1910s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Drama, Epic, Experimental, Historical, Thriller

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

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Director: D.W. Griffith
Screenwriters: Hettie Gray Baker, Tod Browning, D. W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods

By Roderick Heath

David Wark Griffith should have been on top of the world. He had just scored what is perhaps in sheer audience numbers still the biggest hit in cinema history, with The Birth of a Nation (1915). He was being hailed all around the world as the greatest innovator and aesthetic force the young art form had yet seen. And yet Griffith was stung and chastened by the levels of anger and accusations of culpability hurled his way in the face of his great success in propagandising on the behalf of the Ku Klux Klan and enshrining of racist pseudo-history in narrative form, an impact that had sparked riots and demonstrations. His emotional response to such a conflicted situation meshed with an artistic sensibility that now had the money and clout to realise itself on any project and scale he wished. His theme was to be prejudice as a human phenomenon, not so much as a mea culpa for The Birth of a Nation as a reaction to a reaction, with a narrative that takes more than a few pot shots at the destructive impact of the self-righteous. Faced with new expectations and intoxicated with the epic style of cinema he had discovered, Griffith decided to expand upon the scenario he was planning to film next, called The Mother and the Law. Inspired by the historical imagery of Cabiria (1914) and encouraged to push his experimentations in cross-cutting to a new level, Griffith decided to tell several different stories tethered together by unity of theme as well as cinematic technique.
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The Birth of a Nation’s controversial aspect only seems to intensify over time, whilst broadening awareness of other early creative voices has robbed it of some stature as a work of innovation. With its virtually antipathetic outlook and far more deliberated artistic expression, Intolerance has nonetheless still often struggled to shrug off its long-held reputation as an awesome folly that ruined its director-impresario. The colossally expensive and logistically demanding production became a singular moment in the early history of Hollywood, one that even inspired a whole movie, the Taviani brothers’ Good Morning Babylon (1987). The shoot pooled together many future Hollywood talents and mainstays as members of the cast and crew, and came to encapsulate the enormous ambition and reckless immodesty of the rising industry. Intolerance represented a grand experiment in what a movie narrative could look like and what ideas it could contain, and how far a mass audience was willing to go. Some still call it the greatest movie ever made. Certainly it’s one of the most influential. Even if Intolerance examined possibilities for commercial filmmaking that Hollywood as a whole would largely reject for decades, filmmakers far and wide took its cinematic lessons to heart. The montage ideas Griffith wielded became vital inspirations for Soviet film theory. Something of its influence echoes through to the conversing time frames of Citizen Kane (1941) and on to The Godfather Part II’s (1974) contrapuntal structure and the splintered evocations of The Tree of Life (2011).
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If The Birth of a Nation shocked many, including its director, by outpacing all concept of how cinema could hold and manipulate an audience, Intolerance mapped regions of artistry and technique not everyone found they wanted to annex – the New York Times review labelled it incoherent and even intertitle writer Anita Loos, who had worked with Griffith before, admitted she struggled to grasp Griffith’s technique. One critic of the day, Louis Delluc, commented that the audience was confused by the time jumps, as “Catherine de Medici visited the poor of New York just as Jesus was baptizing the courtesans of Balthazar and Darius’ armies were beginning to assault the Chicago elevated.” With most movies, leaning on title cards was a relative luxury at a time when a decent percentage of the prospective audience would have had literacy troubles from either curtailed education or coming to English as a second language. The nature of silent cinema made it a perfect unifier for such an audience. But following Intolerance demanded paying attention to the written intertitles. The film’s relative financial disappointment seems generally however to have been due more to its splashy roadshow presentation, and Griffith’s growing certainty that the approach to making and releasing films that had worked with The Birth of a Nation would, despite running contrary to the swiftly settling realities of Hollywood business, would consistently deliver success, including spurning star performers.
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Intolerance tells four interwoven stories. One is set in the present day of 1916. When the Jenkins family, a clan of rich mill-owners, crack down on their striking workers, the entire community is displaced and forced to survive as most finish up in a big city slum. Amongst their number are a girl, “The Dear One” (Mae Marsh), and “The Boy” (Robert Harron). After they eventually marry The Boy quits working for a gangster, the “Musketeer of the Slums” (Walter Long), but the Musketeer has him framed and imprisoned, whilst Dear One’s infant daughter is stripped from her by a band of social welfare crusaders. The Boy is later accused of killing The Musketeer, who was actually shot by his mistress, “The Friendless One” (Miriam Cooper). A second story unfolds in ancient Babylon, as “The Mountain Girl” (Constance Talmadge), after avoiding being married off at the behest of her brother (Frank Brownlee), falls in love with King Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) from a distance, and eagerly joins the warrior forces fighting off the besieging armies of Cyrus the Great (George Siegmann). The High Priest of Bel-Marduk (Tully Marshall), infuriated by his cult being displaced by that of Ishtar, decides to betray the city to Cyrus. The third story recounts the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell) manipulates her son Charles IX (Frank Bennett) into ordering a slaughter of the Protestants in Paris, an order that sweeps up young gallant Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette) and his fiancé, “Brown Eyes” (Margery Wilson). The fourth tale recounts incidents in the tale of Jesus, “The Nazarene” (Howard Gaye), including his generous miracle as the Wedding in Cana and his crucifixion.
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In truth, only the first two of these stories really add up to much. The Massacre story amounts to a few brief scenes, and the Nazarene account is closer to a recurring motif, like the famous symbolic refrain of a young mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a baby in a cradle. This vision constantly punctuates the drama and often marks shifts between the narrative strands, emphasising Griffith’s concept of the world’s evil so often gathering to crush ordinary people. It feels at times like Griffith decided to get some use out of some unproduced three-reeler scripts he had lying around, which is basically true. The present-day tale and Babylonian legend tell counterpointing tales of communal dispossession and desperation, romantic frustration, and battle. Griffith’s overarching theme evokes human society as something being perpetually born, evoked in recurring cradle motif. That refrain contrasts the imagery of maternal care and vulnerable youth with the three fates sitting balefully hunched over in the corner, who are in turn echoed in the present-day narrative by the three prison guards ready to cut the strings that will hang The Boy. The Nazarene’s fair and compassionate preaching is contrasted with the various forms of bigotry and hypocrisy glimpsed throughout the film, and his eventual execution taken as a fitting extreme for this tendency of societies to consume their innocents.
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Despite Griffith’s disavowals, the difference in focus between The Birth of a Nation’s sectarianism and Intolerance’s anti-bigotry creed certainly suggests the result of a creative mind set at war with itself and emerging with a more universal message, and mediates the previous film’s bitter portrayal of racial conflict with the poetic invocation of interracial romance in Broken Blossoms (1919). Other variances between Griffith’s most famous films are consequential and go well beyond their divergent messages. Where The Birth of a Nation was intellectually under the sway of Thomas Dixon, Intolerance feels invested with Griffith’s more personal touch in conception, with stories, despite their scale and disparate time frames, unfolding in a manner and revolving around the sorts of characters clearly more in his wheelhouse. Particularly with the focus on female protagonists, the winsome naïfs and plucky tomboys, and varying figures of desperate, conflicted emotion. The Birth of a Nation loses its initial narrative and creative momentum the more Dixon’s plot and pseudo-history dominate it and the film as a whole, and despite its relative sophistication still depicts narrative cinema as a work in progress. By contrast, Intolerance is astonishingly complete and sophisticated, building in invention and dramatic intensity with symphonic zeal to its astounding last few reels. Both films are of course works of breathless melodrama that depend upon indicted avatars of social ills and images of urgent endangerment.
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But Intolerance’s psychology is cannier and its social panoramas less maudlin and more boldly critical. In this regard Intolerance is still surprising, and to a certain extent turning from The Birth of a Nation’s sensibility to Intolerance feels like moving from a 19th century view of the world to one infinitely more modern. The downfall of Babylon, brought about by the Bel-Marduk priests, the fate imposed upon Dear One and the Boy after their community is decimated by the decisions of Arthur Jenkins (Sam De Grasse), the Nazarene’s crucifixion, and the massacre of the Huguenots, are all tales where innocents fall victim to calamities brought on by members of society determined to defend their privilege and power. Griffith’s unvarnished portrayal of violent strike-breaking, with the Jenkins’ goons shooting at demonstrators, and the indictment of do-gooder organisations as one wing of a system of oppression that takes from the lower classes on both ends, have a boldness that still feel radical especially considering they were offered at a time when such labour violence was commonplace. If Griffith had made it a few years later he would’ve risked being labelled a Communist agitator. A further layer of irony is added as the strike is caused by a cut to the workers’ wages made by Arthur to help his spinster sister Mary (Vera Lewis) fund her interest in charitable organisations. She creates the Mary T. Jenkins Foundation, the same organisation that eventually takes away Dear One’s baby. Loos’ biting intertitles describe the crusaders as having turned to agitation after losing their looks, but the film offers Mary a measure of empathy early on as she realises the younger people in her social circle no longer consider her a peer, leaving her with an empty life she tries to fill through good works.
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It’s tempting to write off Griffith as an anti-intellectual, holdover Victorian artist who gave himself up to the emotional logic of any scenario he turned loose on. But the conjoining aspect of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance on the level of social enquiry is the search for a way of conceiving society as a whole, a hunt for metaphors and concepts that can explain why the world is perpetually balanced between cruelty and amity. Intolerance has been described as a screed against government and authority, although that’s only partly true. Griffith’s ambivalence about authority figures, from parents to political leaders, is certainly another note carried over from earlier films, expressed in his previous works like The Avenging Conscience’s (1914) portrayal of an adoptive patriarch who is both tyrannical and pathetic, as well as The Birth of a Nation’s portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and Austin Stoneman as people who, with varying purposes and ideals, manipulate others to perform acts of violence. The French royals in the Massacre strand are portrayed as either weaklings or truly malicious, but the Jenkins are allowed some ambiguity through their detachment from the consequences of their actions and Mary’s wish to have a positive impact on the world. Belshazzar in Intolerance has impressive lustre as the cheiftain and embodiment of a state, one who mesmerises the otherwise wild and wilful Mountain Girl and leads his armies to a victory. But even he is ultimately distracted by the hedonistic pleasures available to a man in his position, blinding him to betrayal.
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The labelling of many characters by titles rather than names evokes sentimental types but also has a proto-modernist aspect, acknowledging their functions and their blank, universalised identities. The recurring rhythms of social life the film identifies also sees people obeying those rhythms, and so subject to forces beyond their control. This is balanced by Griffith’s tendency towards homey moralism, as the present day narrative celebrates Dear One’s ability to maintain her virtue until marriage in contrast to the Friendless One’s decline into being a gangster’s moll, whilst the indulged sensuality of Babylon can be seen as an aspect of its decadent vulnerability. But Griffith keeps in mind the processes that mould people. The Friendless One, as her title indicates, is an outsider whose eventual recourses and crimes are rooted in experience and ambiguous social ostracism: she shoots the Musketeer in part to protect The Boy, who was kind to her, as well as jealous anger for the Musketeer’s lust for Dear One. Dear One’s childlike innocence is the product of a doting father, but as circumstances change she’s tempted to mimic the provocative walk and dress of her flashier rivals for male attention around the slum. This enrages her father, and he tries to sock The Boy when he catches him romancing Dear One. Her father dies soon after, unable to endure his collapse in fortunes, leaving Dear One to navigate her own path. The sequences where Dear One resists both The Boy’s sexual overtures in an attempt to penetrate her room, result in some deeply corny stuff – “Help me to be a strong-jawed Jane!” Dear One pleads heavenwards.
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The Nazarene portion of the film gives Griffith, despite its brevity, the chance for direct and specific comments on moral disparity, Jesus’s generosity at the wedding and intervention on the behalf of the fallen woman offered in stark opposition to the self-appointed economic and moral dictatorship of the Jenkins and the De Medicis, and his crucifixion also helps imbue the other stories with an aspect of symbolic force. The Boy and Dear One’s steady lurch towards matrimony is contrasted with the Wedding at Cana as an evocation of the pleasures of a custom well-obeyed, whilst Griffith cuts from the Foundation women’s planning aggressive interventions with Jesus intervening to save the adultress from her persecutors. The crusaders, labelled “The vestal virgins of Uplift,” even launch a crackdown on dancing, turning a bustling and lively dance hall into a deathly dull restaurant. The portrayal of the Foundation crusaders is a touch ungracious as it basically accuses them of being ageing pests, big, burly matrons and nasty cows, introduced with the same touch of a slow dissolve from an empty institution to one at full flight of business Griffith used with the black-dominated state congress in The Birth of a Nation. The context of Intolerance’s making, as women’s suffrage was making headway and the push for Prohibition was gaining speed, lends it both an aspect of reaction – damn these bossy mannish women trying to run us! – and also justified caution at attempts to use state-sanctioned force to make people behave themselves.
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The anger Griffith evinces at certain forms of sanctioned bullying and coercion to achieve supposedly beneficial results is plain and livid, and the crucial scene of Dear One’s child being essentially kidnapped is both straightforward melodrama and punchy social protest. Charlie Chaplin, one of Griffith’s admirers, would channel this sequence for his own take on slum life and parental care, The Kid (1922). Both Griffith and Chaplin understood clearly the intimate terror for people living in poverty of having their children taken away as an immediate underpinning for drama. Coercive power is wielded equally by the Musketeer, who frames The Boy when he cuts him loose, and by the gang of stern crusaders who bail up Dear One in her rooms, using details like the fact she’s been drinking nips of whisky to deal with a cold against her. “Of course, hired mothers are never negligent,” an intertitle notes acerbically when Dear One is reduced to trying to catch a glimpse of her baby through the barred windows of the Foundation orphanage. Griffith’s use of the close-up, swiftly becoming identified with his specific cinematic touch, provides his great weapon in evoking the emotional straits of his characters, moving in for visions of Marsh’s gleaming, teary eyes and Cooper’s brittle visage betraying a fracturing soul. Intolerance sees Griffith perfecting the language of cinema as we know it as a dialogue of distance that alternates description and experience, humans as beings in a setting and as personas in isolation.
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As if taking up the challenge of Giovanni Pastrone’s moving camera on Cabiria, Griffith and his stalwart cinematographer Wilhelm ‘Billy’ Bitzer went one further when time came to unveil one of the grand set-pieces of set design and crowd manipulation, by hoisting their camera on a crane and staging an advancing, descending dolly shot, a common filmmaking touch today but one that must have hit the audience of the day with vertiginous force. Griffith plainly liked this moment so much he repeats it a few times. The cross-threaded narrative that so challenged the audience of the day is to contemporary eyes entirely coherent thanks to an intervening century of being schooled and stretched with film language, but it’s still relatively rare in its method, cutting between each story, noting rhymes and deviations of fate and meaning. Inevitably for a film that takes on such a theme as Intolerance and with such evangelical fervour and disgust for inequity, the stories all have a rather dark cast, with three of the four tales concluding with their protagonists dead and their causes defeated, and the fourth, the modern story, putting its heroes through utter hell. In the Massacre story, Brown Eyes becomes the exemplary victim of Intolerance as her family is slaughtered around her. Prosper’s desperate dash through the streets to try and reach her is stalled so often she’s raped and slain with sadistic relish by a mercenary soldier who’s been awaiting his chance. Prosper, clutching her body, strides out into the street and bellows abuse at the soldiers, who respond by gunning him down.
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The Babylonian portion of Intolerance has always been its most famous, the source of its most anthologised and emblematic images and its repute as a great moment in moviemaking hype. To see the enormous recreations of Babylon’s walls and temples is indeed to feel like you’ve seen the apex of a way of doing things, the climactic ceremonies of invocation for the city’s propagation doubling as an act of pure cinematic worship executed at a time when labourers and extras were cheap as chips. Less than a quarter-century after cinema’s birth it was reaching its zenith in production ambition, and since them its horizons have only shrunk in such terms, preferring today to execute such visions through computer pixels. The lavishness isn’t just in terms of set construction, but extends to Griffith’s portrayal of the Babylonian court, where Belshazzar’s “Princess Beloved” (Seena Owen), who has encouraged the worship of Ishtar over Bel-Marduk, is the king’s living idol and mate. The pageantry and minutely detailed décor and dress overwhelm the eye, replete with marvellous shots like one of Belshazzar petting a pet leopard clutching a stem of white roses in its jaws.
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The intensifying editing rhythm of Intolerance’s later reels in moving between the stories is given extra propulsion by utilising the dancing of the Babylonians to give physical, human counterpoint to the rush of cuts and evoke a gathering, hedonistic frenzy, movements and gestures propelling the cinematic edifice itself. The city’s “Temple of Love” contains a coterie of heavy-breathing Sapphic priestess-concubines, proving sex stuff wasn’t beyond the prim Southern Baptist Griffith and anticipating his rival-follower Cecil B. DeMille’s similar excursions, although Griffith’s images are arguably racier than anything DeMille ever dared. Griffith doesn’t labour to be condemnatory either, but generally considers this mostly fictional concept of a bygone society on its own terms. He even expresses a certain outrage that Babylon is destroyed through betrayal and rapacious imperialism, and considers Belshazzar and his court as representing one apex of civilisation in beauty and good living. The story revolves however around the feral outsider The Mountain Girl, whose pluck, daring, and idolisation of Belshazzar stand in fascinating contrast to Brown Eyes’ incarnation of a standard damsel in distress and Dear One’s wan and victimised incarnation of a more passive and Victorian-era feminine ideal.
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Griffith’s receptivity to the energies of his female cast members and interest in woman-driven stories seems to have been one secret to his success, and his best-received subsequent works, Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), revolved around young women trying to survive a mean and battering world. Talmadge’s startling energy and expressivity comes damn close to stealing the whole film despite the structure’s resistance to such things. Talmadge pulls off a comedic coup in the scene where she casually makes a mockery of her brother’s attempts to have her sold off in marriage, when The Mountain Girl first sees Belshazzar and spins off into rhapsodies of romantic expression, and later anchoring the high tragedy of the story. And yet The Mountain Girl and Dear One are ultimately linked by their determination to fight for the man they love and their attempts to penetrate a mystery. Just as Dear One talks a friendly beat policeman (Tom Wilson) into helping her find who really shot the Musketeer, so The Mountain Girl uncovers the Bel-Marduk High Priest’s treachery by tracking his chariots out to Cyrus’ camp, and tries to warn Belshazzar. Caught in the middle is The Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton), a proselytiser for Bel-Marduk who falls for The Mountain Girl despite her disdain for him: “Put away thy perfumes, they garments of Assinnu, the female man. I shall love none but a soldier!”
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Intolerance presents The Mountain Girl as perhaps a creature that could only exist in the distant past, although she also seems designed to speak to all the eager young proto-flappers of the day. As Cyrus brings his armies to the gate, The Mountain Girl’s skill as an archer proves valuable in helping with the defence: Griffith cuts from The Mountain Girl hurling stones at the attackers to the more decorous if no less partisan Princess Beloved in a frenzy of inspiring fervour. Later The Rhapsode, drunk and thrilled by being chosen as one of the circle in on the High Priest’s plans, boasts to The Mountain Girl about the plot. The echoes of the ancient tale in the present-day one see aspects of Belshazzar, Princess Beloved, and The Mountain Girl in The Musketeer, The Friendless One, and Dear One, if greatly reconfigured, and the drab squalor of the slums sharply contrasts the splendour of the ancient world, if not the poshness of the Jenkins’ mansion. Belshazzar’s harem is sarcastically equated with The Musketeer’s pornographic décor and solitary concubine. Broken Blossoms would both narrow the focus of Intolerance’s preoccupations but also intensify them on a key frequency, reducing the matter to the outcast man, delicate woman, and brutal authority figure. The result was perhaps the purest statement of Griffith’s poetic streak, as intimate as Intolerance is grand.
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But aside from passages of the Babylon siege, which becomes interludes of pure spectacle, Intolerance retains its focus on the human level remarkably well; truly, Griffith’s feel for cinematic art seemed to intensify all the more precisely the more he was chasing a direct, near-physical relationship with his audience. The siege scenes are nonetheless still amazing, coming on with such ferocity in staging and cutting and shooting it’s hard to believe at points they were staged: where Pastrone’s siege sequences, whilst obviously the model, were nonetheless rather static and clunky, Griffith unleashes pure cinema, with shots of warriors plunging off the walls and siege towers blazing in the night. He even weaves touches of comedy, like two defenders getting knocked out by catapulted stones and falling into each-other’s arms like sleeping babes. The siege, dominating the middle half of the film, contrasts not great climaxes in the other stories but rather passages of imminent crisis, in The Boy’s return home from jail and conflict with The Musketeer, and Catherine swaying her son to order the massacre.
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The Boy’s trial and imprisonment awaiting hanging sees Griffith kicking up the rhythm another notch, as Dear One and the cop look desperately for a way to save him, and The Friendless One clearly eddies in guilt and confusion. After following Dear One and the cop to the governor’s house, The Friendless One confesses to them and joins their efforts to chase down the train the governor is on. Griffith unleashes his most frenetic and dazzling editing as he switches between this pursuit, Prosper’s dash to save Brown Eyes, and The Mountain Girl trying to outpace Cyrus’s chariot horde to warn Belshazzar. Griffith’s epiphany here, semi-accidental perhaps, involves modernity’s possibilities for altering ancient realities: where The Mountain Girl can’t save the day, arriving too late to rouse the Babylonians to a proper defence, the present-day dashes succeed by gaining the aid of a race car driver who outpaces the train. The Mountain Girl dies valiantly but forlornly in defending the palace, riddled with arrows whilst Belshazzar and the Princess kill themselves, and Cyrus howls in glee as he announces himself master of the city.
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The climactic image of the Babylonian story is possibly Griffith’s greatest, of the dead Mountain Girl, a look of sublime bewilderment on her face, resting amidst the carnage in Belshazzar’s palace, a pair of yoked-together doves from Belshazzar’s pet menagerie nestled by her body, oblivious animals detached from the human drama whilst also emblemising all its romantic tragedy. Griffith, to try and generate some more revenue out of his huge folly, would later release the Babylon section as a standalone feature called The Fall of Babylon, this time with The Mountain Girl surviving and escaping; he also released the modern story separately and toned down the anti-business and strikebreaking scenes. Only the present day story ends happily out of the narrative sprawl in Intolerance, albeit still with a bloodcurdling aspect. The Boy is saved just before being hung, and he and Dear one are reunited in the prison yard, her wild pleasure as she embraces him contrasted by his dead-eyed shock. The prison scenes see Griffith using blocking and framing to create semi-abstract effects – bustling bodies of convicts in striped uniforms enclosed by stark brick walls, faces appearing through barred portals – that carry on some of Griffith’s experiments on The Avenging Conscience in not just using editing and decor to construct his storytelling but also manipulations of what he puts before his camera to evoke shifting psychological landscapes.
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Carl Dreyer, another filmmaker profoundly influenced by Griffith, might have remembered these in the stark images of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), as well as the transfiguring close-ups, and they also anticipate Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock’s explorations of dehumanisation through similarly skewed visual language. The film concludes with a coda diverging into outright allegory and summative preaching, echoing the similar note at the end of The Birth of a Nation but greatly expanding it for a dreamlike vision of warfare and bloodshed, complete with shells shattering urban buildings in fascinating special effects shots. Griffith here is reflecting on the omnipresent reality of the war consuming Europe at the time, and even sensing America would soon be drawn into it, with the resulting fear of the same destruction being wrought about its cities. But, again echoing the end of Cabiria if with a more dynamic use of the motif, an angelic host appears above a battlefield, arresting soldiers in the middle of mutual murder. The host initiates an age of loving peace, where prisons crumble to green fields and people celebrate by dropping flowers from ghostly zeppelins. A bizarre, silly, joyous end to a film that feels like cinema’s ever-flowing wellspring.

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2010s, Chinese cinema, Experimental, Film Noir, Romance

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Di qiu zui hou de ye wan
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Director/Screenwriter: Bi Gan

By Roderick Heath

Bi Gan was inspired to become a filmmaker after by a college viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) assured him that you could do what you liked with film. His debut as a feature director, Kaili Blues (2015), instantly marked him in both China and abroad as a new talent with startling accomplishment for such a young voice. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his second film, is a statement of artistic ambition rare on the contemporary film scene. A surprisingly big hit at the Chinese box office, in part because of a cunningly obfuscating advertising campaign, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also a film that tries to embrace contemporary frontiers in filmmaking like a bold application of 3D, usually reserved for special effects spectacles, and a unique brand of showmanship to a defiantly unconventional brand of filmmaking. Related to Eugene O’Neill’s great play only by a sense of living in a present inescapably haunted by the past (the Chinese title is equally loose in appropriating a Roberto Bolano book’s title), Bi’s film is neatly bifurcated as a viewing experience, the two halves – the title card doesn’t appear until almost precisely halfway through – corresponding to different states of perception and being.
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Bi’s approach to cinema is certainly original, and his vantage on art film internationalist. Nonetheless he threatens to unify some familiar traits that many other major Chinese-language filmmakers share to varying degrees. The lushly visual and dreamily psychological cinema of Wong Kar-Wai and the painstakingly evocative externalist portraits of Hsiao-hsien Hou meets the gritty reports from directors like Jia Zhangke and Li Yang, and even Johnny To’s bravura genre twists, to make account a deliriously shifting social and emotional landscape. His method, subsuming film noir motifs into a more abstracted and experimental brand of movie, also echoes a long tradition, back to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain-Robbe Grillet. After all, the obsessions of much modernist art, with vagaries of identity and form, knowing and ambiguity, the sense of paranoia and estrangement pervasive in much of modern life, the uneasy relationship of personal agency with blocs of great power and crises of faith and ideology, conjoin very neatly with noir’s basic motifs, where the individual is so often an existential warrior in such a void. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays out a kind of film noir plot in disrupted and spasmodic fashion, used to illustrate a general, ephemeral sense of existence, where one search blends into another and all roads to a nexus of identity, far more ephemeral and romantically charged than such heady forebears.
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The setting fits such a story perfectly, offering a corner of a vast and prosperous nation where nonetheless not many interested eyes seem to be turned and it’s easy to imagine human flotsam slipping through the cracks. As with his first film, Bi’s real subject, or at least the most tangible one, is Kaili itself and surrounds in the southern province of Guizhou, a mountainous, subtropical region that’s plainly missed out on the great millennial economic boom. Bi surveys a backwater vista of decaying, blasted industrial structures, dilapidated enterprise, and drifting, isolated and disorientated people. Bi’s hero Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is first glimpsed, haggard and grey-haired, after a tryst with a prostitute, on his way back to Kaili after a ten-year absence. Luo seems to have been working at a scrap metal merchant’s as a cutter and welder. Bi’s camera tracks from a view of him driving off in a van and then along rusted metal barrier whilst Luo’s voiceover recounts how his one-time friend Wildcat was found dead at the bottom of a mineshaft. Luo’s return is prompted by his father’s death: he finds his father has left him his van but left his restaurant to his second wife, a move Luo accepts with weary approval. The second wife takes down a clock his father used to sit and drink in front of and replaces it with a photo of the father. Luo checks the clock and finds why it served such a totemic function for him: he had hidden a photo of his first wife, Luo’s mother, in the mechanism. She vanished when Luo was still very young, and he begins trying to track her down.
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One quest for a woman is conjoined with another. Luo also wants to find his former lover, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman he became involved with years earlier, or who might have been named Kaizhen. She reminded Luo of his mother in some ways, particularly when he first saw her with smudged makeup. At the very start of the film, Luo tells the prostitute he dreamt of a woman, surely Qiwen, who always returns to him in dreams just when he seems at the point of forgetting her. What follows for the rest of Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s first half is a near-random-seeming assortment of scenes that start to fit together mosaic-like, recounting Luo’s present-tense attempts to find where his mother went to, as well as pondering his past with Qiwen and seeking her ultimate fate. Qiwen appears like an apparition out of the mess of Luo’s past. Luo recalls how he met her, as Wildcat’s former lover, tracking her down and catching her on a train that became halted by mudslide.
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Luo seems to rough her up, grabbing her hair and pointing a gun at her forehead, much to Qiwen’s detached and world-weary lack of great concern. As if in compensation after deciding she had nothing to do with Wildcat’s death, Luo took her out to dinner and encountered her again walking down a seedy tunnel wearing a green dress and smeared, blood-red lipstick. Luo showed her the same photo of his mother to her he would later rediscover in the clock. Or are his memories and his present bleeding into each-other? The older Luo visits Tai Zhaomei (Yanmin Bi), a woman in prison who was a friend of his mother’s when she was younger, and mailed the photo to his father’s restaurant. Luo learns things about his mother, including that she was a good singer, and was involved with criminal activities like forging identity cards. Mother and son both seem to have shared a fate to remain rootless and outside the law, and Luo and his father are unified by their fate to constantly dream about the woman they lost.
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Bi’s eliding visuals mimic the haziness of Luo’s memories, replete with rainy haze, reflections, unfolding in places that seem sequestered from the hoary everyday. Bi tends to break up longer, relatively coherent scenes with sudden plunges into subliminally connected recollections, a random access memory for vignettes charged with needling relevance. Luo’s voiceover describes Qiwen as someone who seemed to appear out of nowhere and then return there. His memories of her are often layered and mediated, a face in shadow lit by flame, a solitary figure swathed in green, glimpsed in mirrors and through rain-speckled glass, at once palpable and immaterial. Settings have a similarly conjured intensity, like the tunnel where Luo encounters Qiwen. Or the abandoned building with peeling paint on the walls and water constantly dripping from the ceiling, a place where Luo retreats and apparently once lived in with Qiwen, and which Luo recalls his one-time paramour teaching him a magic spell to set spinning around. Or the grimy railway café where Qiwen makes a fateful statement to Luo, and a cobra is kept in a glass case, rearing up in impotent fury, like an illustration of the lurking danger in their lives.
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Fragments of sublime and languorous romanticism are glimpsed, as when Luo and Qiwen lying kissing by a pond, or talk in the café where the subject is urgent but the mood is distrait, almost surreal. Such flashes of beauty are wound in nonetheless with a threat of violence and deep-seated angst. Luo tells his mother-in-law he’s been managing a casino, a tale that proves to be rooted in an old ambition he and Qiwen had talked about. Another vignette sees Luo promising Qiwen that if they have a son he’ll teach him pingpong. Qiwen wanted to leave Kaili with Luo because a man she knew named Zuo was returning. She recounts to Luo a story of how, when singing karaoke, he told her “I will always find you.” Who Zuo is and his place in the lovers’ life resolves as Bi offers a shot of a man wearing a white hat singing karaoke with Wildcat dangling like a meat carcass, in the bowels of some seedy building, with Qiwen seated but apparently browbeaten by Zuo, who grabs her hair and tries to make her sing with him. Luo recounts having seen Wildcat’s ghost on a train not long after he died, and later there’s a glimpse of his corpse being trundled into the mine shaft that became his last resting place. It seems that Zuo killed Wildcat, and Luo intended retaliation by sitting behind Zuo in a movie theatre and shooting him in the back, but Bi never shows whether he really did the deed.
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Back in the present tense, Luo is handed a handwritten message from Tai Zhaomei by a cop, giving what might be the current name of his mother, Chen Huixian, and an address. Luo visits a hotel, but it’s uncertain whether it’s his mother or Qiwen that he’s tracked there: the jovial but shabby manager tells him about one of his quarries, who used to pay her rent by spinning entertaining stories and stated she was born infertile. Luo visits Wildcat’s mother (Sylvia Chang), a hairdresser who Luo once was an apprentice to. Her account of Zuo’s dealings with her son and Qiwen sound startlingly like what Luo experienced, including being her lover and the deed of shooting a man on her behalf. Did any of this happen at all, or is it Luo’s feverish fantasy, or a blend of conjecture and identification rooted in things that happened to others? Was Qiwen Luo’s fellow survivor and islet of comfort in a harsh world, or a free-floating agent of destruction constantly ensnaring men and driving each to destroy the last? Bi doesn’t exactly answer any of these questions, but continues signalling subliminal connections between people who step in and out of roles in life – villain, victim, lover, parent, child – as time drags them along routes that seem at once utterly happenstance and eternally repetitive and predictable.
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The dichotomous hunt for Qiwen and Luo’s mother conjoins as a search for a kind of cosmic feminine, and often from scene to scene it’s hard to tell exactly which one he’s hunting for in that moment. Lookalikes proliferate. Meanwhile Luo explores a world where casual sights, like a karaoke truck or a boy petting a dog in a train station, will be appropriated and mixed into a fantasy landscape. Consuming fruit becomes an odd motif: Qiwen has a love of pomelos, whilst there’s an extended sequence of Wildcat eating an entire apple, stem and core included, as part of an odd ritual designed to end a feeling of sadness. Bi identifies an entire world of similarly uprooted and estranged people, as his camera notes Luo riding a bus full of itinerant workers sleeping, and a shattered factory populated by singer-prostitutes about to be left without a venue. Much like Jia with films like The World ( 2004) and A Touch of Sin (2013), Bi seems to perceive modern China as a place where the pace and type of change has left everyone’s head spinning, the country fundamentally fractured on the basic levels of community and psyche, the regressive lilt of its backwaters at once dogging the memories of its go-getters but also offering no cheer upon return. But like Wong Kar-Wai, he also sees the way we’re constructed by a mass of ephemeral impressions, always becoming and never more than a sum of the past.
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Throughout Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi works in some blatant nods to some beloved inspirations, including the self-animating glass of Stalker and the cattle skull-bedecked motorcycle of Touki-Bouki (1972). Such quotes certainly show Bi working through his cinematic touchstones, but they also serve a function as something like aesthetic milestones, points of recognition and orientation in the midst of a free flux of style. “The difference between film and memory,” Luo considers at one point, “Is that film is always false.” But memory is much more pernicious, blending together all the meal of being and identity, and our favourite artworks tend to become deeply entwined with impressions of places and times (this might also be the first and last film ever made to hinge in part on Vengaboys nostalgia). Tang’s presence in the film, as an international movie star whose beauty has the right mask-like, hallucinatory quality for Bi’s textures, provides another locus of recognition. Qiwen has an air of scarcely being present in mind even when physically present, of being too life-bruised and exhausted to react with anything like passion to any situation, barely bothered to resist clasping hands as if she’s been manhandled too many times to waste any but the minimum required energy fending such abuses off.
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Qiwen’s allure in the grimy and depressed setting Bi shoots is nonetheless inescapable, like something fallen from the sky. Qiwen shares a name with a cantopop star, a name that seems to distinguish her and signal her alien, too-good-for-this-place aura – this touch is reminiscent of Hsiao-hsien Hou naming the heroine of his equally wistful Three Times (2005) after the movie star Bai Ling, counting on such recognition for an archetypal charge: such names spell our moment and become our vehicles of self-expression and identification. Except that when Luo goes to a karaoke venue set up in an old factory about to be demolished, and thinks Qiwen might now be one of the singing concubines who works there, although the emcee-madame thinks he means an impersonator of the singing star, as her ranks are crammed with girls who specialise in mimicking such stars. To be subsumed to an image is to be erased. The opening with Luo chatting with the prostitute who looks something like Qiwen, signals the way Luo tries to retain a grip on the past’s illusions and his inability to move beyond them. Meanwhile he encounters people persisting in their small bubbles of subsistence – the hotel manager who points an ancient musket at his young employee as a bored practical joke, or Wildcat’s mother who works out to a video dancing game. Everyone and everything feels submerged, as if in a flooded city. After talking with Wildcat’s mother, who plans to dye her hair just as Qiwen once wanted to dye her hair red.
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Such throwaway and ephemeral details return transformed in meaning in the film’s second half. To waste time until the karaoke starts up, Luo goes to watch a movie and dozes off with a pair of 3D glasses on: at last the film’s title is displayed and the movie Luo watches becomes his own story. If the first half is an unmoored and skittish portrait of a man trying to sort out fact from fiction in his memory, the second has the fluid and metamorphosis-riddled aspect of a dream. The central conceit of Bi’s approach is that the dream seems much more lucid and negotiable than the section dominated by process of memory, which is associative and leaps time frames with jarring and bewildering randomness, although slowly it begins to add up to a kind of sense. The radical reorientation of style leaves behind the opaque shuffle of events for a rigorous, apparently single-shot experiential excursion, one that might be a “dream” and yet also seems clearer, more coherent, and more literal than the earlier half, albeit one filled with jolts of magic-realism. This section is replete with motifs anyone might recognise from dreams they’ve had over the years – mysterious journeying, strangely conflated setting and places, people who share multiple identities, anxious blends of public ritual and private angst.
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But Bi’s visualising of this, rendered in what is apparently one, long, sustained shot, inverts usual expectations for portrayals of the real and imagined, and ultimately makes you wonder which is which is his imaginative universe. He follows Luo as he enters an underground mine complex, leaves it on motorcycle and then rides a flying fox, entering a sort of industrial citadel amidst a jagged gorge that proves also to be a compressed pocket of reality where the stations of Luo’s particular life-long crucifixion are all neatly contained. People gather in a frigid plaza to watch and perform karaoke, big, beaty anthems echoing plangently around the locale, at once inviting the roaming outsiders and expelling them from the common run of humanity. Luo’s search becomes a literal trek around this segregated reality. Along the way Luo encounters a young boy living in the mine who also goes by the name Wildcat, and who loves playing ping-pong. He meets a woman who’s the spitting image of Qiwen except with a short red-dyed hairdo, managing a pool hall for her boyfriend. Another looks like the old Wildcat’s mother and has the same hairdo as the Qiwen avatar, who begs the hotel owner to come with her on some journey and confesses to be the one who burned down the building where Luo and Qiwen lived.
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Bi’s ostentatious yet resolutely unhurried formal device depends on a number of seamless transitions from shooting stage to stage – the ceaselessly roaming camera speeds before the motorcycle and then seems to glide through the air in arcs of languorous movement as Luo rides the flying fox and he and Qiwen make used of a ping-pong paddle the boy Wildcat gave him that has the potential to become a mode of flight, surveying the citadel and the human flotsam below as if momentarily granted deistic purview. As in myth, Luo has to pass a challenge to move from one zone to another, in his case winning a ping-pong match with the boy Wildcat. Luo has a potency in this zone that eluded him previously. He’s able to masterfully intimidate two teenagers who harass Qiwen, and fends off the hotel owner with a brandished pistol. In much the same way, the subterranean logic Bi employs throughout this sequence, the conjuring trick that is his cinema, ironically gives all a unity, a sense of completeness, that initially eludes it: the film’s second half is a statement of faith in art as a mode for making sense of experience. Luo is free to make associative connections and realise hidden truths. Resources of magic are available and time inverts.
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Each character realises multiple identities. The boy Wildcat could be the lingering spirit of Luo’s dead friend and also his fondly imagined and wished-for son, a reality in an alternate dimension. The vignette of Wildcat’s mother and the hotel owner could be simply be versions of the people they look like. Or smudged representations of Luo’s own mother and her ambiguous fate. Or Qiwen and her current boyfriend. Or future versions of Qiwen and Liu. They can be all at once in part because Bi has spent the entire movie carefully setting up the array of echoes and doppelgangers, generational examples of the same cyclical problems. Bi even has a certain droll sense of humour about the symbolic meaning of all this, as he has Qiwen comment on the symbolic value of the firework as representation of the transitory. In the truly surreal world, such representations break down, distinctions are lost, and opposites threaten to unify. The greater part of Bi’s game here is less to intrigue with such ponderings, however, than to articulate an oneiric feeling nearly impossible to articulate except with the tools cinema gives him. The sense of being at once present and removed from circumstances, of dreaming but also being aware.
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Luo’s encounters have a vital, salutary quality, helping the women he’s known, and by extension himself, escape frames of identity they’ve become entrapped by. The Qiwen he meets in the hillside town lacks the identifying marks that fixed the old one in his mind but nonetheless becomes the one he searches for, the green dress swapped for a flashy red jacket, just as iconographic but declaring a more worldly and contemporary aspect: classic femme fatale become ‘80s thriller neon goddess. Her fondness for pomelos suddenly gains meaning, as the highest rize on the fruit machine she likes to play, longing for fiscal deliverance. Strange as it all is, so much of Luo’s life clicks together like a jigsaw in these scenes, leading to its dizzyingly romantic climax as Luo and Qiwen kiss in the ruined building and do sit it spinning. His camera then threads an independent path, free of reference to his characters, through the citadel until focusing on the burning sparklers Luo left in Qiwen’s dressing room. Symbols of the transitory indeed, but burning brightly. We are of course watching Bi’s movie and he knows it, using the privilege to rewrite his own reality.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Experimental, Horror/Eerie

Mandy (2018)

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Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn

By Roderick Heath

Panos Cosmatos is a second-generation directing talent, son of the Florence-born, Greco-Italian director George Pan Cosmatos and Swedish sculptor Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos. Cosmatos the Elder directed many a punchy action movie over the years, including Escape to Athena (1979), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984), Leviathan (1989), Tombstone (1994), and my personal favourite, his blend of disaster movie and epidemic thriller, The Cassandra Crossing (1977). At his best George had the kind of headlong, take-no-prisoners energy to his filmmaking that makes for great trash cinema. Panos Cosmatos debuted in 2011 with the instant cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow, signalling that he was going to be a very different filmmaker to his father. Just two films into his career, Cosmatos the Younger has confirmed a style based in delirious visuals and an allusively creative approach blended with concerted fetishisation of genre plots and imagery, a schismatic aesthetic Panos had stated very plainly is based in a desire to unify the artistic styles of his parents, George’s popular, spectacular thrillers and Birgitta’s abstract conjurations. Mandy, his second film, reaped a lot of excitement in the build-up to its release by promising a hallucinogen-tinted, utterly madcap revenge thriller carefully pitched to give fans of star Nicholas Cage a pure, uncut dose of his weird and galvanising talent.

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For once hype was inescapably correct, but Mandy proves something even more eccentric, a plunge into an evocation of a netherworld at once dreamy and charged with hellraising headfucking, but also a considered attempt to portray extreme woe as a state of mind that remakes the universe in its own sorry image. Mandy unfolds in a version of 1983 that might as well be in an alternate dimension, the landmarks all the same but the general spirit and rules of reality all revised by cosmic fiat. Red (Cage) and his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in a house in the Shadow Mountains of British Columbia. Red works as a lumberjack, hewing away at the fringes of the primal forest, whilst Mandy mans the counter at a gas station and store, whiling away her hours reading paperback fantasy novels and painting fanciful illustrations for what seems to her own comic book take on her favourite genre. Red and Mandy both have the aspect of survivors, renegade lovers recovering from wild youths now happily drifting through the days out on the fringes of civilisation, with only need for each-other’s company when Red comes back from his logging adventures. Mandy, with her heavy metal T-shirts and goggle eyes, is a fawnish, fey-seeming lady who seems to operate purely by some skewed interior compass, whilst Red seems to have built his life around providing her with a safe shell to crawl into, partly because he needs her arms to crawl into himself.

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One day, as Mandy walks up on the gravel roads bisecting the forest about their home, a van passes by, and she locks eyes with a man in the vehicle, one Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Sand is the guru and warlord of a wandering gang of bohemian rabble calling themselves Children of the New Dawn, all in his thrall as a self-appointed messianic voice, and he instantly decides he must possess Mandy. Once ensconced in a nearby motel, Sand angrily spurns his older disciple and concubine Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré) in favour of a younger, Sister Lucy (Line Pillet), whilst instructing his slavish aide Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) to find Mandy and bring her into their midst. To help Swan, Sand gives him a device he calls the Horn of Abraxas, which Swan uses once he’s driven out into the woods; the horn proves to have the ability to conjure up the Black Skulls, a band of demons riding motorcycles, whose hellish ranks Swan impresses for the task of taking Mandy and Red captive in their home. In exchange for their services, Sand casually tells Swan to let the demons have another of the disciples as blood sacrifice. The demons and cultists break into Red and Mandy’s house in the night, separating the lovers, tying Red up, and dragging off the hapless disciple for slaughter. Marlene and Lucy dose Mandy with a drug cocktail and subject her to the sting of a huge wasp just for flavour, before taking her to meet Sand in the living room, where the cult leader tries to dazzle her with his brilliance until she submits to his overlordship.

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The opening scenes stake out the dominant mood and style as one of narcotised and amniotic immersion, a state of free-floating spirit that seems to mimic the womb-like remove of Mandy and Red’s life together. They’re the kind of couple who know each-other’s sense of humour backwards – Red’s punchline-lacking knock-knock joke cracks them both up – and who settle down for dinner whilst watching a trashy horror movie. Their house has mostly glass walls that allows them to all but float amongst the trees. Mandy has a pacific sensitivity about her that lends specially charged meaning to a moment like when she stumbles across the corpse of young deer, and steps naked out of a lake with fixated eyes that seem to hold Red enthralled by her irrational power, in the best possible way. The jagged hieroglyphic of a scar on her cheek testifies to some encounter with terror and pain in her past. Riseborough’s preternatural gaze has never been quite so well exploited in a role where she’s required less to seem like she’s acting – which of course can demand very difficult acting – than a spirit haunting the movie even when Mandy is still alive. Mandy’s talent for illustrating seems to mesh with her fondness for the fanciful, as she’s reading a high fantasy novel called Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye about a questing hero battling sorcerers and demons. After finding the deer’s corpse, she recounts to Red, in a long, slow, eerie vignette, the story of how her father encouraged her and some childhood friends to slay some starling chicks he found, through his hatred for the greedy birds, but Mandy, lacking that edge of sadism so many only need encouragement to indulge, ran away.

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The arrival of Sand and his band offers a contrasting state of hermetic self-involvement, with Sand a tight-wound ball of craven wont mixed with a strange, livewire intensity that suggests a state of painfully ecstatic awareness. Sand wields some authentic-feeling qualities of the cult leader. Like Charles Manson he’s a failed musician, and explains with wide-eyed fervour about the transcendental experience of God speaking to him and telling him everything in the world was his, seemingly as a recompense for his dud career, and he offers a similar pleasure to those who follow him, a promise that even if he doesn’t want to use all the gifts of the people under his aegis all the time, he can still channel them towards a greater purpose than what the world usually extends to them. You’d dismiss him as a colossal wanker if he didn’t seem to really have some mystical powers, with his ability to completely compel his followers and summon demons to do his bidding. Whenever fear or anxiety unseat him, he’s able to draw in and recover a sure sense of his power, returning to glazed and fanatical stature.

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The film’s focal sequence comes when the drugged-up and tethered Mandy is obliged to witness as Sand parts his robe so she can behold his scrawny body and flaccid penis and listen with edification to his psychedelic folk-rock, a scene pure black comedy fervour wrapped in a shiny glaze of trippy colouring and droning scoring that keeps in mind the menace underlying all, the assurance that Sand will readily and easily do terrible things to Mandy and Red. What he doesn’t expect, however, is Mandy’s reaction to his great performance, as she begins to laugh with fearsome contempt for the man and his music: Mandy has encountered and defeated such monstrosities before, if only on the plain of her dreams. Sand’s punishment for mockery is however dreadful: once his underlings tie Red to a tree in the yard, he has Mandy bundled up in a sack, hung up before him, and burned alive. Left to his own devices by the Children, who leave after reducing Mandy to ashes, Red manages to work his hands free from his bonds and goes into his house, still tauntingly the same as it was a few hours before but now utterly changed, absent the presence that gave it meaning. Red is transfixed by the spectacle of an ad for “Cheddar Goblins” on TV that has demonic visages rising from a bowl of snack food, beset by animated visions of Mandy as a zombie, and stung as he pours vodka on his raw wrists and slashed side, raw physical pain anchoring him to a reality he’d probably easily check out from otherwise.

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Mandy’s bizarre style, sporting rich colour effects, plangent sound design, and general miasmic mood, sees expressive textures explicitly related to the otherworldly sensibility of the two tribes, the world of two that is Red and Mandy and the cobbled-together family that is the Children. Cosmatos seems bent on creating a modern version of psychedelic cinema, but that style’s generally gaudy, amped-up sensibility is swapped here for one liquidinous languor, as if David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky tried to collaborate on a New World movie for Roger Corman. The storyline proceeds with near-mythic simplicity, telling an essential story of loss and retribution, in order to describe the obsessive emotional quotient of Red’s experience after Mandy’s death. Mandy describes Panos’s imagined idea of 1983 as an age viewed through a prism of cultural detritus and childhood impressionism. The past is surely another country, populated with counterculture exiles and illustrated through the vivid, conceptually related but subtly diverse and individually totemic styles of cover art on Heavy Metal albums, drugstore paperbacks, VHS schlock, and comic book illustrations, all soaked in the bad Woodstock brown acid. The film might be a dream either Red or Mandy are having, the stuff of their waking fantasies churned together in the dye welling out of their subconscious.

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The demarcated chapters are announced by titles written in retro fashion, mimicking the horny curlicues on ‘80s horror paperback covers or the glazed, glowing fonts of fantasy film logos in trailers, the sorts of stylistics that tend to be so ubiquitous that you don’t really notice when they go out of favour. Cosmatos seems to be recalling with happy barbarity the days when pop cultural schisms were potent demarcations, when furious arguments over things we tend to laugh at now like Satanic messages in rock music could echo through the news space with credulity. The joke of this is that a pair like Red and Mandy, who often sports a pentagram-emblazoned Motley Crue shirt, are harmless when left to their own devices, whilst the Children, who are in spite of their hellspawn helpmates are actually designated “Jesus freaks,” are the cruel and marauding imposers. Cosmatos shows Reagan on the TV as another brand of beatific cult leader. The sociological import of this, Cosmatos suggests, is that more real damage has been done to the modern mindset by those proposing to have a path to God and glory than those happy to roll around in affected devilishness. The mysterious treaty between Heaven and Hell proposed by Sand and the Black Skulls, echoes an idea out of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where the obsessive Jesuit Naphta proposed Satan was much closer to God than Man because the Devil was playing his part in the scheme of things whilst Humanity is always trying to go off on its own path. You could even describe Red’s path in the second half of the film as the dramatization of that path.

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Meanwhile Sand portrays a certain type of vanity to the hilt, turning his own libido and mesmeric conviction in his own value into a cosmic state, a diseased devolution of hippie mysticism into pure Me Decade ego service, bedecked in faux-religious finery. Mandy wins a kind of victory over him, signified as her face and his seem to be blurring and becoming one, doubtless the process by which he subsumes his slavish believers into his service, in an image reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). But Mandy instead rips free and begins to howl with laughter, the worst offence to the man-god, who desperately masturbates as if hoping it’s a rite that can ward off humiliation, before he casts Mandy into the fires where, as the Children gleefully tell Red, she’ll remain burning for eternity. After escaping his bonds Red tries to touch her scorched remains, only for her skull to crumble into dust. Cage, up until this point mostly a quiet and beholding figure becalmed by Mandy’s presence in his life, now squirms in terrible private pathos. In his tiger-emblazoned shirt and underpants, pale legs barely propping up his weary body and pouched genitals and finally giving out, he’s like a caricature of a very specific image of bereft and pathetic masculinity, and concludes with the sight of him weeping on the toilet.

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Red sets out to avenge her with steady determination, visiting his enigmatic friend Caruthers (director and former Predator star Bill Duke in a splendid cameo), a calm but foreboding helpmate who has his ear to the ground, and who keeps a crossbow Red owns stashed away, a device of death Red calls The Reaper. Caruthers tells Red that he’s heard about the Children and their demon brethren, who tear along the remote roadways of the region transporting a powerful version of LSD concocted by some mad alchemist living out in the wilds, and reports rumours about the Black Skull’s nightmarish activities and supposed origin, as a biker gang perverted and misshapen by the alchemist feeding them a particularly obscene brew. Realising he needs a more than ordinary weapon to fight such monstrosities, Red returns home and forges a battle axe out of silver, moulding, hammering, and polishing the weapon until it’s a glistening demon slayer which he names, of course, Mandy. This sequence comes weighed up with brazenly iconic, fuck-yeah delight in the macho swagger and sense of impending reckonings, and Red sets out on his battle with evil well-armed if still facing great odds: “You’ll probably die,” Caruthers has warned him, to Red’s reply, in a tenor of slight hurt mixed with dry resolve, “Don’t be negative.”

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When the time comes for the roaring rampage of revenge Mandy certainly delivers. But it remains steadfast in its strangeness, its air of surreal grappling with a specific keynote of emotion. It’s also a film dedicated utterly to describing a mood that, for all the retro trope harvesting, seems somehow purely contemporary. A feeling of being bound and trapped, flailing in impotent anxiety before the entitled arrogance of others, of being naked before looming arithmetic of debts that can be repaid fourfold and yet only ever be too late and too little. It’s close to a zeitgeist right now, and Cosmatos, however coincidentally, speaks to it. More immediately, his purpose is to define Red’s sense of dislocated grief, and that is also the idea of grief in general. Red goes to war with “all that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil,” as his ancestor Ahab once did. Mandy zeroes in a rarely-contemplated aspect of the revenge saga, which usually, when not simply using it a pretext for violence, utilises it as a metaphor for the process of expiating loss. Mandy immerses Red, and the viewer, in a sodden state of inescapable awareness where the shock of violence intensifies rather than dispels the punch-drunk atmosphere, each gruesome slaying and sticky end ratcheting up the insanity a few more degrees. Every torn body and crumpled skull simply underscores the impossibility of escaping the sink of sorrow until the very last station is reached.

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Like some of the other more interesting films of 2018, like Lynne Ramsay’s equally shell-shocked You Were Never Really Here and Steven Spielberg’s more larkish take Ready Player One, Mandy considers the universe conjured by the mind, infinitely transformative and replete with manifold masks and yet so often defined by certain, infinitely significant points of reference, giving shape to the fragmentary nature of existence. Perhaps it’s the last frontier, a place of authentic struggle as well as retreat. Early scenes of Red and Mandy out picnicking and swimming in the woods are given the faintly unreal lustre of how Mandy might paint such a scene, with surging vortexes of pure energy in the sky and walls of fire appearing to Red, whilst the film’s very last shot perceives a landscape transformed into an exoplanetary wasteland, with soaring crags and hovering galactic bodies. Mandy herself seems to exist in a liquid state of being, timeless and resistant to ossification, a state that Cosmatos identifies as specifically feminine, in a manner reminiscent of Ma Joad’s speech from The Grapes of Wrath (1940), whilst Red is defined by a reductive sense of the function of masculinity, in the sense that he’s only free of the need to hunt – to chase down and destroy – when immersed in her space, and to be bereft of that space as he is when Mandy dies is like being born in a cold world all over again, birth that is like death. That Red plucks out a bottle of spirits from where he’s kept it stashed for god knows how long and uses it balm wounds inside and out says a lot of how he doused and dimmed that need before meeting Mandy.

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For a film that depends on exploiting Cage’s reputation as Hollywood’s most obliging fruitcake, his performance in Mandy is actually quite controlled, expertly managing the leap from dreaming companion to nihilistic marauder. When he pulls out some trademark mannerisms, like his mad grin, they come with a newly certain sense of import, of the soul in extremis, after passing through moments of convincing naturalism, as in Red’s despairing bathroom moment. Cage is willing to look undignified and slightly absurd here, in a way a lot of actors don’t dare. Mandy’s death is portrayed for the most part via Red’s agonised reaction. This scene presents a variation on another memorable recent Cage role, inverting the situation in Kick-Ass (2010) where he was the one burning whilst the female he cared for tried to save him. Red hits the warpath, hacking, slashing, goring, and felling his foes, who seem to become less substantial with each one he defeats, phantoms who are functions of his mourning. Even more so when the Black Skulls take him prisoner and pinion him with a nail through one hand and handcuffs on the other, perfectly encapsulating his agonistes. Red even taunts one of the demons into punching him repeatedly, although this has the practical purpose of loosening the pipe length he’s cuffed to, and when the pipe comes loose he clobbers the vile creature until it plunges into a gaping pit.

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The Black Skulls’ abode, a mixture of torture chamber and drug house where garbage is piled up, startling elixirs waits in jars, and porn flicks buzz on the TV, cunningly blurs the line between presenting the Black Skulls as authentically paranormal figures and merely heightened, hallucination-transformed junkies; in their look, with their nail-bedecked clothes, blade-sporting limbs, and chitinously masked faces, they seem like a cross between the Cenobites from Hellraiser (1987), the gimp from Pulp Fiction (1994), and Brando-idolising bikers. Red slays all of the Black Skulls and moves on to track down the chemist (Richard Brake) who makes their dire drug concoctions: the chemist proves able to deduce purely by reading Red’s stoic facial expression what his thoughts are. The chemist releases his pet tiger – yes, pet tiger – on Red’s unstated insistence and guides him on to the remote church where the Children congregate, where he does battle with the cultists one by one, gruesomely shoving the end of his battle axe down Swan’s throat and duelling Brother Klopek (Clément Baronnet) in a contest with roaring chainsaws. Finally Red approaches the end of his journey in the church, built over a subterranean system of tunnels that look like they might have been built for a government installation, a labyrinth where Red must first move past the sensual pleasures Marlene offers before reaching Sand and his assurances that Red is a paltry thing compared to his exalted triumph. But Sand is reduced to an obviously fake waxen skull and limbs breaking and melting under the fire and wrath Red brings, a crumpled mannequin in death: perhaps that was only ever his function, to awaken the apocalyptic force in Red. He drives away from the burning church, seeing Mandy in the car seat beside him, perhaps her spirit rescued from perdition or just a wishful apparition in his overheated brain, but with the sure meaning that as far as Red’s concerned he’s done right by her.

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Mandy comes on as an enveloping audio-visual experience, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sonorous final score charting the tale’s psychological tenor and sense of spiritual angst, infusing Cosmatos’ lysergic images which roll on drenched in clashing primary hues that suggest Mario Bava making a music video. King Crimson plays over the opening credits. Recognisable fragments of the kind of late ‘70s and early ‘80s drive-in and video store fodder Cosmatos seems to have consumed and reprocessed into the fuel oil of his imagination float by: the chainsaw duel is out of Motel Hell (1981), the forging scene reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian (1982). The vision of Red overlooking the Children’s church, a spire of pyramidal wood in the midst of a deep, cleaving gorge, has a sense of outsized, cyclopean strangeness reminiscent of Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and some other, oddball by-products of the era. Often Cosmatos aims for self-conscious transformation of kitsch, like a vision of the released tiger roaring under a pulp mag moon, that obeys some personal logic, an attempt to transcribe the memory of what it was like to be a particularly imaginative adolescent, trying to imagine the perfect movie behind all those video cases, the one the real movies usually proved so disappointingly not to be.

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Mandy could be the strangest and most interesting attempt to blend art house and grindhouse notions of cinema since Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001). The feeling of inevitability in its narrative could be called a fault, a limitation of its cumulative power. But it’s also certainly an offshoot of Cosmatos’ motive, his desire to dramatise a state of mind, to work through a fixation and exist entirely in an oneiric space. The Red who comes out the far end of his savage adventure is not the same man, but a new chimera, the product of his loss and love both. Mandy struggles to articulate the feeling of a particularly intense variety of dream or trip, and succeeds as such, but also emerges as the sort of movie doomed to split those who dare enter its colour-drenched frames into ranks of true believers and those who run the other way hard and fast. For myself, I both love it and distrust it, for the same reason as it tries to speak past the front of the mind to the weird and fetid recesses in the back. It is, in its way, the most intense and reorientating cinematic experience I’ve had since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), a film with which it shares little but the increasingly rare treat of directors utterly in love with their mediums determined to enact their vision to the limit.

Standard
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 even 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-Boukis 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
1970s, 1980s, Auteurs, Belgian cinema, Comedy, Experimental, Romance

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

Je, Tu, Il, Elle / Toute Une Nuit

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Chantal Akerman

By Roderick Heath

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

Standard
1970s, Erotic, Experimental

Pink Narcissus (1971)

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The Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2017

Director/Screenwriter: James Bidgood

By Roderick Heath

Pink Narcissus is a relic of cinema that has journeyed from virtual oblivion to belated appreciation in a corner of the cinematic world that long hungered for elders to respect. The story of how it came to be unearthed and its worth today is bound up in who made it and why. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, James Bidgood arrived in New York in the early 1950s aged 17. Like many young gay men then and now, self-described farm boy Bidgood was surely on the search for a tenable existence and a community, and he carved out his place in the city’s queer underground as a drag queen and night club dancer. He found commercial success as a dress designer prized for his opulent debutante apparel, as a window dresser, and as a photographer. This last passion became increasingly compelling to Bidgood, and through the 1960s his homoerotic studies were popular in the “physique” magazines that allowed a little soft-core gazing to gay readers; at a time when most of their pictures were flat and trite, Bidgood gained attention by bringing his decorative and compositional gifts to bear. Bidgood sarcastically referred to his Hell’s Kitchen apartment as Les Folies Des Hommes, in tribute to the Folies Bergeres, as that tiny abode doubled as his studio and theatre of creation, and he soon started using it as a pseudonym when publishing his photos. Soon Bidgood began trying to make a movie, shooting entirely within his apartment confines. Bidgood’s partner of the time, Bobby Kendall, a former hustler, became the epicentre of his attempts to inscribe in pure cinematic terms an obsessive fascination with his lover’s body and, beyond that, to create a total work dedicated to celebrating his aesthetic fetishes, in a film encapsulating a series of fantasy sequences built around what Bidgood himself described happily as “gay whack-off fantasies.”
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Bidgood worked on the film off and on for about seven years, eventually spending about $27,000 on the project. He utilised friends and acquaintances as actors, including Charles Ludlam, who had founded the landmark avant-garde “Theatre of the Ridiculous” movement, which has been credited with a powerful influence on later expressions of camp aesthetics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The time it took Bidgood to finish his dialogue-free, highly experimental movie testified to his fastidious dedication and creative verve, but also foiled what ambitions he harboured for the result. By the early 1970s, following the Stonewall riots and the explosion of the new liberationist era, gay culture was just starting to claw its way to the surface of modern life whilst also developing a taste for more direct and hard-edged self-portraiture. If Bidgood’s film had come out a couple of years earlier, it might have seemed radically frank and a pivotal artwork. Instead, it was dismissed as a kitschy, already dated hunk of amateur showmanship. Bidgood’s obsessive points of reference, encompassing a brand of lush, artificial expressiveness beloved of vintage camp enthusiasts including old Hollywood fantasy films featuring the likes of Maria Montez, belonged to a mode then falling out of favour. Not helping matters was the decision by Bidgood’s distributors, who, having invested money in his never-ending project, eventually decided to finish the editing and release it without his permission. In retaliation and fond hope, Bidgood took his name off the film, on the off chance this might lend it an inscrutable aura on the underground movie circuit. He was right, as the film did begin to slowly accrue a cult following, and many fans theorised its director might be Andy Warhol. Over the next few decades Pink Narcissus had occasional revivals, but it wasn’t until the writer, and fan of the film, Bruce Benderson set out to finally solve the riddle of its creator that the link was made between the movie and Bidgood.
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The sheer level of craft and ingenuity often on display in Pink Narcissus for a work made in such conditions is worthy of admiration purely in itself, but the real quality of delirious artistry Bidgood achieved is quickly evinced even in his opening shot, with his camera tracking through dense, obviously fake jungle. The full moon shines through the leaves, orchids bloom at night, and a butterfly emerges from chrysalis. All is touched with a quality of hand-made magic thanks to Bidgood’s reverence for a certain brand of artificial yet pellucid beauty and mystique, and his utilisation of basic yet difficult cinematic effects like stop-motion animation. Pink Narcissus wears some of its inspiration in its title, a twist on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946), as Powell’s films were a potent influence on Bidgood’s ardour for intense colour and drenched optical effects, and their method of bending established melodramatic narratives and exotic trappings to their own purposes. Pink Narcissus’ title is also a statement of plain subject, as Kendall’s central character is presented as both a love object and a narcissist, captured in all his self-love, which is also the love of the camera-filmmaker. The story, such as it is, finds Kendall’s young and insouciant male prostitute, referred to as Pan by most reviewers because he’s first glimpsed dressed up like that god of nature, lounging around an apartment presumably paid for by his sugar daddy, who occasionally phones up to make sure he’s there. Pan seems to leave the apartment for a quick adventure, or perhaps only remembers doing so. He finds it in a tryst with a leather-clad biker in a toilet block. Back in the apartment, Pan idly masturbates whilst ranging through a series of fantasies in his head, including being served up as a dessert at a Roman emperor’s orgy, being the favourite in a Sheikh’s male harem, and escaping into green fields and jungle night.
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Pan’s encounter with the biker is a great example of Bidgood’s fearsome cinematic energy and his will to express erotic furore with unique concision, as Pan dips in and out of fantasy transformations of the event in contrast to the gritty immediacy of actually getting a blow job from some random dude in a toilet. He sees himself as a matador, waving his red cape for the biker riding his motorcycle who transmogrifies into a very horny bull. Bidgood puts across the idea of fellatio without quite showing it as the biker, mouth welded to Pan’s crotch, is submerged in a bath of foaming water, filmed in orgasmic slow-motion, sexual thrill rendered as amniotic immersion and painted over with jets of ejaculate-mimicking soap foam. Pan’s nasty streak emerges as the encounter turns violent: he knocks the other man to the ground and enjoys the sight of him squirming in both pain and auto-erotic pleasure. Pink Narcissus reveals itself at such moments to be about the very urge that drives Bidgood’s filmmaking, the tension between a sordid reality and a transformative vision that can constantly remake that reality in an ever-shifting series of guises. Artifice isn’t just a method but the essence of the work, as Bidgood painstakingly creates a series of little worlds, totally invented zones of being and imagining where caprices cordoned off from the main flow of life can bloom in private domain.
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Not that the fantasies are esoteric. Indeed, most have easy analogues with common straight fantasies, particularly that of the harem. But that passage appropriates the oh-so-common dancing girl scene of historical epics and disposes of the barrier of enjoyment so many gay fans found in such movies. Indeed, the commonality of the fantasies here seems very much part of the point Bidgood was trying to make, to synthesise a clear and recognisable shared ground, trying to map out the coasts of a hitherto largely uncharted continent. Pan exists as male houri kept around purely for convenient moments of sexual pleasure. His is a little uterine world of pinks and reds, gilt frames and mirrors where his own image lurks like some wistful spirit fascinated in his person looking in from a more real world as he lounges through the day. Pan is a satire-cum-inverted celebration of the great cliché of Orientalist art, the lounging odalisque – a figure embodying all voluptuous sensual potential happy enough to exist purely for that end and frustrated only when they cannot indulge it. This lineage is also clear in the harem sequence, where Pan and his master and fellow slaves watch a male belly dancer, whose shimmying fills the screen in images layered one upon the other, his penis shaking like a fire hose under diaphanous silk. Bidgood’s frank enjoyment of eroticising the male body – or to put that another way, his delight in great butts – is in constant evidence throughout, as Pan’s mental peregrinations drag him through various settings replete with fantasies of sexual wealth. But he’s also subject to another pull, away from other people, to imagined scenes of lounging in fields and forests, jerking off on the grass and inseminating the earth.
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Pink Narcissus betrays evident influences, or at least precursors, from the history of experimental and underground film added to the stew of images harvested from popular cinema. There’s a similarity to Joseph Cornell’s fetishistic appropriation of Hollywood image-making and two-bit exotica, Rose Hobart (1936). Kenneth Anger’s imprint is powerful throughout, in the use of double exposures for dense and oneiric incantation: the shots of the mystic moon strongly recall those in Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon (1950) and the belly-dance, with its hallucinatory historical kitsch and double-exposed images, is reminiscent of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Equally Anger-like is the employment of music, ranging from surges of high-romantic classical music to harvested movie scores to electronica-tinged avant garde racket. When Bidgood makes occasional forays into the world outside Pan’s apartment, he does so only with extremely stylised models and sets that hark back to silent Expressionist cinema. The imprint of Powell and Pressburger lurches to the fore again as Bidgood’s use of highly stylised, purposefully theatrical approximations of reality often resemble those found in the grand ballet sequence of The Red Shoes (1948), all painted imps and cardboard sets. When his camera drifts out the window to survey the city night, Bidgood fills the soundtrack with audio harvested from radio and television, sarcastically portraying that world outside Pan’s onanistic bubble as one of droning advertisements and flim-flam – in short, another bubble contained by infinitely less personal yet equally masturbatory aesthetics than those exhibited in Pan’s existence. Bidgood relishes not just the garishly colourful reaches of Pan’s room but also the grimy fecundity of such sights as graffiti decorating the men’s room wall, and the litter collected in a urinal rises on the swirl of flowing water and urine filmed the way other directors might survey some deep space nebula.
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Pan, true to his name, repeatedly leaves behind his invented lovers and overlords for wandering in forests and lounging on hillsides, escaping into nature, although even that can be feverishly eroticised, as when he gets caught up in reeds that he finds he has to please in a phallic manner, whilst drenching rain falls on him. At other points, Pan lies on a grassy patch of ground, playing with the butterfly seen hatching at the start, an emblem of furtive sexuality itself, in a state of constantly becoming. Pan’s connection with nature suggests a part of Bidgood’s mind pining for the lazy sensuality and beauty of a boyhood on the farm, caressing himself all over with a blade of grass in shots where Bidgood renders Kendall’s nipples or navel as universes in themselves, which indeed they can be on such a sensual, nerve-sense level. In actuality, Pan tries to match the imagined/remembered sensation by pouring champagne on himself. Bidgood’s camera strives to record sensuality in such moments on an intimately physical level, communing with his audience through sense-memory stirred by vision: it’s hard to think of more intensely sensual moments in cinema. Bidgood’s hunt for such electric visual similes for sensatory experience also sees a bundle of pearl necklaces caressed in phallic manner during the belly dance scene. This image leads to a climax, in both sense of the word, for the sequence when Pan’s sadistically stoked excitement demands the belly dancer be executed by the Sheikh’s bodyguards. The dancer is hacked down with scimitars, whereupon Bidgood fills the screen with a colossal penis jutting at the camera, squirting spunk both real and gleefully animated in pearl-like globules shooting through the air.
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Bidgood’s confrontational streak is gleefully unleashed here, depicting ejaculation as the natural end of all these pictured labours, a fillip of hardcore footage offered not as mere punctuation for the sex act as in pornography but as a totemic event. The way Pink Narcissus proceeds from primly hiding away shots of genitalia to scenes in which extras stand around with their dicks out and increasingly direct sexual expression like this offers a telling incidental depiction of Bidgood responding to the loosening sense of what he could get away with during the laborious process of making the film. When Pan comes, he comes all over the presumed viewers, implicating all in the spectacular pleasure but also examining its strangeness, a wild, flowing vision of galactic panspermia. The death of the belly dancer, as in a slasher horror film, suggests the act of climax can only be matched and correlated in the remoteness of cinema with the spectacle of violent death, one form of violation of the body offered in lieu of another; it also a cyclical moment, the touch of Thanatos lending its perpetual spice to the cause of Eros. Although Pink Narcissus becomes increasingly brave in what it shows, it stands aloof from pornography in the sense that it’s a film trying to purvey an aestheticized essence of experience rather than reflect the viewer’s wont back at them. The only scene that actually describes Pan having sex with someone else, the blow job the biker gives Pan, is both cleverly illustrative but discreet in that regard, and this grandiose celebration of coming is as wildly amusing as anything else. No wonder the film failed to go over with the Times Square beat-off crowd.
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Ejaculation might briefly exhaust Pan’s frustrated libido but it also signals a shift in the film into a different realm. An epic, dazzlingly bizarre sequence sees Pan phoned up by his keeper (Ludlam), who is exploring a downtown scene where the flotsam of the city night reel by and rough trade comes out of the woodwork. This sequence is a triumph of Bidgood’s artisanal world-crafting, as he recreates the reaches of downtown Manhattan from its heyday, as glimpsed in movies like Midnight Cowboy (1969), as a place littered with human refuse, reconfigured as a guerrilla theatre playpen. Amidst all the wandering hustlers and cruisers, Pan’s first meeting with his lover is described, an act that Pan is all too aware saved him from selling his body out there. Johns lurk like dapper neo-Bluebeards in their frock coats and bowler hats, satiric visions of classy conformity out seeking their own personal big-dick id-beast for kicks. The prettiness that dominates the rest of the film here is transmuted into a no less aestheticized but far harsher evocativeness. The languorous mood imbued by the orchestral strains on the soundtrack earlier in Pink Narcissus here gives way to spasmodic and grating scoring, approximating the cityscape’s collective nervous system as a schizoid beast. The turn of seasons is noted with cardboard ice, the pavements are haunted by twisted wretches selling flowers and newspapers, and shaggy, filthy wastrels. Rival hustlers try to catch eyes with ploys like pouring mustard on their pricks.
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Pink Narcissus is quite often described simply as a perfect gay fantasia, a luxurious decorative object not unlike its hero. And yet Bidgood’s statement about the lot of queer sexuality in his time deepens and becomes more critical here, setting up a new tension that resolves in a series of brilliantly effective images at the very end of the film. Mutual exploitation is in play here, and Pan’s narcissism is much a rebellion against the exigencies of the situation where he plays love object at the convenience of another man as it is against boredom and solitude. And yet this theme is also eternally subject to Bidgood’s engagement in alternations of exterior admiration and interior imagining, invading the object of gazing with an urgent, ferocious desire to possess the very quality of indifference. Pink Narcissus could be the deepest, most fiendishly obsessive and morbid dive into the essential problem of trying to know the lover in American art since Poe wrote about Morella and Ligeia, and yet its urges run in the opposite direction, away from the grave and towards the explosively sensuous. Bidgood opens up vast yet intelligible schisms between the lives we lead and the ones we imagine, and sees the way the two are rarely easily teased apart, as the acts of imagining, contrasting, masking, and discerning, are deeply enmeshed with all experience. The last phase of Pink Narcissus sees Pan, purified of sexual urge by ejaculation but plunged with new intensity into the wandering through his dream life, traversing formless landscapes, entering the jungle where the vegetation slaps against his body and torrential rain falls upon him, as if the very earth itself is intent on ravishing him, and Pan wants to dissolve into world-spirit, assailed by fluttering petals beating at his body, wandering in floods of hallucinatory colour.
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The knock at the door must come inevitably and drew the stud out of his fantasia. Except that when his lover comes into the apartment, Pan sees him with his own face, simply incorporating him into his fantasy life, contained as another doppelganger. But the infinite mirror is cracked in the end, the screen itself breaking under the strain of such much looking and the young man’s projections can only stretch so far before he too will be an old man buying love. The crack becomes a spider’s web, glistening in the jungle night again, the place where all dreams well and wane. One prominent modern filmmaker who might well have absorbed something of Bidgood’s vision, or at least displays some telling intersection with it, is Nicolas Winding Refn, whose work often feels like it’s taking place in a similarly subliminal realm, particularly his Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016), similarly exploring environs of clashing, supernaturally rich colour, replete with dangling beads and boles of mysterious and engulfing, eroticised settings, offering up the sign-play of sexuality as a series of masks. As is so often the case, the out-of-time quality that prevented Pink Narcissus from gaining much favour in its day now seems like its greatest quality, the conjuration of the world the mind can contain. Certainly many will still be turned off by Bidgood’s unabashed depictions of gay sexuality, but they’ll only be missing out on a genuinely unique and mesmeric cinematic experience.

Pink Narcissus can be viewed for free on YouTube…

and for a small fee it can also be viewed on the BFI’s Dailymotion site.

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1970s, Experimental, Western

The Last Movie (1971)

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Director: Dennis Hopper

By Roderick Heath

Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. At first he often played introverted characters, reciting dialogue with a halting, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers, or scraggly losers and reprobates, cannon fodder for he-men in many a western. Later he became famous for his jittery, showy rants and depictions of livewire souls. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.
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Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the new bohemia. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.
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Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper all but invited being set up as public sacrifice and cautionary example. He feuded with Fonda over royalties, slipped in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and let his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in returning to that subject, and moved onto new, equally provocative territory. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded an addict, nuisance, and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.
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Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he shot and edited togather a rudely expressive but essentially linear film. Legend has it that his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky then mocked his straitlaced structure, and encouraged him to attack the film like an Abstract Expressionist slashing at his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie was clearly intended from the start to expand on the form- and mind-bending elements of Easy Rider, while essentially telling fans of that film to fuck off.
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Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.
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Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile. His troubled, scrambled inner world will dictate the outer reality depicted.
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The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini-happenings, and strange rituals.
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A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.
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Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.
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Islets of quintessential hippie romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields and other such pastoral refrains. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.
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Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson plainly wants to join the couple on the floor whilst lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child–the film’s bitterest, most direct portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.
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The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.
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Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to check out the mine, in a story segue that explicitly references to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.
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Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. This activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do on the behalf of the locals, but soon comes to look rather more like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of the invaders, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival. The finale invokes two different forms of such ritualised theatre, as film production and passion play meet in perfect mirroring.
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Satires on the movie industry are plentiful, but very few are as brutally logical, original, and funny as The Last Movie. The Cavalry-hatted director combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with the canard of the Mexican bandit as well as the military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas tries to flee from their clutches, busting out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.
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During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s baleful final title card, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy: nature and place, if nothing else, still wield a transformative power over human dreams in Hopper’s vision.
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Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.
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Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy humour of Easy Rider’s famous grass-and-firelight scene, before Hopper closes on one of his repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.

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