1940s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) / The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) / The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) / The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

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Directors: Christy Cabanne, Harold Young, Reginald LeBorg, Leslie Goodwins

By Roderick Heath

Karl Freund’s legendary film The Mummy (1932) presented its title entity, Boris Karloff’s Imhotep, as a sorcerer and antihero defying time and the gods to wield vast magical power. More recent filmmakers like Stephen Sommers and Alex Kurtzman have taken up this idea for the sake of spectacle and drama better fitting the age of the special effects-driven blockbuster. But I’d be willing to bet good money most people, when they think of the mummy as movie monster, probably instead think of a lurching, ghastly, sluggishly advancing yet relentless engine of murder, swathed in grave wrappings. For the source of this image of the mummy, we must look instead to the four films Universal Studios made about the mummy Kharis. For lovers of vintage horror movies, the Kharis films remain an evergreen trove. Not because they’re deep masterpieces of gothic poetry, richly composed metaphor, or galvanising terror – indeed, part of their appeal is that they’re patently none of these things, or, at least, only offer such qualities as small, shiny gems amidst a whole lot of entertaining ore. They’re lovable relics of an era of filmmaking and a brand of horror that retains a modest brand of charisma, deft ideograms compressing all the freewheeling energy and craftsmanship of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Somehow, the Kharis films manage to incorporate all the major motifs and stylistic quirks of the Universal school within their brief, zippy, unpretentious duration. They’re the sort of movies you see as a kid and love, and see again as an adult and still love, even if they can no longer compel in the same way.

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Each movie in the series is barely an hour long, as quintessential B movie features, made to support other, more ambitious but often less well-remembered movies. All four were made by the smithies of Hollywood film. Only one of these directors, Reginald LeBorg, can be described as any kind of familiar hand in horror cinema, whilst all four handled many a diverse genre in their long, factory-line careers. Christy Cabanne, who helmed the series opener The Mummy’s Hand, had been making movies since 1912. And yet the Kharis films testify to the peculiar integrity of the Universal horror mode, as well as the problems that would eventually choke off their brand. In spite of being cheaply produced, the Kharis films all display the technical resources and effortless class of Universal’s production teams and their gifts for quickly and smartly constructing little, cordoned universes where the shadows are deep and black and things move in the night that should not be moving at all. Universal had a particularly effective ethos when it came to making its B movies, also evinced by the perennially popular Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone. These films, although very often tacky and repetitious, usually had solid writing and a template for atmospheric visuals that could be easily applied by different production teams. The limitations to their strict hour-and-a-bit running times were as usually sharp as the advantages: too many stories develop fruitfully over about 50 minutes and then suddenly careen to a close. This is true of the Kharis films as well.

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The series was doggedly popular in its day regardless, at a time when their cheery, restrained approach to generating a healthy frisson stood in stark contrast to the harsh facts of wartime. The Mummy’s Hand gave the waning Universal horror brand a shot in the arm, whilst also laying down a template most of the entries the studio would purvey over the next six years until running out of steam again, in dispensing with most of the outsized Expressionistic effects in sets and lighting and rendering their attendant themes of tragic stature far more muted, if not entirely jettisoned. The series also accidentally helped point the way forward for the horror genre as a whole, in a manner that unfolds over the four instalments, which begins rooted in the mystique of foreign threat and exotic nightmares welling out of a distant, mythical past, but soon shifts ground to portray murderous forces at large in the balmy eves of the good old USA. The Mummy’s Hand introduces the lore and legend of Kharis (played in the first instalment by Tom Tyler), a former high priest under the Pharaoh Amenophis, who fell in love with the Pharaoh’s daughter Ananka. Following Ananka’s early death, Kharis attempted to revive her by stealing a supply of the sacred, long-extinct herb known as the tana leaf, with its mystic qualities for restoring and sustaining life. Caught in the act, Kharis had his tongue cut out before burial alive, doomed to spend eternity serving as protector of Ananka’s tomb. This story is recounted by the wizened and decrepit High Priest (Eduardo Ciannelli) of a sect called the Priests of Karnak, who still subsist within modern Egypt and have dedicated themselves to protecting Ananka’s undiscovered tomb above all.

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The High Priest is visited by his anointed successor, Professor Andoheb (George Zucco), an archaeologist who uses his position as a respected figure in his field to either fend off other Egyptologists venturing into Arkam, the area where their temple and Ananka’s and Kharis’s tombs are all located, or else arrange their mysterious disappearance. The High Priest explains to Andoheb his essential duties, of which the most vital is sustaining Kharis’s heartbeat by stewing three tana leaves each night of the full moon and feeding it to him. Whenever Ananka’s tomb is threatened and interlopers dare to violate her sacred surrounds, the Priests revive Kharis by feeding him the the juice of nine leaves, sufficient to get him up and walking around, able to kill and overpower any mere mortal. Once the High Priest finishes his exposition, he gratefully settles upon his throne and dies. In this opening, the basics of the Kharis series are sketched out, and all four films revolve around these legendary details, carried over from episode to episode as essential as a superhero’s back story. One detail mentioned here, constantly teased but never fulfilled in the series, are the dire results of what might happen if Kharis is fed more than nine tana leaves, as a greater dose of the mystic herb would render him a rampaging monster. The Priests of Karnak merely keep him alive as a useful tool.

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The first film depicts the discovery of Ananka’s tomb by a gang of footloose Americans. Archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his pal, Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), have come to Egypt when Steve is hunting for a new career break after being fired from the Scripps Museum, in spite of a string of impressive discoveries. Babe is itching to get back to the States, but Steve finds a damaged urn that seems to depict directions to Ananka’s tomb in a bazaar. Steve takes the urn to another esteemed man of the field, Dr Petrie (Charles Trowbridge), who agrees with him it is genuine. But Andoheb, who is Petrie’s boss at the Cairo Museum, dismisses the relic as a fake and contrives to drop it, whilst refusing the stake an expedition to the site indicated. Not dissuaded, Steve and Babe get backing from a good-natured nightclub magician, ‘The Great’ Solvani (Cecil Kellaway). Andoheb tries to foil this recourse by approaching Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) and warning her about conmen trying to sucker her father. Marta threatens Steve and Babe with the revolver she uses for trick shooting in her father’s shows, and she resolves to accompany her father on the expedition to make sure he’s not being robbed.

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It takes quite a while until The Mummy’s Hand gets out into the Egyptian wilds, an aspect that betrays a certain level of uncertainty about what level to pitch the movie on. An inordinate amount of screen time is soaked up by Ford and Kellaway’s comedy, although both men were accomplished farceurs and they’re fun to watch. The real pleasure of The Mummy’s Hand, however, comes once it gets going properly and changes scene to the desert. Here Babe accidentally uncovers Kharis’s tomb when he prematurely sets off a dynamite charge, just after the bodies of some of the expedition’s ill-fated predecessors are uncovered by the Egyptian diggers. The archaeologists are astounded to find Kharis’ remarkably preserved body in his casket, but the diggers flee in fear as the black legends about the area seem to be coming true. Meanwhile Andoheb and his agent, a fake marketplace beggar (Sig Arno), keep watch over the camp and when the time comes, Andoheb surprises Petrie alone in the tomb, and feeds tana juice to the mummy, bringing Kharis fully to life. At Andoheb’s behest, the fiend strangles Petrie, the expedition’s chief porter Ali (Leon Belasco), and Solvani during one long night of terror. Soon Andoheb is tempted by beauty and has Kharis kidnap Marta, forcing Steve and Babe to hunt for her. Following Marta’s own theory based on Steve’s urn, Steve finds a secret passage linking Kharis’ tomb to the priests’ temple, and ventures along it.

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The Mummy’s Hand is an object lesson in how old Hollywood could conjure something substantial out of virtually nothing. The budget was a preposterously low $80,000 dollars, and the running time is filled out with interpolated scenes from the Freund film depicting Kharis’ disgrace and doom, spliced with new footage of western star Tyler, who, in addition to his suitably strong stature, looked enough like Karloff to sustain the illusion. Smart use was also made of a set left over from the production of Frankenstein (1931) auteur James Whale’s jungle adventure Green Hell (1939) to fill in for the temple. The script also bears traces of such repurposing, as it offers a slight variation on the famous “Children of the Night” line from Dracula (1931). Otherwise the film relies almost entirely on Cabanne’s long-honed filmmaking skills to make the best of minimal sets, transforming the one, basic soundstage set depicting a crook of the desert abutting a mountain into a fantasy landscape flooded with shadow, occasionally punctuated by the bloodcurdling sight of the mummy’s silhouetted form looming through tent canvas over unsuspecting, sleeping victims.

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Part of the success and entertainment factor of The Mummy’s Hand lies in its straightforward blend of gothic business, with the free-and-easy tone of an adventure movie. It’s probably one of the many influences on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, portraying archaeology as a kind of puzzle work as the characters utilise keys gleaned from relics to open up ancient tombs. The mummy, although blessed with a tragic backstory, is offered mostly as a threatening spectre, a spooky threat lurching in and out of the shadows, informed with character only via Tyler’s eyes, showing flashes of fretful, desperate hunger for the tana leaves that sustain his existence. Foran is charming and stalwart, Moran is cute and plucky, at least until the compulsory finale where she swoons to be carried about by Kharis. The film careens through a last reel in which Babe shoots down Andoheb when the priest threatens him, and Steve enters the temple, frees Marta, and sets fire to Kharis when he stoops to try and lick up a pool of spilt tana juice.

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Mummy stories belong to a motif common in storytelling date back to Victorian-era fiction and the vicissitudes of the high colonial days, in fare ranging from a mystery tale like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to tales of the supernatural like The Monkey’s Paw. Such stories revolved around the dread fate awaiting those who monkey about with sacred objects of other cultures, and hinged upon western anxieties in the face of contending with those cultures, both warning about the necessity of respecting those cultures whilst also reinforcing the necessity of stoic detachment in the coloniser over the colonised. The Kharis series reframes this subtext to a certain extent whilst also making it more overt, for the series revolves around the clash between the forces of the old world and the new, the echoing memory of millennia of instilled cultural identity as represented by the powers of Ancient Egypt, and the new wind of Americanism starting to blow about the world. There’s an element of absurd but revealing racial profiling, too, as just about anyone who wears a fez is quickly outed as a supporter of an esoteric and murderous death cult. This aspect is often conjoined with finales in which mobs of the citizenry come out with fiery torches to hunt down the monsters. When Frankenstein had offered this trope, it had come as a criticism of the lynch mob mentality. By 1942, it had evolved into a heroic event, based on around communal guarding against threatening foreign invaders.

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But there’s also a theme to the series invoking a schism of faith and desire, identity and yearning. Steve and the spirit he represents is at once passionate about the arcana he digs up but also detached from the spiritual world it represents, the deep wellsprings of other cultural precepts. The Priests of Karnak, including Andoheb and successors Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), Yousef Bey (John Carradine), Dr Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) and his disciple Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), are beset by the same diverging desires as Kharis himself. That’s the schism between fulfilling their creed, which revolves around the literal worship of the dead and valuing of them above the living, and embracing their sensual needs, inevitably represented by the young women who fall into their clutches. This pays off in images close to those popular on pulp magazine covers of the time, heroines strapped to altars, threatened with phallic intrusion as the fallen priests threaten them with injections of tana fluid to make them immortal, with the priests intending to join them for an unending life of erotic pleasure.

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Quickly and inevitably, Kharis, embodiment of the past’s insidious persistence in the presence of all modernity’s glaring light, is brought to American shores, to haunt the outer precincts a modern land lacking much consciousness of such a deep past. The Mummy’s Tomb, the second episode, easily manages this change of scene, whilst also introducing some peculiar aspects to the series. Although The Mummy’s Hand was demonstrably contemporary if the clothes the characters wore were anything to go by, the sequel is set thirty years after the first film, but again seems entirely contemporary to 1942, to the extent of one character receiving a commission during the film. The fourth film is set twenty years after the third, which means over a half-century passes in the course of the series, making it a science fiction tale of sorts. The Mummy’s Tomb also anticipates aspects of modern franchise cinema, as it brings back Steve and Babe, now thirty years older, but with the brutal intention of killing them both off. Steve is now reclining in happy retirement after Marta’s death, living with his sister Jane (Mary Gordon), recounting his old adventures to his indulgently disbelieving doctor son John (John Hubbard) and his girlfriend Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox).

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Turns out Andoheb survived the bullets Babe filled him with, and that Kharis was only lightly singed by fire. Andoheb, now old himself and palsied (a great touch from Zucco), still lurks in the old Arkam temple, handing over responsibility to Mehemet Bey, his successor, with the assignment of taking Kharis to America so he can kill the Banning clan in punishment for plundering Ananka’s tomb. Mehemet secures a job as caretaker of the cemetery of Mapleton, the small New England town where Steve has retired. He sends out Kharis, who strangles Steve in his house. The following night, the mummy does the same to Jane. Babe comes to town to attend their funerals and recognises the tell-tale mark of mould upon the victims’ necks as mould from Kharis’ bandages (“A greyish mark…a greyish mark!”). Babe fails to make the police listen to his warnings so he feeds the story to some interested newspaper men, but soon finds himself cornered in an alley by Kharis and killed. An academic researcher, Professor Norman (Frank Reicher), certifies from a scrap of bandage John finds that there really is a living mummy on the loose. Mehemet, unable to suppress lecherous designs upon Isobel after glimpsing her in the woods with John, has Kharis snatch her out of her bed. When the Mapleton sheriff (Cliff Clark) organises a posse, he’s alerted to the presence of the Egyptian at the cemetery. Mehemet tries to stab John and gets a bullet in his gut for his pains. Kharis seems to be burned up along with the Banning house when he’s driven there, Isobel is rescued, and all ends well.

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The Mummy’s Tomb is the most sketchily written and disposable entry in the series, bumping off the likeable protagonists of the first film with a remarkable lack of compunction. The film kicks off laboriously with nearly ten minutes’ worth of flashbacks to The Mummy’s Hand to pad out an exceptionally simple storyline. But it’s still entirely enjoyable, in part for reasons that feel mildly consequential in horror cinema history. This episode was directed by Harold Young, who surely had the best movie to his credit of any of the series captains, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and there are flashes of the spacious, lushly lit, carefully pictorial style he brought to that film here and here. Shots late in the film of Kharis carrying Isobel through the night are often reproduced in books of genre history, and for good reason: they retain an iconic form of beauty and encapsulation of the mystique of swooning, silk-draped femininity in the clutches of a septic, perambulating id. Transposing Kharis into the leafy, pacific environs of Mapleton allows this exotic monster, avatar of cultural and religious unease, to lurch about in quaint, very normal surrounds. Kharis keeps perturbing the perfectly ordinary New Englanders, be they couples in their beds or young mashers parked in their cars, as his shadow falls upon them and each feels the discomforting sensation of death passing them by.

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Whilst this was hardly the first horror film set in a modern western setting, I can’t really think of a precursor that utilised such quotidian environs, and Young’s visuals, emphasising Kharis melting in and out of the shadows in humdrum streets and semi-rural surrounds, capture a quality that would pass on through ‘50s sci-fi works like I Married A Monster From Outer Space and The Blob (both 1958) and then back into horror movies as diverse as Halloween (1978) and the works of artists as diverse as Stephen King and David Lynch, in placing a malevolent force in the midst of suburbia, a portal of pure surrealism astride the banal. The film is also fleshed out by the Austrian-Turkish actor Bey’s fascinating presence. One of the few actors of Middle Eastern heritage to gain any prominence as a Hollywood actor in the day, Bey’s dashing, matinee star looks and ability to project an air of silken menace make for a rare combination in this sort of thing. Bey reportedly liked the role best amongst his performances, and he plays Mehemet less as a glowing-eyed fanatic than as a meditatively religious being willing to do what it takes to restore a key tenant of his faith, but brought down in the end by his inability to suppress his sensual self.

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Another significant introduction for this entrance came in Kharis himself. Tyler had been replaced by Lon Chaney Jnr, who had become a fully-fledged horror star in the previous year’s The Wolf Man, and Universal sought to capitalise by casting him across the full roster of their familiar monsters – he would also play Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula. The irony of this is that, at least at first, Chaney makes much less impression in the role than Tyler managed, as his Kharis isn’t allowed even to show the character in the eyes that Tyler could. That said, what could be the first real moment of proper characterisation for Kharis arrives here, as the mummy retreats fretfully whilst Mehemet tells him of his plans to mate with and impregnate Isobel: Kharis’ memory of the terrible wrath of force beyond in the face of such blasphemous acts is strong enough to momentarily make this zombified remnant cringe in fear. The Mummy’s Ghost, the third series instalment, saw directing duties taken over by former Max Reinhardt assistant LeBorg. LeBorg had already directed Chaney in a neat little chiller, Weird Woman (1944), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s great black magic tale Conjure Wife, and would occasionally return to the genre over the next twenty years, including for the interesting Diary of a Madman (1963). LeBorg’s background with Reinhardt and European sensibility apparently familiar with the Germanic imaginative world of the liebestod might explain why his entry emerges as the oddest and most intriguing of the quartet.

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Whilst not violating the already well-settled series formula until its final few minutes, The Mummy’s Ghost is the first entry to make itself more explicitly about Kharis’s search for Ananka, and also needs no flashbacks to pad out its crisp, well-developed storyline. In an ingenious little vignette, Kharis, after breaking into the Scripps Museum where her body and other artefacts are collected, attempts to touch her bandage-wrapped form, only for her mummy to disintegrate into dust. Meanwhile, miles away, a young woman, Amina Mansori (Ramsay Ames), awakens with a cry in her room, having felt the touch of the mummy: Ananka’s spirit now inhabits her body, as a distant descendant. Amina is attending college in Mapleton, and her boyfriend Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) is a student of Professor Norman. Norman likes to regale his students with tales of the mummy that terrorised the town a few years before. Norman himself is still trying crack the secret of the artefacts and specimens of the tana leaf retrieved from Mehemet’s possession. Finally translating some inscriptions and boiling up nine tana leaves, Norman is shocked to see Kharis burst his way into his rooms. Kharis, after lying dormant since the fire, has been revived by the scent of the tana juice, and he kills Norman before drinking it. Amina, drawn out in a somnambulant daze by Kharis’ presence, collapses near the scene. Meanwhile Andoheb dispatches another acolyte, Yousef Bey, to America to track down Kharis. Yousef attempts to lead Kharis in recovering Ananka so they can both be transported back to Egypt, but realisation that Ananka is now living within Amina leads them to track and kidnap her.

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If the guiding tension of the series is between the inflexibly arcane and the blithely, obliviously modern, then the figuration of Amina/Ananka is a clever new dimension for it, affectingly embodied by Ames. Amina carries inscribed in her genes and spiritual heritage the memory of a land stretching back to the dawn of human kind, inhabiting the spry, clean-cut environs of the college and her American lifestyle like a suit of easily discarded clothes. Unease about the possibility of an interracial marriage is mediated through the prism of Amina’s anxiety that her identity, bound up with her strange fits of detachment and sense of living in two different times and worlds. LeBorg makes atmospheric use of the old, abandoned mine where Yousef operates from, the modern, industrial equivalent to the tombs and temples of Egypt, equally desolate and deserted and forsaken by the ways of men, equally cyclopean in the scale of both construction and ruination. Here Yousef, once he actually has Amina in his grasp, again succumbs to the desire to possess her. This time however, knowing that Amina is really his beloved, Kharis rebels, throwing off the yoke of the priests and hurling Yousef from a great height to his death. After he fends off an attack by Tom, Kharis carries Amina off into the countryside. Since her first meeting with the mummy, Amina’s hair has become increasingly streaked with coils of white, and now in his arms turns swiftly into an ancient, parched, white-crowned mummy. Tom and another posse, this time led by canny New York detective Walgreen (Barton MacLane), give chase, only to see the benighted duo of ruined creatures sink into a swamp.

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This coda blends truly odd romanticism and faint but definite morbid sexuality with heartbreak, as Tim and his pet dog are left staring into the black waters where Kharis and Amina vanished. It’s a forlorn ending, an overtone new to this series, although it does revive the spirit that had been central to Freund’s film and the first wave of Universal horror films in general. Chaney’s casting in the role, which seemed so negligible on The Mummy’s Tomb, also proves worthier in The Mummy’s Ghost, as Chaney wields enough expressive intensity in body language to charge Kharis with a deep and implacable will, his stumbling, grasping forward motion achieving a sense of the genuinely remorseless to his wanderings and killings, fingers curling and limbs twitching when victims give him the slip. The last episode in the series, The Mummy’s Curse, is the first to offer a jarring lapse with established continuity rather than merely bending it. Somehow the chase witnessed at the end of the previous movement covered a few thousand miles, for now Kharis and Amina supposedly last vanished into a Louisiana bayou. That said, the shift in locale is mined for all the magnificently corny atmosphere and Cajun accents director Leslie Goodwins could muster.

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Years after Kharis and Ananka vanished, a new federal operation is underway to drain, clear, and build a road through the same swamp, stirring the disquiet of locals who have kept the memory of the mummy and his bride alive. Two archaeologists, Zandaab and James Halsey (Dennis Moore), arrive with official permission to dig for the two mummies, to the irritation of the project manager Pat Walsh (Addison Richards) and the intrigue of his daughter and secretary Betty (Kay Harding). Zandaab is of course the latest of the Priests of Karnak (by this point in the series always called the Priests of Arkam), and he has an acolyte, Ragheb, posing as one of the road workers, stirring up fright amongst them and stabbing the occasional busybody as he searches for Kharis. Ragheb does locate the mummy, and stashes him in a ruined nearby monastery, but Ananka remains missing. Until, that is, an excavator partly uncovers Ananka (now played by Virginia Christine). Digging her way out of the ground and stumbling through the swamp, she’s picked up by Halsey and Betty on their way back from a date. Apparently without any memory of either of her previous lives, the worker camp’s doctor Cooper (Holmes Herbert) diagnoses her as amnesiac, and encourages Halsey to use her an assistant to keep her occupied. Ananka proves to have intensive knowledge of archaeology and Egyptology without any idea where it came from, but when she attracts the attention of Zandaab, the priest recognises her as the princess, and sends Kharis out to hunt her down.

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Although not quite as intricately lit and decorously framed as The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse is nonetheless the most visually engaging episode in the series, as the setting allows Goodwins to exploit that mist-riddled foliage of the bayous and rough-hewn rural buildings, and generate some proper creepiness, in a manner looks forward to the later phase of regionally-made and set horror movies. One scene stands as legitimately unsettling in a manner virtually nothing else from the Universal horror cycle can match today, in which Ananka and Cooper listen to the sound of Kharis approaching, a mere scuffling sound that portends the arrival of a force that refuses all reason and annihilates anything that stands in its path. Cooper steps through the tent flaps to behold something from the back corners of a nightmare looming out of the dark. Several scenes take place around a cafe run by Cajun chanteuse Tante Bertha (Ann Codee) and her diminutive husband Achilles (Charles Stevens), a zone where a fecund folk culture and old-world atmosphere still subsist even as the labours of the work crew pierces and cleanses the fetid reaches of the swamp.

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The ruined monastery is a floating world of crumbling delight, thrust up over the swamp on a rise, crumbled walls and roof again mimicking the ruins of Egypt. Here Zandaab and Ragheb set up base but first have to contend with a zany local (William Farnum) who is the “self-appointed caretaker” of this monastery, demanding the duo and their pagan paraphernalia depart instantly, obliging Kharis to strangle him. Ananka, when she first sees Zandaab, seems to recognise him as a fellow, approaching him in a daze and striking a pose with hands jutting from the sides of her hips, a gesture suggesting the subsistence of an ancient and mysterious creed. The film’s best scene, and perhaps the most arresting in the series, is Ananka’s revival: first seen as a clay-smeared hand thrust out of the soil, followed quickly by the rest of her, Ananka sheds the earth (and her mummified appearance) as she gropes her way through the trees, following the glow of the sun, rejoicing in the heat as it bakes dry the mud on her and restores her life as a descendant of the sun god.

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This moment has a genuine charge of the strange and numinous, imbued in part through Christine’s excellent physicality in this scene, worthy of comparison in its way with Boris Karloff’s work as Frankenstein’s Monster for conveying the idea of flesh and bone reanimated against all will and sense, but finding a balm in the glow of the sun as it feeds her and restores her. Christine proves the most interesting of the lovely young ingénues Universal placed in the series (except for future The Big Sleep star Martha Vickers, although she only appears for a very few moments in The Mummy’s Ghost). The only real problem with this entry is a lack of any more new ideas, sending Kharis around the block a few times for more random strangulations. The theme of lechery amongst the Priests is palmed off onto Ragheb, who kidnaps Betty in his desire to make her his immortal bride, and when Zandaab censures him, Ragheb stabs him, stirring the wrath of Kharis.

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The filmmakers seem to have been aware this was likely to be the last entry, so at least the ending works to bring a proper close to the series. But it does so in a way that lacks much thrill: Ananka is finally, rather lamely dosed with tana fluid and restored to a mummified state, whilst Kharis is buried under a pile of rubble when trying to kill Ragheb, who is also killed, ending the line of priests and all who know the secret of the tana leaves. It’s worth noting the series’ consistent stylistic feature: Frank Skinner’s endlessly repeated musical themes, most of them written for Son of Frankenstein (1939) and slightly adapted, constantly throbbing and surging on the soundtrack like an erratic heartbeat. The Kharis films never quite capitalised on the wealth of potential encoded in their fascinatingly specific and rich trove of folkloric detail and recurring detail, and the dark fantasies of love through the ages and twisted eroticism that slide inkily through its bloodstream. To a certain extent, Terence Fisher would draw these out more in his concatenated remake, The Mummy (1959). But the Kharis series, once again, is one you love for what it is.

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

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)

Histoire Immortelle

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1960s, Auteurs, Erotic, Fantasy, Historical, Italian cinema

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.
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Fellini had first moved beyond ’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.
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Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.
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Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.
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Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.
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Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.
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The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.
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Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.
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Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.
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Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.
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And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to ’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.
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Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.
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One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.
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In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.
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The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.
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Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.
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Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence.

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Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.

 

Standard
1920s, Fantasy, German cinema, Historical, Horror/Eerie

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924) / The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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Director: Paul Leni

By Roderick Heath

Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.

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Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.

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In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing.

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This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers. This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract.

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The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.

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This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.

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Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934).

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The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.

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Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”

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The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.

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Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor.

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Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running. This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

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Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.

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That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other.

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Gwynplaine’s hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame. The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film.

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Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.

Standard
1920s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Fantasy, German cinema, Scifi

Metropolis (1926)

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Director: Fritz Lang
Screenwriter: Thea Von Harbou

By Roderick Heath

The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.

These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.

Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang pushed the early serial thriller style as exemplified by Louis Feuillade into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations.

Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.

After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.

Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.

Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.

An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.

Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.

Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.

Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.

Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.

The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.

Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers.

Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent. Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf.

Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria. The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing.

The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.

Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of The Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.

The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.

Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.

The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.

Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene.

Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.

Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism.

In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes. Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her: the mechanoid is tied to an improvised pyre, and burnt. Her skin peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise is revealed, and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama.

Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Push (2009)

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Director: Paul McGuigan

By Roderick Heath

More or less ignored when not reviled upon release in 2009, Paul McGuigan’s Push has become one of the very few movies of recent years I can watch any time, in any mood, and enjoy. McGuigan, a talented Scots director, caught my eye in the late ’90s with the grimier, more authentically punkish answer to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), The Acid House (1996), and the tougher-minded, more authentically maniacal retort to Guy Ritchie’s gimmicky gangster movies with Gangster No. 1 (2000). His work since going Hollywood, Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), failed to find wide audiences or critical favour, but have located some after-the-fact fandom. After a spell doing TV work, he just recently re-emerged as a feature director, only to have another jarring flop with Victor Frankenstein (2015). Push, his best work to date, is a hugely entertaining concoction in desperate need of some appreciation. It’s colourful, clever, and serious enough to compel, but sufficiently light-footed to evoke the kind of pulp novel adventure and comic book mind-bending its story evokes. Push is hypermodern in its approach and aesthetics, but also has the charm of a cult object slightly out of its time, as McGuigan’s stylish filmmaking blends diverse strands of contemporary cinema that someone ought to remix more often in service of a gleefully tricky narrative that riffs on the superhero genre with more poise and artistry than any actual recent superhero movie.

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Push was also perhaps a little too obviously hoping to be the cornerstone of an original cinematic franchise. McGuigan lays the basic pillars of its plot through the opening credits, as protagonist Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) explains a secret history rooted in the efforts of Nazis to discover and exploit paranormal abilities. This programme eventually evolved into an ostensibly U.S. government-sponsored, but almost lawless and stateless organisation called Division, which specialises in collecting and employing an array of individuals given great psychic and telekinetic powers. These people have been sorted into several basic types, each with an unofficial, but pithy sobriquet. Movers can manipulate, repel, or direct objects. Sniffs have an extraordinary sense of smell and can track people’s movements through the smallest residual traces. Watchers have the power to foretell the future. Pushers can distort other people’s sense of reality. Shadows can mask people and objects from the powers of other breeds. Shifters can mask the true appearance of something. Stitches wield startling healing powers. Bleeders can pulverise with their vocal sounds. A prologue sequence sees young Nick Gant (Colin Ford) and his Mover father Jonah (Joel Gretsch) on the run from Division. Taking momentary refuge in a hotel room, Jonah forces Nick to leave him, as he intends to do battle with Division’s heavies, but tells him before their split that one day a girl will give him a flower, and this girl will give him the key to changing his life. Jonah dies moments later in battle with Division agents, led by the forbidding Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a battle Nick witnesses obliquely from a hiding place before he scurries away and gets on with the business of surviving on his own.

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A decade later, Kira (Camilla Belle), a captive of Division, is seen receiving an experimental drug Division has cooked up to boost the powers of superhumans. Everyone who’s taken the drug before this has died, but Kira survives and escapes with a sample of the drug thanks to a marble dropped by another captive which spins by seemingly random luck across the floor and jams a door. Meanwhile Nick has grown into the stubbly, sad-eyed form of Chris Evans, and is living in Hong Kong, a popular refuge for unaligned superhumans because the dense population makes it difficult for Division’s goons to track them. Nick has inherited his father’s Mover powers, but has neglected to master them for fear he might meet the same fate. Nonetheless, driven by lack of cash, he tries to use his powers to cheat in a craps game, but fouls up and finishes up having to outrun gangsters bent on beating him up. Retreating into his apartment, he’s soon visited by two Sniffs, Agent Mack (Corey Stoll) and Agent Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), who have finally managed to track him down. They’re looking for Kira, Nick’s former girlfriend, but don’t let him know that, leaving Nick bewildered. Once they leave, Nick gets a phone call from 13-year-old Watcher Cassie, who is standing outside waiting for him to open the door so she can raid his refrigerator and enlist him in a search for a large sum of missing money.

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Nick quickly sees through this ruse and declares he doesn’t want to get involved in whatever Cassie’s up to. But he soon finds that he and the girl have already been targeted by a Triad crime family headed up by a kingpin (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to get hold of the drug and make his mob a rival to Division. All of his children have powers—he and his two sons are Bleeders and his daughter (Xiao Lu Li) is a talented Watcher with a fondness not just for sweets but also a sadistic proclivity for taunting her enemies, particularly precocious Cassie, whose mother is a legend in the paranormal community for her Watcher gifts. The clan are dubbed the “Pops” because of the daughter’s habit of sucking on lollypops. The crime family attack Nick and Cassie in a marketplace. The Bleeders cause havoc with their deadly screams—a touch that recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)—as they chase the duo, causing fish in tanks to explode and finally leaving Nick badly mangled. He escapes death only because the Pop girl warns her brothers that they need him to obtain the drug. Cassie takes Nick to a Stitch, Teresa Stowe (Maggie Siff), who reshapes Nick’s body: Teresa is a haughty S&M priestess who can take away pain, but also return it, and who perversely enjoys not healing, but bringing agony. Then Cassie performs the totemic act of handing Nick a flower, signalling to Nick the time to take a stand has come.

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Push’s conceptual similarity to the X-Men films was widely noted on release, but that is misleading to a certain extent, as the plot encompasses a rather different take on the relationship of its gifted outsider heroes to authority at large (there’s also a notable influence by Stephen King’s Firestarter). There’s less emphasis on spectacular powers than on subtler brands demanding mental discipline and wit. In the company of Push’s cast of superhumans, time and reality are in a constant state of flux to a point where even they can’t necessarily keep up. Push actually hews closer to an honourable update of one of the source texts for the more ambitious and sophisticated strand of superhuman fantasy works, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with its Byzantine sense of paranoia in confronting a posthuman landscape amidst the shell of the hitherto dominant civilisation. As filmmaking, Push unfolds like a Fritz Lang movie reset in Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopic modern Hong Kong and jammed in a blender with Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1999). McGuigan’s strong visuals, alive to the colour and teeming liveliness of the locale, borrows from the aesthetics more usually associated with artier filmmakers, like Wong, Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, and Olivier Assayas. Like several of those directors, McGuigan finds in Hong Kong the perfect hyperkinetic muse to survey the modern world, a place where urban life takes on a venturesome romanticism because it’s a frontier where cultures are meeting and ricocheting in manifold new forms.

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McGuigan and screenwriter David Boursa are able to dramatize this idea precisely through the mechanics of their story, which hinges on people with all their differing gifts and traits working against or in conjunction with each other. Each power tends to complement another, but can also jam things up. The setting and the essential theme are noirish, the nature of fate unfolding in an urban labyrinth. But the mood is far too ebullient to nudge noir fatalism, and besides, Hong Kong is also a setting of action films, and the thematic lexicon can skew close to the traditions of manga and anime radiating from Japan—one of the Pop brothers has Astro Boy tattooed on his arm—and genre fusion mimics cultural fusion.

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Appropriately for a film where a jostling breadth of humanity bestrides the landscape and the many modes of sensing evinced in the storyline, McGuigan’s trippy, tricky fantasia is a filtered, audio-visually layered experience laced with the jazziness of experimental films and music videos, but always plied with measured effect: freaky lensing, uses of contrasting film stocks and grains, careful use of décor and subdivisions of the frame that recall Wong’s assimilation of Matisselike visual textures and putting them into a more dynamic context, judicious slow-motion and time-lapse photography courtesy of DP David Sova. These flourishes are used with particular vividness in sequences illustrating the superhumans’ powers, like the fast-forward visions the Sniffs have when fondling Nick’s cup, visualising their analysis in reducing months of Nick’s life to a blur of action, and vertiginously edited fantasies the Pushers install in people’s heads.

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Nick and Cassie, trying to work out where Cassie’s visions are leading, enlist the help of some other paranormal ronin, including Shifter Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis), Sniff Emily Hu (Ming Na Wen), and Shadow Pinkie Stein (Nate Mooney), who all have their reasons for hating Division and joining the fight even if their good sense tells them to stay out of the way of Carver and his hand-picked goon squad. Meanwhile Kira awakens on a boat in Hong Kong harbour with no memory of how she got there, looked over by the gaunt stranger who owns the boat and a message written with her own lipstick on a mirror simply spelling out Nick’s name and a number: Kira has had her memory of the recent past erased by the boatman, Wo Chiang (Paul Car). She’s soon captured by the two Sniffs but is able to push Agent Mack into killing his partner by convincing him that he murdered his brother, creating an entire alternative existence for Mack in a few blinks of her black-swelling eyes. Kira then manages to defeat Mack in a scrambling melee in a rest stop toilet and flees back to Hong Kong. Following clues given by both Cassie’s visions and Emily’s detection, Nick tries to rendezvous with the mysterious girl who everyone’s looking for. It proves to be Kira, who first response is to take a few potshots at him with Mack’s appropriated gun. Turns out Nick and Kira were lovers back in the States, a romance that ended suddenly when Kira was kidnapped by Division, leaving Nick clueless as to her whereabouts. Or were they? Believing they have to keep Kira out of Carver’s hands and find where she’s stashed the drug, they hole up in a hotel room using Pinkie’s gifts to hide Kira.

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Another good quality of Push is the strength of its cast and the sharpness of its characters. Evans, post-Fantastic Four, first got to move away from Johnny Storm’s dude-bro tediousness and work out the charmingly chilled-out, white bread hero he’d soon purvey to much more money and popularity as Captain America, but also with a scruffy, more asocial quality, anticipating his next foray into Asiatic scifi, Snowpiercer (2013). Hounsou, always a great screen presence, makes for a formidable opponent, one who wears Division’s imperial arrogance like a suit: it feels like a manifestation of McGuigan’s raspy wit that the one-time oppressed hero of Amistad (1997) is now the ultimate manipulator of destinies and identities. Belle, who gained notice in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), has an oddly delicate screen presence that helps draw out the contradictions of her character, who is at once powerful and near-fatally malleable.

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One of screenwriter Boula’s better tweaks of the familiar plot pattern here is the way Nick is presented less as a singular hero than merely one in a group of pan-ethnic characters. Nick’s neglect of his talents means that he’s nearly constantly outmatched in his various encounters throughout the film, ending up battered, tormented, and tossed about like a plaything, as when he tries to confront Carver and his Mover bodyguard Victor (Neil Jackson). His lack of savvy as a hero recalls one of the film’s influences, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), though his lacks aren’t played for as many laughs as Jack Burton’s. His essential decency is noted early on when, whilst being tortured by Bleeders, he uses his powers to push Cassie to safety, and he does finally start to bring his real talents to the fore as the story unfolds. Chief amongst these is not his telekinetic gifts, but his mind for strategy, with which he works out a way to avoid the seemingly unstoppable fate barrelling down on him and his pals.

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Young Fanning, though, taking her first step from child star to adult actor, is the one who walks off with the proceedings, playing Cassie as a precocious punkette with dashes of delirious pink dye in her hair (“Lose a bet with your hairdresser?” Nick prods her) and who draws pictures illustrating her visions in an art book, despite her complete lack of artistic ability: her pictures of the futures she sees are essays in childish style, all too crudely contrasting her precocious projections. Cassie is, in many ways, the film’s proper protagonist, as she’s desperate to save her mother from Division’s clutches. She is partially wizened beyond her years by her gift and also trying to play the grown-up living in her mother’s near-legendary shadow, a person who has touched the lives of almost everyone in the narrative with reverberations that eventually prove anything but accidental.

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Rattled by her own constant premonitions of death and the taunts of her lollypop-sucking sister-adversary, Cassie tries to focus her gifts and see her way through to another future by trying her mother’s favourite device to improve her seer powers—alcohol. Cassie, roaring drunk, bursts into the hotel room where the ragtag gang are holed up and accosts Kira as the one who’ll get them all killed: “I’m 13, and I’m powering my use!” she declares with truculent bravado. Her encounters with Pop Girl are charged with peculiarly personal antipathy as well as a sense of their similarities, both prodigies competing directly on the behalf of family with the obligation to use the prodigal gifts they possess to further the ends of their kin, but with very different ultimate purposes. Where Cassie’s mother lives in a tranquilised void in Division’s headquarter—she’s only briefly glimpsed being led around by guards and dropping the fateful marble that helps Kira escape—and becomes something like a younger sister to Nick, Pop Girl represents a vicious and egomaniacal patriarch and a clan of carefully groomed thugs. When Pop Girl reports a failure to her father, he slaps her around. Later, when she presents her brothers with a more successful insight, it prompts them to ask whether that will make their father love them.

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Push vibrates with unexpected fragments of emotional and thematic depth like these, decorating McGuigan’s framework like the neon that blazes over Hong Kong, never overplayed to bog things down. The emotional tenor here is wound together with the way the Watchers predict the future, becoming, in essence, like film viewers anticipating certain outcomes: “I like how this future ends,” Carver tells Cassie at one point when fate seems to be dooming the outsiders’ revolt to a grim end. The film’s audience, meanwhile, have their expectations constantly switched around, holding fast to the faith certain things will come out right even in the face of mounting contradictions and seemingly impossible knots of fate. Push’s approach to fate is one of its cleverest aspects.

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The idea that precognition is an ability affected by choices and potentials rather than being perfect insight into the inevitable isn’t a new one—Frank Herbert’s Dune posited a similar concept—and Push presents it as a psychic gift derived from people’s trains of thought, which means it’s vulnerable to temporary disruption. Kira took advantage of this by having her own memory wiped, and Nick eventually formulates a way to outwit the enemy Watchers by piecing together a plan and then having his own mind wiped by Wo Chiang, his instructions written down and parcelled out to his comrades in arms. I’m not sure if all this holds water logically, but it’s damn fun to watch play out. Nick is forced to take such drastic measures after Kira falls sick from the drug she was injected with and has to be handed over to Carver to save her life. This makes her vulnerable to Carver’s Pusher talents: he convinces her that she’s an agent in his employ who is suffering from amnesia.

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Nick’s ploy works, sending both Carver and the Pops scrambling to keep up with the seemingly random twists and turns of their quarries, whilst they follow a chain of clues to locate the suitcase containing the drug sample in a skyscraper under construction, with a super-talented Shadow hired to mask the location. Our heroes still have run a gauntlet of challenges and dangers. The Pops try to zero in on the drug, but are instead fooled by a substitute Nick contrives to deliver to them. He then has a literally bruising encounter with Teresa, who has sided with Carver and has a sadistic streak her healing gifts are weirdly wound in with: she can restore injuries she fixes, and does just this to Nick, planning to torment him further, but his rapidly evolving Mover gifts allows him to outwit her. Cassie, constantly dogged throughout the film by visions of herself dead with a tiger above her, lets herself be bounced randomly around the Hong Kong underground, but still seems doomed to meet her ordained fate when she’s cornered by Pop Girl in a storeroom. But it turns out to be Pop Girl’s body splayed under one of the tiger symbol-emblazoned shipping boxes, her mind wiped by the lurking Wo Chiang. With Kira’s Pusher abilities magnified, Carver keeps her under his control once she’s stabilised and uses her take on the Pop clan’s army of gunmen, leading to a climactic battle within the half-finished skyscraper between the three vying factions.

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I suspect that if Push had been made a decade earlier, it would have been a major cult hit, and not because superpowers weren’t so common on screen then. McGuigan’s sensibility cuts against the increasingly parochial and bombastic flavour of a lot of similar filmmaking, with its focus on international drifters in a polycultural nexus fighting the powers that be harking back to the ’90s milieu, rather than the post-9/11 mindset that rewarded Michael Bay’s fascist chic with big bucks, and the far more conventional and baggy filmmaking of the now exhaustingly dominant superhero movie. McGuigan signals a deliberate note of needling satire about the dark side of Bush-era politics, as he has Carver note, “We’re not ones for diplomacy anymore.” The final battle is a terrifically organised free-for-all during which Carver and Kira turn enemies on each other, Kira orchestrating a battery of killers under her influence like a particularly freaky line-dance choreographer, whilst Nick battles Victor, their powers becoming so well-balanced that they’re essentially reduced to a fist-fight, at least until the Pop Bleeder boys try to squelch them both. McGuigan tips another nod to Big Trouble in Little China when the Pop patriarch releases his Bleeder scream in uncontrolled furore after one of his sons dies, bringing down a heap of scaffolding on him and Victor.

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Nick finishes up carrying the elaborate triple-bluff through to its end when he injects himself with the drug, which by this time has been substituted for soy sauce, and pretends to die under Carver’s contemptuous gaze. The very last few moments confirm that an even more elaborate plot than anyone except Cassie had originally realised has just been pulled off, and though Kira is still in Carver’s clutches, Nick has arranged for her to recover the truth, setting the scene for a most satisfying blackout moment of poetic justice. I’m inclined to call Push a kind of pop masterpiece, but too few heard this tree fall in the woods. A few months after its release, many of the same people who dissed it were calling the equally tricky but comparatively dour and pompous Inception (2010) a major event, which goes to show what a funny world we live in.

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1960s, Animated, Fantasy

Yellow Submarine (1968)

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Director: George Dunning

By Roderick Heath

Amidst the relics of the high psychedelic era, Yellow Submarine is one of the most instantly recognisable, a jokey and absurdist adventure tale built around one of pop culture’s singular creative wellsprings, the music and artistic personae of The Beatles. The film has become an iconic work encapsulating the Beatles’ oeuvre and mystique and indeed the era of its making. Any still from the film could be used as an emblem and summation of the psychedelic creed. Ironically, Yellow Submarine was a byproduct of the band’s uninterest in appearing in another film: their contractual obligation to United Artists forced them to develop a new movie project, and they decided producing an animated film through their newly formed recording and production company, Apple, seemed a good way to discharge the obligation. (Later, UA eventually declared they hadn’t met that obligation, requiring them to make the 1970 documentary Let It Be.)
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I was moved to revisit Yellow Submarine in part because of the passing of Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ illustrious producer and facilitator. Martin, as well as helping to create the Beatles songs heard on the film’s soundtrack, also composed the orchestral score that gives the movie some of its gorgeous, jaunty, romantic gloss. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr kept their distance from the project, which was handled by George Dunning, an animator who had a lot of experience working on a playful, animated children’s show about the band that ran during the second half of the ’60s. The film Dunning was assigned was something very different in concept and style, and only when the film was nearing the end of production did the band members realise something marvellous had been created. Nonetheless, their creative lexicon was key to the vision Dunning and his animation team realised, which extrapolates images and ideas from their songs, as well as builds sequences for their music to play over to create a uniquely textured film.
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Considering that animation opens up to filmmakers a form of expression seemingly without limits, most animated features are amazingly conservative, mainly tethered to realistic precepts and slight fantasies meant for kids. If you look at a recent, lauded, smart, but very anodyne kind of animated film, Inside Out (2015), you can see very similar ideas to those in Yellow Submarine, but bound by neat chains of cause and effect in painting the workings of the psyche in total contradiction to the protean delights of the surrealist wellspring both films reference. Yellow Submarine takes its title and core imagery from one of the most deliberately lightweight, yet naggingly catchy tunes Lennon and McCartney ever wrote, a burlesque-cum-tribute to singalong shanties of the Liverpool docklands surely familiar to any son of that port city, given a new paint job in hallucinogenic hues. In Dunning’s film, thanks to a screenplay penned by a small battery of writers, including original story scribe Al Brodax and future Love Story hitmaker Erich Segal, that jaunty number becomes the basis of an oddball, highly unserious take on a Tolkienesque fantasy quest tale. It starts off in a magical kingdom called Pepperland, where free and easy creativity and benign good cheer reign, only to be targeted by an army of nasty creatures called the Blue Meanies who, with their henchmen, want to destroy this last corner of the nonblue universe.
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Pepperland is reminiscent of an Edwardian bohemian fantasia of polite relaxation and gentlemanly recline, where the mayor of the town plays in a string quartet and the champions of the land are a foursome of bardic heroes called, inevitably, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The invasion of the Blue Meanies, led by a chief (voiced by Paul Angelis, who also does voice work for Ringo and George) who declares angrily to his underling, Max, that Blue Meanies never take “yes” for an answer owing to their dedicated negativity. Their invading army includes a huge, flying glove and shock troops who bonk enemies with giant green apples (making sport of the symbol of the Beatles’ own label). Their bombardments petrify the inhabitants of Pepperland. One citizen, Fred (Lance Percival) is an old man (although the mayor is so ancient he calls him “Young Fred”) who wears a sailor suit but has no actual naval knowledge whom the mayor assigns the task of taking the Yellow Submarine, the vehicle that first brought Pepper’s band to the land, out into the world to find help. His search brings him to a street in Liverpool where Ringo, kicking about the streets bored and frustrated, senses he’s being followed and tries to get the attention of a policeman who’s too absorbed in trying to charm a cat. Finally, Ringo heads back to The Pier, the house he shares with the other band members, and Fred pops out of the submarine to make his appeal for aid, recounting the attack and his adventures in a babbling torrent.
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Yellow Submarine blends many of the contradictory imaginative and cultural reflexes that nestled close to the Beatles’ hearts and energised their art—a faith in electrifying vision and a frontierlike sense of art as a vehicle for life, jostling against a wistful nostalgia for half-remembered ages and semi-mythical qualities of bygone days. The first post-credits sequence, built around “Eleanor Rigby,” envisions decaying industrial Britain through the detritus of its own cultural memory, a monochromatic space populated by figures that appear culled from historical photographs, illustrations, and other bricoleur discoveries, with the jutting, grimy chimneys of the city’s rowed terraces suddenly exhaling like ship’s horns. The sequence doesn’t illustrate the song’s tragic narrative, but underscores its evocation of a blasted, lovelorn corner of the world. Spots of colour, like the Union Jack waistcoat on a very British bulldog overlooking the scene, the periscopes of Fred’s lurking submarine, or the butterfly wings jutting from the back of a meditating philosopher, appear as islets of bliss and invention amidst a landscape dominated by characters who try to do things—footballers warming up on a field, a man trying to get out of a phone booth, a motorcyclist with an anarchic swath of regalia on his helmet but tears leaking from his eyes—but whose motions simply loop. Here the artistic influences hew close to the effects of pop art, particularly Warhol’s obsession with silk-screen derivations of photos and utilising collected, pasted-together images. The images coalesce to evoke a kind of dream-memory in the British psyche where it’s always a chill and depressing day in 1931. The air of melancholy stasis and the soul-grinding side of this dream-memory is countered with images of absurdity and florid mind-over-matter invention as Fred follows Ringo home, who immediately turns the sorrow of the song into theatricality as he laments that “compared to my life, Eleanor Rigby’s was a gay mad whirl.”
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The motifs here reproduce those already well established in Richard Lester’s two films featuring the band, depicting the musical foursome as founts of inspiring anarchy in a dreary and clapped-out world. Lester presented a gag in Help! (1965) where the band members arrived at their homes adjoining terrace houses in the midst of Liverpool, only to reveal spacious, conjoined, luxurious environs within. Here Dunning and his animators take that gag a step further and portray the interior of The Pier as a cavernous expanse that blends a Borgesian dream-labyrinth with Looney Tunes gagsmithing; Fred enters the house and disappears through one of hundreds of ranked, identical doors, as behind his back flit fairytale characters, id creatures, and icons out of Dadaist art. The influence of Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show, a radio programme that left a powerful imprint on Lennon and many other British talents of his generation, including the Monty Python squad, is in constant evidence in both the stock characters and the random jokes, including George’s refrain of “It’s all in the mind”.
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Fred manages to interest Ringo in his incomprehensible pleas, and they round up the other members of the band, each of whom is glimpsed retreating in some bubble of their own self-perception in a house littered with psychitecture zones adapted to their personalities. Ringo drives a vintage sports car down a grand art-deco staircase. John (John Clive) is first seen in a room littered with pop culture iconography, managing to be both Frankenstein and his own monster as he lurches off a laboratory table as a stitched-up hulk before swallowing a potion to shock himself back into normal state. George stands atop a psychedelic mountain riddled with portals into other realities, communing with the sky–although he’s also in two places at once, the mystic strains of the sitar ringing out all the while. Paul (Geoff Hughes) emerges from his rooms dressed as a strutting dandy to a round of orgiastic applause.
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The lads quickly agree, in confused fashion, to join Fred in his quest to retake Pepperland, and they depart in the submarine. “Right, then, let’s get this vessel shipshape,” Fred commands happily, to Ringo’s droning dissent, “I kind of like the way it is—submarine-shape.” Their journey to Pepperland is chiefly an excuse to string together a succession of weird places, each of which is associated with a different artistic style and Beatles song. Yellow Submarine is encyclopaedic in the breadth of its references and appropriations, a freeform surge of artistic modes culled from art nouveau, art deco, fauvism, op art, cubism, comic book art and children’s book illustrations. Filmic technique runs from classic animation to rotoscoping (particularly during a sequence of dancing girls matched to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), whilst the submarine’s departure on its journey back to Pepperland is portrayed in a stroboscopic array of photos set to the famous rising, atonal crescendo from the finale of “A Day in the Life.” Through it all runs a streak of comedy that alternates total surrealism and visionary largesse on the visual level—trains racing out of rooms and halted by a slamming door, a colossal monster that sucks in anything in its path through a giant nozzlelike nose, a hole that can be folded up and kept in a pocket for later use—and verbal humour that runs in an opposite vein, replete with throwaway, non sequitur, sarcastic deflations wielded by the Liverpudlian heroes used to negotiate all kinds of bizarre situations and scarcely fazed by time warps, flying neon piranha, and trotting monsters in Wellington boots.
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It’s rather beside the point to critique Yellow Submarine on a narrative level, although the story holds together in its own, specific, shaggy way. The film acts more like a total immersion in a way of seeing the world, inflected by two seemingly opposite terms of reference. It’s both a sophisticated arrangement of artistic modes, metaphors, and mythic motifs that rarely pauses for the slow members of the class to catch up, but also a deft approximation of a childlike sensibility, a place of multitudinous colours, transforming beings, and amorphous possibility seeking joy in the universe, boiling down to a simple message: all you need is love. This suits the band’s peculiar grip on the pop culture zeitgeist at the time, one sustained by their ready ability to shift their official personas slightly to become something different, depending on the angle from which they were viewed: as happy-go-lucky types living something close to a kid’s ideal of what adult life might be like, as counterculture swashbucklers deriving world-shaping ideas from exotic religions and pharmaceutical enhancements, as roguish bon vivants and barely reformed likely lads out of Liverpool with a pleasant line of blarney just out for a good time, or as the moment’s manifestation of an ancient force, the eternal troubadours, bringers of colour and life, with a dash of messianic messaging.
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All of these facets are present in the film, which amplifies a central joke from the famous cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s album, where the Beatles are presented in the guise of the fake band with their own, earlier, canonical selves standing next to them. Here the Beatles are required, once they reach Pepperland, to pretend to be Sgt. Pepper and his band to step into the ancient and foundational role of the land of pure imagination. To get to that pure land, they have to travel through places of fragmented nature, places where strange animals roam, where time becomes a fluid entity, where the usually invisible geometries of scientific law suddenly become manifest, sound and vision can be interchangeable, and even the absence of form itself can be entered and contended with on the way to shaping a world. Along the way, the band members and Fred have to contend with an engine that breaks down, Ringo being carried off on the back of a bizarre animal, an attack by Indians requiring a secret weapon consisting of a fully bedecked cavalry unit to be loosed by the submarine, the great horn-nosed monster sucking everything including itself into a white void known as the Sea of Nothing, and getting caught in a time eddy where the submarine’s crew rapidly age both backwards and forwards and catch sight of themselves on the way around.
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There are strong affinities between Yellow Submarine and the same year’s science fiction treatment of many of the same themes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, sporting adventurers who journey through a dazzling, trippy-coloured acausal portal through different zones of reality, contending with zones of the Einsteinian universe where time breaks down and they’re old and young at once, and are eventually confronted in the void by a singular being who represents the psyche in all its multifarious, ridiculous aspects. Tonally, of course, they’re completely opposed: Kubrick’s deadly serious contemplation of the transcendent urge via a blend of hard tech and soft psychedelia is viewed in the funhouse mirror here, as the other Beatles give smirks and groans of boredom when John starts extemporising on theoretical physics in the midst of a rupturing watercolour world that embodies the elusive freedom of the psyche’s brighter frontier. Meanwhile, during the Sea of Time sequence, Paul leads the lads in a performance of “When I’m 64” whilst they’re sprouting long, white beards, whilst on screen the animators try to illustrate the possibilities inherent in a mere minute of time, counting off the seconds with elaborately illustrated numbers, a jokey version of the same idea presented with a more fearsome and clammy attitude in another film of the same year, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. In the Sea of Science, scored by the draggy, druggy, glittering sounds of “It’s Only a Northern Song,” the film skirts total dissolution into abstraction, where the film’s soundtrack becomes an animated squiggle and our heroes spin around in convoluted geometries.
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In the Sea of Nothing, the submariners encounter a weird being with a hairy, dextrous body and a face like a Commedia dell’arte mask, who calls himself Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD (or “Phud” as Ringo reads it on his business card), engaged furiously in creativity and learning without any apparent purpose. He’s the embodiment of the hapless hero of “Nowhere Man,” which John leads the band in singing, bringing sworls of colour and form to the void as Jeremy weeps in self-recognition. Jeremy nonetheless starts converting book smarts into real-world practice as he fixes the submarine’s troublesome motor, and Ringo, recognising a fellow misfit, invites Jeremy along on the journey. The submariners then enter what John calls “the foothills of the Headlands,” a place filled with colossal, see-through heads alight with thought-images and coated in a fine dusting of pepper, which when disturbed causes all the big giant heads to sneeze and blow our heroes down a deep pit into the Sea of Holes. There, Jeremy is kidnapped by a stray Blue Meanie, but the Beatles manage to find the way out into Pepperland itself and are soon followed by Fred. They’re greeted by a panorama of petrified Pepperlandians, with Blue Meanies constantly patrolling to refreeze anyone who’s waking up. Told by the mayor they have to stir the populace by pretending to be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles sneak into a bandstand surrounded by sleeping Meanies, retrieve their instruments and uniforms, and launch a musical assault on the forces of bad vibes.
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Yellow Submarine purposefully resists, after the “Eleanor Rigby” scene, traversing the more perverse and melancholy aspects of the Beatles’ music, or the darker, more toxic strands to psychedelia captured by other bands essaying the form, like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Nice, and King Crimson. Yellow Submarine is dedicated to being a good trip: even Lennon’s biting self-satire in “Nowhere Man” is given a jolly and positive spin. And yet there is a sneaky, almost subliminal aura of strangeness and distance to the whole project, the style of humour and the textures of the visuals charged with an eliding, cheeky, diminuendoish quality, never quite building to obvious punch lines or the kinds of patronising joke-delivery systems and metaphors too much animated cinema, even the wildly praised Pixar films, still offer. There’s potency to the Blue Meanies as adversaries (my mother, who was 20 when the film came out, still can’t abide them), sibilant, fey and ambisexual in just the wrong manner, the ever-so-faint shudder of the molester’s insidious grinning evil to them, and their oppression of Pepperland, which is at once playful and unpleasant. The bonks of the green apples are comic, but some of the images, like a line of their shock troops, grinning evilly behind dark glasses and giving Nazi salutes, like Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove given a pop makeover, have a charge of lunacy behind them.
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Good triumphs, of course, as a few good licks of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “All You Need Is Love” shake Pepperland back to life and empower the citizens to chase out the Blue Meanies. The chief Meanie, after seeing his flying glove and multiheaded guard dog defeated, is rendered utterly helpless and humiliated by Jeremy, who causes flowers to break out all over his furry form. This leads to a climax set to Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” a triumphant procession of the populace of Pepperland, their saviours, and their defeated, yet accepted, enemies celebrating. Here the film pays its last nod to both the kinds of courtly sagas its narrative resembles, but also the final cast call of the musical traditions it extends. The real Beatles finally make a brief appearance right at the end, showing off their souvenirs of the journey and leading the audience in another of their schoolyard, dittylike numbers “All Together Now,” going out with a last blast of the overall, inclusive idealism Yellow Submarine embodies, the refrain of the song spelt out in a dozen languages. Of course, the love trip went sour by the decade’s end, and this kind of wilful naivete went right out of fashion. But Yellow Submarine’s impact, if not its best lesson, has echoed through animated film after it. And in an age of random terrorist attacks and the seeming willingness of far too many people to buy into the politics and philosophy of hate and resentment, watching a film that preaches acceptance, love, and peace without a drop of sarcasm suddenly feels revolutionary again.

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1930s, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Mummy (1932)

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Director: Karl Freund

By Roderick Heath

The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931). Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, that film emerged as an awkward compromise, but it still came charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete and formulaic than the more fervently dreamlike Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach lay in their dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.

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The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal output is superior and still casts a spell even when the films show their age. Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.

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Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.

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That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll. Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.

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The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment. He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.

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The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.

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The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.

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One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was at heart tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it. Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.

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Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a totemic picture. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.

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The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character. Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.

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The Mummy is one of the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four). In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.

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This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers. Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.

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The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic. Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.

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The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence. With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age woman but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”

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Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive determination as he declares his instant obsession to Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities. Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.

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But The Mummy remains almost without likeness in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past. Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Australian cinema, Fantasy

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Director: George Miller

By Roderick Heath

Mad Max (1979) was a weird and unexpectedly popular film made by George Miller, a young doctor who turned to filmmaking in his spare time during his residency training. Miller had already revealed an antic talent and gory sense of humour with his short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971). His first feature evidently aimed to transplant the ’70s craze for car chase movies into the Aussie landscape, a smart commercial move considering that adulation of the car was and is one of the nation’s major religious movements. Miller and his initial cowriter James McCausland went a step further than the usual run of car chase flicks pitting redneck cops against raffish criminals. Perhaps borrowing a little from A Clockwork Orange (1971), Damnation Alley (1976), and Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Miller set the film in a hazily futuristic time of a decayed social order where the roads were battlegrounds for marauders. His cops were badass neo-knights battling rampaging scum, and his hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), was that popular figure of ’70s genre cinema, the good man pushed too far by lowlifes. The film was a hit both at home and overseas, albeit after a dub job for U.S. distribution. Miller expanded the series with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), which pushed the concept into the realm of myth and depicted a properly post-apocalyptic landscape, and then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Each film was exponentially more expensive and ambitious than the one before, and Gibson became an international star. Miller’s love of a bygone brand of big, sweeping, elemental cinema was laced with visual and thematic overtones borrowed from John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and especially Sergio Leone, whose offbeat, proto-punkish spaghetti westerns became a particular touchstone.
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The Mad Max films have been remembered with rare fondness, particularly the middle episode, for their kinetic force, their exotic creativity, and specific, instantly influential roster of ideas and images. These films were quintessential artefacts of the early days of video, providing an easy bridging point between the drive-ins and home entertainment. Imitations exploded, at first in cheap Italian knock-offs and eventually in big-budget riffs like Waterworld (1995). In their native land, the Mad Max films were admired in themselves, and considered just about the only salvageable relics of Aussie cinema’s flirtation with genre filmmaking until the reawakened interest in Ozploitation in the 2000s; indeed, there is a serious case to be made for The Road Warrior as the best film ever made Down Under. Beyond Thunderdome, an attempt to take the series upmarket and give it Spielbergian appeal, was a great-looking and thoughtful entry that nonetheless skimped terribly on action, and many felt Miller had pulled his creation’s teeth. Ever since Miller, a truly talented filmmaker, has, like George Lucas, wasted a lot of that talent trying to be a one-man film industry.
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Miller had been mooting a fourth episode since the mid-1990s, and now, finally, it has arrived with rising star Tom Hardy slotted into the lead role. Fury Road has been greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on the orgiastic by critics and fans. That’s not so surprising. The appeal of the series was always based on the outlandish and the disreputable, and the new film, armed with a blockbuster budget, has on the face of it at least the jagged, thumping appeal of a heavy-metal album in a sea of autotune pop. One unique quirk of the Mad Max series was that each episode, although linked by certain elements, represented a partial reboot rather than mere sequel to the previous one, remixing certain ideas and characterisations, thus lending itself rather neatly to recomposition 30 years down the track. Fury Road quickly reveals itself determined to a fault not to repeat the perceived mistakes of Beyond Thunderdome.
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Just how deeply Australian the Mad Max films were is necessary to note outright, most particularly their sense of the landscape as both a limitlessly boding expanse and a harsh and withholding thing where paucity dictates adaptation, and their vision of civilisation as a crude assemblage of spare parts left lying about by other cultures. Miller took the Oz-gothic vision of Ted Kotcheff’s seminal Wake in Fright (1971), which contemplated the ugly, unstable tone of devolved aggression that can be seen in some pockets of the continent, and gave it a purpose. He also quoted the wild, frenetic, purposefully crude inventiveness coming out of the nation’s pop cultural quarters in the late ’70s: in the weird panoply of grotesques that form the human world of Miller’s early vision lies the grubby energy welling out of grungy pub rock scenes, art schools, and the burgeoning gay and punk scenes. At the time this was cutting edge; now it’s all rather retro. Miller went to town mimicking the sweeping widescreen visions and strident, epic-sounding music associated with a brand of big movie-making that was fallow for most of the ‘70s: Miller made blockbusters on a budget. Mad Max: Fury Road, which cost $150 million, can’t argue such handmade pizzazz, and Miller had to work his fascination with creating weird little worlds and exploring their sensibilities with a near-constant barrage of thrills and spills.
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Hardy’s Max is glimpsed at the outset framed against the horizon, gazing into the distance, before stamping on a two-headed mutant lizard in an attempt to quell the semi-psychotic buzzing in his head—the voices of the people he tried and failed to save in the past, including his daughter. No time to stand around, however; Max quickly gets into his battered, old Interceptor and flees ahead of a squadron of hunter hotrods. They manage to wreck his vehicle, drag him out, and take him to the Citadel controlled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a hulking aged warlord. Many citizens of the Citadel suffer from “half-life,” or a congenital anaemia usually accompanied by cancerous tumours that cause early death, and one half of Joe’s power rests on his ability to find strong donors to keep the others alive; the other half is control of an underground water supply. The culture of the Citadel includes his army of “War Boys,” young half-lifes kept functioning by blood donors, or “blood-bags” as they’re called, and controlled through promises of an afterlife in Valhalla if they die in combat for him. Joe also has a coterie of beautiful young woman kept as a concubines in a vault. Max is tethered, and his back is tattooed with his status as a universal donor. Before his captors can brand him, Max breaks free and nearly escapes, only to be recaptured. He’s given to one waning War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a blood-bag. Meanwhile Joe’s top “Imperator” Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads men out on a supply run to the nearby cities that produce fuel oil and weapons Behind the wheel of her war-rig, an armed and armoured long-range fuel truck, Furiosa drives off the beaten path into the wastelands, stringing along her soldiers and plunging them into a battle with wasteland marauders. Joe soon realises what’s happened: Furiosa is helping the concubines escape.
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Characterising Immortan Joe as a primitive tyrant with a taste for harem flesh might be seen as Miller having a sly dig at one of the basic appeals of his creation: the possibility that future civilisation decline would return humankind to barbarism and the unrestrained indulgence of primal appetites and discourteous sexuality, a notion exploited all too enthusiastically by the not-so-different Gor novels by John Norman. Some of the ugliest moments in Miller’s first two films in the series involved the pansexual rape habits of its villains, so Miller may be issuing a mea culpa as he takes on the theme of liberating sex slaves. The storyline mildly upbraids such a fantasy landscape’s appeal in repeatedly noting the stripping away of dignity and agency, something inflicted on Max as well as the young concubines, as he spends many scenes strapped to the front of Nux’s car as he gives chase, feeding him lifeblood. Easy enough, too, to read Joe as a caricature of just about any arbiter of social control, as he keeps his War Boys’ heads screwed with religion and his populace on a leash with carefully rationed water: he warns his populace as he pours water upon them not to become addicted to it, lest they resent its general absence.
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Nux has the strongest, most interesting character arc in the film—point of fact, the only character arc. He charges into battle with fellow berserker Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), mouth spray-painted with silvery gloss to evoke the chrome-plated bumper bar of Death, desperate to live up to his creed only to be jolted out of the death-hungry obsession by his own failures. He slowly changes loyalty to the ragged team of heroes whilst Erectus becomes his personal nemesis in the pursuing armada. Hoult, usually cast as cupid-lipped young romantics, has a blast playing such a loose-screw, physical character.
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Meanwhile the coterie of pulchritudinous fugitives—heavily pregnant favourite The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), flame-locked Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—are characterised not as feyly naïve or absurdly tough, but as a pack of sarcastically articulate waifs out of their depth and yet committed to their Quixotic mission, tucked under Furiosa’s wing and doing their best to operate in the ferocity of the moment. I’m not quite sure if anything about their characterisations makes sense in context, though. They’re children of the post-apocalyptic world but say they don’t want their children to be warlords. What else are they going to be? Conceptual artists? Miller should have gone back to Kurosawa to remind himself of how characters set in worlds run by different rules should act.
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Max’s first proper glimpse of this coterie of bounteous female forms has them arrayed against the desert sand and sky in diaphanous silks and chastity belts like some particularly collectable Sports Illustrated foldout. Furiosa herself likes to shave her head and rub engine grease on her forehead as war paint, and has a mechanical left arm. Theron proves again she’s a performer of sneaky craft as she finds depth in a swiftly sketched character with real art, moving supply and convincingly from steely war face to shows of pathos and personal longing and anguish. Her Monster (2003) Oscar notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if Theron hasn’t finally found her metier here as a rudely charismatic bruiser. That Furiosa is in many ways the real protagonist of the film is Fury Road’s open secret. Max is at first frantic to the point of, yes, madness—understandable considering the indignities he suffers in the film’s opening scenes. He finally breaks free when Nux crashes his vehicle chasing Furiosa’s war-rig into a sandstorm, and his initial meeting with the cabal of females is a tense and coercive standoff, as he’s initially obsessed only with survival. Standoff turns into a three-way punch-up, as Nux, still chained to his escaped blood-bag, leaps into the fray, and Max alternates between fighting off Furiosa and stopping Nux from killing her. Max at first tries to leave them all behind, but finds the war-rig won’t go because Furiosa’s kill switches have to be cleared in an order only she knows. Furiosa convinces him to take her and the other women aboard, and, of course, uneasy partnership soon becomes unshakeable alliance.
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The basic story of Fury Road reminded me more than a little of Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (1970) with way more action, blended with a solid B-western like Charge at Feather River (1953). Miller sprinkles stirringly bizarre, funny-appalling flourishes throughout Fury Road, proving something of his old, wicked sense of humour remains. Joe has a battery farm of tubby ladies having their breast siphoned as foodstuff that Joe trades as a delicacy. The escaped concubines pause to rid themselves of their detested chastity belts, which have barbed spikes protecting them from penetration. A remote patch of bog is home to a tribe of weirdoes living on stilts. Joe’s armada comes equipped with one vehicle carrying multiple drummers and electric guitarist for mobile war music, a touch that represents Fury Road’s most inspired nod to the rock ’n roll spirit that lurked within the original series’ texture, as well as providing perhaps this entry’s keenest example of the series’ habit of melding ancient ideas with the new. If Fury Road was nothing but such moments, it might have added up to a gonzo classic of crazy-trashy inspiration. But there’s not nearly enough humour to the film, nor enough real inspiration to its running set-pieces.
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Here we get into the greater problems with this entry. The price Miller has paid to make such an inflated reboot has been to do like a lot of modern action directors and essentially turn the last act—the climactic chases from the second two original Mad Max films—and inflate them into an entire movie. The first half-hour sets a hard-charging pace the film can’t sustain but damn well tries, what with Max’s attempted escape through the labyrinth of the Citadel whilst besieged by flash-cut memories of his past failures quickly segueing into Furiosa’s escape. I was near being put off the film right from get-go: Miller over-directs to an absurd degree as he sets the film racing, starting with that annoying CGI lizard and the tumult of psychic ghosts tormenting Max that reduce the necessary reintroduction of the character to a barrage of cheesy camera effects. The very opening suggests a dialogue of intense, meditative quiet and thunderous action might begin, but instead there’s only thunder.
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Miller’s most inspired touches of world-building are steamrollered into the tar along with everything else. The illogic that’s often leaked out the edges of Miller’s world—the amount of petrol the villains wasted in The Road Warrior was about the same as what they were chasing—here returned in watching Immortan Joe piss water away on desert sands. Apparently none of his subject populace of human flotsam have thought to put in some kind of collecting basin or sink. Miller has his image of mock-beneficent tyrant’s egotism and human pathos, and goes no further in setting us up with either a social metaphor of real force or a villain of great stature. In spite of the film’s thematic evocations, it’s as simplistic on the level of metaphor as can be, and the raving about the film’s feminist angles in some quarters ignores the fact that the “hero saves evil king’s sex-slaves” plot is one of the oldest in pulp adventuring. Of course, we live in a time where crude and basic lip-service to political themes in movies is popular for painting our Rorschach sensibilities onto (see also The Hunger Games films), so Fury Road is quite on trend in that regard. For all the faults of Beyond Thunderdome and its big, shameless debts to Lord of the Flies and Riddley Walker, it had a depth and a wistful poetry that completely eludes Fury Road, in moments like the haunting scene where Max is treated to a creation-myth-cum-history via a relic Viewmaster where random images from a vanished civilisation have been patched together to illustrate it. There’s a hint of this in the recurring phrase asked by the concubines, “Who killed the world?”, indicting the warmongers of the future with the warmongers of the past, but without pausing to note the irony of trying to touch on pacifistic themes whilst dancing the audience giddily into a sea of carnage.
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Once the action kicks into gear, the early battles and the finale are the strongest, but in the middle comes some well-staged but uninspired stuff, including an attempt to get the war-rig unstuck from the mud, whilst one of Joe’s allies, the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), randomly and stupidly fires off his guns into murk. It begs the question: how did any of these halfwits survive the apocalypse? Miller can think up a lot of things, but not a nonviolent action set-piece for his truckers that can hold a candle to the sequence in Ice Cold in Alex (1959) where the heroes have to hand-crank their vehicle up a hill, or the bridge crossing in Sorcerer (1977).
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In spite of the film’s efforts to honour the force of the original trilogy’s realistic action sequences, here swathes of CGI still must paint the skies. Still, Miller’s respect for landscape and physical context emerges throughout. Production problems meant that Fury Road had to be shot in Namibia rather than the hallowed turf of the Aussie outback, but the vistas are just as powerfully barren and stunningly vast (if also heavily digitally tweaked), and many of the best, though relatively few, moments of the film come when Miller draws back to behold this grand arena for perpetual human foolishness. One touch that did tickle me was Miller basing some of the wasteland marauders’ vehicles on the famous spiky Volkswagen Beetle from The Cars that Ate Paris.
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Dramatically speaking, Fury Road is a near-total bust however, often reducing the honourable creed of the junk action flick to moving wallpaper of bangs and booms and crashes. They’re damn well done bangs and booms and crashes, make no mistake: Fury Road is a magnificent movie production, one that clearly demanded inspiring levels of commitment to put together. But like last year’s John Wick, which also gained many plaudits from critics I’d expect to know better, Fury Road frustrated me with the presumption that an action flick can and should just be a series of Pavlovian set-pieces. Miller has a talent for fitting vignettes of humanity into the sprawl of excess, and the ones that come are interesting, like Furiosa admitting she wants “redemption” for aiding Joe for so long, and Nux connecting with Capable, the least cynical of the escapees; Keough gives a quietly luminous performance that stands out amongst her fellows, though that might be because she actually has a proper interaction with another character. But the character reflexes are astonishingly clipped and basic. Nux changes side with barely a blink, and Max and Furiosa shift from trying to kill each other to palsy-walsy in a couple of minutes.
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The bad guys particularly suffer from this thinness. Part of the force of the first two Mad Max entries lay in the fact that Miller was willing to contemplate, horror-movielike, the dread of characters failing in their personal missions of protection and the loss of loved ones to the new barbarians, and his ability to think up cool avatars of evil. Here Miller reduces that element to backstory visualised in the worst way possible. Keays-Byrne’s velvet-voiced, charismatic, if often overripe, presence was one of the most entertaining in Aussie TV and film of the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s great to see him restored to his rightful place as overlord of villains. Yet he’s completely wasted as Immortan Joe, who’s just a weak retread of Lord Humungus, lacking his real physical menace, mixed with traits from Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, and he remains a mere action figure in place of a villain. Perhaps it’s admirable we don’t get scenes of the concubines being raped or mistreated, but the film lacks basic melodramatic spurs and thus the delight in seeing evil regime churned into scrap metal. Moreover, Joe’s actual comeuppance is so clumsy and helter-skelter that I almost wondered why Miller bothered.
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Furiosa, finding her beloved childhood birthplace no longer exists and sinking to her knees to scream in fury to the desert, is supposed to register as an emotional highpoint, but doesn’t really cut it, considering the character’s had about 15 lines of dialogue and the hoped-for Eden has only ever registered before as a tossed-off McGuffin. Late in the film, Miller introduces a new set of protagonists to add to the band of heroes—the Vuvalini, a small remnant tribe of women ranging from young and dashing “Valkyrie” (Megan Gale) to aged matriarchs, including “Keeper of the Seeds” (the always wonderful Melissa Jaffer). Like so much else in the film, these ladies deserve and demand far more time to impress themselves upon us, and the notion of a pack of gun-wielding grannies on choppers is delightful, but they’re tossed into the drama moments before the big finish revs up. Thus, moments like the Valkyries’ eruption into battle don’t carry much weight: it’s just more stuff happening.
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Frankly, although the final chase sequence represents a breathless piece of cinema construction and risky filming, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as the jungle chase of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which emphasised fluid lines of camera motion to better read complex action using moving vehicles as mobile platforms in a running battle. Miller tries to do the same thing here, but changes camera positions and edits the stunt work too frenetically, with no sense of rhythm for the daring and the interplay of elements to register. But perhaps the biggest void in Fury Road is Max himself. Hardy seemed on paper like perfect casting as Max redux: he’s an actor of great sensitivity who has powerful star presence and also can look convincingly tough. His performances in Warrior (2011) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) elevated both: the mordant humour as well as threat he invested in Bane has proven over time to be one of the latter film’s coups. But here he proves startlingly weak. At first he makes a stab at an Aussie brogue, but his accent skids about like slick tyres on an oily road, and he sometimes barely seems present in the movie. Trapped behind the mask he wears for much of the film, Hardy looks vaguely like some downmarket Daniel Craig clone. This isn’t entirely his fault. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect the screenplay was, like the second two Die Hard movies, one of those blockbuster imitation spec scripts that someone thought might as well be repurposed as a sequel for the model, so disposable is Max’s presence throughout much of the film. Max has been robbed of all of his mythic stature and specific gravitas.
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I have suspected one of the reasons the series lay fallow for so long was because by the end of Beyond Thunderdome , Max as a character had reached a point in stasis. For all the alarum and affray here, it’s still rather obvious that Miller is unwilling to nudge him even slightly past the pose of eternal wanderer. That’s not necessarily a problem—after all, Zatoichi clocked up 20-odd films in his rootless wanderings and remained entertaining—but Max here just never feels particularly important, vital, or distinctive. The man who “carries Mr. Death in his pocket” has become just another player in a busy landscape. What Fury Road does well is just about the only thing it does: stage fast-paced road action. Fury Road is a triumph of high-powered editing masquerading as awesome swashbuckling fun, but much of the soul of this creation has been left by the roadside like so many burnt-out spark plugs: it’s an almost complete dud on an emotional level—and this kind of filmmaking runs on emotion. Yes, it is a good action movie. But it could have, and should have, aimed higher.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Director / Screenwriter: Joss Whedon

By Roderick Heath

They’re back – Marvel’s all-star line-up, marshalled by nerd overlord Joss Whedon. It’s been a long three years since the last episode came out, and Marvel’s endless diversification of its fictional universe had, for me at least, begun to take rub of the shine from the brand even as it’s confirmed again and again its box office potency. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to pacify fans of John Steed and Emma Peel), uneven as it was, was a difficult act to follow, surpassing Kenneth Branagh’s grandiose Thor (2011) as the best Marvel movie in ebulliently bringing together a cast of epic-scaled characters and delighting in watching (and listening to) them cut loose. The standalone adventures since then, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World (both 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the tangentially related Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whilst all entertaining to various degrees, inflated their production elements for spectacle but grazed one of the major problems with bigger-is-better storytelling: they felt smaller. That, plus the fact that The Avengers, via Whedon’s pithy, zippy writing style, proved these characters, once introduced with origins explored, actually work best when pitched against other characters like them, forcing them again to jostle for the pre-eminence and respect lesser folk automatically cede to them, and treating the audience to super-friends camaraderie.

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In spite of his stature as a major professional fabulist, Whedon is not a particularly original or deep inventor when it comes to the tropes of fantastic fiction. His specific gift rather has been an understanding that the fantasy in that fiction works best when inseparable from the dramatic and emotional impact it has on characters, and through them the audience. The great passage in his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicting the transformation of nice-girl witch Willow into a psychotic killer and sorcerer after the murder of her lover, or the “Gifted” storyline he wrote for the X-Men comics, that inspired X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), illustrate that understanding well. The Winter Soldier, which I admit to underrating last year, left the franchise in interesting disarray, with SHIELD broken and Hydra, the evil organisation of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull, stripped of its cover.

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Age of Ultron commences with the Avengers having stepped into the gap left by SHIELD’s demise, tracking down Hydra’s secret basis and destroying them. Whedon’s greatest coup in his first entry was a single “shot” that moved from Avenger to Avenger along the course of downtown New York, locating each one in the midst of a tussle that fulfilled both Whedon’s delight in connected cinema space that underlined the dramatic democracy of his sensibility, and brought the fluency of comic book illustration onto the screen. Here he offers the same stunt very early on as the Avengers fall upon a castle somewhere in the Mittel Europa enclave of Sokovia, the Avengers charging out of the snowy woods and raining thunder and wrath upon their enemies, in a more focused zone of action where the battle is like a colossal game of tag: Whedon resolves on a slow-motion sprawl with his cast flying en masse across the screen. The once-individualist warriors are now a weathered team: Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) leading Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner). Former SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulers), now officially working for Tony, provides support, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks in the wilderness, ready to help with the odd deus ex machina.

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This Hydra base, administrated by improbably monocle-clad Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), holds secrets beyond the Avengers’ ken, including the fruits of a mysterious experiment in artificial intelligence, the sceptre of unbelievable power brought to Earth by Loki in the previous instalment and filched from the SHIELD vaults, and two siblings, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). They are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra. Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated. Disturbed by this vision, Tony, retrieving Hydra’s experiments, resolves to use the recovered tech to complete one of his brainwaves: Ultron, an AI system more advanced than Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony’s digital manservant, to control a system of weapons to defend against alien attacks and allow the Avengers to stand down.

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Tony convinces Bruce to help get the system working with the sceptre as power source. Whilst their experiments seem at first to fail, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, whose mordant purr remains immensely entertaining) awakens whilst the Avengers are partying, and, swiftly parsing his mission as programmed by Tony. Quicker than you can say “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, Ultron almost immediately decides in light of Tony’s desire for “peace”, the only way to achieve it is to annihilate human kind in general. Ultron seems to attack and virtually “kill” Jarvis, takes over Tony’s robotic support team and builds himself a crude body. Although that form is quickly destroyed in the melee that follows, Ultron escapes via the internet to rebuild himself more impressively elsewhere. Ultron invites Pietro and Wanda to help him under the guise of payback against Tony and the Avengers, and begins building a doomsday device utilising Vibranium, the same rare element that Cap’s shield is made from. Ultron also hopes to construct himself a perfect form combining human and metallic elements and powered by the core of the sceptre. To do this he takes control of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a medical tech wizard who has built a machine that fashions flesh, already demonstrated in repairing Hawkeye’s injury. The Avengers track down black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), who’s stockpiled Vibranium, to prevent Ultron getting his hands on the metal, but the team is split and driven into frantic disarray by Wanda’s psychic powers, each member sent spiralling down the rabbit hole of their own inner turmoil – most disastrously, Bruce’s alter ego the Hulk goes rampaging through a city, demanding Tony stop him with his latest, Hulk-sized Iron Man suit.

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Already this synopsis should make plain how busy Age of Ultron will get. That busyness may well disorientate and even infuriate a lot of viewers, particularly those not terribly well-versed in this fictional universe or who missed a couple of instalments out of the previous ten movies in Marvel’s unfolding project. Whedon assumes, perhaps fairly by this point, that all of these faces are familiar and so can simply be let out the starting gate at full gallop. Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, a lot of that run-time is spent in breathless motion. Whedon’s versing in the density of the Marvel universe as it’s developed over the past 60 years on the page is plain, and Age of Ultron revels in that richness with authentic passion: this is, for better or worse, is one of the most authentically comic book-esque of comic book movies. The storytelling style achieves the perfervid power of grand pulp fiction, harking back to days of print when villains and heroes chase each-other from page to page with scarcely a concern for anything but the next consequence of their mutual efforts in endlessly metastasising circumstances.

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This does mean however that Whedon’s conceptual interests are flattened nearly into irrelevance. He imbues Ultron with Frankensteinian anger at his flawed creator, and makes Ultron himself into something of a cracked mirror of Tony himself, assimilating his flip speech patterns and plaintive neediness for companionship under the guise of gruff egotism. He accidentally cuts off Klaw’s arm in a tantrum when Klaw notes the similarities. Like just about everything else in the film, this fount of a theme is tightly wound into a narrative that can’t do much more than state an idea, rather than explore it. But Whedon does manage to imbue even a relatively second-string villain like Ultron with a distinctiveness that makes him interesting when he’s around, unlike the flat and dutiful villainy provided by several recent Marvel antagonists.

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The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.

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Ultron’s insistence on giving himself a human-like form means giving up the pure sanctity and detachment of a merely digital existence, and allows Wanda to see into his mind, which proves not a pretty place to be. The Avengers swing into battle with Ultron for control of this new, potentially unstoppable cybernetic organism he’s prepared as a shell, and once the body is captured, Tony has the brainwave of installing Jarvis, found tattered but still extant in a pocket of cyberspace, into the body to keep Ultron out and potentially give the team extraordinarily strong new ally. When Wanda, who can see deeply enough into Tony’s mind to know exactly how he thinks, warns Cap and some of the other Avengers what he wants to do, they dash back to stop him, but Thor casts the deciding vote rather literally by powering the new being up with lightning. The being that emerges, Vision (Bettany again, finally gracing the franchise with his physical presence), proves neither human nor machine and can’t even assure the Avengers that he’s not a threat, but instead proves a new and independent life form, who declares himself on the side of life and thus against whoever’s threatening it.

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Whedon tries to make his storyline as organically specific to this universe as possible. But regardless of whether Ultron uses Vibranium in his doomsday machine or not, it’s still a doomsday machine, and the actual plot is, again like Whedon’s first instalment, quite simple in spite of the multiplicity of moving parts. Whedon does cleverly suggest that Ultron’s unresolved filial issues drive his desire to reproduce a human form rather than simply disseminate himself into the fabric of the electronic universe: he strives to reproduce and then evolve the human form into something new, but confirms his divided psyche. Like Michael Mann’s Blackhat earlier this year, Whedon tries to depict the digital world as a microcosmic zone of cause and effect, a new frontier of existence. An important subplot here sees Thor, disturbed by the implications of the vision Wanda stirs in him, daring to enter a mystical pool to commune with “water spirits” (cue compulsory Hemsworth shirtless scene), and emerges with the knowledge that the sceptre, the Tasseract, and the Aether, are all kin to the Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, part of a fabled set of powerful objects that can be combined to imbue godlike power. And, what’s more, someone has been manipulating all of the events that have beset the Avengers recently, probably even having deliberately placed the double-edge blade that is Ultron where it would best tempt Tony, for precisely the purpose of making them do the work of rounding up the Infinity Stones. That manipulator is revealed in the now-traditional end credits teaser, and their identity is not actually surprising if you’ve been paying attention, but this element does suggest a degree of planning that’s formed a hidden substructure to the Marvel movies in spite of their occasionally wayward surfaces.

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Inevitably, with so much lore and action to wade through, Age of Ultron can’t spare much time for more than cursory interaction between some of his Avengers: Whedon assumes Tony, Thor, and Cap, all of whom benefit from their own standalone movies, have been dealt with enough, and they mostly fill out the margins – but given those guys form the core of the fan following, that will probably leave more than a few feeling gypped. Downey Jr.’s art with a smart-aleck quip and Hemsworth’s ever-growing poise and ability to self-satirise in particular give the movie a sturdy support it doesn’t treat too well. Whedon instead concentrates on two character elements to give Age of Ultron a heart amidst the furore. He makes Hawkeye, the least well-served Avenger in the first instalment, the focus for the emotional journey of the episode just as Natasha was for the first. Chastened, bedraggled, and possibly outlawed after their first battle with Ultron and the Maximoffs has resulted in the Hulk decimating a city, the Avengers let Hawkeye take them to a safe house, which proves to be his own, a small farmhouse where Hawkeye has a wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini, always a welcome presence) and two children, with another baby on the way. This unexpected interlude of top-secret domestic bliss leaves the other Avengers toey in the face of their least “remarkable” member’s suddenly revealed settlement and success in keeping his work and life separate, and they move uneasily between rooms in this space, too large for it and too small for their own gifts.

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Hawkeye’s specific gift as an Avenger, in contrast to the overwhelming force of the others, is one of precision, a gentleness of touch that eludes the galumphers around him. Whedon gives Hawkeye a crucial scene late in the film as he appeals to the momentarily overwhelmed Wanda to either stand clear of trouble or engage it wholeheartedly as a warrior. This vignette is a little wonder, referring to crucial backstory – Hawkeye also brought Black Widow over from the darkside – and also illuminating the present, suddenly making Hawkeye perhaps the most vital Avenger as well as the most human, and giving the film the kind of surprising emotional kick that is Whedon’s forte. Meanwhile romance is blossoming between a most unlikely couple, as Natasha is smitten with Bruce: in The Avengers Natasha had an intensely phobic reaction to the terrible spectacle of the Hulk, one that only seemed to infuriate the id-beast all the more. Now she has become the Hulk’s calming salve, able to draw the green guy out of his rages with nothing more than offering her hand, leading to the gently erotic sight of small woman’s palm in giant green mitt. But Bruce, whilst plainly equally taken, denies the attraction at first, and feels too conscious of his potential destructiveness to let the romance run its course.

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Johansson, who ironically after several years floundering in stardom finally defined her screen persona playing Natasha, gets to work new levels to the character in love. Ruffalo, long a charm machine, is wonderful portraying Bruce’s befuddled delight. Whedon’s problematic but amiable film of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) was a long study in the dynamics of intimate staging for a roundelay of character expressed through quick-fire humour and effervescent emotion. Here that model is reproduced as haiku: Whedon even uses Hawkeye’s house as multilevelled stage in the same manner as he used his own house in that predecessor. I noted in my commentary on the first film that it represented a revival of an old Hollywood tradition, the all-star extravaganza, a genre that is distinct from the more prosaic style of the ensemble drama.

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Whedon was rightly praised for modelling the original like a Howard Hawks ensemble flick, like Rio Bravo (1959), watching fractious personalities bump against each-other in a pressure cooker situation and enjoy the process of watching them knit together. Whedon had a chance to make his El Dorado (1966) here, the semi-remake that’s possibly even better. The long, casually comic party sequence that follows the raucous opening does provide an islet of Hawksian interaction between the many different players, laced with appearances by supporting characters from the various sub-branches – James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – and vignettes, from Thor treating some old veterans to some of his potent Asgardian booze, to the various Avengers trying and failing to lift his hammer – except for Cap, who manages to move it ever so slightly, bringing a momentarily worried look to Thor’s face (this also sets up a joke that pays off later on).

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But the simultaneous blend of firm genre structure with free-flowing behavioural study that was Hawks’ forte eludes Whedon here, who’s been forced to contend with a teetering superstructure of franchise business. Wanda’s mind-games with the team destabilises them and allows Whedon to offer some trippy sequences that expose the hang-ups of the characters, based so often in the same experiences that have given them their superlative talents, a notion that particularly intrigues Whedon for reasons already noted. Age of Ultron tries here to annex the same territory so well-handled by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where the hero was confronted by his own internal chaos, confirming how little distance there was between his heroic side and dark one, but then emerging as purified righteous ass-kicker. In this regard, Whedon fails, rather badly. He can’t linger on the psychological trauma of his individual heroes long enough to make it seem more than another piece of plot hocus-pocus, nor can he leaven even the faintest feeling of anxiety that the team won’t reform and resurge. Age of Ultron is so jam-packed, so overflowing at the margins with throwaway details that it starts to resemble the pages of Mad Magazine, with tiny illustrative flourishes dotted between panels often providing the bulk of fun. Such a stuffed narrative would defeat many filmmakers. And frankly I think it’s defeated Whedon too.

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Whedon’s sense of throwaway humour in marginalia makes this work for the most part however; the audience I saw the film with had most of its audible fun with such tossed-off touches, like Thor explaining his hammer-swinging technique to Vision, or Natasha shouting “Sorry!” as she pummels through a crowd on a motorcycle. One of my own favourite moments sees Ultron flying a jet whilst singing a ditty that signals just how cuckoo, and how human, he is. There’s a strong dash of the old James Bond spirit to this instalment, littered with rapid shifts between exotic locales to wreak havoc and look good doing it. The ship graveyard of Chittagong, Bangladesh provides the backdrop for an early battle (albeit supposedly in Africa), a location Whedon disappointingly doesn’t make much of, instead shifting focus for the battle between Iron Man and Hulk in a Michael Bay-esque wreck-the-city sequence – a well-staged, spectacular interlude that nonetheless represents screen time that could have been better spent on something else.

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The very end credits scan a grand Grecian-style monument depicting the Avengers in the midst of battle, well aware these are our neo-Olympians. There’s an odd and effective little moment that suggests again the breadth of cultural reference Whedon can make, as he offers a glimpse of Wanda retreating in a scuttling, stop-motion manner like a J-horror ghoul. Sadly, that kind of effective lo-fi trick can’t live long in a film with so many digital effects artists on the case. Whedon’s visual sensibility is also still often surprisingly cramped, staging a major action sequence in a confined metallic chamber that looks like a set left over from City of Lost Children (1995), and offering up a climactic final image of a whole city floating above the Earth, and yet barely registering the surreal intensity of the moment: it’s just more cool stuff happening. Whedon’s visual syntax doesn’t break down, and yet the finale is such a whirlwind of events that his efforts to give every hero their clear ground for individual heroism, something Whedon did extremely well in his first instalment, here become more than a little ineffectual, offering, for instance, just a few blink-and-miss shots of Fury and Hill gunning down baddie robots. There is one grand moment when the heroes form together in Zukovia’s central church to protect the controls for the doomsday device and face a storm of steel and violence, a moment that evokes the most beautiful cover-wrapping comic book illustrations. But such moments of visual power are scarce.

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One reason I liked Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) more than many was precisely because Snyder was alive to the visual impact of such ideas, achieving an almost DeMille-like grandeur and beauty in his city-levelling battles and doomsday machines, and also wrestled with the notion of god-like entities battling as something perhaps frighteningly inimical to the rest of us. Whedon probably won’t be keelhauled for doing exactly the same thing like that film was because he’s got credit Snyder doesn’t have. In the lengthy, gigantic, overstretched finale, he bends over backwards to depict the Avengers trying to save the civilian populace of Sokovia as Ultron turns their city into a gigantic battering ram. Apart from Scarlet Witch’s rousing entry into battle after Hawkeye’s pep-talk, however, Whedon never builds the same elating thrill as his first entry in studying all of his heroes defining themselves through battle, simply because he seems to feel unable to pause long enough to do so, nor the same impact in the face of self-sacrifice. The script promises that the battle will certainly prove deadly for at least some of the Avengers, and one significant character does die, albeit one carefully cross-indexed for relative value.

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But if Whedon was hoping that his second instalment would annex the mythic gravitas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), all I can say is he doesn’t make it. There is another problem the superhero genre faces and Marvel might soon find the ride becoming considerably bumpier soon because of it: the moment when it starts to become a feedback loop that refers to scarcely anything outside itself, a phase that will hold the long-haul fans but eventually detach the casual aficionados. A large part of the impact of the first Iron Man in 2008 came from its deliberate, naïve but effective tapping of the fantasy of many of finding an impervious shield to the cruelty of the times, worked via a very basic story and easy-going sense of humour. The Winter Soldier brought that to up to date as it depicted the modern American sense of self in vivid conflict: Marvel has traced the history of the War on Terror incidentally. The trouble with Age of Ultron is that it can barely refer outside itself, unless it’s to anxiety over the AI future, which ain’t a new anxiety. Now the brand is brushing the edges of a cosmology, and still uninterested in sacrificing broad entertainment to acknowledge the genuinely deeper streams of its mythos.

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Even Whedon proves caged by this: to put it bluntly, Age of Ultron, like the much-abused superhero films Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Iron Man 2 (2010), is haplessly overstuffed, and like the latter, is forced to bear the burden of expanding this fictional world, which seems a bit ridiculous at this point, eleven films into a series. And yet it coheres more than those likenesses, if only because Whedon is talented enough to do big things with the smallest flourish. My criticisms of Age of Ultron might sound a bit more impassioned than they’re really intended to be: Whedon’s made another enjoyable movie here, fashioned with verve and working the rollercoaster intensity that the modern blockbuster movie aspires to. Many of them these days can’t really manage it: such intensity demands a movie offer the capacity to make the audience feel the ride as well as gawk in bemused amazement. Age of Ultron will undoubtedly frustrate many with its sheer too-muchness, and will riotously entertain as many or more, because it retains honour in that too-muchness. Avengers: Age of Ultron is as determined to entertain to the limit as an old vaudeville act. For the sake of the show it tap-dances whilst juggling, singing, and balancing a chair on its nose. I would have settled for just the tap-dance done well.

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