of the mass-media, playing the interlocutor for reality and image-play. Forster plays John with facets of both intelligence and also a certain bullish, insensate machismo that seems to signal he has working class roots, as if shooting footage for the mass media is in a way not that different to humping around lumps of meat in the stockyards, and also still has a bit of the boxer it’s signalled he once was in his mentality – hit hard, hit fast, don’t let the gore distract you. His distracted fascination in the fancy toys he’s tricked out his apartment with, bringing him into the space age for bachelor pads, has a glint of the deprived child now revelling to it even as he tries to act hard-bitten, one hit why he and Harold eventually strike an accord. Early in the film John has a girlfriend, Ruth (Marianna Hill), who’s a nurse, a relationship that’s barely more than a fuck-buddy partnering and clearly on its last legs. A key scene early in the film sees the couple shacked up in John’s apartment, sexual shenanigans blending with aspects of mutual contempt and spurned need, with Ruth lambasting John with a blend of forced humour and real feeling – “You’re a bastard. Why don’t you admit it?…A rotten, egotistical, selfish, punchy cameraman.” – whilst John listlessly shows off the wonders of his new centrally wired electronic system.

Ruth provokes John’s coldness by hinting it stems from his profession driving him to treat even his own life in the same way, prodding him to remember a scene from the infamous Italian shockumentary Mondo Cane (1963) where turtles deranged by Atomic bomb testing couldn’t find their way to the sea and asks why the filmmakers couldn’t help the animals. “How the hell do I know what they did?” John questions, “Those were Italian cameramen.” The scene resolves with the two chasing each-other naked about the apartment, play-acting a semblance of nature-child frivolity and spontaneity whilst actually sublimating their frustration and aggression. Ruth’s provocation becomes the thread of the whole film as Wexler ponders whether detached observation retains its own dignity or simply frees one from responsibility when faced with urgent truths. Is it the media’s job simply to watch as society stumbles in irradiated and madcap circles or to try and steer it towards a goal? And who gets to decide what goal is worthy? The note of elided reality recurs in a very different context as John, back in Chicago, is drawn into the lives of Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), a young mother recently moved to the city from the rural South with her young son Harold (Harold Blankmanship), after John spots Harold seemingly about to steal the news wagon’s hubcaps and leaves behind a basket that proves to have one of the pigeons Harold likes to train within. John takes the basket and its charge to Eileen’s home in a crumbling neighbourhood. Both John and Eileen have a crucial relationship with the cultural texture around them, John through his work and Eileen in having lost her husband in Vietnam, a truth she’s been keeping from her son, who thinks his father is still alive. Harold is first glimpsed with a friend riding the L and releasing one of his birds downtown.

The glimpses of Harold, often reminiscing on times spent with his father or on the prowl trying to treat the city as merely another open habitat where he can roam and play, are imbued with a sense of lyricism that cuts across the grain of the urban-sophisticate zone John inhabits, allowing Wexler to take a breath with a languorously dreamy shots of pigeons wheeling across the sky, father and son tramping through rural brush, wildflowers, and mud, and Eileen being immersed in water, recollections charged with a sense of communion with a natural environment and connection with people living nominally on the fringe of the great American life but contrasting the squalor of the Chicago slums Eileen and Harold now subsist in. This sense of contrast also comes invested with a sense of clashing value systems quickly fraying in the harsh glare of the moment. Harold reads a book about pigeon mating habits and remembers his father advising him that a man has to rule his home and must resist all efforts by his wife to take control, whilst Eileen has reveries of attending country church meetings and being baptised. Meanwhile as John and Eileen drift into a relationship John inducts Eileen into the freakish vicissitudes of psychedelic nightlife and contemplate the juddering sense of reality beamed at them through the TV in the corner. John finds himself taking up a fatherly role for Harold to the extent that he can, giving him haircuts and schooling him in working a punching bag.

The intersection of news gathering and social tension, and the no-man’s-land between the blocs of power and claim, is illustrated when John encounters a black taxi driver, Frank McCoy (Sid McCoy) who becomes newsworthy when he hands in a parcel filled with $10,000 in cash that he found in his cab. John and Gus film Frank at the cab company office only to witness Frank being aggressively and provocatively interviewed by a police detective (Edward Croke). Later John talks his boss into letting him go out again to interview Frank at home, feeling his story could provide a rich human interest piece. They arrive in Frank’s black neighbourhood and immediately find the locale simmering with aggression and hostility, and Frank’s apartment is crammed full of local hotheads and radicals furious with him for playing the good citizen for whitey. John and Gus sweat their way through conversations with an air of threat in the air, with one woman claiming to be an actress demanding John film her, and a man intervening to save John from two provocateurs only to demand with equal force acknowledgement for saving his life. The encounter makes a mockery of John’s initial intent to celebrate an act of good citizenship which Frank now regrets, a sop to an ideal of society sustained like a zombie by a corporatized sense of social reportage and all too rudely contradicted by the undercurrent of seething anger of the black community.

Wexler pauses mid-film after this sequence for direct-to-camera speeches and testimonials by black radicals, including one (Felton Perry) who explains how even a seemingly hopeless and pointless act of random violence for a black man in the ghetto can become a brief but transfiguring moment of social and psychological potency. Wexler removes the nominal barrier between viewing of a drama and being spoken at for both journalist and film viewer here, with John finding himself both intimidated but also granted a peculiar shield through representing the intruding vision of the media, a wire connecting him infrastructure of social oppression. With mordant humour as well as cunning dialectic, Wexler cuts to John and Gus filming women being trained in pistol shooting, readying themselves for the great upheaval, with Peter Boyle appearing as the manager of the shooting range who unctuously jests with the newsmen before comparing learning to use a gun to learning to drive a car. The reactionary age is gathering steam, ready to meet protest and upheaval with a bullet, wrapped in bland and conciliatory language. Wexler’s approach here keeps in mind the theories of dialectic montage inherited from Sergei Eisenstein, using his contrasts to construct an intellectual case.

As well as the nods to Cocteau, Vertov, and Eisenstein, Wexler betrays a magpie eye for then-recent fashions in art cinema, particularly the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, quoting his Week-End (1967) in the recurring images of car accidents and blasé gawking and the direct-to-camera addresses that break down the barrier between drama and monologue, political themes and agitprop. Antonioni, too, registers in the early scenes depicting John’s detachment from emotional reality. But Wexler is ultimately a more pragmatic and journalistic talent than such filmmakers, trying to get in close to the moment and capture the fleeting blur of life in motion. Where for Antonioni in Blowup (1966) the image dissolves into ambiguity with a closer look Wexler merely suggests he’s pointing his camera in the wrong direction, wrestling more with the problem of context and the limitations of human awareness and empathy. John works up bardic verbal concision as he explains to Eileen how the whole thing works as the watch a televised memorial for Martin Luther King, the conversion of reality into a carefully shaped and packaged ritual, where even the nominal shame and social criticism – “A lot of experts saying how sick our society is, how sick we all are” – are part and parcel of the ritualised form, offering catharsis without struggle.

The question Wexler asks most obsessively throughout Medium Cool is whether true record through a visual medium retains a terrible isolate power or whether it becomes, however presented, simply an aspect of a stimulus-response mechanism on a par with the many more overt and sophisticated attempts to manipulate it, from the structuring of a TV soap to a mouthwash commercial, that the news itself becomes just another televisual spectacle, and therefore the authentic becomes instead part of a manufactured sense of reality. Or, as McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” A couple of years after shooting Medium Cool Wexler commented in Take One on one of his documentaries, Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), about how people kept telling him that one of the people interviewed, a survivor of political torture, nonetheless came across as insincere on screen, and noted, “Once it’s reduced to a medium like film or tape, we automatically make a theatrical judgment.” His approach on Medium Cool shows he was already aware of this problem, and incidentally finishes up repudiating the core tenets of Neorealism, which famously made use of non-professional actors with the directors carefully manipulating the appearance of reality around them: Wexler instead weaves professional actors into the texture of the everyday reality he’s encountering.

It’s bordering on superfluous to note that the disparity Wexler analyses has only become more urgent in the intervening half-century, leading to our present moment as digital technology threatens to shatter any faith in the image as truth and where many choose to find a paranoid, internet-informed rabbit hole of bunkum more convincing than any other reference point. In the years since more and more value has been heaped upon the ephemeral charge to be located in what can only be called dramatized reality, be it the carefully crafted pseudo-realism of reality television or an increasingly memoirist approach to literature, in a manner completely opposed to, say, the project of modernist literature which was to not necessarily tell “true” stories but actively try and replicate the concept of experience. A crucial pivot in John’s story comes when he chats with one of his fellow station employees, Dede (Christine Bergstrom), and she hints that he’s angered the station management in some fashion by letting another show’s team have some unused footage he took. John, alarmed, forces Dede to explain what she’s alluding to, and she hesitantly tells him that the management has been letting the police and FBI look at the footage taken at protests to identify radicals. John’s fury is palpable as he realises the paranoid signals he’s been receiving on the street have a genuine cause, that he’s been incidentally acting as a surveillance agent for the state: “It’s a wonder more cameras haven’t been smashed.”

Injury quickly follows insult as John learns he’s been sacked for no given reason, dashing between offices seeking explanation with increasingly frantic wrath, experiencing spasms of anger as he stalks up and down blandly functional institutional corridors. Wexler here seems to be tracing the outer edges of a kind of political thriller twist, but little more is made of it – there’s even some signs John might have been sacked more because he’s a pain in the ass rather than because he’s fallen afoul of politically tinted malfeasance. Getting fired doesn’t truly shake John: “Do I look worried?” he asks Eileen as she queries whether he’ll be okay. Time off work actually seems to benefit John in fact as he spends more time with Eileen and Harold. The microcosmic and macrocosmic begin shifting into unexpected and alarming alignment when Harold catches sight of John and his mother kissing passionately after returning from a night out dancing, a sight that at last fractures the fiction that Eileen has sustained with her son. Harold takes off with one of his friends and rides the L into the Chicago downtown, wandering around Grant Park in general obliviousness to the furore that’s being unleashed as the convention begins and the street clashes wind up, first glimpsed in jarring, spasmodic nocturnal footage where bodies flail and lights flare. Realising Harold is missing, Eileen heads into the city after him and finds herself in the midst of the protest. Meanwhile John has landed a job with another news service to film inside the convention hall.

Wexler’s use of pop music of the moment is sparing and smart in turning to what even then were offbeat acts, employing Love’s “Emotions” as a motif throughout with its twanging guitar and march beat, helping generate the film’s hippie-noir, nerve-jangled tone, and utilising several songs by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to offer deadpan-sardonic counterpoint to the onscreen action. Wexler dubs one of their numbers over footage of another band playing in the nightspot John takes Eileen too, the pleasures of climbing aboard the counterculture bandwagon mocked: “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” There’s a great little touch in this scene as Ruth is also glimpsed at the nightspot, dancing close to John as if to both tease him and his new girl whilst also offering a kind of forgiveness. Early in the film John takes Ruth out and they attend a roller derby match where Wexler sarcastically plays the version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” associated with the athletic hijinks of the Harlem Globetrotters over footage of fights breaking out between the players, a sequence that comically promises the oncoming spasm of violence so far mostly contained by the fencing of the derby rink. Later, Wexler employs a recording of “Happy Days Are Here Again” over footage of the convention hall as the delegates celebrate in divorcement from the riot on the streets outside, with hints of ironic recollection of the New Deal consensus emerging from the collective suffering of the Great Depression, the showmanship of democratic ritual contrasted with images of battered and bloodied protestors being treated. Harold has already been glimpsed offering his own incidental satire on political grandstanding as he announces himself to the empty stalls before a bandstand, happy to boom out his name as master of his private universe.

The final reel of Medium Cool is deservedly legendary in the way it captures as readily as any news crew, and surely better, the furore of the Battle of Grant Park as it was later dubbed. Bloom in character wanders amongst and with the protestors, confronted by rows of advancing cops and National Guards, before being caught up in the tumult in the park, climbing over park benches stacked as a rough barricade by the protestors to try and hold off the marauding cops. For a few moments all boundaries between art and life, performance and experience, completely dissolve in the face of events unfolding before the camera. The most famous moment, in which one of Wexler’s crew can be heard crying to him as he films undaunted even as a tear gas shell erupts before him, “Look out Haskell, it’s real!”, is itself at once real and falsified – Wexler had the voice dubbed in to show his own thoughts at the moment. It provides the essential singularity for such a blurring of boundaries, filmmaker suddenly a character in his own film, his own spectacular professionalism both celebrated and highlighted as the ultimate example of the detachment he’s been criticising. Bloom’s costume, a buttercup-yellow dress she chose herself, is a genius touch, exactly the sort of thing a modest country girl like her would be wearing whilst still trying to seem vaguely with-it whilst out on the town, and manages to stand out as vivid before both the dress of the protestors and the uniforms, imbuing her with a strange untouchable distinction amidst the madness, a country wildflower adrift between the madly clashing tides of society.

Wexler patterns his editing here after Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) as he counters the clashing, advancing tides of protestors and cops and soldiers. But there’s a fascinating dynamic wherein the clash of theatre from both sides could well be encouraged and amplified by the presence of cameras to perform for: a cop bellowing “You stinking Commie!” as he picks out a hapless young student to wallop as if auditioning to be John Wayne and the screeching retorts from some of the protestors seem to anoint themselves as tragic actors in their own provoked drama. At one point the protestors are heard crying for a news van that seems to be driving off to come back, for fear that without the media eye the violence might be worse, or remain undocumented. Wexler’s cameras peek around the edges of the bloody theatre, noting the National Guards chatting with onlookers and one solicitously speaking with Bloom as she slips through a cordon, rifle in hand. Wexler films Bloom from a car as she strides down the avenue, passing by marching troops and jeeps as if caught up in some fascist invasion of a Stanley Donen musical. Eileen finally manages to track down John after encountering Gus in the park who then draws John out of the convention by radio, and they head off together in the news wagon to track Harold down, who has already made his way back home and gazes in through the window, forlornly beating on the glass.

A loud bang causes a jolt that causes John to veer off the road and collide with a tree. The cause is vague, perhaps a tyre bursting or perhaps some random shot fired off by some passing loon caught up in the delirium. A jolting twist of fate that nonetheless is not a surprise to the viewer, having heard on the soundtrack a news report that states Eileen dies and John is left in a critical condition moments before it happens. The random tragedy is a fait accompli in the matrix of the media, the cool medium supplanting the anguished event. It could be said Wexler here struggles to place an appropriate cap on his cinematic experiment, groping back towards a hoary brand of dramatic irony with John falling afoul of the same fate as the woman he filmed at the outset contrasting his embrace elsewhere of happenstance. The similar ending of Easy Rider the same year succeeded in representing the jagged psyche of the moment whilst also feeling believably random and cruel, where Wexler seems to be straining to make a point, as he stages a long zoom out before turning to reveal another cameraman who then turns the gaze of his camera on the audience, reality dissolving within the hall of mirrors that is the filmed image, retaining a moment and remaking it into something perpetual yet slippery. Nonetheless it is still an effective ending for its evocation of severance and pathos, with the added irony that John, in finally gaining something that tethers him to real life in its fine grain, also finally risks the danger of that life, the place where the camera is no defence. Another little drama lost amidst the din of history and the cold glare of the lens, blurring into an acknowledgement of falsity that makes reality more real.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenwriters: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe, Sam Shepard

By Roderick Heath

History often moves in cycles of irony, and sometimes this rewards movies. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was dealt harsh dismissal by both critics and audiences at the time of its release, and spent intervening decades regarded largely as an oddity and by-product occasionally revisited by omnivorous wannabe filmmakers, aging hippies, and scattered auteurists, only to slowly gather a fresh reputation amongst some as one of Antonioni’s major achievements. These past few years have made Zabriskie Point feel immediate again, for its evocative description of disconsolate anger and disgust with aspects of modern life, with institutional power and the fragmenting of shared reality. Antonioni had been vaulted to international filmmaking stardom thanks to his string of cool, allusive tales documenting people squirming within their environment and sometimes committing perplexing acts of destruction on self or others, or simply vanishing from their own lives, in a style commonly dubbed ‘alienation cinema.’ Antonioni initially charted this terrain in relatively modest works like I Vinti (1952) and Il Grido (1957). L’Avventura (1960) met an initially divisive response but quickly became the definition of art movie chic along with its follow-ups in a loose trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962). Red Desert (1964) saw Antonioni reaching the heights of his artistry but also dividing viewers once again in achieving a register of expression near-subliminal in suggesting cognitive stress and injury through systematised exterior signs.

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The surprise box office success of Antonioni’s first English-language film, Blowup (1966), opened up great new vistas for him as Hollywood came knocking, although some critics would accuse him of exporting his cinematic style more as a brand than an artist, looking for venues to make the same works over and over. That wasn’t true: Red Desert had broken new ground and Blowup was a very different film in story and method to Antonioni’s previous four films, even whilst maintaining a distinct aesthetic. But Antonioni faced a genuine problem with his art, one that would soon see his once-titanic cinematic will freeze up. After Zabriskie Point he would only direct another three films in the next fifteen years, before a stroke he suffered in 1985 left him severely crippled, although he did manage one final work, Beyond the Clouds, in 1995 in collaboration with Wim Wenders. Part of the reason behind Antonioni’s wane might simply have been the problem of money: Antonioni’s films were hard to make without the muscle of intelligent and interested producers behind them, and these became scant as his moment in fashion ended. It might also have been a product of his own evolving artistry, which eventually reached a point of psychological and spiritual negation with The Passenger (1975), one he could not move beyond without betraying some vital part of himself.

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For Zabriskie Point, MGM gave Antonioni a big budget and free rein to turn his eye on America. Antonioni took his theme from a newspaper story he read about a young man who stole an airplane and was shot by police when he tried to return it. In the months after the incredible success of Easy Rider (1969), a flailing Hollywood desperately wanted to reproduce such a feat with the countercultural youth audience, but contended constantly with that audience’s cynicism over official attempts to replicate their zeitgeist, as well as rapid shifts in general audience mood, which quickly went back to wanting stuff like Airport (1970). Antonioni had tapped hip interest in artistic games with perception and social commentary with Blowup, and his distaste for the plasticity of post-war life in Italy found ready analogues beyond those shores, And yet his sensibility remained crucially at odds with the earthy and idealistic aspect of the counterculture. Antonioni tried to tap a compensating authenticity by casting non-actors in crucial roles. For a male lead he cast Mark Frechette, a fiery young man often in trouble with the law but blessed with movie star looks, when Antonin saw him engaged in an argument on the street.

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For the female lead he chose Daria Halprin, a former anthropology student and bit-part actress. It proved a rather fateful pairing: Frechette and Halprin became a couple after making the film, and moved into an experimental community. After they broke up Halprin married Dennis Hopper. Desperate for funds to keep the community going, Frechette joined other members in staging a bank robbery with unloaded guns. Frechette was sent to prison and died there, in a peculiar weightlifting accident. This tragic piece of Hollywood folklore now is an aspect of Zabriskie Point’s strange aura, the feeling that it charted some underground river most people didn’t or couldn’t follow. The script passed through several hands, including Antonioni himself and his regular screenwriting collaborator Tonino Guerra, and some young Americans writers, including the up-and-coming actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Working on the film was particularly consequential for Shepard, who would revisit many of its images and ideas in later work, including the script he would write for another fusion of European and American sensibilities, Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984).

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Zabriskie Point opens with a lengthy sequence depicting student radicals engaged in debate over an upcoming student strike, with some black activists (including Eldridge Cleaver’s wife Kathleen) presiding. One young man, Mark (Frechette), listens to the boiling arguments and conflicting perspectives and leaves after declaring he’s willing to die for the cause but not of boredom, and begins looking for more applied and practical actions to take. When he tries to bail out a friend who’s arrested on a demonstration and nags the cops a little too forcefully, Mark finds himself arrested and roughed up as well: Mark mocks the cops by giving his name as Karl Marx, and the charge officer doesn’t cotton on. After they’re released, Mark and his friend decide to buy guns. Hearing on the radio that the police have vowed to clear out the striking students on campus, Mark drives to witness it, only to see a cop gun down a black protestor when a colleague thinks he has a gun. Mark pulls out his pistol with a clear intention of shooting the cop responsible, only for someone else to beat him to it. Mark flees the campus and, after a brief spell of fraught indecision steals a light airplane and flies inland.

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Antonioni alternates Mark’s experiences with those of Daria, a woman of the same age but detached from the radical scene, one who works only when she needs money. Daria temps at a real estate company and encounters the middle-aged executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), who seems taken with her, and eventually asks that she head out to his house near Phoenix, Arizona, to be his secretary whilst he tries to finalise a major deal, a new estate his company, the SunnyDunes Development Co., has built in the desert. Daria heads out into the desert but before going to Lee’s house wants to visit the hamlet of Ballister, out in the Mojave Desert, because a friend of hers recommended it as a great place to meditate. The friend is trying to build a refuge there for troubled youths from Los Angeles, and Daria encounters a gang of those imported hellions wandering around the sparse Ballister surrounds. Driving on, Daria is repeatedly buzzed by Mark in the stolen plane, dropping a dress he found in the cockpit to her, before coming in for a landing. The two wander around the environs of Zabriskie Point, a lookout spot in Death Valley and the lowest point in the continental United States, where they quickly form a bond and become lovers.

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Zabriskie Point took four years from conception to release, a fatally long amount of time for a movie trying so crucially to tap an urgent and rapidly evolving socio-political moment. And yet, against all the odds, Antonioni and his screenwriters achieved from today’s perspective the rare task of taking on a such a specific moment and yet locating essential issues that continue to dog modern America and beyond. Listening to the lengthy opening argument of the student radicals is nonetheless today a surprisingly vigorous and revealing experience, as the same issues, divides, and points of contention are still prevalent, particularly in the online world: the only thing that’s missing is the sense of palpable immediacy and communal experience that defined the period, the clamour of voices in dialogue supplanted by the click of a million keyboards. Even Mark’s irritable rejection of the meeting highlights another eternal problem – it’s much easier to talk tough and jockey for moral high ground than actually achieve a political goal. The barbed comments of the black activists, who claim a leadership role because they face systemic oppression that obliges them to be revolutionaries rather than turn to it out of radical chic, lay down an axiom, and one of the white student girls raises the question, “What will it take to make white people revolutionaries?”

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Zabriskie Point proceeds to try and answer that question in the case of Daria, the more ordinary of the two pivotal characters. Daria is presented as a free spirit type intrigued by hip concepts and lifestyles, but detached from the politically engaged world Mark is all too immersed in. Her appeal to Lee as she breezes past him in the SunnyDunes office building is plain, represents something that’s profoundly absent within the confines of his daily life, and he becomes highly solicitous towards her, perhaps out of desire or simply to have someone so young and energetic around, a force from beyond the boundaries of his known world. As familiar as jabs aimed at corporate culture seem now, Antonioni did his admirable best to try and avoid the more obvious reflexes even whilst delivering it some cruel shiv wounds. Antonioni films Lee in his office, the LA skyline and a flapping American flag framed in glassy, commercial-like brightness behind him, as he tries to get in touch with Daria by phone, a sense of glazed and waning torpor slowly registering as the imperial trappings around him become monumental and immoveable. Meanwhile it’s signalled Mark himself comes from well-to-do circumstances, waving to a woman in a sports car he says is his sister, “a girl from my long-gone past.”

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Mark’s decision to stop being passive is articulated as he decries that he’s tired of “kids rappin’ about violence and cops doin’ it,” and contemplates meeting the authorities’ violence with his own. Antonioni indulges some sidelong vignettes that score satirical points, as Mark and a friend talk a gun salesman into waiving the usual legal niceties by explaining they live in a rough neighbourhood and “need to protect our women.” A college professor who’s been arrested at the protest with his students and the cop processing him puts his occupation down as clerk because it’s shorter. The plot, such as it is, is motivated by Mark’s readiness to commit violently to his cause only to rediscover joy and affection before becoming the target of the same cold and punitive force he tried to escape and transcend. The question as to whether he dooms himself in taking up arms or in failing to commit properly to the choice lingers on. Antonioni courts the paranoid echoes of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the key sequence of the campus shootings, with Mark’s vengeful intention to shoot beaten by another sniper somewhere in the bushes – a collection of gun-wielding radicals has already been noted lurking nearby. This also revisits the enigmatic assassination of Blowup. At the same time Antonioni’s long-simmering affinity with Hitchcock is nudged again as Mark, gun in hand and innocent in deed if not mind, recalls the schmuck hero of North By Northwest (1959).

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Antonioni’s protest scenes lack the still-potent immediacy of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and the film as a whole resists that work’s air of livewire exposure before the tumult of the age, at least in its superficial action, even as the opening scene betrays a great interest in its rhetorical texture. Antonioni regards both the square and countercultures as momentary figments of a much greater and longer drama than they know. Antonioni’s exacting sense of visual context as a means of communication is as much in evidence as it was in Red Desert and Blowup, but in a different key: where the first film pivoted on the heroine’s sense of a poisoned mindscape matched to a poisoned environment and Blowup saw its hero chasing his ideals of truth captured into a dissolving mass of film grain, Zabriskie Point maps out a drama of freedom and entrapment rooted in the way social values and psychic space battle upon the American shore. Environs rendered in pale cream and grey hues and dully prismatic glass are broken up by electric patches of blood red and bright green, elements in the psychic drama of omnipresent conformism disturbed by eruptions of violence and nature worship.

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Antonioni near-obsessively charts the omnipresence of advertising and garish décor around the city, at once dazzled and mortified. Antonioni contrasts Mark and a comrade and Lee and his fellow executive (G.D. Spradlin) as the two polarised duos drive through the city: Antonioni stops paying attention to them to film modernist structures and advertising billboards in zooms shots that collapse space and image into a diorama of capitalist messaging disguised in pretty colours, as pure in their way as the renaissance sculptures of Italy in conflating function in declaration with form, the stamp of the new doges upon their republic. Painted visages instruct the onlooker in what normality looks like. In a more overtly satirical and surrealist manner, Antonioni has the SunnyDunes executives gather to watch an advertisement for their new development, in which the roles of the people enjoying their idyllic new lifestyle are filled by mannequins, glimpsed in colourful and rigid approximations of the supposed suburban dream, starkly contrasting the later vision of polymorphous flesh emerging from the earth itself.

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Once Mark takes off in his stolen plane, the film becomes a remake-cum-lampoon of the closing minutes of How The West Was Won (1962), inverting the triumphalist flight in keys of Cinerama and Manifest Destiny to the coast and out to sea, this time turning away from the sprawl of LA’s infrastructure to the vast, rugged inland and contemplating the refuse of the pioneering dream. The glittering rooftops and cyclopean highways, all are viewed on high with a sense of punch-drunk wonderment, the geometries of human design and the primeval patterns of geological upheaval revealed in distant perfection. The visual texture here is the essence of the film, working up a near-hypnotic glaze of attention to the shape of the world and Mark and Daria as entities within it. Daria’s visit to the desolate township of Ballister is a delicately strange and eerie vignette, as she encounters an assortment of old-timers, including the manager of a roadhouse (Paul Fix) who complains about the imported problem cases her friend has imported to the town (“He’s gonna ruin a piece of American history.”), and a couple of incredibly old men at the bar, one of whom introduces himself as the middleweight boxing champion of the world in 1926.

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The other is an aged cowboy who sits calmly and silently in solitude as Antonioni’s camera gazes at him in profile with painterly pretence, turning him into living iconography, as Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” warbles nostalgically over speakers. Somewhere out in the desert’s deep reaches the old America subsists on its last nerve of memory and muscle, whilst the inheritors flail. Stones through the window glass cause the manager to dash outside and bellow at the marauding tykes. Daria sees them hiding behind a hunk of refuse, their eyes glimpsed through gaps. These the manifest spirits of a discarded quarter of the nation, one plucking on fractured piano innards to make sonorous music, another demanding “a piece of ass.” “Are you sure you’d know what to do with it?” Daria questions, unfazed, before fleeing these fine young cannibals. Travelling on, the lonely old grey car sliding along a ribbon of blacktop below attracts the white-winging plane, and Mark sets down in the midst of a great salt pan to meet the fawn-legged traveller after buzzing her a few times with bratty glee. Here Mark and Daria are, in their way, artists engaged with landscape as much as Antonioni himself, at spree in air and earth, with inevitable symbolic dimensions, Mark with his lofty ideals and exile from society forced to meet Daria down on the ground.

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One irony of Blowup’s success was that it hit big with an audience it teased and parodied – hipsters, artists, bright college freaks, recreational drug users, and vicariously thrilled normies. The Swinging London vibe Antonioni nailed down so well was painted in bone-dry sarcasm, as he surveyed London’s boles filled by barbarian rock bands and rooms full of stoned posh bohemians with a sense of curiosity grazing disdain, seeming to diagnose it all as a further symptom of, rather than cure for, the anomie and cultural ossification he analysed. In turning to the American wing of the youth movement he was nominally seeking out a genuine resuscitating force, and he even seemed to be trying to avoid the problems Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) had analysed, the blind spots that would narcotise it. Blowup had proposed the ultimate dissolution of reality in the age of technology whilst Zabriskie Point’s interiorised, neutral tone invokes not the outwards-directed energy of bohemia but the problem of the interior self, one reason why the film’s twinned, key sequences are, crucially, moments of imagined psychic liberation. Whilst avoiding any of the ways of portraying psychedelic experience that became so quickly clichéd in films of the period, Zabriskie Point nonetheless attains a dreamlike sense of space and texture, as if the characters are both inside themselves and watching themselves.

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And indeed they are, because all young people tend to be doing both. Mark and Daria are deliberately nebulous entities because Antonioni feels that’s a basic description of youth itself, individuals reacting to stimuli and opportunity to accumulate character. The basic narrative pattern also returned to the motif of Il Grido, in following a character who describes a great circle during the course of his wandering, fleeing his life in one place only to arc back to a virtually predestined end. Il Grido, a fascinating if overlong and grimly slouchy work, had mediated Antonioni’s steeping in neorealist concerns and those of his mature artistry. One important difference in Zabriskie Point is that when he chooses to fly the plane back to LA and face consequences it’s an act of hope, returning as jester of the skies with the plane he, Daria, and an old-timer of the desert painted in lysergic colours and jokes. Daria suggests to Mark he simply abandon the plane and ride with her to Phoenix, but he tells her, “I wanna take risks.” A death wish might lurk within Mark’s makeup, but his determination to actually experience existence as a profound phenomenon, not coddled or swerving from all the echoing consequences of being born, represents one of the few positive gestures of consequence any character makes in Antonioni, even if it’s ruthlessly punished.

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At the heart of Zabriskie Point are the two fantasy episodes, both perhaps projected out of Daria’s mind. The first comes as she and Mark screw in the desert sand under Zabriskie Point, whereupon other lovers, some couples, some in masses of three or more bodies, seem to well out of the ground and start copulating passionately, bodies swathed in dust and sand, wet lips and caked rumps squirming in the parched soil. Authorities purportedly dogged the shooting of this scene, which utilised performers from a radical theatre group, ready to swoop in and arrest everyone for shooting pornography. As it was the orgy was simulated, but it’s still a startling interlude to see in such a prestigious Hollywood film, and one the least neurotic and purely celebratory erotic scenes in mainstream cinema. Passionate bundles of flesh viewed only with a friendly sense of sexuality in many forms, but achieved again with a strong note of surrealism, these dust-born creatures evoking Biblical myth as they fuck en masse. Most vitally for the film’s driving theme, it offers the sense that Mark and Daria aren’t alone even when they seem to be at their most separated from the rest of humanity: their experience connects them to the species as a whole. The sexual high quickly gives way to a brute reminder of actuality as Mark hides from a patrolling cop car whilst Daria goes to chat with the officer, shocked when she realises Mark lurks with his gun ready to shoot the cop. Antonioni delivers one of his visual cues as Mark hides behind portable toilets painted screaming red, blazing synapses of distress in the midst of an ahistorical zone.

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The chief stymie in appreciating the film stems ironically from Antonioni’s push for legitimacy in casting Frechette and Halprin. That might have seemed a move in the great tradition of neorealism, and as a filmmaker Antonioni never seemed greatly focused on his actors, observing them more as studies in behaviour than in a traditional dramatic manner. But Antonioni had made very deft use of star performers like Monica Vitti, David Hemmings, and even Steve Cochran, and would so again with Jack Nicholson, leaning on actors who could readily suggest and transmit the yearning and existential unease of their characters, using their descriptions of distress and foiled energy to lend specific gravitas to his psychologically inferring shots. By contrast, the two young stars of Zabriskie Point instead seem blandly emblematic, although Halprin handles the late scenes depicting her character’s disconsolate state effectively. The air of turbulence that made Frechette appealing to Antonioni translated on camera to deadpan aloofness, ironically proving more plastic than any number of young ingénues might have seemed. That said, their blankness at least resists any feeling of calculation either, offering themselves simply as people within Antonioni’s world, not extraordinary embodiments of human and Hollywood bravura.

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Despite its initial failure, Zabriskie Point’s influence has proven deep, particularly for foreign directors shifting their attention Stateside, with images and strategies referenced and recycled in films like Paris, Texas, Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993), Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1988), Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007). More recent native surveys of the period like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and the TV series Mad Men have made it a significant point of reference, as well as more contemporary takes on its preoccupations like Fight Club (1999). American New Wave filmmakers internalised aspects of Antonioni’s vision: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976) all betray the imprint of Antonioni’s textures, his contemplation of fractured personality amidst sensory bombardment and the isolating glaze of modern architecture. More profane genre fare from Vanishing Point (1972) to Thelma and Louise (1991) took Zabriskie Point and mined it for more familiar variations on its ideas. Even the likes of Mad Max (1979), as a tale of renascent barbarianism hinging around grandiose destruction fantasies and desolate spaces, bore the imprint. George Lucas, who had clearly shown himself to be an Antonioni acolyte on THX 1138 (1971), repurposed the theme of youth rebellion and destructive catharsis for Star Wars (1977).

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Nor was the traffic to sci-fi one way, as at least one critic has noted: Antonioni’s lexicon had much in common with the alien desolation and domestic unease Jack Arnold had often evoked in his 1950s works like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956). Such oddball children point to the way Antonioni managed to dig to the essence of something about the nature of modern society, locked in a state of forward motion and clinging to familiar things, perpetually poised between order and a will to anarchy, constantly provoking people to jarring psychic leaps from peace-seeking to eruptive destruction. Which might well point to the artistic problem Antonioni eventually fell prey to. Antonioni had begun as a filmmaker interested in case studies illustrating social and psychological quandaries, trying to bridge the great chasm between the systems of Marxism and the vagaries of consciousness, and Zabriskie Point had been conceived in the same vein. The protagonists of both Zabriskie Point and The Passenger halt at the edge of the desert but fail to go forward and so are destroyed by the social forces pursuing them, although one is felled in making a hopeful gesture and the other reaches the end of his will. To go into the desert, literal and figurative, would be to enter the realm of the mystic, something Antonioni felt himself too hard-headed to contemplate, even as his films constantly urge towards a sense of the sublime. Or, rather, whether he was or wasn’t, that would demarcate the edge of his own concern, which was the problem of modern western society and the individuals who comprise it.

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Tellingly, following Zabriskie Point, Antonioni went to China to make a documentary about the nation at it was just starting to step back into the world at large to contemplate possibilities for other methods of social organisation, whilst his last handful of films would be much-mocked for their copious and regressive sexuality, but perhaps that was the only place he could retreat to. Mark’s flight back to LA is met by waiting cops, and when he tries to take off again they start shooting, a bullet hitting Mark and killing him. Daria, still driving eastwards, hears the report of his death on the radio and pulls over in shock. The report suggests another cruel sarcasm, that Mark wasn’t wanted for killing the cop but for stealing the plane as an “attempted hijacking”: Mark was punished not for his attempt at political violence but for an imagined one. Daria reaches Lee’s modernist mansion, perched on the side of a bluff amidst the grand desert surrounds. She wanders around the chic, elegant, yet impersonal forms of Lee’s house, the very bastion of smugness, experiencing each portion of the building as a trap goading her grief, and even Lee’s solicitous greeting rings hollow. Daria finally leaves the house.

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Cue the famous final scene, one even detractors of the film find brilliant. Daria stares at Lee’s house, imagining the executives and their inane wives inside, and envisions the house exploding, shattered to millions of shards of wood and stonework. The explosion occurs again and again, from different angles and distances, the sheer pleasure of destruction as an act charged holy awe. Antonioni then gets closer to the issue as he films the explosion of various household items in the house. A TV shatters into a shower of misty crystal. A refrigerator disgorges foodstuffs in a mucky shower. Books flap open like flowers blooming in time-lapse or jellyfish squirming through water. Violent spectacle becomes languorous, beautiful, protoplasmic, Dali-like in the depiction of hard commercial material rendered liquidinous and weightless, the act of desolation containing discovery, mesmeric dolour that also bespeaks the clarifying of the senses.

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The eruption resolves in a huge mushroom cloud of smoke billowing up into the blue sky, clarifying the relationship of Daria’s private revenge fantasy with the overall anxiety in the world, the threat of nuclear war, perpetually poised to erase the settled bourgeois life. Given Antonioni’s cinema had long suggested an intense distaste for modern architecture as the environmental signature of the age of alienation, the fact that he acts out his apocalyptic fantasia on it makes for a fitting, rather bratty coda, a moment of seeming potent rejection of a material world that is actually onanistic fantasy. Antonioni doesn’t offer any shot of the house still intact and boding after the fantasy is done, refusing intrinsically to castrate Daria’s newly potent and angry willpower. Instead Antonioni has her ride off into the sunset to the elegiac strains of Roy Orbison. Like the often misinterpreted ending of Blowup, which actually depicts the birth of a true artist, the ending here sees Daria heading back into the world armed, if not necessarily for destruction, but certainly with great power. A revolutionary of the mind born.

Standard
1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, Scifi

Idaho Transfer (1973)

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Director: Peter Fonda
Screenwriter: Thomas Matthiesen

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idaho Transfer can be viewed for free on YouTube here.

 

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

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

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Greek cinema, War

The Travelling Players (1975)

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O Thiassos

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Director/Screenwriter: Theodoros Angelopoulos

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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