1960s, Drama, Political, Thriller

Medium Cool (1969)

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Director/Screenwriter: Haskell Wexler

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1930s, Auteurs, French cinema, Political, Thriller

The Shanghai Drama (1938)

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Le Drame du Shanghaï

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Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenwriters: Alexandre Arnoux, Léo Lania

By Roderick Heath

Georg Wilhem Pabst’s run of films of the late silent and early sound cinema eras remain essential viewing for movie lovers and scholars, and the director himself synonymous with that moment in European film culture. Pabst, born in Roudnice in what was then Austro-Hungary, studied engineering but drifted into the theatre, already experiencing a successful transatlantic career as a stage director before World War I broke out. After spending the war in a French internment camp, Pabst took up filmmaking in his late thirties, and emerged as a major talent with his fourth feature, The Joyless Street (1925). That film, featuring Greta Garbo before her jaunt to Hollywood, also marked the beginning of his reputation for making or amplifying female stars at crucial junctures. After making the first film to explicitly tackle Freudian theory as a subject, Secrets of a Soul (1926), Pabst directed two movies touched with legendary lustre with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929). White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), which Pabst directed in collaboration with Arnold Fanck, scored a huge popular hit and kicked off a craze for mountain climbing films. Pabst’s war film Westfront 1918 (1930), humanistic disaster drama Kameradschaft (1931), and Expressionist musical The 3 Penny Opera (1931) were hailed as some of the most vital moviemaking achieved in the early days of sound.

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And yet, after the early 1930s, Pabst falls completely out of sight as far as most cineastes and critics are concerned, although he would keep making movies for another twenty years. The reasons for his erasure are laced with bitter ironies and ambiguities. In his glory days, Pabst was feted for the determined blend of social critique and psychological investigation apparent in his films as well as their artistic vigour, informed by his leftist allegiances. His sense of style modulated degrees of realism and stylisation, veering from careful, Erich von Stroheim-esque detail to heightened Expressionist effects in trying to describe the physical and mental landscape of his age, and how one created the other, with a penchant for vivid, often antiheroic female protagonists. Jean Renoir hailed Pabst as an influence with his capacity to “create a strange world whose elements are borrowed from daily life.” Pabst had already moved to France to work even before the Nazis came to power in Germany, but his exile proved one of anxious wanderings. In his first years in Paris he ventured into splashy science fiction-fantasy with L’Atlantide (1932) and a well-regarded adaptation of Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote (1933), which sported a pointed jab at Nazi book-burning. But Pabst’s sojourn to Hollywood to make A Modern Hero (1934) proved a rude comedown for a director known for his tight creative control as he clashed with Warner Bros. He soon returned to France, but could not regain his standing.

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Pabst was caught in Austria as World War II broke out, and found himself under the thumb of Joseph Goebbels, who obliged him to make a handful of movies during the war that had nominally safe historical themes, including The Comedians (1941) and Paracelsus (1943): the latter film has been studied with some interest as evidence of Pabst’s artistic resistance with its theme of the heroic title character trying to counter mass hysteria with rationalism. Nonetheless many former fans and fellow leftists held Pabst in disdain for his collaboration, and some accused him of returning to Nazi-held territory because he preferred the stature he would supposedly have retained working there to following other figures of German cinema to Hollywood and subsist in the studio production mills. Pabst didn’t help his reputation by offering fuzzy explanations as to why he was in Austria and never explicitly apologising for bowing down. As if making aesthetic rather than rhetorical riposte, after the war’s end Pabst reverted to his sharply critical mode as he tried to illustrate historical anti-Semitism with Der Prozeß (1948), but he struggled afterwards, sojourning to Italy to make some poorly received comedies. Returning again to Germany, he tackled the chaotic waning days of the war with The Last Ten Days (1955), with a script co-written by Erich Maria Remarque anticipating Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004) in portraying Hitler in the Bunker, and It Happened on July 20th (1955), a depiction of the July Plot assassination attempt. Finally advancing Parkinson’s Disease impacted his ability to continue directing, and many felt he had long since lost his specific creative fire.

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Watching The Shanghai Drama, a product of Pabst’s virtually forgotten late ‘30s output, in the light of what was behind and ahead for Pabst is then a jolting and salutary experience. The Shanghai Drama engages the moment of its making, Pabst’s sense of socio-political context blended with his customary fascination with characters emerged in seedy locales and battling to retain any trace of their spirit and identity against forces of social and psychological evil. The Shanghai Drama, adapted from a novel by Oscar Paul Gilbert, has some echoes of Andre Malraux’s famous novel Man’s Fate in describing the fractious political and civic state of China in the 1930s and the European expatriates and emissaries crammed into a cosmopolitan toehold. The material also sees Pabst negotiating with the style of highly fatalistic drama popular in France in the late ‘30s in the poetic realist style, a style he likely influenced, including films like Pepe Le Moko (1936), to which The Shanghai Drama has some similarities as a portrait of desperation in exile. In other respects it resembles a rather common kind of “exotic” melodrama of its time Hollywood was making often, fare like Josef von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich as well as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), B genre movies like Think Fast Mr. Moto (1937), and even Casablanca (1942), in revolving around criminals, exiles, and sordid nightlife. Like many such movies Pabst’s depicts the “White Russian” population that accumulated in Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution and formed a much-mythologised bloc of transplanted Europeans before World War II. The emphasis on the protective instincts of a mother likewise closely anticipates the kinds of maternal melodramas Joan Crawford would become synonymous with.

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Nonetheless Pabst’s acidic intelligence and artistry permeate the film and transform it into something close to unique. The film opens with a number of teenage girls, daughters of the colonial ruling class, graduating from their private school in Hong Kong. The school is an islet of transplanted Englishness complete with phony Elizabethan architecture, clinging vine, and militaristic regimentation as the girls forming up to listen to the headmistress’ (Gabrielle Dorziat) address, before they’re dismissed and erupt in proper adolescent glee. Vera Blonski (Elina Labourdette) is one of the girls, overjoyed at the thought of being reunited with her mother in Hong Kong, evoking the heroine of Diary of a Lost Girl in her aura of doomed and coddled naiveté about to be rudely despoiled by the big bad world. One kind of asylum for young women is supplanted by another: the Olympic, a Shanghai nightclub run by “Big Bill” (Dorville), who runs his gaggle of dancers with a ruthlessly exploitative hand knowing full well he’s the only source of legitimate employment for many of the young White Russian women in Shanghai. “Big Bill looks like a convict,” notes the robust and dedicated journalist André Franchon (Raymond Rouleau), visiting the club with a friend, but “these poor dancers look like they’re the ones on a chain gang.” Pabst pauses to note the grossly ritualised humiliation and cold-blooded nature of Bill’s regime, avoiding all hint of bawdiness as he presents Bill smacking his dancers’ backsides, leering over one young recruit, and sacking another for talking back, an act both know is tantamount to utter degradation if not death.

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The central character is privileged by comparison: Kay Murphy (Christiane Mardayne) is the headline performer at the Olympic. Her real name is Maria Blonski, a White Russian and Vera’s mother. Kay sits in rigid and cold-eyed remove from her circumstances whilst feted by her audience and hosted by local plutocrats, muttering her signature incantation of disenchantment: “Once I could have been an artist. Instead I’m only a star.” Pabst seems to be touring his own experience of filmmaking, evoking his own lot as an exile and ruing encounters with abusive producers and actors happy to sell out their talent for success. Kay lives with her aged governess Niania (Suzanne Desprès) and the thought of Vera’s imminent return and the possibility of leaving Shanghai. But Kay soon finds the past catching up with her, as her husband Ivan (Louis Jouvet) suddenly reappears. Ivan, scarred from a deadly encounter he feels where her attempt to rid herself of him, represents the Black Dragon, a conspiratorial cabal operating on both a political and criminal level trying to achieve total dominance over the Chinese government, and other countries too by implication. The Black Dragon have one immediate, specific irritant they want to silence, the nationalist activist Cheng (Linh-Nam) who rails against both foreign exploitation and domestic cliques hindering his country’s development, and has gained a great following, with sufficient power and appeal to unite the many factions in Chinese life. Ivan has been assigned to force Kay into helping deliver Cheng into the Black Dragon’s hands.

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One aspect of The Shanghai Drama that makes it feel far more modern than a lot of English-language films like it from the time is the absence of any Caucasian actors playing the Asian roles. Portions of the film were partly shot in Vietnam, or French Indochina as it was then, and this provides verisimilitude in the sense of place as well as casting, in the scenes depicting Cheng’s political agitation in the streets, although the film was mostly filmed on a French soundstage. Alexandre Arnoux and Léo Lania’s script works in some humour to alleviate the darkness of the plot: “Bastard!” Franchon calls Big Bill, and when Bill answers to the insult, Franchon notes, “Ah, I see, that’s your family name.” A dash of risqué humour as a sailor is asked for his ID by a military policeman but accidentally hands over a fondly kept snapshot of a topless woman. The Shanghai Drama plays as a spiritual continuation to several of Pabst’s earlier films, offering Kay as something like the older, life-wrung person Louise Brooks’ characters might have become, weathering loss of home and the moral quicksand of surviving in the wilderness. The underworld governed by its own eccentric laws of The 3 Penny Opera is now entangled with the motifs of cooperation and people power found in White Hell of Piz Palü and Kameradschaft.

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Pabst pushes many of these retained elements into new ground in considering them in immediate relation to one-another, explicitly linking forms of abuse and oppression on an individual level with the political. The finale echoes the ending of Pandora’s Box but unifying two characters from that film this time into the single, tragic figure. The Black Dragon seem at first like close relatives of the romanticised underworld figures in The 3 Penny Opera, but quickly come to more closely resemble in turn one of the covertly powerful factions found in Fritz Lang’s films like Spione (1928) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Indeed, Pabst goes further than Lang usually dared in not only presenting his cabal as manipulators but international political operators too, embodiments of gangster capitalism and reactionary politics, carefully and remorselessly plotting methods to extend their power, even going so far as to spark war to ensure the success of their plans. Ivan proves to be one of their most dedicated agents, and through him has also bound Kay to them, in making common illiberal purpose.

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Pabst initially presents the Black Dragon potentates, including their cold-blooded and perfectly maleovolent mastermind Lee Pang (Valéry Inkijinoff) and their most recently elevated member Madame Tsé (Foun-Sen), who just happens to be Cheng’s sister, amidst the splendours of an estate garden. The romantic Chinoiserie lustre of roses and tranquil lily-crammed ponds contrasts the machinations and politicking. One old mandarin recommends to Tsé she help neutralise her brother and clips a rose flower from its stem to illustrate his point. “He’s the wave of the future, and we’d like to wipe out that future.” After Ivan’s return Kay finds herself imprisoned by Bill in the nightclub, as Bill is also subordinate to the Black Dragon, forcing her to stick around until she can play her part in the cabal’s plot to kill Cheng, and unable to go to the docks and meet Vera off her ship. Franchon, who has struck up a friendship with Kay and knows she was expecting to meet someone, heads to the harbour and encounters the confused and fretful Vera who knows nothing about her mother’s circumstances in Hong Kong. Franchon doesn’t connect them until Vera recognises a song he whistles, overheard at the Olympic, as one of her mother’s favourites. Franchon takes Vera to Kay’s apartment. Meanwhile Cheng comes to the Olympic on invitation with some of his political comrades, only to find themselves trapped in a most genteel way, whilst Kay is assigned to draw Cheng upstairs where the Black Dragon bosses await.

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Pabst sharpens his political parable to a point in the build-up the attempt to kill Cheng. The Black Dragon’s chief interrogator and executioner lays out the tools of the torturer’s trade in a folding satchel, a selection of glistening instruments for visiting pain, but selects for Cheng a hypodermic needle to give a lethal injection to make his death look natural. He invites in a pathetic coolie and offers him a silver dollar to allow him to perform an experiment on him. The coolie beams in rhapsodic pleasure at the gleaming coin in his hand, the symbol of all earthly wealth as far as he’s concerned, as the executioner gives him the injection, and the coolie promptly twists up in agonising death. Pabst here manages to reduce his understanding of both economic and political exploitation to one, singular, grotesque vignette, and underlines his portrait of the Black Dragon as a not-so-subtle reflection of fascism in its outlook. Later, faced with Cheng’s intransigence and the potential unification of the country behind his effective leadership, the Black Dragon decide to try and provoke a war between China and another country – unnamed, but clearly supposed to be Japan – through false flag operations. “War is not a method, it’s an end. I don’t believe the people want war,” Tsé protests, to another gang boss’s riposte, “It isn’t the people who want war, it’s countries. All they need is a pretext to start a war.” The Black Dragon have their own prisons where they imprison people who have crossed them, and start picking up political opponents, torturing and executing them.

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Pabst reiterates the parity of gender and political subjugation as Kay finds herself brutally forced to remain at the Olympic by Big Bill, who works for the Black Dragon and refuses to believe her appeals about her daughter’s arrival: Pabst dissolves from Kay’s face with her look of desolate and impotent rage to Vera’s young, forlorn visage as she surveys the dock for her mother. The central sequence of the Black Dragon’s attempt to kill Cheng sports an increasingly, ironically nightmarish tone as Cheng sits amidst the brightness and gaiety of the Olympic but he and his companions become aware they’re trapped and will only stay alive as long as they remain exactly where they are. His comrades volunteer one by one to head and risk assassination to try and bring help, only to be stalked and slain by killers in the street, until Cheng is left alone. Cheng begs Kay for aid in escaping the club over the rooftops, and she leads him up to the seedy, shadowy attic, right into the hands of the Black Dragon honchos and their executioner, awaiting him with pinched, relishing smiles. Cheng and his enemies swap tense and sardonic courtesies as Cheng realises there is no hope for escape. But Franchon manages to save the day when some military police enter the club. Aware of what’s happening, Franchon stirs a fight between sailors and civilians. The resulting riot and crackdown forces the Black Dragon to release Cheng, who calmly departs with Franchon. Kay, branded by Cheng as a dangerous woman, returns to her home and finds Vera waiting for her there, but her daughter senses the self-loathing within Kay, and hugs her photo more urgently than her actual mother.

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Pabst takes swipes at the institution supposed to hold power to account, the press, as Franchon works under an editor, MacTavish (André Alerme), whose cynicism towards the idea of political progress in China – and by extension anywhere else – puts the young French journalist at loggerheads with him constantly. MacTavish is glad to accept stories fed to him by Tsé painting Cheng as a dangerous radical and sacks Franchon for refusing to toe his political line, and blusters when Franchon brings him news of war breaking out with the complaint that war isn’t really war until it’s properly declared, likening it to deciding an election before people have voted, to which Franchon ripostes you can if someone’s stuffing the ballet box. This declaration leaves MacTavish utterly speechless, and Pabst acerbically performs a slow dissolve from MacTavish’s beggared face to shots of tanks and soldiers mobilising. “The foreign press mustn’t be allowed to criticise our victory,” Lee Pang instructs his underlings as the organisation make its move to crush Cheng. By contrast, Pabst offers up Cheng as the embodiment of political heroism, first seen giving speeches to an excited crowd, and the depiction of his political movement carries overtones of the recent Front Populaire movement that was reshaping French political life in the years before the war.

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Pabst contrasts the larger political drama with the paltry humans who are victims of such machinations, with Kay the archetype of the stateless person who tries everything in her power to escape and keep her daughter safe but finds herself trapped thanks to Ivan throwing in with the Black Dragon, and eventually reaches a snapping point when Ivan threatens to induct Vera into working as an agent for the organisation’s ends too. Pabst digs into the lot of the political exile, balanced between points of nostalgia that can be more merciless than comforting, and sharklike survivalism. The past is literally another country, the lost Russia evinced by the keepsakes Niania shows Vera like a mythic fantasy, narrating her parents’ story as if it was a fairy tale only to admit soon enough it certainly isn’t one. Kay’s blank, almost mesmerised affect in the early scenes suggests a lampoon-cum-tribute by Pabst of Marlene Dietrich’s brand of ironclad nightlife survivors – Pabst had originally intended to cast Dietrich in Pandora’s Box but dropped her in favour of Brooks, a choice Dietrich later mocked him for – before Vera’s imminent return rouses her hope again. This is immediately dashed by Ivan’s reappearance as close to literally back from the dead as possible, wielding his own personal brand of astringent disillusion. When Ivan visits Kay in her apartment, holding the fake American passport she’s tried to purchase to get herself and Vera out of the country, he plays the unremitting voice of Fate, cold and merciless and immune to all appeals of paternal feeling.

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Ivan and Kay almost become two halves Pabst’s arguing personality in this regard, one trying to hang on to a sense of courage and purpose in facing up to a rootless lot, the other ruthlessly enforcing his concept of cold truth and obeisance to larger forces as embodied by the Black Dragon. Pabst and his screenwriters give Ivan the lion’s share of memorably scathing lines as he spots a picture of himself when he was a young Tsarist officer, a picture she was showing Vera moments before: “My morals were elegant, now my clothes are.” “We grew up together,” Kay says, to his reply: “We decayed together.” After listening to Vera trying to chart a life for herself away from her parents through desperate alternatives, Ivan mocks her affectation of worldly grit, “Sad songs are a poor memory when times are hard.” A peculiar vignette with a near-mystical sense of poetic import comes as Ivan holds his photo up to compare it with his middle-aged face, as a breeze penetrates the room and sets the chandelier to tinkling, light reflecting off the glasswork and casting a star-like pattern on the wall that slowly fades out: a last, totemic gasp of their lingering memories of youth and freedom. Ivan seems to recognise this as a final epiphany and takes a breath before ripping his photo in half and getting back to business, provoking Kay with his cold intent until she pulls out a gun shoots him dead rather than let him suborn Vera. “Why?” Ivan demands in his death throes as Kay bends over him: “Why didn’t you do it fifteen years ago?”

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The Shanghai Drama betrays some uncertainty in tone and style that suggests the movie Pabst finished up making might have been some distance from what he was supposed to make. The film pauses repeatedly for Kay’s song numbers – Mardayn, like Pabst an Austrian, was best known as a singer – and doesn’t entirely reconcile familial melodrama with political thriller until Ivan’s fateful scene. There’s something just a tad trite about Kay’s idealised sense of Vera. Despite having contributions to the cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, one of the most talented and influential film technicians of his time, the film is generally more neutrally lit and distanced in framing in comparison to Pabst’s Expressionist heyday, and great visual touches, whilst plentiful, are also fragmentary. Pabst chases a spare, borderline abstract feel to the set decoration and misé-en-scène, as if drawing on artists like Edward Hopper for a breath of the dreamlike in the otherwise solid. Ingenious and arresting visuals keep arriving at the same pace as the unexpected jolts of baleful political meaning. Like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, Pabst kept a rigorous plan for what he would do on set and shot as little film as necessary to prevent studio interference as much as possible. His close-ups of his actors often aim for an impression of sculptural intensity, particularly of Mardayn with her translucent eyes and adamant jaw, perfect for playing a character at once haughty and wistful, Jouvet with grotesque V-shaped scar like the mark of Cain on his brow, the face around it honed by hard experience to a mask of bleak tidings, and Inkijinoff rubbing a glass ball along his serpentine cheek in savouring its texture against his face whilst ordering men executed and plotting world domination.

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Big Bill’s demands to see a young would-dancer’s legs sees both Bill and prey framed together in mirrors, viewer and viewed mutually encaged. One of Kay’s song numbers sees her wearing a flaring headdress that glows when backlit, and Kay stalks towards the retreating camera, framed by jazz musicians, as if taking on the role of a warbling Vestal priestess or lamenting world-spirit, whilst Pabst pens a rough draft for effects common in 1980s music videos. Kay finds Ivan lurking in the shadowy reaches of the Olympic’s attic, as if that space has become the septic id squatting upon the gaudy pseudo-civilised nightclub, containing its particular devil. Many of Pabst’s images retain the quality of silent cinema in their attempts to present pictures charged with carefully crafted symbolic intensity, as when the Black Dragon honchos settle around a circular table with champagne glasses in their hands only to place the glasses on the table where they rest in strange symmetry, figures of power suddenly rendered abstract and impersonal, deliberate nonentities in a world filled with nobodies trying to somebodies. Ivan after being shot by Kay collapses amidst the white drapes at the window, forming instant shrouds, the dislodged and silhouetted hanging frames at once resembling a sarcastically lowered crucifix and the X motifs Howard Hawks used in Scarface (1932) to similarly mark out the pathetically exterminated. When Kay pulls the false passport out from his jacket, she finds it penetrated by two bullet holes with Ivan’s blood seeming to seep from them.

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Kay’s killing of Ivan gives the Black Dragon an excuse to imprison her and Vera, tossing them into a basement prison with the rest of their captives, and Franchon finishes up with them after he tries to confront and intimidate Lee Pang with the threat of press attention only to find him unafraid. Lee Pang maintains the same devilish cool as Cheng begins to assemble a huge crowd to lay siege to the Black Dragon headquarters, promising the first real shots will drive them away. Pabst finally counters the dark and suffocating depiction of omnipresent evil in the rest of the film with images of people from all walks of Chinese life, from street vendors and labourers to society women marching abreast, converging into a mass and becoming Pabst’s one and only answer to the spectre of criminal authority, an irresistible movement. Confronting Black Dragon heavies who wait for the crowd with guns and shoot down at them, Cheng cries for them to join him, and the appearance of a flight of enemy airplanes over the city gives provides the perfect common cause to point to, to the point where even his sister Tsé, fronting the Black Dragon goons, advances to Cheng and embraces him. Even as such a tide of humanistic power rises, Kay gives in to utter defeatism as she, Vera, and Franchon sit in the prison: “What does it matter if I die here or somewhere else?…Shanghai holds me in its claws.”

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As Cheng’s mob invades the Black Dragon headquarters, the prisoners are freed. Pabst pauses for another of his eye-catching flourishes as he suggests Lee Pang’s death either by suicide or execution by the patriots with the evil overlord hiding his face behind a slowly unfurling Chinese fan before a gunshot is heard. As the prisoners are swept out of the dungeon by their rescuers, even Kay is beaming with the delirium of the delivered, but one of Lee Pang’s assassins, under orders to kill her in any case, still tracks her in the crowd and stabs her in the back. Kay, eyes wide and brilliant in pain and mortification and soon blank in death, is still carried along by the cheek-by-jowl crowd, just another casualty of history carried along by its irresistible impulse, her passing unnoticed either by those jammed about her or Vera and Franchon ahead. An incredible moment that stands easily with Pabst’s best work and a vignette Hitchcock or Lang would’ve been proud of. The coda offers an uneasy sense of at least Vera and Franchon grasping a happy ending as they sit on the deck of a French destroyer with other refugees being taken aboard by Western nations. Pabst notably refuses to give any sense of reassurance on the larger scale, fading out on authentic shots of Shanghai afire and being bombed. Even if it’s intermittent in its best touches and ideas compared to Pabst’s towering silent classics, The Shanghai Drama nonetheless stands as a film deserving far more attention, a desperate and occasionally ferocious attempt by a great director to declare devotion in both his art and his political faiths before fate crashed upon him, and everyone else.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, Political, Television

Game of Thrones (TV, 2011-19)

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Creators: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

By Roderick Heath

For much of the past decade, Game of Thrones stood astride the popular zeitgeist as a colossus. Game of Thrones inspired obsessive loyalty and served as a flagship for a much-hailed second golden age of television allowed by burgeoning cable TV and benefiting from the new panoply of viewing opportunities. It became the arch example of a ravenously consumable “binge-watch” programme and dwarfed just about any film rival save the Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting records for Emmy wins and internet piracy. The series was adapted from an as-yet unfinished cycle of novels started by sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin in 1991, entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, although the TV version adopted the title of the first entry in the cycle. A professional author since the early 1970s, Martin struggled to gain anything like a reputation commensurate with his ability, standing like other similar talents in Stephen King’s huge shadow. Ironically Martin’s recourse to working in television, including on the Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman vehicle Beauty and the Beast in the late 1980s, equipped him with unusual gifts when he finally decided to tackle the kind of fantasy epic he had loved since he was a kid with a nose in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books: he added an extra ‘R’ to his penname to acknowledge the debt.

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But Martin didn’t want to write fantasy as airily mythical, idealised, and Manichean as Tolkien, trying instead to create a deeply conceived, palpable, often terrifying fictional universe governed by many of the same rules as the world we all know. The schism at the heart of Game of Thrones, a work torn between grand imaginative frontiers and a hardnosed metaphorical depiction of humanity’s often terrible march towards modernity, proved both key to the show’s addictive appeal and also the source of the often aggravating sense of grievance it could leave in its wake. Martin, who helped produce the show and wrote several episodes, had wittingly or not composed his novels in a fashion that reflected his TV experience and made them ideal for serial storytelling, with their long, overarching narratives matched to immediate vignettes tethered to the viewpoints of specific protagonists. Game of Thrones was boosted to such epochal success by several coinciding factors. As a tale of familial tribulation and communal fracture, it suited the post-Global Financial Crisis and War on Terror mood and rhymed with the more general portent of climate change and swiftly transforming economies. A generation had been reared on The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series and were now hungry for a new fantasy franchise, but were also ready for something gamier and more adult in the genre, and were more prepared to accept the outsized metaphors of fantasy as capable of bearing the weight of serious themes than any mass audience before.

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The show was created and overseen for HBO by novelist and screenwriter David Benioff, who had written The 25th Hour (2002) and had explored embyronic aspects of the show in his screenplay for the Homeric epic Troy (2004), along with his fellow writer D.B. Weiss. The TV series pared down the novels’ digressions into exploring the manifold corners of Martin’s fictional universe but still featured dozens of recurring characters and required filming from Iceland to North Africa. Game of Thrones unfolds chiefly on Westeros, a continent on an imaginary world where the length of seasons are capricious, and a long and mellow summer is about to give way to an unknowably long and punishing winter. The chief clan of protagonists, the Starks, were once royalty in Westeros’ north and ruled from their seat of Winterfell, but the seven kingdoms of Westeros had been united three hundred years earlier by the Targaryen family, with a mysterious magical link to dragons and who used those animals to pulverise enemies on the path to total domination. The realm’s seat of royal power, the Iron Throne, was literally forged out of the swords of defeated enemies with a dragon’s fiery breath. The oft-incestuous Targaryens gained a reputation for inherent lunacy, eventually sparking a great rebellion that saw many different great families in the realm join together and overthrow their dynasty, installing Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) in their place. Ten years into Robert’s reign, the King visits Winterfell to ask his best friend and old ally Ned Stark (Sean Bean) to accept the post of “Hand of the King” or chief minister to replace a predecessor who has recently died. Robert is married to Cersei (Lena Headey), scion of another great family, the Lannisters, famed for their deep resources of both gold and political savvy. Robert dislikes Cersei and ruling equally, preferring drinking, whoring, and hunting. Cersei has long since found comfort in an incestuous relationship her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is the true father of her three children, Robert’s nominal heirs.

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The early episodes sketch the tenuous balance of personalities and factions sustained through Robert’s reign, and how his lack of interest in the niceties of kingship sows seeds of coming conflict. Rivals like the Lannister patriarch Tywin (Charles Dance) can accrue great influence through all but subsidising the kingdom, whilst resentments build up elsewhere, including in the old North kingdom, and Dorne, in the far south, for the losses of people and honour they suffered. The friendship between Robert and Ned seems like a sturdy foundation to sustain peace on, particularly as Ned is a deeply honourable and decent leader who has tried to instil his values in his sizeable brood of children and dependents, including sons Robb (Richard Madden) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), daughters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), and bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington). By comparison the Lannisters have a reputation for cold-blooded conniving. Sansa is betrothed to Robert’s heir Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), but he quickly proves a budding psychopath. The tomboyish Arya’s unremitting hate for Joffrey is stoked when a playful fencing game she has with a peasant lad leads to that boy’s slaying after Joffrey starts bullying them. Arya also resents Sansa for siding with Joffrey in trying to fulfil her own dream of becoming queen and escape the comparatively dull and squalid northern backwater.

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Jaime, labelled “Kingslayer” by all and sundry for having delivered the coup-de-grace to the last, lunatic Targaryen king despite being his bodyguard, seems a glib and supercilious playboy. He pushes Bran off a tower where the boy spies him and Cersei having sex. Bran is left a paraplegic, and after an assassin is killed trying to finish the job, Ned’s wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) has the killer’s dagger identified as belonging to Jaime and Cersei’s younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), often labelled “The Imp” because of his dwarfish stature and penchant for dissolute living. Catelyn has Tyrion taken captive and transported to another region, ruled by her unstable sister Lysa (Kate Dickie). Whilst serving in the capital King’s Landing, Ned uncovers the truth about Cersei’s children and offers her a chance to flee, but Cersei, covertly a hard and vicious operator who fancies herself Tywin’s truest progeny, instead contrives Robert’s seemingly accidental death before having Ned arrested for treason. Cersei tries to arrange a swap of Tyrion in exchange for Ned’s life, but the newly-crowned Joffrey, delighting in power and bloodlust, instead has Ned beheaded. This sparks a furious continental power struggle that sees Robb leading Northerners in rebellion, whilst Robert’s brothers, the talented but glum and charmless soldier Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the charismatic and gay Renly (Gethin Anthony), informed by Ned of the heirs’ bastardry, each raise armies to make themselves king.

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This core drama obeys a realistically nasty sense of medieval society and its dynastic players, drawn from a number of ready sources. These include Greek and Jacobean tragedy, Shakespeare’s history plays, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels and their 1970s TV adaptation, Maurice Druon’s French historical novel series The Accursed Kings, Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle, Michael Moorcock’s fantasy cliché-smashing Elric of Melniboné tales, and The Godfather films, from which it significantly assimilates, and recapitulates in the most hyperbolic terms, the theme of a family trying to operate in a corrupt and hostile world whilst retaining a vestige of honour. Overt fantasy elements are pushed to the far fringes at first, glimpsed in vestigial remnants and hunks of infrastructure that now seem to have no proper use, from dragon eggs long turned to stone and the skulls of the Targaryens’ conquering monsters stowed in a basement, to a colossal wall of ice built to guard the north against supernatural forces, but which now merely stands to hold out wildings, the hard and bitter peoples who subsist in the frozen wastes. The signature touch of white hair that marks the Targaryens pays tribute to Elric and to Melville, imbuing the breed with a hint of the uncanny, of extraordinary power and also a suggestion of innate decadence and inhumanity. The wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a once-legendary band of holy warriors now mostly filled out by convicted criminals and social refuse. Jon Snow learns this to his shock and shame when he volunteers to serve with them. The very first scene of the series however has signalled something is coming along with the winter, as some Night’s Watch men are attacked by a mysterious and terrifying foe that can induct their own victims into their ranks, as glowing-eyed zombies dubbed White Walkers.

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Where most high fantasy aims to create a fabled classical past as it might have been synthesised in medieval folklore, Game of Thrones rather portrays that medieval mentality as still uncomfortably and half-sceptically infused by that past. The first season sets up the essential dramatic tensions and conflicts in relatively low-key terms, the death of the peasant boy presaging a story predicated around portrayals of aristocratic selfishness waged in general contempt for the greater populace. Here the innocent often get ground into so much mince by the machine of statecraft, where some characters defend their prerogatives with unstinting precision and others are confronted by the near-impossibility of getting anything like justice when such forces rule the world, and so must find ways to armour themselves through arts both delicate and warlike. Martin’s youth in the counterculture era informs the pervading spirit of the material in the grand-scale recapitulation of The Who’s famous lyric, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Ned’s effort to operate according to his scruples helps to unleash a near-apocalypse, costing him and Robert their lives, nearly destroying their families, and sparking internecine warfare that convulses across the length and breadth of Westeros. Catelyn and Cersei’s mirroring desire to protect their children and bring their enemies to book similarly fuels the carnage.

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Part of the overall narrative’s ingenious thrust was sourced in the inclusion of two major storylines that contrast the relatively petty squabbling of the Westerosi clans with momentous and slowly uncoiling threats, allowing a varied blend of not just plots but types of storytelling. One of these is the inexorable White Walker army, massing in the wait for winter’s start. The other is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who, along with her older brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), is the last known surviving member of the former ruling clan. Now subsisting in exile on the neighbouring, Eurasia-like continent of Essos, Viserys tries to purchase an army to regain the Iron Throne by essentially selling Daenerys as a bride to Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa), a chieftain of the virile nomadic warrior tribe known as the Dothraki. Daenerys manages to turn this humiliating and violating fate to her own advantage as she deftly captures Drogo’s unwavering love. When Viserys proves too big for his britches Drogo promises him a crown that will make men shudder to contemplate, and promptly has a vat of molten gold poured on his head. Drogo dies when a light wound from a duel is turned into a fatal one by the efforts of a witch from a tribe his Dothraki enslaved, leaving Daenerys with only one great act of faith to ensure the rebirth of her dynasty left to dare. She has herself and the stone dragon eggs that are the last remnant of the breed burned together with Drogo on his funeral pyre, along with the tethered witch. Daenerys emerges from the fire unharmed, proven to be the true Targaryen kind, and three infant dragons hatched and regarding her as their mother.

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Daenerys soon gains a fanatical following as she uses her ever-amplified personal legend, and equally fast-growing dragons, to attract adherents and begin assaulting the status quo in Essos. At first with guile and then increasingly with brute force, she captures several large cities with a determination to wipe out slavery, gaining help from freed slaves and obtaining the unswerving loyalty of the Unsullied, a corps of cruelly but effectively trained warrior eunuchs. She attracts loyalists including former slave and translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), the Unsullieds’ choice for commander from their own ranks. She also has Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), a former Westeros knight exiled for slave trading by Ned, who tried to regain his standing by spying on the Targaryen siblings but instead finds himself welded in personal loyalty and affection to Daenerys, whilst she is more drawn to the glib but romantic mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein and Michael Huisman). Daenerys’ following is built on assaulting the malign regimes both on Essos and Westeros, and holds the promise of freedom for the oppressed that Daenerys feels messianically obliged to deliver. But it remains disturbingly contingent on Daenerys’ willingness to unleash brutal poetic justice upon various collectives of malefactors, countenancing such acts as having one enemy and a traitorous handmaiden sealed alive in a vault, crucifying slave owners, and relying on the shared capacity of the Unsullied and her brood of dragons to devastate enemies with no questions asked.

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One major theme of the show is that of the repercussions of specific choices and actions, particularly when performed against the evident necessity of a given situation. The kinds of crisis of conscience and acts of defiant agency-seeking that define modern drama are often painted as indulgence in the face of foes who will gladly murder you while you sleep, and yet are eventually validated nonetheless as the only possible answer to such nihilism. Ned and Robb are joined as father and son both doomed by their incapacity to wield cunning and dexterity in concert with moral action, and so are outflanked by more ruthless foes. Arya dedicates herself to the idea of making people face the consequences of their actions, even pushing this to the point of abandoning a wounded man as she feels he deserves a slow death, and later slaughtering a knight who killed her fencing teacher with terrible relish. But when she joins a sect called The Faceless Men to learn their prodigious assassin arts she cannot give herself up to their religious dedication, a lapse that almost gets her killed. Daenerys’ attempts to end slavery constantly collide with the much deeper problem of how to revise the basics of a society, eventually driving her to conclusions similar to Mao and Stalin in her revolutionary course. When a finer quality wins out, it’s usually the cumulative result of long and demanding discipline as well as sacrifice, and the seeds of good deeds take much longer to flower than expedience. Some acts win through in a crisis of the moment but leave a lingering flavour of disgust whilst others seem to fail in the moment and yet offer the possibility of treasured worth. Thus the Starks are nearly decimated in the first half of the series and yet, finally, emerge triumphant.

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Around the central dynastic players orbits a host of ingeniously conceived and cast supporting characters. There’s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a freakishly large and strong noblewoman who’s taken up a knightly creed without actually being a knight, first introduced seeking a place amidst Renly’s bodyguards. Fate drives her to the twinned tasks of avenging Renly’s assassination and protecting the Stark children, whilst also at first stuck with Jaime’s company and then doomed to linger in love with him. Varys (Conleth Hill) is a eunuch who serves the Iron Throne with his genius for gathering intelligence but considers himself far more loyal to the realm at large rather than any one ruler. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is a pimp and plotter who has risen to the royal council, harbouring a secret desire to become King and somehow win back Catelyn, his childhood love, and after she dies, setting his sights on Sansa instead. Sandor “The Hound” and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane (Rory McCann and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) are husky brothers bound by shared fighting pith and deep mutual hatred, each employed as thugs by the crown. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is the portly, timorous scion of a macho knight bullied into joining the Night’s Watch where he’s taken under Jon’s wing, slowly blooming into a man of action and learning who also takes on a wife and her child he rescues from the frozen north.

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Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) is a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis who was impressed by his ingenuity, nicknamed ‘the Onion Knight’ for his sarcastic choice of emblem and who serves for Stannis, sometimes to appreciation and often to its opposite, as a voice of earthy wisdom. He loses a son to Tyrion’s explosives during the assault on King’s Landing but later finds himself allying with Tyrion as well as Jon and others as the White Walker threat becomes urgent. Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is an enigmatic and manipulative priestess for a god called the Lord of Light who influences Stannis with sex and displays of magic, burns sacrificial victims en masse, and achieves Renly’s death through birthing a vaporous magical assassin. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is one of Robert’s illegitimate sons, a talented blacksmith who briefly becomes Arya’s companion in fleeing King’s Landing, is tapped for his royal blood by Melisandre for her incantations, and eventually finds himself granted Robert’s old titles and lands. During a venture north to head off an imminent invasion by a massed wilding army, Jon has a passionate affair with the garrulous but deadly archer Ygritte (Rose Leslie). The fierce yet strangely likeable Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) eventually becomes Jon’s unshakable ally in efforts to save the wildings from the White Walkers. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is the ambitious daughter of another great house who takes Sansa’s place as Joffrey’s intended and happily plays any role, from saintly princess to partner in sadism, to further her aims, backed up all the way by her formidable grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg). Her brother Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) is a glamorous knight who is not so secretly queer and Renly’s lover, but finds himself committed to becoming Cersei’s second husband.

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The vast number of these and other players contribute to the constantly recapitulated theme of outsiders imbued with contrasting talents and sullen, long-foiled desires that find a stage for realisation, proto-moderns both out of time and place and yet imbued with strange grace for existing within a pre-modern world. A lot of current pop culture seeks to flatter its audience by narrowly illustrating and confirming a progressive sense of history, but whilst Game of Thrones makes is sympathies clear it also muddles easy identification and refuses easy victories, one reason why, despite its fantastical aspects, it rang true for a vast number of viewers. The show constantly indicts a certain brand of stiff-necked and abusive patriarchy as a corrosive force, presenting many septic father figures, like Samwell’s father who threatens to arrange his death if he doesn’t disinherit himself, and the brilliant but self-righteous and coldly domineering Tywin, as figures who try to impose rigorous control and yet again are destroyed by their self-delusion. The ultimate figure along these lines in the show is Craster (Robert Pugh), a wilding who’s carved out a home in the frozen wilderness and fosters a brood of daughters he keeps under an incestuous thumb, sacrificing his boy children to the evil beings who control the White Walkers. Ginny (Hannah Murray), the girl Samwell saves, is one of his daughters. Craster is eventually murdered by mutineers of the Night’s Watch, who also slay Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), their commander and Jorah’s father, during a disastrous foray into the wastes.

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One of the more compelling characters in the suffering offspring mould is Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of the nominal king of the piratical Iron Islanders off the Westeros coast, raised as a hostage by the Starks but essentially a member of the family. Theon is initially portrayed as a cocksure bigmouth with no real character. Once Robb kicks off his rebellion he sends Theon to his father Balon (Patrick Malahide) to negotiate his aid, but Balon coldly rebuffs Theon as a foreigner, preferring his much more aggressive sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). Theon tries to prove his worth by instead leading an attack on Winterfell and pretending to kill Bran and the youngest Stark son Rickon (Art Parkinson), substituting the bodies of two slain farmhands in their place. Theon is eventually betrayed and taken captive by a mysterious young man who takes great delight in sadistically tormenting him. This man proves to be Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), the bastard son of Stark loyalist Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who has his own deceitful project under way. Theon inspires degrees of disdain, pathos, and admiration in the course of his experience, his fumbling efforts to prove himself worthy of his creed, his pride as a lover and his impotence as a princeling finally, terribly mocked in one swoop when Ramsay castrates him and sends his boxed genitals to his family. By the time Yara comes to rescue him, he’s reduced to such a wretched, servile thing she’s forced to abandon him.

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Theon’s capture and initially inscrutable suffering is one aspect of the show’s third season, which, with its jolting twists, served at once to disorientate a growing viewership but also sank the hooks of addiction more deeply. The malicious cunning reaches an apogee in the episode “The Rains of Castamere” where Robb tries to restitch his alliance with sleazy, aged, petty potentate Walder Frey (David Bradley) after breaking a vow to him to marry one of his daughters, having instead taken the smart and lovely foreign healer Talisa (Oona Chaplin) as a bride. During a feast of reconciliation, the Freys, in alliance with Bolton and with Tywin’s covert backing, suddenly attack and slay Robb, Talisa, Catelyn, and much of the Stark army, in an atrocity quickly dubbed the Red Wedding. This act of treachery nonetheless seems to virtually end the civil war and leaves the Lannisters in apparently firm control, as Tyrion and Tywin have already beaten off Stannis’ seaborne assault on King’s Landing. Arya, in the custody of the Hound who wants to ransom her back to her kin, barely escapes being caught up in the Red Wedding. Her near-crazed hunger for revenge begins to manifest as she recounts a list of enemies to slay before sleeping at night, and keeps starting fights with factional goons the Hound has to finish. Despite the fact he’s one of the names of Arya’s list for his role in killing the peasant boy, the Hound feels a near-paternal responsibility for the Stark girls, only to be left to die by Arya after he loses a duel after a chance encounter with Brienne. Arya refuses to go with Brienne, instead heading to Essos to join the Faceless Men, one of whom, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), she encountered as a prisoner and whose stealthy talents in killing helped save her, Gendry, and others from a sorry end.

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Martin took inspiration for the Red Wedding from events in Scottish history, although his explorations of its ramifications echo back to Greek tragedy, forging a kind of anti-Alcestis. The series charts the devolution of social and civic mores in Westeros to the point where all scales for measuring decency are broken. This theme is borrowed from I, Claudius in particular, with Joffrey and Ramsay representing the kinds of fiends who revel in the power they can indulge when such limitations dissolve, in the same way Caligula did in I, Claudius. More importantly, the Red Wedding’s bloody shock and Theon’s gruelling torture signalled a series that didn’t exactly have reassuring its audience in mind, and fulfilling Martin’s credo of trying to undercut the clichés of his chosen genre and truly portray a world completely lacking the kinds of soft landings provided by modernity and well-knit civilisation. Game of Thrones is always wise on a dramatic level to leaven the often punishing tone with flashes of droll humour, particularly from Tyrion, whose forthright tongue slashes holes in egos and pretences across two continents. At the same time, the longer arcing plotlines point towards dates with destiny in a manner that contradicts such self-detonating narrative mischief. The show sometimes even offers sourly funny inversions of its own clichés. Tyrion relies on sardonic man-at-arms Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to serve as his champion in a trial by combat to escape Lysa’s clutches in the first season, but is condemned in the fourth when he nominates the vengeful Dornish prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) to fight The Mountain for him in a similar situation, only for Oberyn to lose the duel in a manner at once dismaying and blackly comic.

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Tyrion is the show’s heart, played with true brilliance by Dinklage. Tyrion, hated by his father and sister because his mother died giving birth to him but held in bonds of affection to Jaime, has a humanistic mind to which he adds, when Tywin decides to make him Hand of the King whilst he’s busy fighting the war, a talent for ruling and Machiavellian plotting. Long used to indulging bought sex and wine to compensate for his failings in physical and dynastic stature, Tyrion is often regarded as the real monster by the populace, blaming him for crimes and misdeeds actually committed by Joffrey and others, whilst Tyrion desperately tries to conceal his one vulnerability, the prostitute Shae (Sibel Kekilli) he’s fallen in love with and manages to conceal in the royal castle by posting her as the captive Sansa’s handmaiden. Tyrion’s inspired and valiant defence against the attack of Stannis’ force is overshadowed by his father’s charge to the rescue, and he’s soon faced with many humiliations, losing his post and being forced to marry Sansa, whom he dedicates himself to protecting from Joffrey’s harassment. When Joffrey is fatally and gruesomely poisoned at his wedding to Margaery, Tyrion is blamed, and he soon realises he’s going to be framed by Cersei and Tywin and is devastated when Shae helps get him convicted. Jaime helps Tyrion escape with Varys’ aid, but before fleeing Tyrion sneaks into his father’s chambers: when he finds Shae in his bed he strangles her, and then shoots his father on the toilet with a crossbow.

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Tyrion’s swerves of fortune and many goads to such homicidal rage and his attempts to live with himself after are charted with a precise sense of emotional calumny, his actions entirely understandable and yet once again damaging to what he means to protect: leadership of the Lannisters is left in Cersei’s tender care. Whilst talented in some of the same ways as her father and younger brother in plotting and manoeuvring, Cersei lacks Tywin’s cool sense of proportion and tries to make up the difference with unswerving bloody-mindedness and a tendency to mistake the needs of her ego for sovereign necessity. Her one saving grace is her maternal care, a grace she is relentlessly stripped of when Joffrey is poisoned and her daughter Myrcella (Aimee Richardson and Nell Tiger Free) is slain by Oberyn Martell’s lover and bastard daughters in revenge for his death. Margaery deftly pivots to marry Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Joffrey’s decent but naïve younger brother, so Cersei, desperate to rid herself of the Tyrells, fosters a fanatical religious group that crops up in King’s Landing called the Sparrows. This sect is led by a saintly and shrewd former merchant turned monk (Jonathan Pryce), who proposes to cleanse the kingdom of its sins. Cersei arms the Sparrows and gives them power to seek out and prosecute the immoral: she get what she wants when Margaery and Loras are imprisoned but realises her terrible mistake when they arrest her too, whilst convincing the new king to support them. Cersei weathers her own perfect humiliation in being forced to walk from the Sparrows’ abode back to the royal residence, naked and abused by a gleeful crowd.

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The religious and spiritual motifs in Game of Thrones are, like its politics, generally cynical but also more disjointed and curious, and it highlights an area where the show is fails to offer a coherent sensibility despite leaning heavily on the mystical throughout. The Seven Kingdoms exalt the nominal modern religion of the Seven, a group reminiscent of the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons, although many still also hold to an older creed more closely connected to a shamanic sense of natural forces. Those forces prove to have been destabilised millennia before through human pressure, driving the “Children of the Forest”, figures akin to the Dryads of Greek myth and the Green Men of Celtic, to create the first White Walkers and possibly also cause the mysterious imbalance behind the distended seasons. The sight of Daenerys after surviving her husband’s funeral pyre, naked and cradling her dragon offspring, is one that might have come right out of some ancient folktale, one radically at odds with the structured, socially reflective faith of Westeros. In further competition is the monotheistic faith of the Lord of Light practiced by Melisandre and fellow ‘red priest’ Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), who is also a member of the Merry Men-like Brotherhood Without Banners, who inconstantly try to fight for the peasantry. These two priests prove to have the ability to revive the dead through invocation to their deity, a seemingly definitive capacity for miracle that nonetheless remains confusing even to those revived.

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Various motifs, like Melisandre’s penchant for the auto-da-fe and the Sparrows’ righteous warpath that targets the powerful but likes singling out gay men and wilful women, evokes the darker side of medieval Christianity and doesn’t entirely fit with the generally pagan mores of Westeros, stretching to encompass such commentary. The narrative coldly undercuts any sense of certainty in spiritual power and justification in fanatical conviction when Melisandre convinces Stannis to save his failing campaign against the Boltons by sacrificing his young, disfigured daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) to the Lord of Light, Iphigenia-like, only for the spectacle to cause half his army to desert in disgust, leaving the rest to be hammered by Ramsay. The closest the series gets to defining the meaning of the flashes of the miraculous is when the Hound grimly notes of the Lord of Light, “Every lord I ever fought for was a cunt, why should he be any different?” This nonetheless does hint at an amusing metatextual joke, as the Lord of Light’s purpose in reviving the dead is conflated with authorial prerogative. By rights Jon, who gets assassinated by some of his fellow Night’s Watchmen who revile his attempts to make compact with the wildings, should die as the result of his choices as per the series convention, but the plot still needs him, so arise, spunky Lazarus. Likewise the slow process that sees many different and far-flung characters slowly drawn together to battle evil is informed by a wry conflation of a divine plan with storytelling felicity.

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The show is more confident and coherent in wielding the symbolic as well as narrative potency of the more clean-cut fantasy elements, which are ultimately far more palpable as expressions of human and natural phenomena. The White Walkers encapsulate an evocation of existential threat applicable to just about any great danger up to and including death itself, presenting a foe so frightening that it demands unity, trust, and unselfish heroism, the things that just happen to be sorely missing from Westeros life. Daenerys’ dragons describe at first the formidable strength located in a more ancient ideal of society then the henpecked feudalism of Westeros, as devices that can unite tribal peoples behind a god-ruler fuelled by a sense of divine mission, but also by series’ end cunningly link such atavistic power with nuclear weaponry, the most modern expression of such potency. They’re also tethered to Daenerys’ psychology as surrogate children and functions of her psyche, as a woman who sustains herself through initial degradation and later tribulation through conviction she is destined to rule, but also wants that conquest to have meaning, meaning she seeks to fulfil in freeing slaves and punishing the iniquitous. As she attempts to get down to the finicky business of actually ruling cities she captures, she locks away the dragons or lets them fly off, essentially castrating herself and trying to ignore her most prodigious talent, for unleashing destruction and wrath. Eventually, when she’s obliged to wage war with the dragons let loose in their full, mature fury, it seems like a heroic moment of revealed power, but also symbolises the tipping of a balance in Daenerys’ mind towards a darker conviction that in the end her might makes right.

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Bran’s story sees him gifted with great psychic abilities, like the ability to enter the bodies of animals and people, which emerge after his paralysis. After being driven away from Winterfell by Theon’s attack, he follows a recurring vision northward with the aid of his hulking manservant Hodor (Kristian Nairn), a man who’s plainly not an idiot and yet can speak no word other than his name, Osha (Natalia Tena), a former wildling and Stark servant, and Jojen and Meera Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Ellie Kendrick), another seer and his huntress sister who obey the cryptic urge to help Bran. Bran finds himself anointed to take the place of the “Three-Eyed Raven” (Max Von Sydow), an ancient oracle who stands as the interlocutor of the human and natural worlds and receptacle of all memory past and action present. Bran’s storyline is less incident-driven and more subtly conceived than much of the rest of the show, and is even absent from a whole season at one point, and its purpose doesn’t entirely become clear until the very end. In the meantime he presents a tempting target in the war against the White Walkers and their terrifying, seemingly unstoppable commander, the Night King (Vladimir Furdik), who wants as death incarnate to annihilate what Bran contains.

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Bran’s story links his evolution to a pantheistic concept of a world unified on a fundamental, natural level, but the connection between it and the other spiritual motifs is never clarified, a disappointment given the seemingly great expanse of time available to the series: it’s hard to shake the feeling the show, and through it Martin, wants his cake and to eat it. Nonetheless it pays off narrative-wise when Bran has to flee the invading White Walker force, requiring Hodor to jam shut a door and give Bran and Meera time to escape, his constant utterance revealed to have been sourced in the literal order to hold the door communed into his head as a teenager by Bran, indicating his entire life has been subsumed to the purpose of protecting Bran and sacrificing himself in this moment. A potentially silly culmination that nonetheless reaches for and achieves operatic force. Bran’s new awareness lets him easily solve hidden mysteries, allowing him to indict Baelish for his many crimes, and uncovering the great truth of Jon’s real parentage. But it also renders him a veritable void of personality, to the point where Meera abandons him in grief after realising the Bran she knew has essentially died.

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The show’s more satirical edge evokes a wry despoiling of the familiar motifs of the medieval morality play, particularly in the way characters like Tyrion and Varys contradict common depictions of physical deformity and peculiarity as markers of bad character. Dinklage had played Richard III on stage before being cast in the role, and Tyrion resembles a take on the Crookback king rendered according to a revisionist impulse, whilst Varys mocks the common figure of the untrustworthy eunuch. Arya’s training with the Faceless Men puts her in contact with a group of actors whose play converts recent history into fitting melodrama but also reproduces a version of reality both the current wielders of power and the audience with its inbuilt prejudices fondly wishes were correct, where Joffrey was a fair and noble king slain by his grotesque and malevolent uncle, and political and social truths work in the same way as feudal banners, clear in symbolic import. Game of Thrones undoubtedly attracted a great amount of its audience through its willingness to offer lashings of sex, bloodshed, and vulgarity in a gaudy manner denied to much contemporary big-budget cinema, freely exploiting the flexibility of subscription television in this regard as opposed to the mass audience aim of current Hollywood. The show took a lot of sardonic criticism in its time for an approach to plotting labelled “sexposition,” often having characters explain themselves and situations whilst fornicating enthusiastically and otherwise.

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One much-mocked example in the first season when Baelish schools Ros (Esmé Bianco), a newly-arrived northern lass joining his brothel, in the fine arts of seduction sexual and political, is actually a rather smart and feverishly erotic illustration of the theme of power applied through the deft use of puppetry, an art Baelish is dedicated to. That said, much of the bawdiness seen in the series does prove forced and impersonal, although to its credit it tries to be even-handed in servicing the audience, most gleefully in portraying the bisexual orgy Oberyn and his paramour indulge, and it also taps it for some humour value, as when Tyrion is bewildered to find his squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) a sexual prodigy after buying him an interlude with prostitutes as a reward. The sexuality exists in constant relation to violence, which borders on the genuinely off-putting at times, particularly as Joffrey gets his brutal jollies with prostitutes, in Ramsay’s torment of Theon and, later, Sansa, and sequences like one where prisoners are killed by bored Lannister soldiers who contrive to have live rats eat through them, a genuinely Sadean touch. The idea of violence as a universal trait is certainly at the core of the series, sometimes an art wielded with purpose and discrimination and at other times just a way of releasing boredom and frustration for men weathered well beyond empathy, but always with a fervent sense of its ugliness.

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Arya’s storyline contends with her efforts to transform herself into the perfect engine of violence, applied with a surgical skill and in accord with the precise arithmetic on the moral abacus, as she evolves from a rough-and-tumble teenage girl delighting in learning swordplay for its own sake with a vague ambition to avoid becoming another castle lady, to a brilliant, rather frightening killer who nonetheless achieves a level of self-direction and freedom none of the other characters gain. Amongst all the characters on the show Arya has the widest purview on the horrors unleashed by the war, spending time amongst slaves and then as the oblivious Tywin’s servant, experiencing disillusion on all levels save faith in a personal god of vengeance. Her spell with the Faceless Men sees her eventually rejecting their amoral service to Death as an anonymous and disinterested “many-faced god.” This puts her in lethal conflict with a fellow waif (Faye Marsay) whose motivations may, or may not, rhyme with her own but are not accompanied by any scruples or sense of empathy. Arya is punished by Jaqen for her refusal to follow orders by taking her sight away and forcing her to learn to fight the waif blind, a gift that ironically allows Arya to defeat her later in a true duel as her foe, who delights in indiscriminate death, has never broken the rules and therefore never been trained this way. Arya’s return to Westeros is announced in the most sublimely Jacobean fashion when she slaughters Walder Frey after fooling him into eating his sons baked into a pie, before then taking on Walder’s appearance and poisoning all his underlings at a feast.

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Sansa, by contrast, seems for much of the series to be the most passive and hapless of the Starks, paying the endless price for being, in Arya’s view, a pretty airhead with princess fantasies. Joffrey takes delight in forcing her to look upon her father’s severed and impaled head. She’s eventually sold by Baelish, after he spirits her out of King’s Landing, to Ramsay as a bride, despite his affection for her, to buy Ramsay’s good will. The heartless scion rapes and tortures Sansa, eventually rousing Theon from his traumatised state: he helps her escape whilst Ramsay cleans up Stannis’ army. Sansa, robbed of any last remnant of her naivety, soon evolves into an imperious force in her own right, even making a deal with Baelish despite knowing what he is to help save the day when she and Jon lead an outmatched army against Ramsay. Ramsay’s end, with Sansa feeding him to his own hungry hounds, is another pure Jacobean moment. The series is ultimately, despite its ambiguities, most essentially a cracking good melodrama replete with bad baddies and breathless last-second rescues. But it also tries to complicate its morality to a bracing degree. The series constantly tries to imbue its many moments of relished payback with a note of discomfort as we see once good people, however justifiably, pushed into similar zones of subterfuge and cruel relish as their tormentors. It votes its many devils like Tywin and Cersei, Baelish and Ramsay, flashes of sympathy in comprehending how they’ve been formed by their eternally dogging and unanswerable desires. A figure like Olenna, as ruthless, murderous, and Machiavellian in her way as any of her enemies, nonetheless comes across like a positive character for her assured sense of just ends and distaste for posturing of any kind.

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Notably, the narrative repeatedly extracts payment for redeemable characters who do evil things by robbing them of precious things, particularly body parts. Jaime is the most successful of the series’ ambiguous characters. Introduced as a golden boy nonetheless held in contempt by all and sundry for his killing of the “Mad King,” a man who casually tries to kill Bran whilst fucking his own sister and strangles a cousin to escape the Starks’ clutches, Jaime nonetheless is slowly revealed to be a complex man capable of great decency, and whose deeds reflect the often impossible positions he’s thrust into: he killed the king to save King’s Landing from general immolation, and made the choice to protect his own family rather than the Starks. His road movie-like travels with Brienne, tasked with taking him back to his family, sees him forging a genuine camaraderie with her, and his attempt to save Brienne from being brutalised by some Bolton goons who capture them results in his getting his sword hand hacked off. Jaime, greatly weakened as a fighter but shocked into a new gallantry, saves Brienne again and dedicates himself to trying to head off ill fate, freeing Tyrion and heading off to try and save Myrcella, before eventually committing himself to the battle against the White Walkers despite Cersei’s refusal to help.

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The show’s incredible production values often pay off in truly impressive spectacle, particular in the episodes directed by Neil Marshall, maker of cult works like Dog Soldiers (2002), The Descent (2005), and Centurion (2010): his “Blackwater” in season 2 and “The Watcher on the Wall” in season 4, where Jon emerges as a great leader figure as he and the Night’s Watch fight off the wildling horde, are superior in filming and dramatic tension to most blockbuster movies in the past decade. A terrific action sequence in a fourth season episode sees Meera, Jojen, and a Bran-possessed Hodor battling off a gang of animated skeletons, paying cutting-edge tribute to the famous climax of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), whilst the thunderous climaxes of the seventh season depict Daenerys using her dragons to great effect against earthbound foes both living and dead. Game of Thrones eventually ran into a great deal of vexation and disappointment from viewers as it reached its final seasons, with many finding the last in particular hurried and flimsy. To my eye, the show’s wobbles come rather earlier, around the fifth and sixth seasons, as so many of its driving plotlines demanded resetting or replacement following the fourth, and several elements are set up only to be left hanging, all whilst still trying to maintain the same sense of velocity. Tyrion and Varys’ journey east to meet up with Daenerys and seek employment with her, whilst Daenerys herself is obliged to flee political enemies and is snatched away by the Dothraki, opens up great new vistas for these characters.

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And yet this hemisphere plays out in a herky-jerky manner, failing to build storylines as effectively as before, and resolving with Tyrion picked to be Daenerys’ Hand without much good cause. That said, these seasons still offer some very effective movements, including Jon’s murder and resurrection, and the climax of Cersei’s conflict with the Sparrows. The latter is dealt with in an aptly megalomaniacal manner as Cersei blows up the cult and sundry other enemies in one colossal blast, finally achieving agency to match her willpower but also foiling herself, as the spectacle drives Tommen to kill himself in grief. Cersei becomes queen in her own right and sets about ruling with an iron hand, allying with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), a charismatic and well-travelled rogue who has murdered his brother Balon and driven Yara and Theon into exile, and falling pregnant to Jaime again. Season 6 concludes with Daenerys and her entourage and army finally arriving in Westeros, taking over Stannis’ old castle and making punishing war on Cersei’s forces. Her awesome campaign is forestalled as Jon comes to her and asks for her help against the White Walkers, and the two handsome young monarchs quickly fall in love, although the underlying tension of their political mating remains rather less pliable.

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Game of Thrones ultimately ran into a problem of expectations in a narrative that built its initial appeal around willingness to confound expectations. And confound it did. Ned, played by the nominal series lead and best-known cast member, doesn’t survive the first season, and subsequent plot strands zigzag with roguish energy, managing the tricky task of satisfying without doing so obviously. Joffrey’s sticky end, the object of fervent wishing from both other characters and viewers, not only comes with an unexpected jolt of pathos but also invests a host of new story reverberations. Yet most of Martin’s desecrations of plot actually service his longer games, like clearing away relatively superfluous or over-familiar and stolid characters like Robb and instead obliging the survivors to enact stranger paths to victory that make their eventual triumphs all the sweeter. The TV series moves from being a reasonably intimate political thriller where no-one is safe to a spectacular fantasy war epic where all your favourite characters are pitched in together. One risk, evidently, lay in continuing the series past where Martin had reached, especially considering that many of the best scenes in the early seasons had been copied almost verbatim from the books. But sooner or later the storyline had to deliver on its most essential promises, or dissolve into a mass of self-defeating gamesmanship, or else a total embrace of anarchism. The dichotomy here perhaps accounts for why Martin has failed thus far to resolve the novel series.

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That said, I didn’t really feel upon watching the series right through that the later seasons represented any precipitous drop in quality. Rather on the contrary, they deliver as both spectacle and drama and manage the unenviable task of focusing such a sprawling tale to crucial focal points. Some aspects do certainly feel ungainly, like the blinding speed with which Euron builds a powerful new fleet and the way he seems able to make it turn up anywhere by surprise (Asbæk’s outsized performance in the role does however give the later episodes a jolt of much-needed roguish energy). But the degree to which they hurt the show has been often ridiculously overstated, and I’ve seen some other promising series of recent years that bellyflop far more painfully. Perhaps it’s an indication of where pop culture is these days, preferring the open road of narrative rather than firm conclusions and attendant ideas. Game of Thrones remains propulsive and underlines its cumulative concepts and messages lucidly. One significant aspect of the show’s overall sweep is the way it takes up Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate. Figures like Ned and Robb die precisely because they cannot act against their inner natures. Whilst most of the characters experience transformations of one form or another, such evolution is more a function of the inner person than something imposed from without. Jaime emerges as a weirdly heroic figure and yet cannot finally escape his bond with his utterly hateful sister. Daenerys tries to describe a legend and an ethical scheme for herself that flies in the face of her actual proclivities. Tyrion finds something close to a faith in dedicating himself to Daenerys but ultimately finds his cynical, honest, defiant self is ultimately worth more. The younger Starks, who grow up in the course of the series and so are formed by their reactions, can be said to be forged by such circumstance, and even then their eventual personas reflect where they’ve come from. Most pointedly, all are ultimately left to act out their own pathologies once the great existential business of defeating the White Walkers is dealt with.

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Jon is the most traditional hero figure, sent down from heaven’s central casting with his defining sense of eternal psychic conflict (compulsory for a proper modern hero) matched to a consistently valiant and honest outlook, as well as his emo-dreamboat good looks. The show takes some time to make a real case for Jon being at all interesting, partly because his growth process is from a callow youth who’s talented and well-trained in fighting to one with authentic and genuine self-reliance and wisdom. Jon proves himself in the course of nominally betraying his vows to fulfil them, becoming one who constantly attempts to act on his most honourable and humane impulses even whilst never shying away from the risks he faces. Those risks run from standing up for Samwell at the outset to eventually making compact with the wildlings, and his strength, both in body and in mind, ultimately sustains him where many others fall. His punishment is to be robbed of nearly all he holds dear. He falls in love with Ygritte and then Daenerys but his dedication to the greater good ultimately costs each woman’s life, and at the end he is left the same man, ruefully aware of the punishing nature of identity and duty in both the immediate and philosophical senses, bereft of home if not purpose, as he was at the start. He’s not blessed with levels of impossible wisdom, either, assassinated by his comrades and suckered in by Ramsay’s sadistic showmanship in their epic grudge match “Battle of the Bastards” to the point where he almost blows the battle. The theme of facing consequences is returned to in the very climax of the story where Jon prepares with equanimity to burn in a fiery blast from a dragon’s maw in fair payment for a foul deed, perhaps the first person in the saga to ever face up in such a fashion.

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But Daenerys is the one figure whose sense of inner being is most thoroughly assaulted as her “children” are killed along with her most loyal friends. The key to her sense of mission as the anointed Targaryen, her great salve, is voided when she and Jon learn that he is in fact her nephew, the secret offspring of her long-dead older brother and Ned’s sister. Daenerys’ crisis is then enacted on city-levelling terms, in a bitter punch-line that underlines the dubiety the narrative always warned in regarding self-nominated heroes and dynastic rulers claiming divine right. Before that, Daenerys is seen at her most gallant as she puts aside her own mission and joins the Westerosi in the great fight against the White Walkers around Winterfell. Jon and his comrades have already tried to convince Cersei to help in the fight by capturing and exhibiting a White Walker, and Daenerys loses one of her dragons to the Night King’s ice lance in trying to rescue their raiding party. The Night King is able to induct the dead dragon into his force, using its power to break through the Wall. The great climax to that aspect of the story comes half-way through the final season in “The Long Night,” a unit of action brilliantly orchestrated by director Miguel Sapochnik, one that struggles to deliver a strong piece of spectacle despite the way an inherent aspect of the battle is blizzard-furled chaos, the army of zombies attacking on the ground whilst the dragon-riders do battle in the sky. Jorah and Theon die most heroically in the last stand of humanity before cold fate, and the Night King makes his remorseless march up to a solitary and exposed Bran in a sequence of excruciatingly well-sustained, mournfully-scored tension, also a particular highpoint for series composer Ramin Djawadi.

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Some complaints about the later seasons had validity but also often tended to smack of a common brand of that’s-not-what-I-would’ve-done fan whine. Many, for instance, felt that the task of felling the Night King was Jon’s anointed story duty, and I can understand the feeling of dashed expectation in that regard. But I also see the sense in the task falling instead to Arya, who takes out the ghoulish avatar just as he’s about to slay Bran and end the memory of mankind: Arya answers malign force with precision and guile, down to the witty flourish of deception and legerdemain she executes to take him down. This also accords with the whole course of Arya’s story: such a triumph sees Arya finally besting death itself after rejecting its amoral worship, giving final coherence to her story after her many dances near the edge of nihilism. Jon has his own arduous task in the end, as he’s faced with the necessity of supplanting or killing Daenerys to save the world in general and those he loves in specific from her decimating will. Criticism of Daenerys’ disintegration is again worth hearing out. Whilst the show certainly forewarns of such a turn and provides plenty of indicators that no matter how stable and decent a member of her clan might seem they contain the seeds of monstrosity, there’s a remarkably short space between her riding heroically to the rescue on her dragons to her incinerating large swathes of King’s Landing essentially as a gesture of answering dominance aimed at Cersei after the rival queen captures and executes Missandei.

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Nonetheless Daenerys’ psychology is intriguingly reminiscent of the main character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), another self-made champion mixing intense neurotic revulsion for death and suffering driven to prove master of it by dealing it out, swaying from extremes of messianic heroism to base atrocity. The fiery wrath she unleashes on King’s Landing, a city she sees as essentially filled with collaborators in her father’s death and in Cersei’s murderous reign, comes after an excellent piece of wordless acting from Clarke as you all but see her soul crack in two, and serves as her “No prisoners!” moment. The great juggernaut of mutual destruction finally sees Cersei and Jaime dying together as Jaime tries to pluck his sister-lover out of the collapsing citadel, already mortally wounded from a fight with Euron over territorial rights to Cersei’s womb, and The Mountain and The Hound tumble together into roaring flames after Sandor forcefully dissuades Arya from killing Cersei. Arya is left to try and survive the apocalyptic flames shattering the city, the last and most terrible tableau in her witnessing of war and terror and one where her talents are utterly dwarfed by a new kind of impersonal annihilation. Full-on fascist parable hatches out as Daenerys holds court with the Unsullied arrayed in Nuremberg-esque rows and Tyrion passes his firm but impotent judgement by throwing away his Hand of the Queen pin. Tyrion nonetheless gains a kind of victory as he convinces Jon there’s no alternative to his slaying Daenerys.

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Jon finally commits the deed to Daenerys’ blank-eyed shock as the embrace in the ruined throne room. Her last remaining dragon melts down the Iron Throne – who knew dragons had such a great sense of dramatic irony? The image of Jon clasping Daenerys’ lifeless body nonetheless returns us to the realm of classical myth fit for the last act of a Wagner opera, an act of violence committed in the name of love that both entirely shatters and rebuilds the world’s moral crux. Bran is eventually selected by the new Westeros potentates, including Sansa, Samwell, Davos, and Arya, at Tyrion’s suggestion. Again, having Bran finish up king rankled many viewers, but it makes sense, once more, in terms of the series’ underlying metaphorical sprawl. Bran, all-seeing and all-knowing and scarcely caring about it, represents the arrival not of democracy or consensus in Westeros, but of the great trade-off that is modernity, encompassing phenomena like the internet and the surveillance state, coolly imposing order and promising peace and safety at the expense of privacy and unmediated liberty. The few remaining characters who prize their autonomy and indeed embody the very concept must as a consequence must past out over the margins into myth. Arya heads west to find the world’s edge, and Jon, exiled again to the Night’s Watch, treks into the frozen north with the wildings with the strong hint he’ll become their new leader. The best thing that can be said about Game of Thrones is that, love or loathe its conclusions, it manages the task of stitching such a rich and sprawling drama and its attendant ideas into a grand tapestry, and yet retaining the authentic pleasures of good pulp storytelling.

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1940s, Auteurs, Italian cinema, Political, War

Paisan (1946) / Germany, Year Zero (1948)

Paisa’ / Germania Anno Zero

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini

By Roderick Heath

Out of ashes, creation. The Italian neorealist film movement was in large part a pragmatic solution to shortages of film stock, actors, and other paraphernalia of a movie industry that had been gutted by war, invasion, and the collapse of a regime. This unlikely renaissance was propelled purely by the urgent, guttering need to describe, record, understand, communicate, and grapple with the immediate reality shared by artists and public alike. Presaged by Luchino Visconti as he dared counter Fascist rectitude with a portrait of insidious transgressions in Ossessione (1943) and even by Mussolini’s preeminent director Alessandro Blasetti, neorealism gained its true clarion with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), a bleak wartime thriller that retained conventional elements in its portrayal of partisan resistance and Nazi brutality, but essayed in terms that seemed to blow like a fresh, cold wind dispelling a miasma. Of course, filmmakers had done most of the things the neorealists would do already; others had shot movies on location, utilised non-professional actors, and dealt with pressing realities of the age. As World War II unfolded, filmmakers around the world had begun incorporating the methods of documentary into their movies, as well as adopting a terser, more stoical and spacious dramatic style.
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But neorealism went further in tossing out the polish of studio cinema and hanging entire movies by a framework that would have seemed desperately flimsy just a few years earlier. The new creed was instantly recognised and celebrated as something new, and held up internationally as proof something worthy and honest could emerge even in the midst of calamity. Neorealism’s impact was destined to be deep and permanent: far more movies today than not rely on some blend of its methods. And yet the movement itself was very short-lived, the number of works produced under its specific dogma scant. Neorealism’s anointed directorial heroes would have long and robust careers but most would often be the subject of long sideways glances from some who saw traitors to a cause long since laid to rest. Part of neorealism’s stature certainly had roots in the terrible glamour of World War II and the din of collapsed empire. For a few brief moments in the twilight of war, a sense of enveloping commonality and hard reckoning existed as a shared psychic experience. Neorealism would fade out as prosperity came back and society got back to the regular business of winnowing out losers from winners.
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Of course, neorealism didn’t really die. It changed form, still inflecting the anxious soul of its inheritors both immediate, from the generation of Italian filmmakers who cut their teeth as writers and aides on the neorealist shoots, no matter how delectably formalist they became, to those who would pick up aspects of their method for the New Wave movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and modern independent film. Amongst the major neorealist figures, a cadre that also included Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, Vittorio De Sica, and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, Rossellini had perhaps the most frustrating career, his life charting the tides of the age. Rossellini gained fame making bitterly realistic works conjured with scant resources amongst the rubble, became a most ironic celebrity doomed to have his tumultuous private life overshadow his works as he romanced movie stars and international artistes and always retaining aspect of the rootless hustler, and finished up making intelligent but little-noticed docudramas for TV, still trying to obey his principles. Attempts to exploit the notoriety of his union with Ingrid Bergman produced a string of films including Stromboli (1950), Europa ‘52 (1951), and Voyage to Italy (1954), all box office failures but belatedly admired. Rossellini was running into trouble with critics and audiences even before he concluded his “War Trilogy,” which counts as easily his most famous work today, kicked off by Rome, Open City and extended by Paisan and Germany, Year Zero.
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Paisan might be the most exalted of neorealist works alongside The Bicycle Thieves (1948). Paisan is an episodic film built around descriptive vignettes involving the various acts of the Allied campaign in Italy, each episode depicting a time, a place, a phase of battle, but much more cogently, Rossellini’s vision of the war is as something that may involve countries and ideologies but which happens to people. “These people aren’t fighting for the British Empire,” an OSS agent states in the last episode, referring to the partisans he’s working with, “They’re fighting for their lives.” It’s the essential creed of the film; those for whom war is a steamroller running over their lives, those for whom it’s a distant crackle of gunfire, those who grab the tiger by the tail in chasing the empowerment of combat or those obligated to, all share the experience of plunging into an event that envelopes and reshapes them. Rossellini hired a different writer for each part of the film, but pulled off the task of contouring each, sometimes quite divergent dramatic style into his overall vision, which runs all the way from comedy of manners to heightened tragedy. The actual screenplay was penned by Rossellini, his friends and regular collaborators Federico Fellini and Sergio Amedei, with input for the English-language parts from Bill Geiger.
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The first chapter sees narrative land on the Italian shore along with a unit of American GIs; Italy is going to be reintroduced to itself through the eyes of invader/liberators. A Sicilian-American GI interprets; a local bigwig grasps a thread – he doesn’t know anyone by his name from his family’s home town – to disdain the entire enterprise. The bridge of cultures is immigration, the mutual understanding narrow and shaky, the lingering spell of dictatorship still potent. The GIs surge out of the dark, the Italian townsfolk gathered in scantly lit abodes in fretful anxiety waiting to see how things play out, finding the Americans indistinguishable at first from the Germans. The GIs get a local teenager, Carmela (Carmela Sazio), to guide them through mines the Germans have planted; Carmela leads them to a ruined castle, a fitting defensive position. Whilst the rest of the unit goes off to patrol further, Carmela is compelled to remain behind to be sure she won’t alert the Germans, with Joe (Robert Van Loon) assigned to watch her and hold down the fort. The castle is a ghost of a long-dead Italy where princes gallivanted and empires reigned; now it’s a husk, riddled with vertiginous and labyrinthine passages but still a good place for armies to play “childrens’ games, only the bullets are real,” as one of the German soldiers describes their adventures. Language is a form of geography: Carmela and Joe try to understand each-other in their scant and fragmentary knowledge of each-other’s language and navigate by the few familiar landmarks in their mutual languages speech – Joe counts off the limit of his Italian: “Paisan…spaghetti…bambina…mangiare…”
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War has no time for small epiphanies. Joe is shot by a German who spots him lighting his cigarette through one of the open castle windows. A Wehrmacht unit occupies the castle and discovers Carmela, who has hidden away the bleeding, dying Joe. Sazio and Van Loon’s quality as performers swiftly describe the appeal of the non-actor to the neorealist style. There’s no hint of the theatrical to them, none of the years spent perfecting unnatural stances or ways of interacting. Sazio’s blowsy, slouchy adolescence with just the faintest rigour of adulthood coming on, is all the more affecting because it’s so familiar from life and so rare in movies of the time; Van Loon radiates a sincere, bashful charm. But when the time comes Sazio perfectly registers Carmela’s woozy distress and resolve as she looks upon the dying Joe, marking her determination to take revenge. Rossellini starts his war with the world in miniature, boy and girl, caught between nations, languages, political systems, and sparring armies. Carmela takes up his rifle and, as the Germans throw dice to see who’ll get to rape her first, manages to shoot one. Joe’s unit returns to find their man dead and Carmela missing. They assume she killed him. Rossellini however privileges the audience to her real fate: the Germans have dragged her to a cliff edge and thrown her off. Rossellini’s stark, almost off-hand revelation of this before fading to black and moving must have seemed like a slap in the face to a 1946 audience, and it’s still potent. The little universe of humanity, with all its will, casually exterminated, another great drama lost to all knowing, its actors left lying about like refuse.
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The second episode, unfolding in Naples, might represent a certain caricatured ideal of the neorealist style, as it depicts a similar fractious relationship defined by both understanding and the absence of it. Exactly this theme lies at the heart of Paisan and perhaps all Rossellini’s works – his later, mature movies like Voyage to Italy contemplate the disconnection in personal terms, the difficulty, particularly for intelligent but introverted people, to escape and expose their inner experience sufficiently to be understood by those close to them. Here, the material is more worldly and immediate, and urgent as a pungent and palpable need. The protagonists here are another Joe, this one an African-American MP (Dots Johnson), and Pasquale, one of a gang of homeless children who haunt the streets and plazas of Naples. Some of the kids pick up the odd tip helping GIs between bars and night spots, and rob them if they get half a chance. Pasquale attaches himself to Joe and leads him about town. After Joe passes out in spite of Pasquale’s warnings, the kid steals the MP’s boots. A few days later, Joe spots Pasquale trying to rob from the back of a truck. He nabs the waif and forces him to take him to his home and return his boots. But upon catching a glimpse of the subterranean world where he and hundreds of other penniless, dispossessed people live, Joe leaves the boots to Pasquale and drives away.
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As in De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves, the emphasis here is on the children left in desperate poverty in the war’s aftermath, and the plot revolves around the possession of desirable, useful, even life-saving objects – the boots, akin to the bicycle in the De Sica film. The climactic moment of moral confrontation establishes common empathy and the abandonment of a selfish sense of justice, but also skirts the edge of triteness. Rossellini however complicates this sketch in witty and biting ways. GI Joe here is a black man, one who murmurs bitter recollections of his home being a shack, all too aware that his relative elevation as a player of the war project will probably only be temporary before returning to life as a second-class citizen. Perched on a rubbish heap with a bewildered Pasquale at his side, Joe sings “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” in a ragged but impressive voice, near-blind with booze but still all too aware of his marooning between worlds. The fulcrum of the episode is a scene in which Pasquale takes Joe to a puppet theatre. The rapt audience watches a scene from Orlando Furioso being played out, in which the great Christian knight slays a Moorish foe. Joe, groping through the fog of booze to comprehend the essential drama, starts cheering like the others in the theatre as if they’re watching a boxing match, but for the nominal villain. Rather than let Orlando win, Joe leaps onto the stage and starts trying to box the puppet. Rossellini draws together many ideas here – the delightful absurdity of Joe’s assault on the puppets turns him to a Quixote-ish hero with comic zest, but Rossellini also notes the deep racist tradition locked into the Euro-American self-concept in the ritualised defeat and suppression of the African.
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There might even have been a quality of mea culpa to this. Although a leftist, Rossellini had been close friends with Mussolini’s son Vittorio, and owed his start in the film industry to this, not long after the Fascist regime had been warring in Libya and Ethiopia. Joe’s surrender of his boots at the end comes not with the guilty look of the conscience-appeasing bourgeois but the slow and considered abandonment of a poor man’s fierce and persona ethic in the face of another, overriding demand, a glimpse into a bottomless pit of need that refuses even to honour Joe’s nursed grievance. If Rossellini diagnoses rotten aspects of society that can be left to safely decay amongst the rubble here, the third chapter, which takes place in post-liberation Rome, asks what will replace them, and sees with glum certainty a kind of slick, alienating capitalist-consumerist cosmopolitanism descending. The nightclubs are filled with American soldiers on leave with money and luxury items to be had, and young women eager for both. Francesca (Maria Michi) is one of them, a hardened, bravura urban adventurer and prostitute who finds her eye caught by a young soldier, Fred (Gar Moore). When another chippie objects to her occasional sideways glances, the two women brawl, attracting MPs who clear the joint.
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Francesca comes across Fred on the street and lures the tired and tipsy soldier back to a rented room. Fred seems disgusted with the idea of sleeping with a prostitute, reminiscing instead as he drifts off to sleep about the fresh-faced and pure girl he met on the day the Allies rolled into the city to the cheers of the Romans. Francesca is that girl, of course. She leaves her real address on a note with Fred as he sleeps, but the next day dismisses it as a note from a whore, screws it up, and tosses it away before heading off with his fellows. This episode has a concise, plaintive, short story-like obviousness to its arc, one that partly conceals the insidious sense of humour Rossellini employs, particularly in the deadpan dissolve from the joyous optimism of the city’s release to a shot with a title over it reading “Six Months Later,” the open and eternal city now a den of rude and raucous behaviour, a transition that would feel quite at home in a modern satire like The Simpsons. The beatitude of liberation, a moment of idyllic promises, gives way to slick operators and resentful misogyny: “You wouldn’t last a day if these guys went home,” Francesca yells at her rivals, but it’s certainly just as true for her. Fred’s wistful reminiscences of the recent past are Francesca’s too as she’s able to fill out his anecdote with her own memories of a very recent but long-lost arcadia.
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Rossellini’s tart sociology sees the desire of the soldiers for cheap booze and quick sex as a market in a land where humanity is the cheapest commodity, trampling the tenuous human connections of the age, whilst hypocritically demanding everything and everyone retain the unsoiled lustre of great days. Innocence, if you believe in that sort of thing, has been defiled; certainly everyone is changed, the by-product of the age’s upheaval and collapsed structures, leaving everyone an instant and irreparable nostalgic. Although perhaps the most conventional episode in the film with the faintly poetical and sentimental quality to Francesca’s monologue and the obvious central conceit, this vignette feels in some ways like the most influential in the evanescent emotions and concepts it brings up, in the way it moots concerns the neorealists and their inheritors in Italian film would take up. In the absence of great projects of conflict and revision, individuals drift on different currents, lost to themselves and each-other. The pathetically broken rendezvous at the end, as Francesca waits for the man who won’t come, feels like a quick preparatory sketch for Michelangelo Antonioni’s “alienation” films, particularly the conclusion of L’Eclisse (1962) as well as the forlorn romanticism of Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti’s ‘50s films. Long before he arrived at the pensive interior evocations of works like Voyage to Italy and Antonioni’s works, Rossellini was already wrestling with people wrenched out of alignment with their true selves, lost behind worldly glazes and masks adopted for survival purposes.
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The fourth chapter, by contrast, is a tale charged with daring adventure and high romanticism, if still processed by Rossellini’s cool-tempered, methodical cinema. This one sees young American army nurse Harriet (Harriet White) attending to injured partisans as the Allies advance on Florence. Harriet is familiar with the city, having been there before the war. Asking about one of her old boyfriends, a painter named Guido Lombardi, Harriet learns he’s now a respected partisan leader nicknamed Lupo – the Wolf – by his fellows, and is battling the retreating the Germans and their Fascist allies in the city. Harriet becomes so desperate to find Lupo after hearing he’s been wounded, she links up with another injured partisan, Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who wants to get back to his family who lives in the same part of the city Lupo is fighting in. The duo exploit the Vasari Corridor, a passage that runs over the Ponte Vecchio into the Uffizi Gallery and forgotten by the Germans, to infiltrate the city. Eventually, when they reach the precincts where the partisans are still fighting, Harriet is devastated to learn from a wounded man that Lupo has died, whilst Massimo dashes away, bullets dogging his path.
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This chapter is the most traditionally thrilling in the film, proving Rossellini if he wanted to could have easily become a great action filmmaker. That’s not to say it’s conventional. Rossellini’s eye is at its keenest here in noting the stark contrast between Florence’s artistic wonders and the smears of blood and bullets pocking its streets – the seed of John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) is here as well as Stanley Kubrick’s war films. White, with her high, strong cheekbones and blend of strong emotion and venturesome resolve, could easily have passed for a movie star of the day, and embodies a still-guttering romantic spirit amidst the carnage. Rossellini recreates the same on-the-fly, danger-charged sensation of authentic war being filmed evinced in Rome, Open City. His tightly controlled sense of perspective avoids the regulation scene grammar for war sequence – no cutaways to the enemy or the like, simply concentrated, often laterally flowing tracking shots following his characters as they progress. Rossellini sensitises the viewer to the exposure in wide, well-lit streets that could make anyone a sniper’s target, and open piazzas as arenas of action. A bedraggled collaborator is marched out before resistance columns, a moment Visconti would recreate in his The Leopard (1963) in taking up the theme of a cycle of rule, revolt, downfall, and new orders bound to ossify.
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Rossellini and DP Otello Martelli pull off one particularly brilliant shot as his camera pivots from the corridors of the looted, deserted Uffizi along with his characters to peer down onto the city streets. There they glimpse the last few Germans massing for retreat. The sequence is an odyssey as Harriet and Massimo, each drawn on through a ridiculously dangerous exercise for the sake of people they care for, encounter partisans whose everyday aspect, fighting in street clothes and idly lunching with food pulled across fields of fire in carts, blurs the line between deadly struggle and holiday jaunt. Other Florentines mass in stairwells and corridors, keeping away from the fighting, a riot of rumour and complaint. Harriet and Massimo encounter people ranging from a retired military officer who surveys the struggle from the rooftop, recalls fighting in “the real war,” and claims to be able to dodge bullets, to a pair of British soldiers who are too awed by the cultural treasures laid out before them to quite notice the life-and-death struggles going on down in those sunstruck routes.
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The fifth chapter is a breath of calm in this storm, depicting a trio of US Army chaplains: Catholic Capt. Bill Martin (William Tubbs), Protestant Capt. Jones (Newell Jones), and Jewish Capt. Feldman, Jewish (Elmer Feldman). The trio visit an old hilltop monastery where the monks are fascinated and bewildered by their visitors. They’re glad to receive the Americans’ gifts of food, particularly their Hershey’s chocolate. But when the monks learn that two of the chaplains are heretics, they anxiously prod Martin over his failure to proselytise to them, to which Martin calmly replies that he feels he has no right to, particularly as they believe themselves to be just as faithful and correct. The monks decide to fast in praying for the souls of the Protestant and Jew, giving up their first good meal in months. The gentle comedy in this sequence, which starts off like a bar room joke, presages Rossellini’s deeper, longer look at the side of religion he appreciated in The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), the noble absurdity glimpsed in people trying to obey both human need and divine obedience. Many another artist would have expressed frustration at the sectarian reflexes of the monks, and one of the chaplains raises in concerted seriousness about just how much use the instruction of people used to hiding from the world is at such a juncture in history. But in the end Rossellini sees value in that detachment. He wants a place left in the world for men of simple faith, holy fools, and people with the ability to go without so that others might gain something, no matter how much those others don’t want it.
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For all Rossellini’s evolving faith in the stripped-down and spontaneous, there was nothing artless about his moviemaking. The first, third, and fifth chapters are carefully fashioned in their lighting and subtle, quietly mobile camerawork, flickers of poetic and spiritual depth allowed to subsist in the lighting caressing the faces of Joe and Carmela and Fred and Francesca, or pooling in the monastery’s corners, and the chiaroscuro battles of light and dark that confirm the influence of the pre-war poetic realists on Rossellini. The harsher style utilised in the second, fourth, and sixth episodes befits tales rooted in more immediate actions and consequences. Fellini’s specific humour occasionally glimmers throughout, with the fairground performers glimpsed at the start of the second chapter providing an islet of bristling medieval colour in an otherwise raw-boned city, the two English soldiers playing aesthete tourists, and the vignettes in the monastery, where the monks offer their blessing in return for a candy bar. The last chapter, which takes place in the Po River valley in 1945, has been called the ultimate iteration of the neorealist creed, as it depicts an episode amidst the war’s end-game.
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The first shot in the episode sees a man’s corpse floating down the river, executed by the Nazis with a sign branding him as a partisan, moving with languorous pathos like something from a dream. The world here has been reduced to a relentlessly horizontal zone of flat earth, rippling water, and wavering reeds, at once desolate but deceptive in its capacity to conceal and trick the eye. Dale (Dale Edmonds), an OSS agent, and some fellow American soldiers are operating with partisans in the reed-clogged river delta. A recent halt in the Allied advance has left these warriors stranded in enemy-held territory without hope of quick recourse. A brief stop at a tavern set up in a shack sees the wearied fighters take stock and recover a little, but it brings down vicious punishment from the Germans, who shoot anyone found in the vicinity of the tavern. A pair of British airmen are shot down in the water and rescued by the partisans, but seen they’re all cornered by Germans, who gun down the partisans as rebels and some of the Allied soldiers when they leap up in protest. That Rossellini and his writers decided to end the film with this chapter suggests a desire not to set the seal on the conflict but to suggest the way it was still a raw, bleeding wound both physically and mentally; the wailing child left amidst splayed corpses by the tavern is totem of the entire experience, a generation of orphans left in the wake of acts of colossal bravery and cruelty.
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RR18
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This episode reduces the war to appropriately barren essentials to match the landscape, stripping out the dramatic familiarities and ironies of the earlier chapters and instead presenting a grim spectacle of struggle and death. Out there in the man-killing surveys of the Po delta lies the futurist anxiety Antonioni works through in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970) and the mood of incipient earth-swallowing uncertainty he’d approach in L’Avventura (1960), as well as anticipating the post-apocalyptic fantasias of four generations. Dread of the future appropriate for science fiction is hinted at as the Allied captives are forced to listen to their Nazi officer captor’s calm and still-confident belief in the new civilisation that will last a thousand years. A few minutes later the master race are shoving bound men off a boat, the warriors of the Po finding comradely rest at the bottom of the river. Paisan was a big hit both in Italy and on the world cinema scene, and when Rossellini returned with Germany, Year Zero in 1948, it was at the high-water mark of neorealism, as The Bicycle Thieves, Visconti’s La Terra Trema, and De Santis’ Bitter Rice were all released to general acclaim. Germany, Year Zero was however overshadowed, whilst Rossellini’s personal situation had undergone violent upheavals through his affair with Anna Magnani and the death of one of his sons, Romano, from his first marriage, aged only 9. Germany, Year Zero takes up the raw and stricken mood of Paisan’s last episode in a movie dedicated to Romano’s memory, as well as rounding out the war trilogy with a survey of the ruined Nazi homeland and the people left to subsist in the rubble.
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Young Edmund Kohler (Edmund Meschke) is Rossellini’s inheritor of the national ash-heap, living with his elderly father (Ernst Pittschau), a former academic, his older sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), and brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger). Hunger is a gnawing and constant reality; the elder Kohler’s poor health is exacerbated by starvation, and the family is trying to subsist on only three ration cards because Karl-Heinz, who fought until the end and belonged to an unspecified regiment suspected of war crimes, is afraid he’ll be thrown in a detention camp, so he remains in hiding. Edmund is so anxious to help out his family at the outset he’s glimpsed trying to get a job as a gravedigger, perhaps the only growth industry in Berlin at this point. He also engages in petty theft and con artistry. He encounters one of his former teachers, Herr Henning (Erich Gühne), who employs Edmund as an agent to sell an LP recording of Hitler’s speeches to the reliable battery of gullible Allied soldiers who hang about the old Chancellery in search of souvenirs. Henning places him in the company of Jo (Jo Herbst) and Christl (Christl Merker), two of the many homeless kids around the city who are growing up very fast, becoming experts in robbery and operating, and Edmund joins them in stealing a bag of potatoes from a train shipment.
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It would be tempting to regard Germany, Year Zero as merely an extra-long last instalment of Paisan, continuing the northward and chronological march to its logical end amidst the shattered husk of the Nazi homeland. But Germany, Year Zero is a different kind of movie to Paisan in terms of Rossellini’s focus and method; the individual portraiture that informed a general sociological viewpoint in the earlier film is here inverted. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Germany, Year Zero met with strident criticism from many quarters. Rossellini had readopted aspects of studio filmmaking, making use of some sets and other moviemaking tricks. One gets the feeling, however, that another aspect of its rejection lay in its pungent and gruelling evocation of a world that lies at the very outermost fringe of redemption. Whereas De Sica’s films like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (1953), however grim in depicting poverty, retained a sentimental faith in certain evanescent bonds of amity, shifting to a German setting allowed Rossellini to leave behind all trace of his own romanticism. Germany, Year Zero depicts fascism as having leached into the soil, gripping at the roots at whatever new world might grow from the tainted earth.
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Everyone has become a walking stomach and a register tallying buying power. Henning, who has a clear paedophile’s interest in Edmund and who it’s suggested keeps Jo and Christl close for sexual favours, still preaches fascist essentials to the boy, advising him that the weak have to be cut loose and not allowed to impede the strong from surviving. The owner of the house where the Kohlers live, Mr Rademaker (Hans Sangen), who was forced to take in tenants by the civil authority in the face of the housing crisis, bullies and complains constantly even as he steal power, eventually resulting in the building’s supply being cut off entirely. Eva brings in some extra income, like Paisan’s Francesca, as a nightspot denizen just a step short of outright prostitution, filching cigarettes which a the most reliable currency, only to be disdained by the Rademakers and Edmund. Young Christl, with whom Edmund seems to feel the first glimmerings of attraction, is described by her fellows as a “mattress that gives out cigarettes.” It’s easy to imagine Karl-Heinz as one of the steel-jawed young Nazi angels shooting down Rossellini’s flailing resistance warriors in his previous two films. “Once we were men, National Socialists,” a rubble clearance worker quips at one point, “Now we’re just Nazis.”
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This quip at last gets to the very heart of an issue Rossellini traces the outer edge of again and again in both films, in noting people’s desire to belong to feel part of some great project, a movement, a corpus of humanity blessed with shining import, rather than admit the reality of their circumstance. The Flowers of St. Francis would, eventually, offer a reconciliation of the schism, as Francis and his followers learn to rejoice in the mud. Part of neorealism’s almost religious appeal in some quarters might well have been rooted in the mode’s ability to imbue that kind of identity and overarching narrative upon life, the brotherhood of debris and scarcity and perseverance. Germany, Year Zero offers no such ennobling on a socio-political level, but does dare to suggest family is a substitute, another world in small from which larger structures grow. Edmund’s initial, scampish selflessness as a kid dedicated to his family unit seems to contrasts Karl-Heinz’s fretful and fuming inability to let go of his defeated cause. By the end Rossellini inverts their roles, as Karl-Heinz awakens to a new reality and rids his system of the fascist poison, whilst Edmund is fatefully, and fatally, infected through Henning’s frame for reality, Nazi ideals carried by children who know nothing better. Rossellini’s great anxiety, perhaps a common one at the time, is that all these brutal lessons have blighted an entire generation. So Edmund steals a bottle of poison from a dispensary and uses it to kill his father in the belief it’s the best thing for everyone.
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RR23
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As contrary to swift-formed neorealist dogma as it was, Rossellini’s use of sets allowed him greater, more unaffected intimacy in his lighting and shooting, particularly apparent in the scenes in the Rademakers’ building and the Kohlers’ rooms, where the camera often hovers with actors moving about it like another member of the family, tracking all movements with simple pivots. Rossellini’s evolving aesthetic, which would increasingly attempt to use carefully manipulated settings to describe psychological landscapes (in a subtler manner than the waned expressionist film movement), was becoming more definite here. Berlin’s wreckage is recorded with a documentary maker’s rigorous eyes but also reflects the utter desolation of private universes and illusions. Edmund’s murder of his father leaves him entirely alienated from even the salutary processes of mourning, and he eddies for a long and dreadful day as his confession of his final solution to Henning gains only the pervert pedagogue’s hysterical fury and anxious implorations that Edmund not implicate him in the deed.
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RR24
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Here is Rossellini’s miniature analysis of the life and death of the fascist creed–big-sounding ideals, real murders, and whimpering, pathetic denials of involvement when judgement day looms. In a less crass (if not more subtle) way than the use of lesbianism in Rome, Open City to depict the perverting appeal of the Nazi ideology, Henning’s paedophilia visually describes that deep and invidious process of colonisation of the mind and soul by hateful thinking. Ultimately Germany, Year Zero feels like a statement of intense grief and even exhaustion in the face of a universe of suffering, and Rossellini’s personal loss must have informed the final, despairing image of a young boy’s broken body. And yet it’s not a nihilistic statement. Rossellini intended it as a confirmation that a moral spark would still create shame even in the children of this devastation. Edmund is an avatar for Rossellini’s evolving preoccupation with the gap between the internal and external ways of being, a strange relative to his Saint Francis as like the saint he finds the real monster to battle is not in the world but within, the world only made monstrous by that inner beast. Rossellini grants his boy-man the same stature as he gave to his resistance heroes, as he makes his stand and slays the beast. At the same time he’s just another dead kid in a land filled with them.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Blaxploitation, Horror/Eerie, Political

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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Director: Wes Craven

By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).

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The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1943) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.

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Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsome, leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud, oversaw the burial of the man, who was pronounced dead but, as Craven reveals, lay weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

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The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate. Eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.

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Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.

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In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.

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Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

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Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.

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Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.

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Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.

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This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.

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Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis.

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Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.

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