1960s, Comedy, Drama, Greek cinema

Zorba the Greek (1964)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis

By Roderick Heath

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

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1970s, African cinema, Auteurs, Drama, Experimental, Romance

Touki-Bouki (1973)

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Director/Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty

By Roderick Heath

Following its 2007 restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki-Bouki has emerged in recent years to be celebrated as one of the finest products of African cinema. Touki-Bouki made a Sight & Sound Film Poll as one of the hundred greatest films of all time, and these days celebrities are paying homage to its most famous images. Quite a ride for a film that did make a mark in its time, gaining an International Critics Prize at Cannes, only to then generally sink from view. Touki-Bouki’s director took another twenty years to make a second feature, as Mambéty re-emerged for a brief spell of productivity before his death from lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 53. Mambéty, born in Dakar in 1945, was the son of a Muslim cleric who, after dabbling in theatre as a student, became interested in film, at a time when an eruption of new cinematic energy was taking place across Africa at the time, part of a general scene of cultural fervour in the post-colonial dawn. Mambéty’s countryman Ousmane Sembène had flown the standard for new African cinema with 1966’s Black Girl.

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In spite of his lack of formal training, Mambéty pieced together a short film, City of Contrasts, in 1968, dedicated to surveying haphazard attempts to synthesise a novel architectural style at various sites around Dakar with a sceptical eye. He followed it with another short that gained some attention, Badou Boy, a portrait of a young scallywag engaged in a duel of wits with a policeman, mediating Mambéty’s own formative experiences and looking forward to the larger clashes driving Touki-Bouki. Next Mambéty set to making his first feature with a budget of $30,000, most of which came from the Senegal government. One irony is that Touki-Bouki is both a perfect emblem of that moment of cultural energy and a reaction to it. Mambéty avoided the kitchen-sink realism and overtly critical style of melodrama being made by Sembène and others, in favour of an approach obviously influenced by the French New Wave, but also wielding a definably independent spirit rooted deep in its native landscape and sensibility. Touki-Bouki defines a more personal, allusive, but hardly disengaged reaction to the moment, celebrating the maddening mismatch of impulses and ambitions beckoning.

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Touki-Bouki emerged as a freewheeling tragicomedy with a rambunctious sense of humour as a well as a spirit of commentary and satirical import that lands all the more sharply for its deceptively breezy disposition. At times Mambéty’s eye is as cruelly excoriating of social disparity as Luis Bunuel was on Los Olvidados (1951), recording the day-to-day life of the poor citizenry who encircle the islet of westernised modernity in the downtown Dakar. His camera pans down from the gleaming ramparts of office blocks and apartment buildings colonising Dakar’s precincts to the shattered slums and shanties scattered around its fringes with a witty, needling sense of contrast, but also a casual familiarity with such violent contrasts. Mambéty sees in them the spirit of a place and a time, the super-modern colliding with the unknowably ancient, the slick with the gritty, the Western idea of time and space with the African.

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Mambéty’s antihero is Mory (Magaye Niang), a young man who makes a living driving cattle to an abattoir to be butchered, whilst his girlfriend Anta (Mareme Niang) is a student attending college. Mambéty’s Dakar is a place of petty jealousies and tolerated pests. Anta lives with her Aunt Oumy (Aminata Fall), a produce seller and low-grade conjurer who lets friends take her produce on credit. Anta is first seen irritably forcing one to put back everything she’s taken if she can’t pay. Anta resists the cajoling, charged demands of a mob of young student radicals in a truck, whose political action meetings seem to be mostly an excuse to pick up girls. When Anta refuses to come to one of their meetings, the radicals, in their frustration, accost Mory when he comes to the campus looking for her, lassoing him and driving across down with Mory tied to the back of their truck. In a rage after this humiliation, Mory flees to a favourite place on the coastline, and Anta tracks him down. The duo make love on the cliffs above the ocean, a sequence Mambéty communicates with shots of languorously rolling, foaming waves on the rocks with the sounds of sex on the soundtrack. Afterwards, lounging in the sun next to the motorcycle, the lovers resolve to leave Senegal by any recourse and head for Paris to make their fortune.

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With a puckish sense of ne’er-do-wells at loose in the world, improvising their path through life, Mambéty’s assimilation of New Wave tropes occasionally feels closer in spirit to Richard Lester than Jean-Luc Godard. Still, Godard is an inescapable influence, with visuals that recall the bright, lushly-coloured, almost pictographic approach of Pierrot le Fou (1965). But there’s a stark, deceptive quality to Mambéty’s style that’s quite individual, unfolding through a succession of images precisely framed and lucidly composed, attentive to the pungent atmosphere of a time and place, in a way that’s almost still-life art, but which also merge to form a brisk and energetic whole. Touki-Bouki unfolds according to its own peculiar rhythms and focal points, but it also plays, interestingly, as a lampoon of a film noir plot. Mambéty’s portrait of desperate lovers making their ploy to escape their circumstances, turning to crime to better their lives, evokes a swathe of noir films and films that coexist on the border between that grim genre and social problem studies, particularly Nicholas Ray’s films like They Live By Night (1949) and Rebel Without A Cause (1956). Except that the crime is tepid and the criminal lovers’ escapades are more than a little absurd, thanks to Mory’s significant overestimation of his own street smarts. The very end can be read as a satire on the climax of that founding text of French poetic realism and noir aesthetics, Julien Duvivier’s Pepe Le Moko (1938).

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Mambéty starts the film with shots of cattle being herded and driven to an abattoir, lazy undulations of the haunches of cattle and the ponies bearing loft the herders filling the screen, for a scene from a rural lifestyle that might as well be taking place a hundred or a thousand years ago. Mambéty quickly despoils the placid mood as he depicts the cattle being slaughtered gorily. This unflinching segue anticipates a similar sequence in Rainer Werner Fassbender’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1976). Mambéty’s motivating spirit is rather different to Fassbender’s punkish effect, but there’s a similar idea at play, correlating the butchery of animals with the brutal processes of personal and historical transformation. Mambéty repeats the motif later on when he shows Oumi slaughtering a goat, all part of the raw and bloody business of providing food, the earthiness of the lifestyle of Mambéty’s fellow Senegalese, laid bare in grim and dazzling detail. Mambéty cuts between Oumi slicing open the goat’s neck with Anta stripping off her shirt in the staring sunlight for her seaside tryst with Mory, evoking a sense of squirming desperation to the couple’s psychic horizons despite the often comic tenor of their adventures, as well as conjoining sex and death as sublime necessities.

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Early in the film Mambéty watches with a documentary filmmaker’s eye as women cue up for clean drinking water, a moment of reportage that could fit into any news report on life in the third world, except that Mambéty turns it into a scene of human comedy as two women begin fighting over their place in the line; when a supervising man tries to break up their tussle, both begin beating him up instead. Authority figures are either wielders of latent violence, like the cop Mory encounters, or absurd occupants of jobs that seem them disseminating a vague sense of state relevance, like the portly mailman who makes the rounds of the shanties on the Dakar fringes, with Aunt Oumi convinced he’s keeping letters from her son from her, and struggles to make a ponderous passage up a hill. Mory’s first attempt to rustle up some cash comes when he decides to take on a dude tantalising and tormenting pedestrians with his prowess as three-card monte. Mory bets a thousand francs he pick out the right card, but when he loses has to flee because he doesn’t have the cash to cover the bet, chased down the street by a mob happy to take off after anything that moves just for something to do.

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Mory manages to elude his pursuers only to come across a cop who enjoys intimidating him with the possibility he might just shoot him for the hell of it, before then asking for a match: Mory is so relieved he offers his whole matchbox. The same cop proves to be a nemesis for the next score Mory and Anta eye, when Anta realises they could rip off the gate take for a wrestling match. Several boxes are left in the cop’s keeping, one of which contains the money. Mory, making a declaration of status as boss man, decides the box on the bottom must be the one. The actual robbery isn’t shown, but Mambéty cuts to Mory and Anta’s getaway, hailing a taxi to transport the stolen box across town whilst Mory pursues on a motorcycle. He’s stopped by an officious traffic cop for driving through a zebra crossing, but Mory makes a successful ploy to scare off the cop by pretending to have seen him at a rowdy party that got busted. The cab driver, a wheezy old man, accidentally drops the cashbox when he’s unloading it for the elated bandits, only for the contents within to prove not riches but a skull.

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The title is usually translated as “Journey of the Hyena,” an apt description of Mory’s skulking opportunism as a criminal who dreams of grand successes, a small predator who darts around the flanks of bigger beasts. The early scenes of Mory and Anta on the beach see Mambéty breaking up the linear flow of images, weaving a texture at once repetitive and discombobulated, fitting for a film about Senegal, the westernmost country on the African mainland. The lovers confront the ocean as a vertiginous frontier standing between them and Paris, which might as well be Oz. Mory decides next to rob a rich gay man named Charlie. Charlie lived in Paris in the past, and now resides in a large modern house on the Dakar waterfront. He lounges about his swimming pool and extemporises airily from his bath whilst Mory gets down to robbing him blind. Charlie introduces a particularly noir-like development in Touki-Bouki’s plot, as a character whose erotic wont contrasts and mirrors the social and financial yearning of the young people and who float in a possible zone of mutual exploitation. The scene could be set like the ugly moment in Midnight Cowboy (1969) where that film’s desperate main character assaulted and possibly killed the old gay man he decided to rob to facilitate his own life escape. But Mambéty wryly deconstructs the canard by making Charlie a humorous and likeable figure whose supine good cheer is just as hapless as Mory’s half-assed criminal entrepreneurship. When he finds he’s been robbed his first response is to phone up the police and chat amiably and teasingly with some officers he’s trying to seduce.

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Charlie represents a gently satirised breed of cosmopolitan colonials. The uneasy relationship of colonised and colonisers is a nagging theme of Touki-Bouki, although Mambety’s credo that “anticolonialist laughter is also laughing at yourself” is illustrated as well, as he considers the landscape of modern Senegal as a strange mutt where eye, heart, and mind can leap from the primal to the space-aged in one survey of the landscape. Dialogue is littered with sniping mutual racism. Oumi and her larcenous patron kvetch about sons of the nation heading to Paris and not coming back, or worse, “They bring their white women back with their diseases.” When Mory and Anta finally do get aboard a passenger ship bound for France, they’re thrust into the company of patronising French teachers who complain in turn about just about everything, from the stolidity of their African students and the extremity of the radical movements back home, and make comments like “African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy” whilst proclaiming Senegal barren physically and intellectually. The elders’ solution for everything is to call in a marabout (a variety of Islamic religious advisor in Senegal), and Charlie has the bad news as one who’s supped at the font of imperial beneficence and left no illusion for anyone who follow: “France isn’t what it used to be,” now that it’s no longer the beating heart of a great imperial complex.

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Nonetheless the siren call of Paris echoes irresistibly for Mory and Anta, represented by a soundtrack driven along by the sprightly strains of Josephine Baker’s song “Paris.” Baker, as the black chanteuse who found love and favour in France thanks to playing out an exotic fantasy of a bare-breasted, banana-bedecked jungle girl only then to reinvent herself as the essence of cosmopolitan sophistication, makes for a loaded, ironic touchstone for such ambitions. The cinematography by Pap Samba Sow keeps in mind both the potent colours and design intricacy of African art and also the purposefully flat and placard-like effects of ‘60s radical movie agitprop. Colours blaze with fervent immediacy, the gush of blood from the goat’s neck and the patterns of the kaftans and lettering of city signs all lit up with delirious intensity, as if the world is a great collection of hieroglyphs rendered in colour needing a sympathetic eye to decode. One of the funniest punch-lines comes when it’s revealed that the wrestling match Mory and Anta try to rob is being held to raise money for a statue of Charles De Gaulle, a symbolic erection in the name of continued close connections between France and Senegal.

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Mambéty’s preferred symbol, the lynchpin of the movie and of his protagonists’ lives, is Mory’s bike. It’s a practical instrument, Mory’s transport, his vessel of self-image and independence. Mambéty’s images of an outsider hero on a motorcycle echoes expressions of countercultural disaffection like Easy Rider (1969) coming from overseas and also rhymes with the same year’s radically different exploration of postcolonial crime and rebellion, The Harder They Come. But the bike is also a representation of Mambéty’s concept of Senegalese spirit, circa 1973, and his concept of a culture that’s a fusion of ways of being and experiencing: a cobbled-together chimera, western-made machine festooned with the potent animalistic totem of horns on the handlebars, and an incantatory, rather phallic sculptural veve on the rear. Such adornments elevate the motorcycle from mere device to a totem communing between the human and the animal, the spiritual and the historical. As long as Mory and Anta ride it, they retain a self-sufficient lustre, a dash of romantic heroism. Once they rob Charlie, Anta abandons the bike in a wasteground, leaving it to be retrieved, in a hilariously bizarre touch, by a man dressed like a Halloween caveman, who happens upon it like the spirit of atavistic anarchy, and begins riding it around Dakar in glee.

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Oumi curses Mory for failing to pay her for some rice she gave him, screaming that she hopes he winds up in hell to Anta with an incantatory air – not for nothing, it seems, does Anta call her “the sorceress” – and the fractured sense of time at play throughout Touki-Bouki seems to stem from Oumi’s curse; time, place, and self all splintered and randomly dispersed. The skull the luckless taxi driver finds inside the stolen box seems to be a relic of some esoteric rite, death’s head grinning out at the luckless would-be plutocrats as a reminder of strange and ancient forces working against their venture in self-improvement – small wonder the box it’s in rests under the one they should have stolen, which sports the colours of Senegal’s flag. The sequence following Mory’s robbery of Charlie is nonetheless a comic tour-de-force as he and Anta head across Dakar to the port, even subordinating Charlie’s chauffeur by pretending he’s been told to drive them. In his exultation, Mory strips bare-assed and stands triumphant in the back of the open-topped car, and flees into a lengthy fantasy imagining the two lovers returning from France, rich and powerful. Crowds flock to watch their progress and they’re given all the pomp and paraphernalia of national heroes. Even uppity Oumi dances in celebration before their car whilst the couple lounge with cigars and make like big shots.

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In more prosaic reality they still make a splash as their travel agent thinks she knows them (“Maybe from New York,” Anta suggests). They encounter a man named Margot, a con man they know who’s desperate to escape from Dakar as he’s being hunted down by a dude with a club after some misfired scam: Mory and Anta let him hide in the car into the port. The lovers have succeeded, making it to the ship on time and in style. But Mory is halted on the gangplank by the thought of one of the cattle he herds to slaughter, and suddenly runs off, desperately trying to find his bike. Anta, left alone, waits for him, but when sailing time comes, she remains aboard. Where Duvivier’s antihero was finally consumed and destroyed by his status as exile and petty overlord of a colonial citadel, and died at the dockside foiled in his last gesture of escape, Mambéty inverts the situation: his lovers are separated and his dopey protagonist pulled back to native soil in a sudden pang of realisation of what he’s abandoning, only to find he’s already lost his source of pride and energy. When he does find his bike, it’s been smashed to pieces, its cattle skull mascot broken, the caveman rider terribly injured in a crash. Mambéty sees a generation in flux, a wealth of possibilities on hand but also invisible to the needs of the moment.

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The ship is a vast, beautiful, floating white carcass spiriting Anta away to a vague fortune whilst Mory weeps over his own shattered machine and destiny. Mambéty returns to the pivotal image of Mory, Anta, and the bike at rest on the cliffs above the infinite dreaming ocean, perhaps as a remembered idyll or perhaps a suggestion everything we’ve seen has been one possible path these two might stray along. Mambéty later stated that he made Touki-Bouki to dramatise his own emotional and intellectual reactions when he fantasised about leaving Senegal for any greener grass – tellingly, when Mory halts on the gangplank, a “Mr Diop” is being called for to board – and the film, in spite of Mory’s eventual desolation, elucidates a specific faith, that any place and people retain the seeds of great dreams and possibilities. When he returned to filmmaking Mambéty made Hyènes (1992), a follow-up with a plot inspired by Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, taking up the theme of returning from diaspora to hammer out old debts. Every future is bought at the cost of another.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Drama, War

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Director: Robert Wise

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By Roderick Heath

Robert Wise was a professional. Such a description could be read as praise both high and faint, and it’s long been applied to Wise in both senses. A man whose early life was framed profoundly by the Great Depression’s impact on his family’s expectations and appreciation for the safe harbour working for RKO Pictures gave him, Wise spent over a decade learning film craft. Graduating to editing, Wise was Oscar-nominated for his work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), where he laboured closely with the tyro blow-in to create the film’s unique textures and layered sense of the medium’s expressive modes and possibilities, through such tricks as dragging film strips over the editing room floor to reproduced the rough look of old newsreel footage. Wise knew film as a physical thing better than most anyone else in the business, as an organism of pictures and sounds wound together in complex, precisely ordered cords. Wise was soon pressed into service to patch together a releasable version of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) after Welles and RKO parted ways, tacking on a hastily shot final scene that was nominally true to the source novel but against Welles’ more downbeat intent. Wise soon came into the orbit of another genius impresario, if a radically different personality, in Val Lewton, whose series of suggestive horror films had proven a quiet boon for the studio.

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Wise made his directing debut on Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944) when he was called upon to replace the first director, Gunther von Fritsch. That film belied its nominal basis as a horror movie to become more a darkly poetic paean to childhood. His third film for Lewton, The Body Snatcher (1945), proved a masterpiece of psychological horror that saw Wise evolve his own stern, statuesque take on the template Lewton had developed with Jacques Tourneur. Wise was launched on a career that saw him able to master just about any genre he turned his hand to: stone-hard noir films, intellectually curious science fiction works, tough war movies and social-realist dramas, even musicals. Such capacities helped him rise by the mid-1960s into one of Hollywood’s most efficient and reliable filmmakers, capturing Oscars for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), two immensely popular movies that nonetheless still testify to how compartmentalised film appreciation can be, as they’ve never been in the slightest bit cool, in spite of the stylish and inventive filmmaking evinced in both.

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Wise was both esteemed and honoured by his industry and held in opprobrium by many critics for his dread status as a safe pair of hands, and he pulled off the trick of working long past the time when many old studio hands like him had been put out to pasture. Compared to Alfred Hitchcock and his thrillers or John Ford’s love of the western, Wise’s wide-ranging talents have long confused critical attention. But to scratch the surface of Wise’s films is to see his formative work with Welles and Lewton lingering in his shooting style and expressive lexicon, and to look past the frame of genre is to see threads of interest and refrains of substance running through Wise’s choices of material. Richard McKenna’s 1962 novel The Sand Pebbles immediately appealed to Wise. It’s not hard to see Wise’s identification with the character of Jake Holman, another young Midwesterner given his slot in a disciplined organisation and mastering technical arts, seeking the elusive hope of reigning over his own small realm, where proficiency might be sufficient to guarantee stability in life even in the midst of terrible upheaval.

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Wise had trouble getting studio backing for making a film of this downbeat tale based in dated geopolitics. When he did finally gain backing production was delayed by weather in Taiwan, where he planned to shoot, and Wise took on The Sound of Music, ironically, as something to fill in the time before he could make his passion project. Wise converted McKenna’s book against all odds into a commercial success, in part because it offered a strong showcase for star Steve McQueen, who also gained his lone Oscar nomination for playing Holman. By the time Wise brought the film to the big screen, too, McKenna’s period tale of faltering imperialism was also starting to look more prognosticative than historical, as the Vietnam War was becoming a hot topic. Wise was steadfastly against US involvement in the conflict, and The Sand Pebbles presaged the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) in allowing him to offer backdoor commentary. It also dramatized the experience of the cultural moment in watching a formerly disinterested and focused individual slowly become aware of his surrounds and forced to make his own moral judgements against the tide of expected behaviour.

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The Sand Pebbles is in many ways a character study in an epic’s clothing, following McQueen’s Holman from the moment he begins his journey up the Yangtze River to his solitary death at its end. Holman, an engineer in the American navy, has been assigned to a gunboat, the San Pablo. The period is the late 1920s, a time when the US Navy was enforcing American commercial interests and sustaining a form of peace in China’s cripplingly schismatic post-imperial moment. Holman thinks he’s finally gained just what he wants, a boat just large enough to need his talents and small enough to give him an engine he can run to his own satisfaction. Holman’s hunt for an engine room he can lock himself in and run in peace proves to still be frustratingly elusive once he joins the boat, however, as he finds the craft has evolved as a microcosm of the political situation. The American sailors exiled to the San Pablo, or the ‘Sand Pebbles’ as they nickname it, are on the furthest fringes of the national consciousness and at the bottom of the military list of concerns. They compensate by leading pampered lives, their needs are tended to by a populace of Chinese coolies, for whom even the scant pay turned their way is a good living, an arrangement that also suits the boat’s commander, Lt Collins (Richard Crenna), who likes to keep his crew handy for action, should the need ever arise.

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Holman’s journey to join the San Pablo sees him thrust into the company of some other westerners on a ferry, listening to their discussions of big political matters and the rumblings of discontent with disinterest, and warning off pretty young Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), journeying upriver like to him serve as a teacher at a mission, that “girls don’t talk to China sailors.” Holman’s experience keeps intersecting with Eckert’s, however, provoking a tentative relationship. They’re trapped however on two sides of a dichotomy rooted however in the same basic fact: Eckert belongs to the missionary service, which considers itself above political ructions and dedicated purely to the betterment of the Chinese populace, but which one of the shipboard voices of wisdom warns her at the start represents a form of cultural imperialism to the locals only tolerated because of the harder, military version Holman serves. Eckert works under the idealistic Jameson (Larry Gates) at the Shining Light Mission, who becomes the unwitting, and unwilling, justification for Collins to launch an armed expedition to rescue them as the political situation deteriorates and China degenerates into civil strife. Holman inadvertently disrupts life on the San Pablo when he joins her. He finds the engine room is filled with coolies who don’t really understand the motor, but simply follow the instructions of their boss, Chien (Henry Wang).

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Chien jealously guards his tiny fief, to the point that when Holman embarrasses him he tries to cook him with a sudden steam release as he inspects the engine. The coolies aboard are overseen generally by haughty old mandarin Lop-eye Sheng (Paul Chun), whose authority is both unofficial and insidious. Holman’s lone real pal on the boat is Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), who falls in love with Maily (Maryat Andriane), a missionary-educated barroom hostess being forced to work off a debt to a gangster, Shu (James Hong). During a river patrol the gunboat breaks down when Holman’s warnings are ignored, and Chien is killed during repairs, in an accident that’s the result of his own poor maintenance. Holman is ordered to train a new boss coolie, so he chooses Po-han (Mako). Holman labours in spite of the young man’s poor English and lack of education to explain just how the engine works, becoming fond of his receptive pupil in the process. When another crewman, Stawski (Simon Oakland), bullies Po-han, Holman socks him. The incident is covered up and Collins denies Lop-eye’s demand Po-han be fired, as the commander feels the occasional need to take Lop-eye down a peg. Holman baits Stawski by proposing a proper boxing match between him and Po-han: Holman thinks the scrappy little Chinese guy can defeat the hulking Stawski, and hopes to win enough money to pay off Maily’s debt.

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McKenna’s novel was based in his personal experiences, but also bore the distinct influences of other works in a similar vein. The detailed depiction of a fetid and frustrated branch of the US armed forces between world wars, revolving around an apolitical outcast hero, recalls James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, whilst the climax is reminiscent of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s the setting and the tale’s grim, unremitting vision of slow degeneration into chaos that sets it apart from both, where the great struggle against fascism was still looming for luckless heroes; here Holman is a victim of shifting tides that see the white, western fantasy of civilising the world according to its own precepts being finally beaten back and forced into a newly introspective posture. Wise had tackled a similar story before on Destination Gobi (1952), except staged there in reverse in both geographical and philosophical drift; a closer likeness was the study in besiegement and hanging-by-the-fingernails war effort and accompanying moral danger in The Desert Rats (1953).

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Wise had a fascination for odyssey tales, stories of benighted people pushed to extremes by their own perverse motives, and a love for dramas driven by characters who represent different ways of conceiving the world, depicted in closely revolving binaries. In his later career, Wise’s films began to bear an increasingly clear and sardonic commentary on his reputation as a professional and a technician, as he took on projects revolving around characters dependant on their tools, faced with crisis as their works and implements fail them, their incapacity to understand why life doesn’t function in the same clear and mechanistic way leading them into dreadful traps of fate and conscience. These ideas connect movies seemingly as random as The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg (1975), and Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979), but it has also been bobbing around in his films since The Body Snatcher and his noir works like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

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The narrative also evokes Wise’s overtly pacifistic, if frighteningly contradictory, mythology exercised in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), except that here the pretences towards utopianism represented by Jameson and the missionaries are wedged between more worldly forces. The possibility that might makes right has been abandoned. Holman and Collins and also Jameson represent the kind of duologue who recur throughout Wise’s films, although where many such pairings in his films, from Grey and McFarlane in The Body Snatcher through to even Captain Von Trapp and Maria in The Sound of Music — characters with radically different moral precepts and ways of seeing the world bound together in a close and fraught relationship. Except that Holman and Collins don’t argue their values or radically different perspectives, but offer them instead in gestures and arias of feeling offered in their rank-enforced decorum. As he had on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise would transmute their dynamic into something more positive-minded in a science fiction work, Star Trek – The Motion Picture, where the conflict between discovery and discipline, rigidity and evolution takes on a radically different form but follows the same logical course.

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Although set at the time of the rise of Chiang Kai-Shek, the portrayal of the nascent Chinese nationalist movement is nonetheless styled to be more reminiscent of Communists, in their rhetoric and appearance. The regular drill sessions of the San Pablo’s crew sees them going through their paces in pretending to see off a hostile throng, enjoyed and mocked by a daily crowd who flee laughingly before the water spurts and steam plumes turned their way, until at least the San Pablo find themselves doing it for real, up against a suddenly naked and wintry fury. Holman is shamed in his disdain for the coolie system on board the San Pablo with the totemic phrase, “It’s his rice bowl,” allowing exploitation to continue under the guise of providing a living. The imperialist way also requires retarding all possibility of social change and advancement for the sake of general good order, represented by the rigorously enforced caste system aboard ship. The slow degradation of the San Pablo and her crew as representatives of their nation is first signalled when a Chinese general (Richard Loo) forces Bordelles and his escort to be marched disarmed back through the streets of Changsha, under a rain of refuse from crowds gleeful at the toppling of the strutting foreigners. The humiliated sailors are distraught – Bordelles commands his uniform to be burnt – except for Holman, who takes the event in his stride. Soon the ship is besieged by protestors demanding they leave, but the river level leaves the San Pablo stranded, rusting and abandoned by the coolies, forcing the resentful crew to do their job.

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Loss of face is diagnosed as a potent fear amongst the Chinese bigwigs Chien and Lop-eye, who stage punitive revenges in response to it, but the hapless Yankees prove equally hysterical and helpless before their own remorseless reduction to mere unwelcome interlopers and then quasi-renegades before the population they once policed. Lop-eye blames, credulously or not, Chieng’s death on a curse Holman put on the engine, a literal ghost in the machine, and throughout The Sand Pebbles individuals are crushed just as unheedingly as the unfortunate Chieng under the pistons. Almost every major character in the film dies like a dog in the course of trying to act upon their ambitions or principles. Po-han is caught and tortured by a furious mob, who use him as a prop in terrible political theatre in working for the Americans, obliging Holman to shoot him. Frenchy and Maily make a break to live together, but Frenchy dies from pneumonia caught sneaking off to join his wife and Maily is killed by thugs, possibly gangsters or nationalists, whilst Holman is blamed for her murder in the belief he was her lover. Jameson is gunned down by his former friends after Collins’ “rescue” effort sparks a local war, in spite of waving papers confirming that he’s made himself a stateless person. Jameson and Eckert’s student militia protector and former student Cho-jen (Paul Chun) is killed by Holman during a battle to penetrate a boom strung across the river, and Holman and Collins both die thousands of miles from home in a desperate rear-guard fight.

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It’s remarkable that Wise was able to sell such a bitter story to a mass audience. The Sand Pebbles mediates its darkness with fillips of crowd-pleasing, like Stawski and Po-han’s boxing match, which sees the diminutive yet physically dynamic Chinese man eventually work up the wherewithal to bring down his bullying opponent, and Frenchy and Holman’s intervention to snatch away Maily after Shu tries to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder to some sleazy Americans. The film’s only true weakness lies in part in this mediation, as these aspects border on the caricatured at points. Also, The Sand Pebbles was released at a time when a certain level of existential angst was considered pretty cool in a movie, and McQueen was arguably playing a version of his basic star persona, particularly reminiscent of the proto-beatnik soldier he played in Hell Is For Heroes (1962). Wise had helped solidify Paul Newman’s screen image with Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), playing one of Wise’s favoured brand of bewildered, naive heroes, and given McQueen’s famous emulation of Newman’s career it made great sense for him to slip into a similar part.

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The quality of The Sand Pebbles’ collaborators is arresting in itself, and its eight Oscar nominations fairly reflected this, even if the film finally won nary a one. Wise cast a battery of excellent character actors, including Oakland, Crenna, Gates, Hong, Loo, and Joe Turkel. Andriane, an acting ingénue better remembered as the nominal author and subject of the notorious erotic tome Emmanuelle, is fairly good as the brittle, anxious, religious girl who believes herself cursed for her sins. I can’t think of another film where Attenborough ever played an American, and yet he handles the role with the same casual openness and natural presence he always projected, conveying Frenchy’s strong yet innocent love for Maily, depending on Attenborough gift for playing anxious, repressed figures, wearing an air of pathos like a wetsuit. Jerry Goldsmith’s score helped make him a go-to movie composer, establishing a mood of stark, grand yet menacing exoticism in the opening credits that sets in play the mood of an oncoming age of cultural crack-up.

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McQueen’s characters so often only showed their inner lives through finite registers of his cold blue eyes, otherwise trying to maintain their workaday veneer, expressed in concise and stoic physicality. Holman presents a variation as he’s not as remote as other McQueen characters nor as coolly mature. Holman is rather nudged gradually out of a state of semi-perpetual adolescence over the course of the film, starting as a man Jameson feels comfortable in describing as one of the type who just wants the navy to take care of them, casually racist but also boyishly fond of children. He becomes, as Eckert notes, a teacher just like her, taking pride in making a real engineer of Po-han, and is provoked to become increasingly rebellious towards the institution that has been his home. Wise allows time to depict Holman’s education of Po-han with a gently humorous sensibility, a sequence that follows the earlier sequence of the disastrous repair job that nonetheless allows Holman’s love of machinery to become almost palpable, articulated through Wise’s precise diagramming of the engine room as a space, and observation of Holman at work. Even when the machinery fails and crushes flesh and bone, Holman calmly disassembles and reassembles the problem part in his pure faith. Wise’s sensitisation to process and craft here is telling on both a storytelling level, bringing the audience into Holman’s mental space, whilst also underlining his own subtext. The smooth running of anything is the result somewhere along the line of someone who’s damn good at their job and finds it sufficient unto itself as a calling.

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McQueen and Mako make for a fascinating study of contrasts on screen in large part because they were both very physical actors, but in completely different styles: McQueen’s poised and efficient movements versus Mako’s fluid, scrambling dexterity. Po-han’s boxing match is a little masterpiece of slapstick as he tries to survive the bout without committing to it, too used to being the low man on the totem pole, until Holman is at last able to stir both his sense of personal need, in wanting to stay aboard, and also fellowship, in wanting to save Holman from losing money. McQueen’s physical expressivity on the other hand carries the weight of tragic drama with the most measured movements, as he furiously shovels coal after shooting Po-han, or his quick, deft, yet somehow utterly devastating movements as he reboards the San Pablo after killing Cho-jun; Holman is a man almost aghast at his own capacity to keep operating smoothly even after he’s just axed a man in the stomach, but grateful for this talent at the same time. Holman’s great crisis of choice comes when Po-han is being tortured, driven to take the risk of shooting his pal in spite of the chance of starting a war if he misses, and with Collins dashing to stop him. Collins comes to regard Holman as a nuisance and demands after the shooting that he ask for transfer as soon as events permit, something Holman assures him he will do, in a scene laced with clashing brands of contempt constrained by nothing more or less than the material of their uniforms.

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Collins’ status, both imposed and self-adopted, as the lone bulwark before chaos and representative of national strength and pride sees him tolerating the strange system aboard his ship in preference of the appearance of order and smooth working to its actuality. As events bear down upon him, they inspire him to provide a self-fulfilling prophecy as his actions provoke exactly the kind of violence he proposes to put down. Crenna’s performance is something of an antithesis to his today better-known part in the Rambo series as the soldier’s soldier; here his portrait of a self-appointed superman slowly devolving into raging, suicidal-homicidal neurosis is pungent, with his increasingly intense yet remote stair and tight-wound muscularity as if he can barely fit within his own skin.

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Collins’ own calvary comes when his men begin to refuse his orders as, blockaded by the nationalists demanding Holman be handed over in the belief he murdered Maily, they start chanting a demand for Holman to hand himself over rather than square off against the besiegers. Collins takes over a machine gun and, after firing a blast in the water to fend off the blockade, almost turns to gun down his own men, before checking himself, handing over authority to his second in command, Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson), and heading into his cabin to face a long night staring at his pistol in temptation to self-extermination. But larger political events hand him the chance instead to get lots of other people as well as himself killed in an auto-da-fe.

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Wise was the opposite a showy director, but all of his images have an adamantine strength, the rigorousness of his framings that manage to communicate without retreating into airiness, and yet also adapting into its era’s mode for epic cinema in the relative spaciousness it offers to tell its story. The film probably doesn’t look as radical now as it might have done in its day, in Wise’s complete eschewing of many of the usual shortcuts for this kind of moviemaking subject, avoiding back projection, model work, and Caucasian actors made up to play Chinese characters.

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The battle to break through the boom junks is a marvel of tight-wound directing, with Wise allowing the action to come on at the ponderous pace of the San Pablo, approaching the enemy at a slow chug, bullets careening off the hull, Collins hovering at the bridge windows in challenging one to give him his one-way ticket to Valhalla. Slow pace becomes subtly fluid and quicker in dashing lateral camera movements track the actors taking up station for battle, and then leaping into a fray that’s punishingly intimate, with much of the San Pablo’s crew being killed or terribly wounded in the process. The sequence climaxes in the raw shock of Holman, trying to hack his way through the boom rope, forced to defend himself and slaying Cho-jun. Death and carnage come on with reflexive speed and jarring pathos, satisfying the need in such a long, grim tale to pay off with some action at last whilst also finding nothing to celebrate in it.

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The film’s proper finale is even less consoling, but its sees Wise hit perhaps the directing peak of his career. Collins, Holman, and some other crewmen head to the Shining Light Mission to bring down the missionaries, but cannot talk them into leaving. Jameson is killed and Collin dies, after Holman at last makes his choice to remain with Eckert, refusing Jameson’s commands. But Holman is nonetheless force to follow Collins in battling off Chinese soldiers to allow Eckert and his fellow crewmen to escape. This eerie scene takes place in the mission’s vast courtyard, a reappropriated piece of Chinese infrastructure that finally becomes a nightmarish trap, mocking voices echoing out of the dark, bullets whistling and striking down men like the thunderbolts of a contemptuous god for human pretence. This sequence in particular seems to have had a strong influence on the Do Long bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now (1979), with its assailed American warriors lost in a distant night listening to the taunts and cries of a determined enemy. The use of suggestion, the evocation of an almost cosmic dread through careful deployment of sound, confirms how much the Lewton imprint stuck with Wise, the sense almost of a landscape coming to life to clutch and defeat the humans scurrying upon it. Holman dies, shouting out his confusion in the face of such forces (“What the hell happened?”), propped up between the farm machines that should have been his next, natural life project, perched between the sword and the ploughshare. The difference between his death and Collins, however, is that Holman dies to save the life of someone he loves.

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1960s, Auteurs, Drama, Erotic, Fantasy, French cinema, Romance

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)

Histoire Immortelle

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

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Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

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One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

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From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

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The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

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Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

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Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

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Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

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Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

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One defining characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works was his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

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The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a style etched in the stern, textured yet authoritative monochrome. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dreamscapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

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Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

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It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

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And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

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Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

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Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Drama

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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Director/Screenwriter: James Gray

By Roderick Heath

James Gray has failed to wield commercial success equal to his critical standing, which is significant, particularly in Europe, but also tellingly divisive. Perhaps a greater part of the reason for this lies in the key underpinning of his aesthetic, from his steely debut Little Odessa (1994), through his curiously elegiac crime films The Yards (2001) and We Own The Night (2007), and the mature, mutable drama of Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2014), is they resist familiar rules of screen drama in refusing to emphasise urgency or agency for its characters, but instead constantly nudge them along with the ineluctable quality of fate. They are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living. Gray’s oeuvre consists of tales of outcasts and troubled inheritors as much stricken and burdened with their ambitions as compelled by them, shot in sombre, moody, yet inescapably authoritative panoramas. Gray is often described as an old-fashioned talent almost without peer in the contemporary cinema landscape, but the truth is his kind of filmmaker was never particularly common or popular, crafting rigorous, lushly shot but essentially told tales of the emotionally thwarted and the life-beset.
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Gray’s influences seem to include the stately gravitas of Luchino Visconti, the streetwise tragedies of Martin Scorsese, the sombrely artful side of Francis Coppola, the hymns of repression and freedom of David Lean, and the subtler side of John Ford, the one obsessed with social rituals and the problems of maturation. The Lost City of Z, Gray’s latest, is a venture into new territory for the director, as a film recounting the life of a British adventurer in exotic climes, and yet it pushes the ghost story aspect to Gray’s tales to an extreme. Every action of the central characters in The Lost City of Z is tethered to inevitable dates with obsession and doom. The story he takes up here itself immediately evokes such an mood of eerie transience and doomed embarkation, in recounting the life of Percy Fawcett, a controversial and much-mythologised figure who met a mysterious end in his attempts to penetrate the innermost heart of the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city he had become convinced once flourished there. Fawcett’s adventures were the stuff beloved of Boy’s Own magazines and early mass media hoopla, as Fawcett’s willingness to feed those beasts with tales of giant spiders and snakes as well as lost civilisations fed the lurid dreams of generations. Recently history has caught up with Fawcett in seeming to vindicate his wildest flights, as the remains of just such a civilisation around where he thought it might be have emerged, discoveries that cast a new light on the theories of a man who had been, at different times, dismissed as a charlatan, a eugenicist, and an Ahab-liked madman who lured his son and others to ignominious death in the jungle.
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Gray presents him rather as a smouldering social rebel, driven along by the disgrace of his father, who, straining against the tight leash of high Imperial Britain’s social prescriptions, finds a way to give them the slip and strive to touch something grand. In this regard, The Lost City of Z takes up the little-considered but powerful spiritual side of Lean’s later epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and strips away the more sensational elements to makes this pining desire for a transcendence tinged with pantheistic sublimation the focus of the journey. Fawcett, when first introduced, is seen gaining victory in a deer hunt held by British officers stationed in rural Ireland. Much as D.H. Lawrence identified Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans as the embodiment of the western death-dream, Fawcett has the same gift for the chase and touch with death, but he is doomed to hunt something much more rarefied, nominated by chance and temperament as a knight embarking on a grail quest. His swashbuckling prowess is in the meantime undoubted, but he’s still held at arm’s length by superiors who disdain meeting with him at the soiree following the hunt. Fawcett’s attempts to be a model soldier and citizen are contradicted by his broader mind and deeper emotional reflexes than most of the people around him. He’s married to Nina (Sienna Miller), a Victorian New Woman and free-thinker. Fawcett, pushing into his mid-thirties without any significant distinction to his name, finally gains a chance for advancement when his map-making skills, honed in doing surveying work for the army, are requested for use by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) and Sir John Scott Keltie (Clive Francis), chieftains of the Royal Geographical Society.
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Goldie selects Fawcett to head to South America and plot the precise parameters of the border between Brazil and Bolivia, to head off a brewing war between the two nations in the hunger for the riches produced by rubber. On his passage there, Fawcett meets the man who has volunteered to join his mission, the hirsute Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who’s joining him purely for adventure, but who soon proves a stalwart out in the wilds. He picks up a third comrade in Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), a ranking British soldier sent to meet him in the jungle rubber planters’ town of Fazenda Jacobina, ruled over as a kingdom by petty potentate Baron De Gondoriz (Franco Nero). The Baron gives Fawcett an enslaved native as a guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello), who tantalises the Englishman with tales of mysterious people who live in the jungle in their large and sophisticated cities.
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The Lost City of Z represents a sharp digression for Gray in some ways as the first time he’s ever ventured out of New York, let alone a North American setting, and his intricate grasp on the lost souls of the urban landscape, even as it slots into his oeuvre stylistically speaking with ease, and Gray methodically disassembles several of the potential genres the film belongs to. Gray orientates himself in the jungle by referencing a pair of his favourite films, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), both tales of self-appointed supermen with egos unchecked in the jungle, as Fawcett and his pick-up expedition venture into the wilderness only to find themselves beset by a nightmarish sensation of being unmoored from all familiar yardsticks of life and society. They become targets for native tribes who pepper their barge with arrows, and beset by maladies, like one that causes a team member to vomit up black blood. The forest proves near-desolate as a source of food, until Fawcett finally manages to shoot a wild pig. A brief attempt at revolt by a subordinate sees Costin shoot the mutineer’s ear off. But Gray also contends with such evocations and similarities and moves quickly past them, particularly as although as obsessive as the antiheroes of those canonical works, Gray’s Fawcett latches on to a dream of the landscape that beckons to the higher part of his mind rather than the black part of the id, and his journey becomes more one of diffusion into the landscape than resistance to it. He makes contact with tribes who have known only the thinnest connections to the outside world but soon learns of their capability in existence and the subtle harmonies of their lifestyles, which range from cannibalising dead tribe members to cultivating food and catching fish with special drugs.
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Fawcett begins to glimpse haunting signs of long-ago habitation in the jungle, remains of pottery and other fragments of civilisation, and faces carved into trees and rocks, gazing out like the spiritual eyes of the land, a lost part of the collective memory, an idea that gives rise to his decision to name the city out in the jungle ‘Z’ as the last piece of the human puzzle. Fawcett’s return to civilisation sees him mocked at a Royal Geographical Society meeting when he presents his findings and he angrily defends his theories against a reaction he interprets as contempt for the Amazonian peoples. One of the Society’s senior figures, Sir James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), proposes they venture back into the Amazon together to look deeper, and Fawcett eagerly agrees. But Fawcett soon finds he’s made a poor bargain, as Murray proves not only too old and unfit for the arduous exploration, but bilious and recalcitrant too, proving a terrible drag on the expedition. Murray presents a different order of nuisance to the men from Fawcett’s previous expedition, so rather than continue to suffer his insolence and unable to blow a hole in his ear in deference to his standing, Fawcett gives him their only horse and some provisions to head back to the nearest outpost.
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Shortly after, Fawcett catches glimpse of another carved face in the rock, and realises he’s finally made his way back to the realm of Z. But a flash flood nearly kills him, and then he’s called back to Costin to camp, and the sickening discovery that Murray sabotaged their supplies before leaving, a petty revenge that might also be intended to forestall any achievement of glory that sidelines him. The bedraggled party make their way back to civilisation and then to Britain, only to find Murray has beaten them there. After mutual recriminations and accusations between the two men, a charged meeting of the RGS sees Goldie and the other society bigwigs pressuring Fawcett to paper over the cracks in their unity and apologise to Murray, but Fawcett refuses and quits the society. Fawcett seems to have crashed headlong into a barrier of class and credibility even on the path of his elevated mission. The outbreak of World War One soon erases all other concerns. In the trenches Fawcett, Costin, and Manley, who fight together, soon learn that Murray has pulled the same tricks on another expedition, leaving no debate as to his treachery.
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Fawcett’s tale of real-life daring and fixation has all the hallmarks of a type of adventure tale that feels all but by-gone, but Gray’s approach pointedly disassembles the Boy’s Own side of Fawcett’s ventures, bending them to his own purpose and placing emphasis not on derring-do so much as on personal states of seeing and understanding. The Lost City of Z finishes up as much a portrait of a time and place as of Fawcett himself, an old world teetering on the edge of collapse, with Fawcett far out in front of its spiritual plane, hunting for signs in the wastes that once there were not just dragons here. Although an intrepid soul who seems far removed from the drab victims of life in Gray’s earlier films, Gray nonetheless sees shared traits with them, including We Own The Night’s Bobby Green, Two Lovers’ Leonard Kraditor and The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski, because like them he is both well aware of how much his place in society and his identity, imbued by genetics, reputation, nationality, and all the rest of it, define him, and drive his simultaneous need to find a place in the world and desire to escape it altogether. Upon return from his second expedition Fawcett finds his son Jack (Tom Holland), born when he was away on his first expedition, has grown into adolescence with a smouldering resentment for him by the time he comes back from the second. But that resentment soon enough evolves into eager desire to join in his adventures, whilst Percy himself obeys the urge to pursue a habit, one that imbues a feverish high whilst risking extermination all too similar to the one his gambling addict father chased by other means. Both men feel an urge towards honouring identity that nonetheless will destroy them, recalling the brothers in Little Odessa and We Own The Night who similarly find bonds of love and emulation become crushing chains.
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What Gray signals is important about people like Fawcett is less the specifics of their own manias but the way they inhabit the shape of our dreams at large, as Percy becomes a popular hero and celebrity for much the same reasons the establishment figures are obliged to constantly close ranks against him, for letting his imagination get away from him, and encouraging others to do the same. The limitations of will against identity are also crucially illustrated when Nina, beset by anxiety and resentment at being left at home when her energies and capacities cry out for better use, suggests that she accompany Percy on an expedition. But the idea horrifies her husband and reveals the limitations of his radical principles, as he declares allegiance to the idea of gender equality of mind but not body, particularly not hers in the gruelling reaches of the jungle, a place where, in fairness to him, he’s seen hardened trekkers and warriors crumble. This is a vital scene, not just for Hunnam and Miller’s all too volubly human incarnation of an essential modern problem, but also in offering a scene all too left out of this breed of film, encompassing two entirely understandable but diametrically opposed points of view between people who love each-other whose life circumstances and internal battles keep pulling them in different directions. Each time Percy returns to his wife she’s older and has more children rooting her securely to a world she’s in even more conflict with than he is.
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Percy’s encounters in the jungle with the fringes of his own society and what he finds beyond them come as a series of pierced veils that reveal new truths but also new mysteries and tantalising prospects. The pretences to grafting European culture onto a primal shore first glimpsed when Percy finds opera in the jungle gives way swiftly to the backwoods warlord stances of De Gondoriz and the network of scars on Tadjui’s back, whilst the apparently blank malevolence of the tribes who try to wipe out the intruders soon reveal faces and rich gifts for cultivation and nuances of lifestyle. They yield to Percy’s determination to communicate: at one point he gets his men to sing “Soldiers of the King” and waves a Bible and handkerchief before him as signs of his friendliness, signs and song the keys to human interaction, and doesn’t let an arrow that pierces part-way through the Bible break his gesture, even as the sickening proximity of death sends his mind scurrying back through memories of baptising his son. The act of unveiling and discovery gains a new context when Percy is left temporarily blinded by poison gas and rediscovers his family whilst lying bandaged and sightless in a hospital bed, prompting reconciliation between father and son. Survival and reconciliation are themselves a false ending before the quest calls again, and when news comes to Percy a new expedition might be chasing Z, this time Jack convinces his father to let him come with him to the Amazon, and a reluctant Nina acquiesces, and joins her other two children in farewelling them when they set off, in a sequence of unforced rapture, with daughter Joan (Bethan Coomber) chasing after the van carrying them away.
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Gray’s repute for crafting films with great visual beauty and concision on tight budgets reaches an apogee here, as every frame The Lost City of Z, thanks to Darius Khondji’s photography, comes on a muted yet cumulatively delirious beauty. And yet there’s a fragmentary quality to them as well, like pictures trapped in amber, managing to evoke the sensation Gray constantly reaches for as more remembered than witnessed. The sequence when Fawcett first enters Fazenda Jacobina is staged as a rapturous string of discoveries, as the bush parts to suddenly reveal an opera stage in the wilderness with singers mid-performance, and they tread the streets of the outpost, a warren of flickering firelight, an emanation from the physical and mental outskirts of the human world. This scene is rhymed later on when Fawcett returns to it with Jack only to find the place deserted, the jungle swiftly clenching it and drawing back into its heart. The town has become an instant and frightening example of just how fast nature can erase the imprint of human achievement once it ceases to be cared for, and thus providing in miniature a thesis statement for Fawcett’s concept for Z itself. Gray carefully violates the texture of his steadily paced, classical outlay of images with flashbacks, as when Percy, exposed before the arrows of a potentially hostile tribe, recalls baptising his son with Nina in a country church, a moment more dream-like than anything he finds in the jungle, which seems to be a trap for time but is actually a rigorously straightforward place.
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The cyclical construction and collapse of civilisations is a historical phenomenon Fawcett becomes privy to as he and his mates are shoved into the eye of the Great War’s furore, the battlefield studded with splayed corpses and a lonely statue of Jesus jutting from the wasteland, just as the remnant artworks and wares of Z dot the jungle. Z is Fawcett’s own world, hammered into mud and splinters, whilst he clings on to his Edenic dream, sketched upon a paper scrap he carries with him; Gray locates the science fiction film lurking within the rough-hewn veracity of Fawcett’s adventure, diagnosing Fawcett as a proto-modern with eyes fixed uneasily on a new state of being that is also unknowably ancient, appropriate for an age when history will undergo a violent and wrenching reboot. Fawcett’s command is visited by a fortune teller who grasps the essence of his ambitions and the attractive power of the world he dreams of, “A vast land bejewelled with peoples,” whilst Gray’s pivoting camera matches the stark and filthy mugs of Percy’s battered soldiers with the visages of the Amazonians amidst the primal green. The devolution is completed as Percy leads his men into battle, envisioned in a war scene reminiscent of the one Stanley Kubrick conjured in Paths of Glory (1957) as the Germans become a mere blank force of extermination randomly picking off men around Fawcett. The hawkeyed hunter of the opening deer chase is reduced to ineffectually firing off his pistol at unseen enemies, the cavalier tradition Percy both exemplifies and nettles at finding its ultimate cul-de-sac. Z, a place he senses is real even as it seems to exist beyond any liminal reality, has become not simply a preferable place to be but the only place.
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There’s incidental pleasure to be had in the way Gray utilises and disrupts the movie star wavelength of Hunnam and Pattinson, both of whom had been dismissed as pretty boys in their past roles and whose paths to proving themselves lend subtext to their characters here. This is particularly true of Pattinson with face smothered by great wispy beard, playing the oddball Costin who gains his introduction to Fawcett when the officer assaults him, believing him to be some ruffian dogging his footsteps, only to find he’s a tippling Edwardian bohemian looking for a life less ordinary. Costin eventually finds his own limit for Quixotic adventures after the war, when Fawcett tracks him down to a club where he doesn’t want to abandon his soft leather chair and whiskey. Hunnam’s own quality is one several directors have tried and failed to quite harness – Anthony Minghella came closest casting him as a vicious albino gunfighter in Cold Mountain (2003), an ironically villainous role for an actor sent down from matinee star casting, one that understood the tension between his standard, Nordic good looks and his slightly alien intensity as an actor. But it’s this tension that allows him to inhabit both Fawcett’s ready embodiment of the magazine hero type and the contradictions roiling around under the surface, the suppurating anger and spice of special lunacy that sends him again and again into the valley of death. Indeed, there are witty and intelligent casting choices throughout, particularly as Gray employs the likes of Nero, McDiarmid, and Macfadyen, actors with strong and specific associations in the modern movie canon.
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Murray Melvin, best known as the effete minister and gatekeeper in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), appears briefly in a similar role here as one who warns a grandee that Percy had an unfortunate choice of parentage. And yet the movie fan aspect to incorporating such actors has been carefully smudged into the landscape. Miller’s part critiques the many loyal wife roles Miller has played lately by inflicting that lot on Nina even as she does her best to escape it. Gray’s patience as a filmmaker often pays off in climactic moments that strike hard as they resolve the themes of the films in ways words cannot, like the contact between the brothers in We Own The Night, and the schismatic last image of The Immigrant that sent its protagonists on their differing ways to paradise and purgatory respectively. Here Gray goes himself one better as he tracks Percy and Jack into the bush on their date with destiny, being caught between two warring tribes and being caught by one, who, deciding to help them on the last leg of their quest, feed them what might by medicine or poison, and carry them through a jungle alight with fire, an image hinted throughout the film and now abloom with atavistic glory for a crossing of the river on the way to oblivion.
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Nina keeps a faith at home, handing over a totem – Percy’s compass – as a sign they might still be alive in the jungle, living now with the natives as the ultimate mutineers against civilisation. Gray revises the last shot of The Immigrant here as Nina leaves the Royal Society building, filmed in a mirror, vanishing into crepuscular light through greenhouse fronds as the sounds of Amazonia arise on the soundtrack. Gray here signals Nina’s fate to be held arrested by the mystery of her husband and son’s fates, subject to the same vexation in being spiritually if not physically reclaimed by the same cruel and beckoning promise of subsistence within the wilderness, Pandora left nursing hope as the last and most mocking evil, and as ever the most desperately needed, in the box that is the modern world.

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2010s, Auteurs, Drama, Romance

Song To Song (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s unexpectedly prolific burst of work in the second decade of the twenty-first century, The Tree of Life (2011), To The Wonder (2013), and Knight of Cups (2016), forms a loosely autobiographical, delicately interwoven trilogy exploring the sum and meaning of Malick’s life experience. His latest feature film, Song To Song, quietly reframes that series as well as extending it, resituating the three most recent works as a triptych describing the present day, but can also be seen as coda, revision, or even a return to point of departure. Here we are back in the heat-glare and sultry airs of Texas, the houses on sun-dappled streets charged with quiet yearning that have predicated Malick’s reminiscences since Badlands (1974), and returning to the theme of the eternal triangle that compelled Days of Heaven (1978), if in a radically different style. That film’s painterly poise in contemplating the tension between human unruliness and natural composure has given way to Malick’s recent, vertiginously mobile camerawork and his newly restless, hungry efforts to both experience and contemplate all at the same time, an option open to the filmmaker as it is no artist in any other art form. With his recent output, Malick has steadily abandoned the unique status he once had as American cinema’s most elusive and rarefied creator, a teller of grand tales of national genesis and mythical parable, at least to the extent that now he’s been releasing films regularly and engaging with the state of today rather than the epic pivots of epochs past. And yet Malick’s concerns here are generally exactly the same ones that have always dogged him: love, creation, destruction.
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Song To Song is a movie centring, of all times and places, on the contemporary music scene of Austin, Texas, a nexus for messy conception and peculiar faith. The story involves a daisy chain of romances and seductions, some of them sexual, others artistic and fiscal. Malick’s mixture of pride and bemusement that a corner of his home state has become a crossroads for modern pop culture is written into this work’s texture, as he repeatedly and amusedly returns to the juxtaposition of modern Austin’s new high-rise architecture looming cheek-by-jowl with neighbourhoods still composed of fibre cement and wood-frame houses, an outpost of super-modernity grafted onto a parochial patch of earth. Hell, this could well even be Malick’s metaphor for his own imagination. The choice of the music scene as a frame for this tale essentially transposes Malick’s meditation on his early Hollywood days, already explored in Knight of Cups, onto another social landscape, albeit one with a transient vitality that contradicts the ponderous machinery and alienation of the movie industry’s outer precincts. The previous film’s portraits of the hilarious vulgarity of wealth and the corrupting effects of obtaining success at someone else’s whim and in betrayal of one’s muse are here re-engaged more directly, and so are questions about what drives an artist to create or not create depending on the moment, questions Malick, who spent twenty years out of the directing game, has obviously asked himself often. Michael Fassbender incarnates Cook, a music producer and recording magnate around whom the other characters are locked in orbit, as the person who can make or break dreams but who is himself beset by contradictory forces he seems unwilling or unable to identify. Rooney Mara is Faye, a would-be performing star who is, at the outset, Cook’s aide and also his sometime lover. Ryan Gosling is BV, another musical talent who impresses Cook sufficiently to be anointed as his next big thing.
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In its initial story proposition, Song To Song calls to mind Kris Kristofferson’s “The Taker,” one of the many visceral yet sarcastic post-mortems that musician wrote about what it’s like to be a failure in a culture-industry town – in that case, the Nashville Kristofferson haunted in the 1960s, musing on watching a girl you like being romanced by a successful man. Malick’s narrative runs contrary to this in deed if not spirit as the artist wins over the mogul in chasing the heart of the lady fair, but then finds things are never quite so simple. The boiling masses of tattooed fans who surge around the Austin City Limits Festival stages and other venues might seem like expressions of riotous pagan impulse at odds with Malick’s Augustinian sensibility, but he readily subsumes them into his world-view, rejoicing in the bristling energy and explosions of primal life-force on hand. Cook uses their performances in part as a prop in his own life, an end to his labours and also a means for charming both lovers and artists. The bruising yet rapturous spectacles of communal joy and conjuring are counterpointed with the intimate and protean world of bohemian becoming that is the rest of the movie, and the camera (wielded by Malick’s invaluable recent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) locates the lead actors here with a general aura of solitude even when in the midst of vast crowds: to be the artist is to suffer an eternal frustration of severance from the freedom the crowd has to simply experience the artwork, and indeed life itself. Faye inhabits a limbo as a talent who, through connections rather than actual, proper committed work, lives in comfort and prosperity, in a sky-riding apartment in one of the downtown buildings, which Cook probably bought for her.
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Faye’s wont to turn the world into a smorgasbord of experiential possibility and Cook’s ability to offer it up that way is visualised with genius economy when, at one of Cook’s parties, Faye finds herself looking over a woman used as human food platter, her naked body bedecked with hors d’oeuvres (and the woman herself looks unnervingly like Faye), whilst Cook tries to interest BV in the bevy of beauties flocking around his swimming pool. But BV quickly zeroes in on Faye because of her self-declaration as someone detached from the scene, as she strides amongst the partiers listening to her iPod: when BV catches her eye, instead of stepping out of her bubble, she invites him into it by handing him one of her ear-buds, and they gently bop to the sounds she’s listening to. Cook’s methods of seduction ironically echo the great business of romance as it blooms between Faye and BV, and other Malick couples. The film’s first quarter is replete with images of the mogul and his two pals having a good time in distinct couplets, getting drunk in the streets of old Mexico or spinning weightlessly in a plunging jet, matching the way the first flush of the thrill in being freed from the rules of gravity through the alchemy of creation and the lubrication of money. But this loose, semi-clandestine menage comes to an end as Cook takes both Faye and BV south of the border, and recognises quickly Faye has fallen properly for the performer, diagrammed in terms of proximity with excruciating clarity amidst the geometrics of the Mexican architecture.
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Cook quickly expiates this humiliation by flirting with Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a former teacher who’s now making ends meet working as a waitress. Cook breezes into her life and storms her barricades with all the swagger of his success and his practiced charm, and in short order marries her. Her mother (Holly Hunter) cautions her to be careful, as her finances aren’t in the best shape and she’ll have no power to fight her husband if she needs to break from him: “The law’s no help for those who are ruined,” her mother states. Cook even buys her mother a house. But true to mama’s rueful warnings, Cook uses his grip on Rhonda to draw her into his lifestyle, including at one point getting her into a threesome with Faye, who maintains an occasional sexual relationship with her boss even as she and BV move in together and share a seemingly bucolic existence. A rupture comes in this state of affairs when BV confronts Cook during a fraught drinking session over his copyrighting BV’s songs under his own name. BV spits at Cook’s feet and severs their business ties as well as their friendship. Soon Cook makes an offer of a recording contract to Faye, perhaps as a device to cleave the couple apart. BV advises her to take the chance even though he despises Cook, but soon BV also learns the real nature of Faye’s past with Cook, which soon learns to their breaking up. Both quickly drift into new amours. BV, trying to re-establish himself with declining enthusiasm for the music scene in general, encounters divorced millionaire Amanda (Cate Blanchett) and they have a good time together in spite of the discomfort some take in their age difference. Meanwhile Faye has a bring fling with a French artist, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), a steamy little affair that nonetheless quickly cools down as it has no emotional content.
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Song To Song is tantalising, infuriating, utterly distinctive but also sometimes wearyingly repetitious, at once richly composed and yet often curiously lackadaisical. It feels more loosely assembled than any of Malick’s other recent films, but also flaunts this quality. Part of this seems dictated by setting and production and other parts by the matter at hand. Most of Malick’s movies have all been love stories to some extent, they’ve also been stories about the difficulties of humans evolving into their proper selves, even if it means leaving behind states of contentment. To The Wonder concluded with its errant exiled heroine giving herself up to a type of pantheistic world-love rather than merely human; Knight of Cups concluded with a vision of its hero finding happiness but leaving it vague as to just how. Song To Song commits itself to speaking of the damage lovers can do to each-other but also patiently traces the paths that can lead them back together. It tells of young emotions with a youthful zest of technique but with a notably aged note of languorous yearning and fumbling to articulate wisdom hard-won. Malick’s trademark use of voiceover is less prevalent here, the musings less abstract and more like attempts to boil specific understandings down to worldly sutras. It’s also the first of his labours to be told mostly from the perspective of an adult woman, Faye. The urgency that has propelled his recent output, the frantic, daring attempts to paint entire life cycles into two hours of cinema evinced in The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, gives way here to a more modest study of desire in both its momentary and perpetual manifestations. Malick lets us see his performers footloose in the moment, adjusting themselves to his directions or provoking each-other in actor-exercise improvisations. The method suggests Malick’s attempt to reproduce the rough-hewn aesthetics and improvisatory lifestyles of the denizens of the music world, offering the technique he’s steadily mastered on his previous handful of films with the work showing this time.
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Of course, one might be justified in regarding this as a sign Malick’s rigour and craft are abandoning him in his old age and following a string of such stylistically similar films where he’s worked them good and proper, especially as some of his obsessive motifs come on with almost self-satirising regularity – flocking birds, waving grass, infinity pools, dance-like choreography of everyday human activity, and sexuality that seems to do everything but the nasty – and Song To Song starts to feel like a by-product. Certainly some of his themes here also threaten to edge into a zone of triteness he’s generally been able to avoid before, particularly in portraying Cook as serpent in the Edenic zone, the sponging corporate type who uses and abuses the folk about him. And yet Malick’s empathy is strong enough even to wrestle this cliché to a draw, hinting constantly at Cook’s sources of torment. He’s glimpsed pouring booze into an urn containing what seems to be a family member’s ashes towards the start, and he seems dogged by the absence of actual creative capacity itself. He can only frame it or augment it, and his habits of reducing the artists he encounters to prostitutes in relationship to him in part mimics his own actual reliance on other people to provide meaning to his actions. “I can’t take this world straight,” he confesses to Rhonda as he eddies in the flop-sweat-sodden, dull-eyed exhaustion after one of his orgiastic good times. “I was once like you – didn’t know what I know now,” he is heard uttering at one point. This voice of frantic, nihilistic need is projected over a fragment of an experimental film replete with images of lonely planets and axe murders, in an aside that curiously resembles Malick both engaging and satirising a generational fellow and temperamental opposite: David Lynch’s similarly stark and evocative tendencies towards surreal yet visceral pessimism.
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Whilst it’s not a star turn in the traditional sense, Fassbender gives nonetheless a performance close to career-best as he exposes Cook’s flashes of smarmy brutality and supernal charm, but also the desperation in his glass-under-rain eyes. His habit of reducing his relationships to adjuncts of his appetites is ultimately enormously destructive but also rhymes with Faye’s own seeker status, as she has dedicated herself to obtaining experience at any cost. Sexuality, a matter Malick notably avoided depicting in his early work, is very much a topic Song To Song tackles with curiosity as well as a certain censorial instinct, in a way that constantly evokes erotic fervour but also grazes the edges of moralism. Certainly Malick examines the problems of people reducing each-other to bodies whilst neglecting other forms of connection, a problem that foils Faye’s efforts to grow: “I took sex – a gift – I played with it – I played with the flame of life,” her narration sums it up at one point. Yet Malick doesn’t disdain the vitality seen even in Cook’s carnal escapades, his boyish delight commingling with screaming need for escape in being squeezed between two prostitutes, flesh boiling in protoplasmic forms, manifestation of a desire to slip the bonds of being, that most inarguable and desolately inescapable of states. Romance for Malick is as ever a state close to returning to childhood, driving the poised and cynical beings he portrays into paroxysmic motion, making them run, dance, skip, leap, screw, and cling to each-other in tactile need, always teasing the surfaces of their lovers, even penetrating, but never quite gaining proper union with until a strange state Malick feels is close to divine intervenes.
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The solitary, wanderer-in-the-world lot of Malick’s protagonists is bound in with their sexual identities here, their search for completing piece of their being. But it’s also tethered to their own status as familial creatures, the products themselves of people coming together. Cook’s possibly grieving rootlessness is contrasted with BV and Rhonda’s connections to family. The fact that both these characters live in a place at once cosmopolitan and parochial allows Malick to study them in the context of family allegiances and alternative value systems, whereas the protagonists of many of Malick’s earlier films were constantly cut off from native soil and their own pasts either by fate or design. BV is drawn back in by his family as his father has fallen into vegetative senescence, a reminder of imminent mortality and the bonds of identity that lend a subtle drag to his efforts to recover from the damage Cook did him. Faye has a solicitous father (Brady Cameron) who readily operates as her sounding board and confessor, as Rhonda’s mother serves for her. If some of Malick’s ways of masticating his material here feels a bit shop-worn in terms of his signature approach, one more original aspect of Song To Song lies in how it furthers the documentary element to his filmmaking that The Tree of Life mooted and Knight of Cups embraced. Lubezki’s camera floats freely through landscapes noting life in its asides and grand stages, evinced during the many vignettes set during musical performances, where the actors are knitted in with music stars. Crowds of young moshers and rockers are glimpsed at the outset engaged in gymnastic cavorting. Music stars careen by the camera, some fleetingly glimpsed like Florence Welch, Alan “Neon Indian” Palomo, and Tegan and Sara, whilst elder gods like John Leydon, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith are lassoed in to fulfil a more intriguing function: they offer snatches of personal wisdom, Greek Chorus-like commentaries on the problems besetting Malick’s characters gleaned from their own struggles and triumphs.
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Nor is this just glorified star-fucking, for Malick has time for less spectacular confessionals, as he wrings from two of the prostitutes Cook hires, recounting their self-perceptions and experiences in hauntingly exposed terms, one young and fresh, the other older and feeling the stir of life’s colder winds. Malick’s familiar approach to utilising his actors, mining their most ephemeral, essential, and transient gestures and knitting them into the greater pattern of his editing, catches his actors both extremely wary, as Mara’s wide, alien glare absorbs her surrounds in suspicion and stoic remove, and also at their most unguarded, as when she launches into a dance in a bedroom, suddenly alight with the remembered pleasure of romantic moments. Gosling’s comedic gifts are allowed some leeway, as when he tosses away a terrible meal at some social shindig he’s been invited to. Val Kilmer appears in a bizarre cameo, part recreation of and lampoon on his famous role as Jim Morrison, as an aging rock star Faye is drafted into backing, who fires up the crowds with calculated barbarisms like using a chainsaw to cut a speaker in half, and scissoring off his own hair – pure incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll’s Loki-like, trickster god glee in all things antithetical and cathartically ruinous. Lykke Li has a substantial part as BV’s former girlfriend who’s become a jet-setting superstar, who visits him after he’s broken up with Faye and gives the siren call of joining her and drifting off into wild blue yonders. But BV, feeling the nagging tug of identity and responsibility as well as dissatisfaction with his life, instead retreats into his affair with Amanda, one that demands nothing but persistence in the moment. Faye seeks the same easeful time with Zoey, but her demanding, sensual, yearning face with its vulpine brows and teeth anxious for the red meat of love proves too potent for such a casual arrangement and an interloping straight lover, and the relationship quickly sunders. Meanwhile Cook’s indulgence of his many habits drives Rhonda to despair, and finally death, probably by suicide.
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The Pre-Raphaelite image of Rhonda’s dead body splayed in water identifies her as a sacrificial victim for the cult of art, but the images of her mother wailing in banshee-like despair in a carpark identifies banal consumption of the soul as another trade of modernity. As Rhonda’s body is scooped up by a shocked and terrified Cook, Malick confronts an image of cold, cheerless death he has avoided in its last few films – even the crucial death at the heart of The Tree of Life, of the hero’s brother, was suggested rather than seen. It’s a logical end for an undercurrent of interpersonal violence witnessed continually but never evinced in blows or wounds. BV’s split from Cook is in itself as a fleeting yet gruelling vignette that precisely measures the meaning behind such acts as stealing someone else’s credit and smashing a bottle for cataclysmic underlining, whilst Rhonda’s squirming through the sessions of sexual adventuring her husband draws her into constantly prods with the spectacle of her reduction to concubine. Malick is also merciless in his understanding of a Buddhist philosophical truism, that what appear to be actions are in fact only ever consequences. BV’s understandable rejection of Cook nonetheless creates the circumstances that lead to Rhonda’s death because Cook is left untethered to any amity. BV and Faye’s journey by contrast eventually sees them reconnect and finally settle down, albeit it in quite different terms. BV abandons his music career for a simpler existence as an oil driller, swapping a frustratingly ethereal accomplishment for engagement with the physical world in a manner tied to his reclamation of his family identity, whilst Faye finally regains her musical fire even whilst settling into a more lucid and composed existence as a mother.
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Song To Song is a striking and enriching collage on so many levels, and littered with gorgeous fragments that still bespeak of Malick’s capacity to find an arresting image in any setting and scatter intricate rhymes and patterns throughout. Like in a moment, close to the film’s start, when BV caresses Faye with Christmas lights, the accord of their nervous systems given a beautiful visual simile, rhymed to a shot much later of Faye lying sprawled alone on a coiled length of fluorescent lights, drifting in the ether of her own melancholic dreaminess, BV’s touch a memory. Or the sequence of BV and Cook’s first Mexico venture, a rollicking interlude of boozed-up good cheer that sees the two men following the old Beat trail, in the Indian summer of their mutual reliance and excitement at finding a second musketeer, giving way to the sorry sight of Cook trailing after BV and Faye as they spin off into their ecstatic union. And yet the film as a whole fails ultimately to cohere on several levels in a manner none of his other works quite fail, except perhaps his hippy-dippy war movie The Thin Red Line (1998). The reason why seems bound up with the absence of that aesthetic and expressive urgency that drove along Malick’s other recent works, the need to get at some vital fact of existence that had to be articulated no matter what damage was done or discomforting memory was parsed. Part of this failure is linked to the careless approach Malick takes to his characters’ actual business as artists. That facet could be neglected in Knight of Cups because its screenwriter was patently detached from his hack line of work, whereas here the business of making music is supposed preoccupy and define everyone. Malick’s polyphonic cinema on the other hand can’t sit still long enough to engage with creation and performance in any kind of meditative feeling.
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Another problem is that none of these characters quite dominate the screen, and so they remain relatively remote as identification figures. The urges of Malick’s dramatis personae towards their destinations in the other films of this unique quartet gain momentum through and because of the pressure-cooker intensity of the filmmaking, mimicking their own impossible urges to move in every direction at once, to feel and know and be and conquer themselves and become unbound. Olga Kurylenko’s Marina and her desperate urge to chase ultimate liberty in To The Wonder had this persuasive, tidal intensity; in Knight of Cups, although the dramatic landscape was even busier than the one here, Christian Bale’s Rick remained key to all we saw, and understood his perpetually Sisyphean existence, so his flight into the wilds at the end also retained cathartic impact. Rhonda’s plight has the stuff of high tragedy but she’s only a minor character in the film when all is said and done, whilst BV and Faye remain comparatively muted figures, avatars for what Malick is trying to say but not quite gaining the stature of archetypes Malick pushes them to attain. But it also must be said that Song To Song also wears its imperfection on its sleeve, its (relatively) ragged, offhand feel as a war banner. Malick’s late oeuvre has stood as a general rebuke to the small-mindedness and watery technique of too much serious contemporary cinema, particularly that coming out of an independent film scene taken as natural heir to the American New Wave, an era Malick stands as one of the last standing warriors from. Song To Song is less rebuke than an act of leadership, signalled through the synergy Malick is chasing between his medium of film and the subculture he studies; just as the elders of the music scene like Smith offer their own counsel to the young artists on hand, this is Malick’s. Song To Song is about its own making and its message is that making, as Malick presents to independent filmmakers a template for creativity that makes virtues out of seeming limitations.

Standard
2010s, British cinema, Drama, Scifi

High-Rise (2015)

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Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

By Roderick Heath

Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
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Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold and unsparing sensibility on one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
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A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
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High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and forge a self-sufficient community, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
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As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
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Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
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Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
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The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
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Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
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Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
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Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
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High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
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Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Laing over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
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Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
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Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
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Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
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If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.

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