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The City of the Dead (1960) / Night of the Eagle (1961)

aka Horror Hotel / aka Burn, Witch, Burn!

Directors: John Llewellyn Moxey / Sidney Hayers
Screenwriters: George Baxt / George Baxt, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson

By Roderick Heath

The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle present two small gems of horror cinema, closely connected by the moment of their making and their basic genre film business. Both are products of the flourishing horror cinema in Britain inspired by the success of the Hammer Horror films. Each was directed by an interesting filmmaker well-known to genre fans but few others. The City of the Dead was written by the mystery writer George Baxt, who went on to co-author the script of Night of the Eagle with Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Both films offer horror narratives set firmly in the present day and involving witchcraft. Both are partly set in academia, hardly the usual location for horror apart from the reaction of the odd flunked student. Both are evidently influenced by other, recent great and popular films but have their own specific charm. Both were awkwardly retitled for American release. But the two films are quite distinct in other ways, exemplifying how movies can be both very similar in their basics and yet divergent in approach: The City of the Dead is a lesson in making the most of a miniscule budget to weave a classical brand of atmospheric dread, whilst Night of the Eagle is a study in psychological tension and metaphorical power.


The City of the Dead represented an early foray into producing British genre cinema by the entrepreneurial American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, about to become two of the more consequential figures in that rarefied realm. The duo first collaborated in the US on the rock’n’roll craze-exploiting film Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and a handful of other B-movies. The duo reached out to Hammer Films honcho Michael Carreras, trying to entice his involvement with a new version of Frankenstein Subotsky had written. Carreras became interested but eventually cut out Subotsky and Rosenberg, and his The Curse of Frankenstein, upon release in 1957, proved an earthquake that permanently revived horror cinema as well as, in the short term, making the UK the epicentre. Subotsky and Rosenberg moved to avenge themselves by moving to Britain and forming the production entity Vulcan Films, which would eventually be reorganised into the better-known Amicus Films, which tried thereafter to be a rival to Hammer. Amicus would produce an enjoyable if interchangeable series of anthology horror movies like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), and Tales From The Crypt (1972), and sci-fi flicks like Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Kevin Connor’s Edgar Rice Burroughs trilogy. Baxt had originally written the script as the intended pilot of a TV series to star Boris Karloff, and when Subotsky took it over he performed rewrites, adding a subplot and giving himself story credit, whilst the film’s stringent £45,000 budget was partly obtained from Nottingham Football Club.

For a director, Subotsky hired John Llewellyn Moxey, who at 35 had recently become a TV director. Moxey’s knowledge of how to conjure a convincing drama out of the most stringent needs definitely helped with The City of the Dead. The film kicks off with a prologue that’s intriguingly similar to the beginning of the same year’s La Maschera del Demonio, and anticipates the like of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971) in evoking the bleak history of witch hunts and executions as a gruelling and gruesome social phenomenon. Moxey opens with the townsfolk of the small Massachusetts village of Whitewood in 1692 dragging Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) to be burned at the stake as a witch. Selwyn screams out for help to one of the men in the crowd, Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall), but when asked by the town elder supervising the execution (Fred Johnson), if he consorts with her Jethrow denies it. When Selwyn is tied to the stake and set on fire, she and Jethrow both make appeal to Satan to help her, and Selwyn begins to laugh with pleasure as thunder rings out as if answering her prayer, whilst the baying crowd chant, “Burn witch, burn!”

Moxey cuts to history professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) enthusiastically repeating the same chant as he instructs his students on the event in contemporary times, to the rapt fascination of prize pupil Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson), and the wry lack of interest of her boyfriend sitting in on the lecture, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), whose quips infuriate the teacher. Nan’s brother Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), who is himself a teacher at the college, quickly gets into an argument with Driscoll, as his own hard-headed lack of credulity and interest in the historical events clashes with Driscoll’s preoccupation, as Driscoll notes the historical record suggests the lingering influence of malefic forces in Whitewood, which also happens to be his home town. Nan is despite Bill and Richard’s scorn so interested in the seemingly irrational subject that she tells them and Driscoll she wants to travel through New England during the term break and collect independent research on the topic, including a visit to Whitewood. Driscoll gives her directions and the name of a hotel in the town to stay at, and Nan heads off after promising to meet them at a cousin’s house in two weeks. On the rough and misty road to the town, Nan picks up a hitchhiker, a tall, plummy, sardonic man heading to Whitewood and who just happens to look just like the long-ago Jethrow Keane.

Nan is briefly perplexed when, upon arrival in Whitewood, Jethrow seems to slip out of the car without her noticing, but she soon books into the hotel, The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs Newless, who also happens to look rather like Elizabeth Selwyn. The hotel has a plaque announcing it stands on the spot where Selwyn was burned. The town of Whitewood is a quiet, fog-shrouded place with a neglected church, a blind and ominously advising pastor, Russell (Norman MacOwan), and silent, glaring citizenry. Nan does encounter the blessedly normal Pat Russell (Betta St. John), the granddaughter of the pastor, who’s just recently returned to the town and opened an antique store. Pat digs out a book from her collection entitled A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England in trying to satisfy Nan’s researching needs, and Nan arranges to borrow it for the duration of her stay in town. Back in the hotel, however, Nan begins noticing strange incidents, as bracelet she likes to where vanishes, a dead bird skewered with a pin turns up in a drawer, and a sprig of woodbine appears on her door, all details that happen to recur in the historical documents recounting the human sacrifices Selwyn and her coven liked to perform. And there’s also the little matter of some eerie singing emanating up through the floorboards. When she finds the key to the old hatch in the floor of her room dangling from her window, Nan descends into a labyrinth under the church, where she’s suddenly grabbed by some robed and hooded figures and dragged to a ceremonial altar, where she’s laid prostrate and stabbed to death by Mrs Newless, who confirms she is actually Selwyn.

The pleasures of The City of the Dead walk a line that can strike many as campy, with its air of threadbare charm and almost comically oblivious characters. A brief vignette of Stephenson parading about in 1950s bodice and garters is a flash of sexploitation that’s both amusingly obvious as a ploy and dated in that women often wear less on the main street of my town these days. But it’s the kind of movie that’s held together by the conviction everyone involved wields. The ploy of setting up Nan as the apparent heroine of the movie and then killing her off sees The City of the Dead often compared with the looming example of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Given the filming and release of the two movies it seems unlikely Psycho had direct influence – Moxey’s film started shooting before Hitchcock’s – making The City of the Dead more significant and ballsy in this move. Psycho nonetheless announced a great genre sea-change, auguring in today’s general norm for the horror movie, built around lurking killers dealing out gruesome demises in modern, mundane locales, rather than the classical arsenal of supernatural monsters and stylised historical, foreign, or psychologised settings. The City of the Dead mediates the two ages with its simple but sufficient storyline. Another of the film’s obvious quirks is being a British film set in the US, which had been done before and is chiefly notable in this case for Lee doing a surprisingly good accent. Devil worshipper movies had been relatively uncommon before the late 1950s in Horror cinema except in when safely relegated to exoticised forms like the many misconstruing takes on voodoo, in part because they tended to be stringently censored, testified by the edits The City of the Dead underwent and the controversy sparked by The Devil Rides Out (1967) a few years later. One of the few previous major examples was Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934).

The City of the Dead avoids playing out as a kind of drive-in take on The Crucible insofar as it makes no bones about the supernatural nature of the events, even as it offers a sliver of sympathy for the devil as the viciousness of the repression of the witches scarcely seems preferable to any evil they can deal out, and the result is perpetually dooming Whitewood to subsist as a canker subsisting into the officially purified modern world. Witchcraft as a subject was a potentially fruitful one for genre filmmakers as it tackled the basic schism between the audience’s scepticism, backed up modern psychological and political understanding, pitted against a chthonic credulity. Despite the American setting, The City of the Dead also gave birth to a stratum of peculiarly British horror films involving heroes stumbling into strange communities where arcane cults and mores rule, a plot pattern that neatly encompasses a very British sense of the tension between communal mores and upsetting outsiders, modernity disturbing the balanced tensions underlying a fantasy vision of a settled, ordered, homey past. On came straight-laced variations like Devils of Darkness (1965) and The Witches (1966), ambitious and wilfully odd variations in The Wicker Man (1973) and Kill List (2011), and lampoons like Bloodbath at the House of Death (1983) and Hot Fuzz (2007).

Moxey had been born in Argentina, one port of call where his family had depots for their coal and steel business. Moxey underwent training at Sandhurst, the famous British military college, and fought in World War II, but left the armed forces after the war already world-weary at 20, and decided to instead realise a childhood ambition to get into show business. Moxey only made a handful of feature films in his long career, but they include several cultish gems of low-budget filmmaking, as he followed The City of the Dead up with the fascinatingly antiheroic World War II spy story A Foxhole in Cairo (1960), the gritty Hands of Orlac variation Hands of a Stranger (1964), and a string of Edgar Wallace-derived thrillers including Circus of Fear (1966), a thriller enlivened by Moxey’s flashes of visual wit, including Klaus Kinski dying with a huge leering mask in his grip, a great opening sequence depicting an armoured car robbery on Tower Bridge, and a general glaze of drizzly, moody British charm. When the low-budget UK movie scene began to dry up, cheating Moxey of any further chance of breaking out into higher-profile movies, he returned to work entirely in television and soon moved to Hollywood, working on shows as varied and beloved as The Saint, The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0, Magnum, P.I., Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote, and the pilot episode of Charlie’s Angels, as well a number of telemovies. His signal success in the latter field was the hugely popular telemovie The Night Stalker (1972), which birthed the cult TV series starring Darren McGavin.

Moxey’s great eye, backed up by Desmond Dickinson’s excellent black-and-white photography, and ability to conjure a powerful atmosphere with minimal elements, are clear right from the opening shot in the Whitewood town square, coals burning in a metal brazier looming in the foreground with sketchy shapes of a bent tree and town buildings just visible through the heavy pall of fog, out of which resolves a mob of period Puritans on the warpath. Moxey then carefully orchestrates the ritual condemnation that follows as Selwyn is first seen, dragged out from the prison with her imperiously sensual and boding gaze cast down upon the momentarily arrested villagers: the camera scans their stricken faces for a moment before settling on one woman who hisses, “Witch!” and earns a gob of spit from Selwyn in the eye, kicking off the baying abuse again. When Selwyn sets eyes on the waiting stake she stares in dread, and Moxey has two more harridans of the village loom in the frame, one pointing to it and crying, “Burn the witch!” Selwyn’s terror, crying out Jethrow’s name, and the puckered rage of the villagers, puts one immediately on the imminent victim’s side, but Selwyn is nonetheless exactly what they think she is, and she makes her pact with Lucifer as the flames lick her flanks (much of her vow was cut out of the film’s American release under the title Horror Hotel). Moxey cranks up the note of murderous hysteria as his camera tilts and swoops up to the variably frantic, blood-lusting, wailing faces of the crowd whilst Selwyn, sensing her plea has been heard, begins to laugh with malefic joy.

The rest of the film’s first half revolves around Nan as the blonde, creamy-skinned co-ed falling under the spell of a mystique of devilry and atavistic forces more powerful and enticing in their dank vividness than the bright lights of the world she knows. The film’s cramped budget, as is often the case, is cleverly employed to help build the drama’s sequestered mood, from the relative normality of Driscoll’s lecture through to Nan’s encounters with the odd citizens of Whitewood, where the signs of lurking threat and oneiric eccentricity seem so overt one could rightly expect any visitor to run away screaming. The undercurrent of weird intensity Driscoll forges in his lecture is lightened by Bill’s jokes (“I’ll bring the matches.”) which feel, in their way, distantly anticipatory of the self-aware tone of something like Scream (1996). The recurring use of Ken Jones’ jazz music for diegetic music is an amusing touch but also one that Moxey uses with a degree of cleverness, managing to seem both drowsily seductive whilst also letting sounds of the ordinary, current world infiltrate Whitewood and its surrounds. Moxey’s glimpses of a number of couples dancing in the cramped lobby of the Raven’s Inn recalls the similarly eerie and stylised glimpses of a stygian dance in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) just as the story recalls Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943). Moxey makes the dance, to which Nan is invited by Selwyn in her guise as Mrs Newless, seem at once romantically inviting and quietly creepy and unreal, like a show put on Nan’s sake, which it is: when Nan emerges from her room after getting dressed, the crowd is revealed to have suddenly broken up, the music they were dancing to abruptly turned off: Nan’s solitude suddenly feels dangerous. The only potential ally Nan seems to have is the chambermaid Lottie (Ann Beach), who cannot speak but still tries to warn her, only to be foiled because Selwyn keeps a close and threatening watch on her.

Whitewood seems a place where the sun never comes up and the fog never lifts, a cute way to mask production shortcomings but also providing a deliciously iconic genre film setting. Whitewood is the essential Horror movie ghost town, a throwback to the purely stylised, set-bound variety of horror movie setting once seen in the Universal Pictures horror movies like The Wolf Man (1941), the kind where ground mist ran like rivers and twisted trees loomed like withered crones doing interpretive dance. Roger Corman seems to have emulated it for his The Haunted Palace (1963), and indeed whilst The City of the Dead isn’t based on H.P. Lovecraft like the Corman film, it is perhaps the first movie to capture a Lovecraftian mood in its vision of a fetid, forgotten corner of New England where strange cabals meet and dark forces hold sway. John Carpenter probably likewise remembered it for his own Lovecraftian riff, In The Mouth of Madness (1994). Moxey’s great images continue, most particularly in a recurring shot where first Nan and then Pat drive along the road to Whitewood in the foggy dark and see Jethrow picked out in their car headlights, standing at a crossroads, filmed from within the car: technically clever, this motif also helps Moxey firm up the urban legend texture he’s chasing, presenting the kind of frisson that’s come over anyone who’s ever driven along a dark country road at night. The shot occurs a third and fourth time when Barlow and then Bill drive to Whitewood, but do not see Jethrow. Bill instead sees the looming supernatural vision of the laughing Selwyn on the stake, so disorienting that he swerves off the road and crashes into a tree.

The build-up to Nan’s sacrifice is particularly good in vignettes like the dance and Nan’s spacy, somnambulant voice as she recognises it’s Candlemas Eve, one of the two favoured nights for witches’ Sabbaths. The noted plot detail that Nan’s stolen broach allows the witches to “call” her at least papers over the question as to why someone as smart and well-versed in this lore as Nan doesn’t flee the moment a clear pattern starts accumulating. Of course, there’s another dimension to this, in Nan’s desire to know, with all its quasi-erotic underpinnings. She falls under the intellectual spell of the charismatic Driscoll, inspiring her to travel to a place that represents the dark reservoir of history’s septic sense of sexual knowledge and falls prey to waiting fiends, amongst whose number Driscoll eventually reveals himself, his face becoming visible under the cowl as he and Selwyn lean over Nan just before killing her. Later Driscoll is depicted performing a minor sacrifice with a caged bird in a sanctum in back of his academic office, a moment to which Lee applies all of his grim-browed conviction. Driscoll delivers a memorably simple epigram in riposte to Barlow’s forceful insistence on rationalism: “The basis of fairy tales is reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.” One significant common and immediate precursor for The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle is Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), with both films mimicking that film’s heavy emphasis on the clash between realist and mystical worldviews, with a particular pertinence to the way Horror as a genre suddenly came roaring back at the time after the craze for science fiction earlier in the decade. In turn, Val Lewton’s films with Tourneur and others in the 1940s hover in the background, and The City of the Dead channels something of a Lewton feel in the moments quiet and subtle strangeness in pockets of detached reality, the dialogue between moments of quiet, even hominess, and pressing threat.

Moxey performs a jagged jump cut from Selwyn bringing the knife down on Nan to her and Barlow’s cousin slicing her birthday cake at a party in her house, where Barlow and Bill wait with increasing unease for Nan. Once it becomes clear she’s late, they set in motion an investigation, and some detectives visit The Raven’s Inn. Selwyn-as-Newless claims Nan left without any notice without paying her bill. Pat reclaims the book she loaned Nan from Selwyn and later travels to Barlow and Driscoll’s college to talk with them, and after Driscoll fails to throw her off her talk with Barlow and Bill convinces them to head to Whitewood and look around for themselves. On the return journey Pat picks up Jethrow, making it clear she’s the anointed sacrifice for the Witches’ Sabbath, a particularly apt victim for the witches as she’s a descendent of the original, cursed villagers. After crashing thanks to the tormenting vision whilst following Barlow to Whitewood, Bill crawls out of his wrecked and burning car and stumbles towards the town, whilst Barlow himself checks into the Raven’s Inn and then encounters Reverend Russell, who explains how the walking dead now control the town, but also recounts the formula for their destruction. Lottie is murdered by Jethrow and Selwyn when they catch her trying to leave a note for Barlow, whilst Bill manages despite his grave injuries to stumble into town just as Barlow finds Pat kidnapped and the Reverend dead.

The climax is suitably breathless and gripping as Moxey brings things home with ingenious cheapjack hype. Barlow searches for Pat, stumbling across Lottie’s corpse hidden in the labyrinth under the hotel, before managing to snatch Pat away from the sacrificial altar. The pair flee up into the cemetery only to be met there by more of the coven: in a deliciously campy-creepy shot, the Satanists lift their clawing hands from under their swathing robes to grab hold of their prey. Forced to wait until “the hour of thirteen,” that is an extra toll of the bell at one a.m., before they can kill Pat and claim another year’s extension on their undead existence, the coven are obliged to stand around just long enough for Bill, obedient to Barlow’s shouted instructions, to pluck out a crucifix from the cemetery ground and wield it as a weapon of faith whilst Barlows pronounces a ritual adjure. Even a notably good bit of knife-throwing from Selwyn, planting her sacrificial dagger in Bill’s back, doesn’t put him down for good, and the coven all erupt in flames screaming as the shadow of the cross falls on them, save Selwyn herself, who flees. Bill finally dies muttering Nan’s name. Barlow and Pat chase Selwyn, only to find her in The Raven’s Inn under the plaque describing her death, where she’s become a burned and blackened corpse.

Despite its many intersecting lines of story and theme, Night of the Eagle takes a very different approach. Night of the Eagle is more obviously made in the mould of Night of the Demon, down to its title (and borrowing that film’s cast member Reginald Beckwith), but it’s actually an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife. Leiber’s book, one of the most famous and influential horror novels ever written, had already been adapted once as the Weird Woman (1944), a solid entry in the enjoyable series of B-movies starring Lon Chaney Jr and made under the imprimatur of the radio show Inner Sanctum. Baxt redrafted the script, which had originally been written by the lauded genre writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont as a collaborative project: both men were connected at the time with the TV series The Twilight Zone and Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe film series. Matheson and Beaumont’s love of the novel acknowledged how it presented an ideal model for blending mundane realism and suggestive supernatural menace, and it’s had the same impact on writers since. The movie project was first taken up by Corman’s usual backers at American International Pictures, and farmed out to their regular production partners Anglo-Amalgamated. When the film was released in the US by AIP under the title Burn, Witch, Burn!, it came with an awful opening narration provided by the inimitable Paul Frees and new opening credits that removed Baxt’s name.

The Scots-born director Sidney Hayers, who worked as a top-flight film editor in the 1950s, made his directing debut with The White Trap (1959) and quickly forayed in horror with the impressively Sadean Circus of Horrors (1959). Hayers’ directing career ultimately proved disappointing, rarely living up to the remarkable control of Night of the Eagle, although he would later make the striking wilderness drama The Trap (1966), starring Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham, which would transfer Night of the Eagle’s fascination with marriage as a kind of loving war in depicting a rudely matched couple surviving life on the frontier, and the lurid but effectively disturbing and atmospheric rapist-on-the-loose thriller In The Devil’s Garden, aka Assault (1971), a film that would return to a school setting with a rather darker and more direct approach to the idea of fetid institutional repression and vicious abuse feeding each-other. Hayers had a potent feel for percolating sexual hysteria and agents of monstrous will, both of which inform Night of the Eagle. The film commences with protagonist Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a professor in a small, unnamed English college, lecturing his psychology students in matters of ritual belief and custom, in the face of which he maintains a ruthless scepticism, writing the phrase “I Do Not Believe” on the blackboard, a missive that will turn significant much later, but is offered here as a kind of reverse magic spell to exorcise all demons of irrationalism. Norman is much enjoyed by his students, most particularly his smitten prize pupil Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott), much to the aggravation of her boyfriend Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell), a much less enthusiastic student.

Norman’s male colleagues Lindsay Carr (Colin Gordon) and Harvey Sawtelle (Anthony Nicholls) are enormously admiring of their young but brilliant and energetic colleague, and it seems he’s going to land the chair of their department. Harvey’s wife Evelyn (Kathleen Byron) is teeth-grindingly angry about Norman’s seemingly inevitable rise. Her sister Flora (Margaret Johnston) is Lindsay’s wife and also a professor at the college as well as Margaret’s guardian, and also walks with a limp. She seems more sanguine, and likes commenting on it all with teasing, ironic distance. The three couples and the college dean Gunnison (Beckwith) and his wife come to Taylor’s house for a night playing bridge, where the factional tensions register despite the air of genteel entertainment, with Norman’s wife Tansy (Janet Blair) playing the expert hostess but registering a certain jumpiness. Once their visitors leave and Norman goes to bed, Tansy makes excuses to begin a frantic search of the living room. Eventually she finds a tiny fetish figure pinned within a lampshade. She burns this and, relieved, heads off to bed. But Norman begins to find many similar items around the house, these all planted by Tansy herself, including a jar full of dead spiders. When he confronts Tansy about them she tries to dismiss them as keepsakes of a journey they once took to Jamaica to investigate voodoo practices, but Norman is unconvinced. Eventually the fraying and desperate Tansy admits they’re totems she uses to ward off forces of black magic she believes are constantly assaulting them, combating them using methods she was taught by a bokor named Carubias and which she first turned to when Norman almost died in an accident. Norman forces Tansy to burn them all, despite her conviction this will leave them undefended.

The key beauty of Leiber’s novel was the contrast between the insular, seemingly placid, rather dry world of the little academic grove that was its setting and the invocation of vast, powerful, inchoate forces, strongly anticipating some of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, and the clever way this contrast was joined to a story that played witty games with the basic theme expressed by the old saying, “Behind every great man is a good woman.” Leiber took that idea to an extreme in the tale of Tansy warding off the magical attacks by her fellow campus wives in an ongoing contest to fuel success or impose ruination. Night of the Eagle simplifies this aspect to a degree, as here Tansy only has one real foe, although the faculty politics are still drawn with amusing, stinging accuracy, particularly once Norman is exposed to malevolence involving jealousy and misdirected passion which could well manifest normally in any school setting, and the potential professional dangers that can befall a man like Norman Taylor feel all accurate, perhaps even more today than in 1961. Once Norman makes Tansy burn all her protections, including one she keeps in a locket with her photo that results, with particularly ominous import, in the photo being burnt too, nothing seems to change, and Tansy is briefly willing to entertain the possibility she really was being ruled by her anxiety. But soon events begin to rattle Norman’s assurance: he gets a lewd phone call from Margaret, is almost run down by a lorry as he enters the college, and is threatened by Fred. When Margaret, in a volatile state, tells Flora that Norman raped her, Norman confronts her and gets her to retract her statement, and she flees after tearfully telling Norman, “I hate you!” Shortly after, Fred pulls a gun on him. Norman manages to get it away from him, but the swiftly mounting number of sudden calamities starts to make Norman think Tansy had a point after all.

Night of the Eagle offers similar characterisations to The City of the Dead – Margaret and Fred resemble Nan and Bill as your basic Jane and Joe College, if here pushed through the gates of self-combusting neurosis by forces beyond their ken. Norman is a more high-powered and abrasive version of Barlow, similarly dismissive of the supernatural but far more zealous about his self-image as an unshakably lucid mind. Hayers presents him as the acme of a certain ideal of a high modernist intellectual, fascinated by the meaning behind cultural arcana but also dismissive and contemptuous of any belief system contrary to his own, his own neo-puritan project one of ridding the world of its shadows. The crux of the drama is the relationship between Norman and Tansy, as an only slightly intensified study in heterosexual marriage as both a meeting and clash of personalities and ways of seeing and knowing. Norman’s aggressive confrontation of Tansy’s beliefs ape a familiar pattern in horror movies, of the hard-headed man correcting female inanities, reacting to Tansy’s supernatural dabbling as if she were a closet gambler or alcoholic, only to teasingly invert the certainties as Norman becomes increasingly frantic and unmoored. Equally often in horror movies the anxious woman proves correct, and here that turn is given hyperbolic force. The phrase “It got on my nerves” recurs in the movie, and Hayers conveys that feeling of locked-in, up-close, frayed-nerve portent, from the early scene of Tansy searching for the hidden fetish she knows her enemy has brought into her home with increasingly febrile purpose. Cinematographer Reginald Wyer’s zoom lensing keeps pushing closer and collapsing perspective to ratchet up the visual impression of things pressing in, whilst William Alwyn’s score unsubtly but effectively matches with its own agitating force.

The title comes from the imposing eagle sculpture that sits ominously perched above the main entrance to the college, directly outside the window of Flora’s office: for much of the film it seems the emblem of the many raptors eager to peck over Norman’s career bones. The aura of threat becomes more immediate when Norman receives a tape recording of one of his lectures about supernal ritual practice as a psychological phenomenon, and tries to make Tansy listen to it. His professorial words dismissing all irrational forces are undercut by a strange, undulating sound dubbed in underneath it, a sound Tansy recognises as a sorcerous invocation. She switches the tape recorder off, much to Norman’s anger, but the phone rings and the same sound comes through the receiver, and some monstrous form that releases a grotesque shriek thuds against the front door. Tansy manages to yank the phone cord from its connection just as Norman opens the door, and after being buffeted by a blast of the rainy night sees the caller has vanished. Here, as elsewhere in the film, Hayers generates remarkable hysterical energy that builds swiftly from baseline calm, aided by Wyngarde and Blair’s terrific performances, his hawkish features and hatchet-like force of personality colliding with her bright-eyed and vibrant anxiety, and the forceful editing rhythm betraying Hayers’ background.

Now entirely convinced that the enemy means to destroy Norman, Tansy gives him a laced drink and makes him recite words that will transfer any curse onto her, as a selfless gesture in her hope to die in his place: such gestures are the flipside to the tension between the couple as each is finally revealed to be willing to go to any length to save the other. When Norman awakens he finds Tansy gone, and figures she’s heading to the seaside cottage they own. He manages to catch up with the bus she’s taken but crashes off the road when forced to swerve out of the way of an oncoming truck. One the lorry drivers is a black West Indian immigrant (Frank Singuineau), and Norman awakens to focus on the totemic necklace around his neck, an odd little touch that obviously harkens back to Tansy’s embrace of magic in Jamaica whilst also suggesting the manifold ocean of belief Norman floats upon in a manner that’s correlated with the reverse colonisation of England, the nascent multicultural state. Norman shrugs off his injuries and continues in a hire car, but is too late to reach the cottage before nightfall.

Hayers keeps the tension mounting as the narrative begins to move with breathless pace, and delivers another great little set-piece here: Norman, realising he might find Tansy in the local churchyard thanks to a note he finds in one of her occult books, dashes along the moonlit beach, unknowingly passing Tansy who sits blank-eyed and motionless behind a boulder. When he reaches the churchyard cemetery, he claws his way through the old and overgrown tombstones and enters into a crypt. There Norman desperately performs a ritual to reclaim Tansy, whilst Hayers cuts to her robotically walking into the ocean as if to drown herself under the evil influence. Finally Norman gives up in a flurry of despair, only to turn and see Tansy standing in the crypt doorway, sodden, rigid, and staring-eyed, still under trance but having obeyed Norman’s ritual call back out of the water. Hayers manages here to deploy classical genre imagery – the craggy coastline and the lonely cottage, the gnarled and ancient graveyard, the creepy sight of the mesmerised Tansy returned – but still not any sign of literalised menace. Reginald Wyer’s grainy-gleaming, chiaroscuro photography and tight lensing enforce the tunnel-visioned reality of the characters as well as heightening the drama whilst also remaining real-feeling.

Indeed, Night of the Eagle manages something that Night of the Demon, thanks to that film’s producer-enforced glimpses of the demon, never quite got to do, in that it occurs in a grey zone of credulity: if the mood of The City of the Dead feels Lewton-like, Night of the Eagle is closer to Lewton’s ideal on a dramatic level in keeping things ambiguous. As dialogue throughout in the film hints, everything we see might be the result of entangled hypnotism, hysteria, and coincidence, even after the spectacular climax, although of course that kind of influence wielded with a malicious design could be scarcely less frightening than the occult. Norman takes Tansy to a doctor (Norman Bird) whilst she’s still under a powerful influence, but she manages to utter a few words, asking him to take her home. There, she wakes up, and everything seems perfectly normal again. But once Norman goes to sleep, Tansy goes into a trance again, leaves bed, goes into the kitchen, selects a big knife, and sets out to stab Norman to death. Norman manages to fight her off and notices that as she’s being compelled she walks with a limp, and he realises that Flora is the sender. After Tansy collapses and Norman puts her to bed, he goes to the college and seeks proof, finding a photo of him and Tansy attached to a fetish.

When Flora enters her office, Norman confronts her and puts on the tape recording of his lecture with the incantation, forcing her to shut it off. Flora then drives Norman to flee by building a deck of cards and affecting to set fire to the Taylors’ house; at that moment their cat sets off a conflagration that begins burning down the house with Tansy in it. Attentive filmgoers might then and now have expected Byron, so specifically associated with her role as the crazed nun in Black Narcissus (1947), to prove the agent of satanic mischief, but her presence proves a red herring. Johnston’s grinning malevolence nonetheless galvanises the climax, the sardonic quality her Flora had in the early scenes now touched with hints of lunacy and sadism as well as proud pleasure as she teases Norman about having his cage rattled by “just a silly woman,” revelling in the puppeteer power she can wield over people and institutions in compensation for her debilitation and general sexism, although of course she has no qualms about making her own ward a plaything for her own ends.

Flora turns the tape recording on and broadcasts it over the school loudspeaker system, and Norman begins to see the eagle statue seeming to relocate itself constantly as he tries to leave the college grounds. The statue soon comes fully to life, a colossal bird of prey swooping from on high with eyes set on ripping him to pieces. Ripping open Norman’s jacket and a chunk from the head of a statute, the beast soon crashes through the college front door when Norman tries to lock it out. Even here, as the film seems to finally indulge special effects and a literal manifestation of the sorcerer’s art, Hayers is judicious and the effects are good with smart use of a real bird and models, apart from one unfortunate shot where the string tied to guide the bird is visible. Wyngarde’s performance, which hints at the edge of hysterical energy in Norman in the first scene and gradates it throughout, reaches its tousled, sweat-caked apogee as Norman is reduced to screaming terror, backing against the blackboard in his classroom as the bird corners him there, his squirming incidentally erasing the word “not” from the slogan he wrote there at the beginning.

Norman is saved from the manifestation by Flora’s husband bemusedly entering her office and complaining about the noise on the loudspeakers: Lindsay switches the audio back to the office, alarming Flora as she plainly fears the curse might rebound, whilst for Norman the eagle and all signs of its visitation suddenly vanish. This again opens up the possibility that the eagle was a hallucination provoked by some mesmeric quality of the tape recording. Norman dashes home and finds the house on fire, but Tansy is safe amongst the onlookers. Meanwhile as Flora and Lindsay leave the college the eagle statue suddenly toppled and crashes down upon her, killing her instantly, the reel of audio tape unspooling across the gravel from her corpse. A nicely ironic blowback comeuppance that still offers the tiniest fig leaf for clinging on to a rational explanation. In any event Night of the Eagle is a superlative little movie, one that could still use more attention, and it both compliments and contrasts The City of the Dead perfectly as a relic of a time when all you really needed to make a good horror movie was a fog machine and a creepy sound effect.

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Freaks (1932)

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Director: Tod Browning
Screenwriters: Willis Goldbeck (uncredited), Leon Gordon (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

The Horror film and controversy have long been conjoined in general understanding, culminating in moments like the infamous “video nasty” debate in the UK in the 1980s. The concern that Horror movies are colonising minds with perverting images, unleashing barely-quelled inner demons, or lending some strange flesh to dark fantasies usually kept secret if not safe, is one that can still drive popular argument. Whilst there were undoubtedly controversial movies before it, Tod Browning’s Freaks is nonetheless the great antecedent of such debates. Freaks is the most fabled, notorious, and elusive of great Horror movies from the first half of the Twentieth century, and such a description could also be applied to its creator. Browning stands as likely the first true auteur of the Hollywood wing of Horror cinema, reaching his apogee of fame with 1931’s Dracula and its follow-up, Freaks. Browning, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 with the real given names of Charles Albert, was the son of a successful builder. At age 16 did what many a youngster has dreamt of, and ran away to join the circus, which had become his obsession. After stints as a roustabout, a barker, a contortionist, a dancer and entertainer on Mississippi riverboats, a magician, a clown, and an acrobat, he achieved notoriety with his buried-alive act, “The Living Hypnotic Corpse,” before moving on to become a vaudeville performer, and adopted his perennial nickname because it was the German word for death. Short leap then to acting in movies, making his debut at age 29, with a vast amount of life and performing experience already behind him. Browning joined D.W. Griffith’s company. In 1915, Browning was involved in a car crash that cost a fellow actor’s life and nearly killed him. The crash was the direct result of the drinking problem that would dog Browning throughout his life and ultimately foil his great talent.

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During his recovery Browning started working behind the camera for Griffith, including as an assistant director as well as playing a small role in Intolerance (1916), but his previous speciality in comedy now gave way to a brooding obsession with physical deformity and ominous melodramas preoccupied with revenge, culpability, illusion, and social exile. Browning’s early feature directing work is hazy, with some uncertainty whether some works he was credited with were ever even actually shot, but he was certainly on the move by 1917. He found success at Universal Pictures directing a string of exotic melodramas starring Priscilla Dean, one of the top leading ladies of the time. Whilst making The Wicked Darling (1919), in which Dean played a slum girl forced into crime, Browning met the star collaborator he’s best-remembered for working with, Lon Chaney, who played Dean’s victimiser in the film. Chaney was already well-known for his incredible feats of physical transformation, and within a few years he had become one of the biggest stars of the silent age, with his make-up and prosthetic effects often bordering on the masochistic, and he became the perfect living canvas for Browning to act out his dark fantasies with. Their true alliance began with 1921’s Outside The Law, in which Browning cast Chaney in a double role as a slimy gangland villain and a kindly Chinese man, with one character murdering the other. Browning and Chaney owed much to the creative indulgence of young producing whiz-kid at MGM Irving Thalberg, and Chaney like Browning had an immediate personal grounding for his fascination with physical difference, as the son of deaf parents.

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Browning and Chaney’s work together included a string of successful, near-legendary movies including The Unholy Three (1925) and its 1930 sound remake, The Unknown (1926), the gimmicky vampire movie London After Midnight (1926), and the lurid exotic thriller West of Zanzibar (1928). Chaney’s death from throat cancer in 1930 ended the partnership just as Browning was gearing up for Dracula, intended as another Chaney vehicle. Browning’s huge success with Dracula carried multiple ironies. Chaney’s death and pressure from Universal Pictures, obliging him to stick close to the template of the stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel once its star Béla Lugosi was cast in the lead, contributed to Browning’s reportedly erratic involvement the shoot, with its director of photography Karl Freund gaining credit for rescuing the picture. Dracula’s enormous, zeitgeist-altering success papered over many sins, and Browning was brought back to MGM, where he had made most of his Chaney vehicles: despite the studio’s general resistance to making horror films, the genre’s enormous profitability couldn’t be ignored, and Browning, as a known quantity, seemed the man to make them. There Browning made Freaks, with proved another career-damaging fiasco, before his impudent, self-reflexive remake of London After Midnight, Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936), his last major horror movies, mixed in with other movies, before his last feature work, 1939’s Miracles For Sale.

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Today Dracula’s reputation has shrunk greatly, perhaps a little too much: the film’s aesthetic of eerie stillness and somnambulist dread convey much of the book’s flavour in spite of the clumsy elements transposed from the stage. The central performances from Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing are still perfect, and even its oddly evasive approach to physical horror gives it a unique charge, as if grazing the edges of truly obscene things. Freaks is nonetheless easily Browning’s best sound film, and very likely his masterpiece. Browning took inspiration from the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, the tale of a circus bareback rider named Jeanne who marries a dwarf named Jacques for his money whilst actually loving her performing partner Simon. Browning kept little of Robbins’ story except for the specific triangle mentioned above and the fateful act of the bride carrying her husband at their wedding feast. Freaks’ calamitous reception from studio, censors, and eventual audience is an irreducible part of its legend: Thalberg backed the film right through filming but disastrous preview screenings made him cut half an hour from the 90 minute film, and when the film proved only intermittently popular it sold on to the infamous early independent exploitation filmmaker and distributor Dwaine Esper, who added a hyping moralistic scroll to the opening. Today the opening with the MGM logo and the single title card have been restored: the title card proves to be a poster torn through by a hand in a brusque and potent gesture that confirms this film will be something unusual.

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The flashback structure harkens back to Robert Wiene’s ever-influential Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), and the films share a circus setting and inside-out sense of social reality. A sideshow barker (Murray Kinnell) entices an audience with the strange and shocking story of one of his human exhibits, offering a salutary message to the crowd of gawkers: “You laughed at them, shuddered at them, and yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are,” and notes that, “Their code is a law unto themselves – offend one and you offend them all.” The barker then moves to the side of a pit wherein resides “the most astounding living monstrosity of all time,..she was once a beautiful woman.” The twinned concepts of beauty and monstrosity are immediately tethered in the language of spectacle and showbiz, each necessary to the successful purveying of entertainment-as-business and which also provides a way of living to those who fall at either extreme of the dichotomy. The opening gives away the ultimate twist of the story, as Browning dissolves from the barker noting this particular former beauty was once called “the peacock of the air” to the image of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) perched on an acrobatic swing high under the circus big top. The peacock of the air eventually becomes the fowl in the pit in Browning’s particularly savage and punitive take on the familiar tradition of dark storytelling, one built around a morality play climaxing with highly ironic punishment. Robbins’ gleefully sadistic tale resolved with Jacques murdering Simon and forcing his wife to carry him right across France like the horses she used to ride, digging spurs into her back all the way.

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The contradiction built into Freaks as a film, the simultaneous demystification and humanist embrace of the “freaks” themselves and the ultimate segue into their nightmarish eruption as a force of strange vengeance, is complex and not entirely free of qualms. But it’s also very much the film’s ultimate subject: the imagery of the freaks chasing down their prey with grim and homicidal purpose ought to be scarcely more disturbing ultimately than the many instances of contempt and verbal abuse turned on them throughout the preceding hour of cinema, with many of the “normal” people portrayed as attractive but loathsome and the “freaks” as a warm, proud, individualistic bunch. An early scene sees a gamekeeper, Jean (Michael Visaroff) leading his estate owner employer (Albert Conti) through forest, gabbling about glimpsing unnatural creatures dancing in stygian scenes in the depths of the estate, only to find the freaks picnicking and at play under the care of Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), their mother figure amongst the circus employees. When the intruders disturb their play the “children” as Tetrallini calls them scurry to her in fright despite her admonitions, and the estate owner contrasts the rabid offence of his gamekeeper by graciously giving them permission to stay and not acting at all perturbed. Browning quickly makes the freaks seem normal and defines them as innocents who have to buy their moments in the sun with an expected edge of risk of reviling and rejection.

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Browning and his screenwriters Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon offer the stable of freaks in the unnamed circus, which is travelling through what seems to be rural France that is the setting for the entire film, as both a world apart but also as just another coherent working community, granted collective integrity and independence precisely and ironically because of their peculiarity. There’s no interest in the circus folks’ interactions with patrons, with the estate owner and the groundskeeper the only outsiders glimpsed, and they’re sufficient to represent the world. Much of Freaks is indeed more an oddball, gentle sitcom rather than a horror-thriller, as Browning emphasises the interactions between the circus denizens, some of it encompassing the casual cruelty of the usual towards the unusual, but most of it mediated with the gentler by-play between characters, but with the actual plot simmering away from the earliest frames of the flashback, as Hans (Harry Earles), a midget in the circus, stares longingly up at Cleopatra as she dangles from the highwires, with his fiancé Frieda (Daisy Earles) gazing on helplessly as she registers his smitten distraction. Hans is one of Browning’s most habitual character types, a figure who feels his humanity all the more ferociously despite not being perceived as an entire person. “They don’t realise that I’m a man, with the same feelings they have.” Hans reacts with aggrieved vehemence when he feels his sovereignty and his instinct for protectiveness have been offended, shrugging off the familiar mockery of most of the circus hands but standing up with unbridled rage when they extend the same mockery to Cleopatra when she’s playing up to him.

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Browning’s films with Chaney fixated on figures who both invite and deal out mortification and whose perversities and neuroses are written in the flesh, most particularly the antihero Alonzo of The Unknown who elects to have his arms surgically removed so he can emerge from a life of hiding, an act designed to make real his extended performance, and Dead Legs of West of Zanzibar, whose physical paralysis is explicitly connected with his moral rot and desire to debase others, as he drives his adopted daughter into forced prostitution in a campaign of revenge. In Dracula he mostly passed off the imagery conveying such grotesquery onto the world surrounding the characters, particularly in the visions of Dracula’s castle, alive with seething, crawling, scuttling animal life, a visual motif he repeated in Mark of the Vampire as well as proffering a multilayered, self-satirising joke about role-playing and the deceptive appeal of woolly-minded narratives. Later, in The Devil-Doll, Browning found a new metaphor for exploring the artist figure and his literal human puppets as vehicles of delight and menace. Freaks as traits in common with all of these but with an inevitable caveat: Browning’s stars are entirely themselves, requiring no make-up or fakery, presenting a wing of show business ironically defined by inescapable reality rather than hiding from it or rewriting it at whim.

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Hans also possesses another quality Browning constantly gave his protagonists, a grim need to ultimately confront the moment when he will be exposed and humiliated. Earles had played the leader of the gang in The Unholy Three, where he gleefully tore to shreds the enforced childish image for midget actors by playing a vicious, dictatorial master criminal (that film was also based on a Tod Robbins story). The relationship between Hans and Frieda is a core facet of the drama and one where Browning takes their emotional experiences with absolute seriousness and psychological attentiveness, allowing Harry both dignity in his transgressive passion, seeing nothing sick or aberrant about his erotic needs stoked by Cleopatra, even as he enacts the arc of a thousand chumps in noir films like, say, Elisha Cook in The Killing (1956), haplessly under the sway of a beautiful, heartless woman who nonetheless hooks him not just by appealing to basic erotic urges but to his complex, masochistic streak, the desire for aspiration and degradation constantly cohabiting. Frieda’s maternally styled affection for Hans is the kind of selflessly suffering love that fuelled a thousand romantic melodramas in turn. Browning allows the couple a depth of pathos and emotional intricacy, and his shooting is attentive in visual language to such intensity and schismatic feeling, as when he has Hans abruptly turn from Frieda and walk out through a door where he hovers beyond the threshold, the two contained by frames within frames in their different spaces of angst and longing. “To me you’re a man, but to her you’re only something to laugh at.” Ironically the casting of the two Earles, who were actually brother and sister, is just about the kinkiest touch in the whole movie.

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Browning presents both authorial and audience surrogates in the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and performing seal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams), who form a quirky romantic coupling as the story unfolds and maintain an entirely equable friendship with the freaks. They contrast many of the other circus workers, like the two jerks who tease the “half-woman half-man” Josephine Joseph. Josephine Joseph fancies the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), who is first introduced breaking up with Venus, who he kicks out of his trailer. In one of the film’s many, notable pre-Production Code touches, they’re depicted quite directly as being merely shacked up together. After storming out on Hercules, Venus pauses to launch into a rhetorical harangue at Phroso, who listens in bewilderment as he strips off his performing costume, before suddenly flaring up, chasing after her, and delivering his own by way of angry consolation. Phroso is Browning’s artist hero, granted an extra degree of awareness in some things but slightly too distracted by his creative process in others, as when he gets too absorbed in building a prop for a gag he thinks up to remember to go on a date with Venus – Browning offers a good visual gag as it seem Phroso is having a bath out in the open before the unabashed Venus, only to pull back and reveal Phoros has cut the bottom out of the bath and has mounted it on wheels, and is only stripped to the waist. This nonetheless segues into Phroso and Venus’ bashful first kiss. Phroso’s acts notably depend on him playing games with his own physical identity, making a quip, “You should’ve seen me before my operation,” and dressing in costume that allow him to suddenly seem headless. Rather than aspiring towards the appearance of strength and normality, his theatrical project is to be more like the freaks.

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Much of the film’s midsection is similarly given over to portraying the peculiarities of life in this subculture, laced with hints of perverse experience, particularly in the case of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton). Daisy is engaged to marry one of the circus performers, the stammering Roscoe (Rosco Ates), who regards Violet with the kind of pecking hostility many a husband would turn on a sister-in-law constantly hanging around, and it’s made clear the sisters share sensations: Roscoe warns Violet off drinking too much because he doesn’t want a hungover wife. Later, famously, when Violet becomes engaged to a lothario, he kisses her and Daisy quivers in shared ecstasy. This follows Phroso and Venus’ kiss and precedes Roscoe and Phroso glimpsing Hans leaving Cleopatra’s trailer, in a roundelay of vignettes grazing the edge of the peculiar erotic life of the circus denizens, although in one case of course the appearances are deceiving. Roscoe is introduced to the fiancé, who graciously tells his soon-to-be-brother-in-law, “You must come to see us sometime.” Roscoe’s anxiety about being unmanned by his unusual marriage is at once rich and understandable considering makes a living himself through blurred gender identity, dressing up every night as a “Roman maiden” in some act. The comedy of manners plays out simultaneous to the darker drama. Roscoe makes Phroso crack up when he comments that Cleopatra “must be going on a diet.” In fact Hercules quickly catches Cleopatra’s eye and becomes her conspiratorial lover, and when he glimpses Josephine Joseph gazing on in lovelorn disquiet, he punches them in the face, much to Cleopatra’s amusement. This is actually the most overt and shocking moment of violence actually seen in the film.

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The palpable physical reality of the performers makes Freaks as much an historical document as a movie. Some critics have theorised Browning intended Freaks as a riposte to the eugenics movement, then at a height in the US, by showcasing the ingenuity and physical genius of his performers, as well as their personalities. Certainly the film’s general pitch counters the kind of thinking behind such a movement, seeing the specific worth in the variously abled performers, and comprehending their often amazing physical attributes, which provide Browning with much of his movie. One wry scene sees an acrobat yammer on about his act to Prince Randian, ‘The Living Torso,’ who has no arms or legs but patiently lights himself a cigarette purely with his mouth, after he which he announces proudly, “I can do anything with my mouth.” Johnny Eck, ‘the Half-Boy,’ born with sacral agenenis leaving him without legs, trots about on his hands with an astounding sense of motion and balance. ‘The Armless Girl’ Frances O’Connor, primly and precisely eating and drinking entirely with her toes whilst chatting with Minnie Woolsey, aka Koo Koo ‘The Bird Girl’. Three people with microcephaly, or pinheads as they often were called at the time, appear in the film, including one marvellous vignette of Phroso jesting with the performer Schlitzie (who was male but is referred to in the film as female), in a scene that breaks down any barrier between the movie and capturing Ford and Schlitzie interacting, Schlitzie’s bashful delight as Ford teasing her about her new dress before Schlitzie becomes mock-angry with him when he offers to buy one of the others a big hat, giving him a slap, and then a reassuring pat.

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Freaks’ European setting, despite the large number of very American actors in the movie and the strong aura they keep alive through the film from the American circus community Browning had known, situates it squarely in the emerging Hollywood gothic horror movement’s air of displaced and cloistered reality. That thin wedge of divorcement allows Freaks, like the previous year’s Frankenstein, to present a thorny commentary on social norms without seeming to. Like James Whale’s film it revolves around communal rejection of the “abnormal” and climaxes with an act of mob justice, but where Whale at that point was could only signal a degree of empathy for the monster but had to ultimately side with the wider forces of society that sets out to destroy the destructive reject, Browning wholeheartedly embraces the outsider perspective with all attendant social and political meaning. His freaks are a community apart, both entrapped by the circus but also protected and allowed to be functional within it. That communal identity and integrity have appeal, and Hans, despite becoming independently wealthy thanks to an inheritance, still sticks with the circus because to leave it would be to leave society, a notion confirmed at the very end, although by then it’s an act of choice. Once Cleopatra hears about Hans’ inheritance, it encourages her to move from merely profiting from Hans’ occasional gifts and gaining private entertainment from his ardour, to thinking about claiming his riches through marrying him and then killing him. Frieda accidentally reveals Hans’ fortune to Cleopatra when she makes a pathetic entreaty to the willowy beauty not to play around with Hans.

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The ready potential for a circus setting as a metaphor for moviemaking and the attendant industry of beauty-manufacturing is something other filmmakers haven’t neglected, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) to Sidney Hayers’ Circus of Horrors (1960). Freaks goes deeper and bites harder in beholding the circus as the ideal amphitheatre for such preoccupations, taking to an extreme the negotiation between an audience fused from painful flesh and taunting dreams and its objects of illusory beauty, and the will to tear those objects to pieces when they prove human. For Browning, who had been a part of the larger but in many ways just as insular and segregated world of working entertainment for his entire life, the freaks are a particular example of a loving human commune, and obliges the audience to identify with them as surrogates in the midst of the Depression and the usual business of surviving in the world. Cleopatra and Hercules are mockeries of the usual business of movie stardom and its obliged identification with the usual winners in society, the strong and the beautiful, surviving like vampires off the figurative and literal theft of others’ time, money, and aspirations, and repaying with contempt and violence. Baclanova’s casting played on her other best-known role in The Man Who Laughs (1926), where she played the fetishist Duchess turned on by caressing the edges of ugliness. Here by contrast she plays a person pretending to indifferent to physical difference, but with a similarly extreme evocation of sensual cruelty and egotism.

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The film’s infamous apotheosis comes when Hans and Cleopatra are married and hold a celebration attended by the friends of the bride, which in Cleopatra’s case is just Hercules, and Hans, being his sideshow pals. Browning even gives the episode a title card, as in a silent film, to give it special import: “The Wedding Feast.” The circus folk all do their party piece for the sake of entertainment in the giddily cheerful moment, from Koo Koo doing a weird shimmying dance on the table-top, to a sword-swallower and fire-eater doing their bits. Cleopatra wastes no time in beginning her husband’s slow death as she poisons the wine he’s drinking, and gets swiftly drunk to the point where she scarcely conceals her passion for Hercules and treats Hans with patronising good-humour, pinching his cheeks and pouring him cups of poison. One of the dwarves, Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto), proposes they hold the ritual induction for a new member of their circular with a loving cup, which he passes around whilst trotting along on the feast table, and the freaks begin chanting, “One of us! One of us! Gooble Gobble, gooble gobble!” The song is both childlike and goofy but also nagging and perturbing in its monotone repetition, the sound of the community rejoicing in their own weirdness, a veil dropped. The amplifying rhythm of the editing, both vision and sound, blends the chanting with Cleopatra and Hercules’ raucous laughter into a hysterical gestalt, until Hercules comments to Cleopatra, “They’re going to make you one of them, my big duck!”

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Squinting drunkenly to behold the proceedings more closely, Cleopatra’s amusement abruptly wanes, as she stands and beholds the scene now as a stygian vortex threatening to consume her, and she reacts with sudden, noisy rage, bellowing, “You dirty, slimy freaks! Freaks! Freaks!” The horrendous force of Cleopatra’s abuse and rage lands like a collective slap to the face, and she flings the contents of the cup at them, driving them out. When Hans protests she’s made him feel ashamed, Hercules and Cleopatra compound the humiliation as the strongman scoops him up and deposits Hans on Cleopatra’s shoulders, and as she forcibly piggybacks him around the ring Hercules grabs up a trumpet and begins blowing it merrily, at which point Browning mercifully fades out. This scene sees the film’s uneasy aesthetic, with its observant, often wry tone interspersed with darker notes of mockery and bigotry, abruptly cohere. The way the feast builds in intensity into a spectacle of rejection and cruelty is almost without parallel, treading the finest of lines in evoking both sides of the equation, the group enthusiasm of the freaks in their ritual of acceptance and the repulsion of Cleopatra. She comprehends the ritual’s meaning as a reversal, however malice-free, of the familiar power dynamic: suddenly the secret lode of force is not located in being superior to or even accepting of the freaks, but in their act of accepting, and Cleopatra experiences the moment as, in quintessential Browning fashion, deep humiliation. The party degenerates into a sickly mockery of family dynamics – Cleopatra and Hercules treat Hans as their child in order to reclaim their authority.

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The next day, the two “normal” people make their apologies to Hans, using their drunkenness as an excuse and all but demanding acceptance of the apology because it was all “just a joke.” Which points to the key quality Freaks remains painfully relevant even as its setting and most of its particulars have faded into vague cultural memory and surreal hyperbole, in its comprehension of the little games of dominion and dominance involving things like who has the right to laugh at who enacted all day, every day in society, with the swaggering bullies playing the aggrieved parties in being obliged to act contrite. Hans, troubled and ill, soon collapses as Cleopatra’s poisoning takes effect, and a doctor only diagnoses ptomaine poisoning. Nonetheless the wedding feast has alerted the other freaks that something sleazy is going on, and they form a silent, attentive cabal who now focus their collective attention of proceedings, hovering with silent, boding interest. Their staring presence discourages Hercules from assaulting Venus when she confronts him about her suspicions. Nonetheless he and Cleopatra agree that Venus must be silenced. Meanwhile it becomes clear that far from oblivious to what the couple are trying to do to him, Hans is now aware he’s being poisoned, as Angeleno visits him as he feigns sickness, and Hans mimics Cleopatra’s assuring ministrations with a queasy smile.  As the circus caravan heads on to another town along a muddy road amidst a thunderstorm, Cleopatra continues to poison the bedridden Hans whilst Hercules moves break into Venus’ trailer and kill her.

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Here, Browning finally shifts into outright horror imagery and an eruption of action that, whilst hardly arbitrary, nonetheless presents a radical stylistic and thematic reversal appropriate to the theme of tables-turned vengeance. The idea of the “code of the freaks” as mooted by the narrating barker, whilst certainly codswallop invented for the film, nonetheless has the pricking insistence of a campfire tale, an idea promulgated to frighten the young and the foolish into being a tiny bit mindful of what they say and do, and might have had some roots in the real culture of the circus. The thunderstorm provides pummelling rain and flashes of lightning that nicely punctuate the dramatic pivot of the entire movie, when Hans suddenly sits up his bed as Cleopatra tries to ply him with poison and demands the bottle she has in her pocket. Browning weaves an increasingly odd, tense, eerie mood, as Hans’ friends hover and Angeleno blows a creepy tune on an ocarina, before the menace becomes overt, as the visitors unveil a jack-knife and a gun. Baclanova handles the moment when the penny drops with memorable poise, freezing with suddenly wide, glaring eyes and vanishing fake smile as Hans demands the poison bottle. Meanwhile Hercules slips out of his trailer and drops back to attack Venus in hers, whilst Frieda, having eavesdropped on Hercules and Cleopatra making plans, warning Phroso of his intentions. Hercules smashes through the door of Venus’ trailer, but Phroso manages to catch him and the two struggle in the mud. Hercules is skewered with a knife by a dwarf as he throttles Phroso, and the wounded strongman squirms away in the mud as the freaks advance on him. Cleopatra’s trailer hits a broken branch and breaks an axle. Cleopatra flees screaming into the rainy night, chased by Hans and the other little people.

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Freaks’ ploy of sustaining a tone to proceedings that seems at first to belong to a different genre but also calmly sets the scene for a radical shift, and eschewing overt terror and the stylisation of the Expressionist-style Horror film until an eruption of jaggedly ugly violence, has proven a source of real power over the intervening decades, power other genre filmmakers have channelled. Movies like The Wicker Man (1973) or Audition (1999) with their similarly jarring shifts from sustained eccentricity to hideous reckonings might still exist without it, but its influence feels crucial, as well as its less immediate echoes through art-house filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, who would repeatedly pay tribute to its rarefied evocation of the circus as a place apart from society where social laws become both relaxed and microcosmic. Here too are inklings of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978), with its complete entrance into a nightmare zone where the humanity of the misbegotten and mangled becomes too terrible to bear. The finale, discomfortingly, depends on the sudden reversal of the way the freaks have been presented until now: where before the film normalised them, suddenly Browning offers them scuttling through the rain and mud with insinuating motion, turned to pure nightmare fuel.

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On the one hand, this seems to contradict the message of the film until this point, as Browning literally and purposefully makes the freaks dirty and slimy as per Cleopatra’s words. But the real charge of the sequence is in the spectacle of the freaks’ surrendering of their hard-won humanity for the sake of revenge, a spectacle consistent with Browning’s other works: to suddenly see even the gentle Schlitzie as an armed and dangerous being is a genuinely disturbing spectacle. To be human is to also have a dark, dangerous, wilful side as well as a sense of justice, two innate qualities that can’t always be easily separated especially with a group such as the freaks who are without recourse, and the freaks get things done as they will. The finale obviously suffered greatly from Thalberg’s editing, as well as the postscript: the extant film dissolves from the sight of Cleopatra screaming as she’s chased through the woods back to the wraparound sequence of the barker recounting the story. His concluding words embrace ambiguity, as if he’s been an unreliable narrator: “How she got that way will never be known. Some say a jealous lover. Others, that it was the code of the freaks. Others, the storm. Believe it or not, there she is.” Browning reveals what’s left of Cleopatra, now scarred, with both her legs and perhaps her tongue cut away and possibly left insane, making some sort of living jammed into a duck costume for the amusement of the crowd, left subsisting at the nexus of human and inhuman, sense and nonsense, served as erotic travesty.

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Originally, it was supposed to be made clear that this was taking place in a dime museum called Tetrallini’s Freaks and Music Hall, suggesting a move from Madame Tetrallini to give her stable a permanent home. It was also made clear that Hercules survived the freaks’ vengeance but was glimpsed singing in a high voice as another act in the museum, hinting he had been castrated. As it is, Freaks elides such clarification, and indeed, the glimpse of the mutilated Cleopatra suffices as a punch-line, with all its grim and perverted implications and final embrace of a total, hysterical devolution into dream-logic and sadistic fantasy. In some prints, the film ends with this as the appropriately ghastly last image, but there’s a coda in others depicting Hans now living in a mansion, having cut himself off from other people, only to be visited by Phroso, Venus, and Frieda. Where the barker’s narration hints at unreliability, the possibility that everything seen and heard in the account of the duck-girl’s creation is phooey, the coda renders it inarguably true. It also tries to mitigate the fact that Hans is seen amidst one of the cabal chasing Cleopatra down. Frieda assures him she knows he tried and failed to turn his friends from their dreadful punishment, and his current isolation is driven by guilt, eased finally by the couple reconciling. The coda might well have been shot by Thalberg in an attempt to mitigate the bleak splendour of the climax with a note of reassurance, and its does work to an extent, in that it gives the romantic triangle that was at the story’s heart a nominally happy ending. But nothing can quite win out over the image of the twisted, feathered Cleopatra squawking away in the sawdust…

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Black Widow (2021)

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Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriter: Eric Pearson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It’s odd at this point that a Disney-Marvel superhero blockbuster could seem like an underdog, but Black Widow feels like one. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe series’ domination of pop movie culture grew wearisome for many well before the clumsy and disappointing but historically successful Avengers: Endgame (2019), and the enforced cessation of it during the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to drain the steam from the juggernaut. Black Widow, the chief victim of the hiatus in being pushed back a year, has then become an ideal target for a takedown. Making a solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s lithe engine of destruction is fraught with ambiguities. Marvel was long weak at the knees when it came to female superheroes fronting their own movies, having previously only dared it with Captain Marvel (2018), a film with an utter nonentity for a protagonist, and might as well have simply been delivered as the succession of internet memes it so patently wanted to spawn. Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff was by contrast the most genuinely interesting of the classic line-up of heroes in the film franchise, a warrior whose gifts were more those of enormous precision and skill rather than force and magic powers, with an enigmatic background involving lodes of trauma and guilt, allowing her to seem more than just another Smurfette in a crowd of fast and bulbous pals. The character, introduced impressively in the otherwise awful Iron Man 2 (2010), was presented as a professional femme fatale, enticing with a passively sexy veneer only to reveal by degrees the hard-as-nails and omnicompetent combatant beneath.

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After numerous stand-out roles as a child actor, Johansson hit stardom with her performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), where she surprised everyone with her display of intelligence and soulful maturity despite still being a teenager, successfully playing a character older than she actually was. Perhaps not since Lauren Bacall had a female star come along who seemed to worldly wise beyond her years, and that aura certainly informed her casting as Natasha, a woman who’s lived ages before her 30th birthday. But Johansson struggled to make good on her promise with lacklustre performances in films like Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2004), and she skidded around in the next few years, mostly in middlebrow award-bait movies. It wasn’t until she played Black Widow and embraced a more populist appeal that her screen persona finally resolved, playing deftly off her clammily hailed sex appeal but also giving the perfect vehicle for her to assume a cagey kind of sovereignty, creating an image she parleyed into vehicles as different yet commonly rooted in her persona as Under The Skin (2014) and Ghost In The Shell (2017). Meanwhile Natasha provided a great foil for her co-stars in the Marvel films, particularly Chris Evans’ Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) where the two shared what Natasha wryly noted was his first kiss since 1945.

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Cate Shortland’s Black Widow faces a special challenge, in being both a star vehicle reliant on Johansson in the role – she’s billed as one of the executive producers – and also a salutary farewell to her and a potential set-up to posit her replacement. The character was killed off in Avengers: Endgame, sacrificing herself to obtain one of the super-MacGuffin Infinity Stones to save half the universe. On paper it was a gutsy, nobly selfless end for a character driven by a stinging awareness of her moral compromise, in practice an odd and clumsy outro for a figure who never quite got her due and then suffered from being identified as the expendable one not required for the big punch-up finale where she was ridiculously supplanted by an array of suddenly inducted female superheroes. Black Widow is set in the series continuity between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), avoiding revising Natasha’s death, a weirdly deflating move, but also one the film turns to its own advantage in exploring its own fin-de-siecle mood, trying to give her fate some new meaning. The film begins in suburban Ohio in 1990, depicting young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) playing and strolling with their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). Later they settle down for dinner as their father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) gets home, only for him to announce that the great adventure he once promised to take them on is now imminent.

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Turns out the family isn’t really a family, but a carefully planted group of sleeper agents sent to steal information by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a power-mad hold-out from the Communist era still running covert operations. Alexei is the closest thing the Soviet Union ever created to Captain America, a supersoldier codenamed Red Guardian, and he’s seen casually managing feats of strength and agility, including clinging onto the wing of the aircraft they use to flee to Cuba after dodging American agents. Natasha has to fly the plane after Melina is clipped by a bullet. Once they arrive in Cuba, where they’re met by Dreykov, the family is immediately disbanded, Melina spirited away for surgery, whilst Natasha snatches a pistol to ward off threatening soldiers from harming Yelena. But in imagery interpolated during the subsequent opening credits, Natasha and Yelena are glimpsed with a number of other frightened girls being shipped back Russia in a cargo container, deliberately reminiscent of human trafficking. We, or at least anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, know what happens to Natasha at least, as she’s put through the ruthless training program for female assassins Dreykov runs called the Black Widows. The program is run out of a secret abode called the Red Room, the mere name of which sends a shiver up the spine of anyone who knows of it, but none of the Black Widows actually know where it is because of the elaborate security protocols.

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Cut to twenty-odd years later, as Natasha is being hunted by former General, now Secretary Ross (William Hurt), the asshole-in-chief overseeing the implementation of the Sukovia Accords designed to put a check on superhero activity. Natasha easily keeps a step ahead of Ross, relying on her fixer pal Mason (O-T Fagbenle) to provide her with equipment and safe houses. He leaves her in a caravan in rural Norway along with a bundle of her belongings transferred from a safe house she used to keep in Budapest. What Natasha doesn’t know yet is that the now-grown Yelena (Florence Pugh), also a Black Widow, has secreted something very important and very dangerous amongst her belongings. Yelena belongs to the subsequent generation of Widows who, after Natasha successfully defected, were subjected to chemical brainwashing that left them all completely unable to resist any orders from Dreykov. On a mission in Morocco to track down a renegade former comrade, Yelena caught a face full of a red gas that suddenly freed her will just as she fatally stabbed her quarry: an older Widow created an antidote to the enslaving treatment. Yelena is obliged with her new-found freedom to keep it out of Dreykov’s hands, turning to Natasha who had no idea Yelena was still a Widow and thought Dreykov was dead, because she and Clint Barton blew up Dreykov’s apartment in Budapest along with his young daughter.

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On a plot level Black Widow is nothing special, a little bit Bourne, a little bit Bond (Shortland includes a scene of Natasha watching Moonraker, 1979, on TV, signalling which particular Bond template the film will soon follow), a little bit Boris and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It stakes out similar territory to Andrew Dominik’s Red Sparrow (2017), which dealt with the harsh training of Russian female agents and might as well stand in for the mostly off-stage experiences of Natasha, Yelena, and the other Widows, and David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017). Both of those, whilst not particularly good in their own right, went to places Black Widow might have gone and maybe should have in dealing more overtly with the guilty fantasy figure of the ass-kicking, hard-loving female spy, but Black Widow tries to stay wedged in the confluence of family adventure flick and dark-and-gritty genre film. Hard action aficionados and those who love the Marvel movies for their flashy special effects and generally bouncy tone will likely find it a frustrating watch because the nominal storyline is often placed aside for long tracts engaging in interaction and hard reckoning. Deep down it’s a character drama wrapped in the glitz and glamour of a tent-pole epic, studying the obverse of the usual driving power fantasies of superhero movies, in depicting people who are despite their abilities all human wreckage, stymied by circumstance and conspiracy, trying desperately to hang on to what few fragments of grace and worth they have left.

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Shortland, who emerged with the excellent debut feature Somersault (2004) and eventually followed it up with Lore (2014) and Berlin Syndrome (2017), has been until now associated with quietly intense art house dramas that double as dark fairytales, with a fascination for young and naïve female adventurers abroad, often thrown into situations with complex and duplicitous men who may or may not mean them harm. What’s surprising is the degree to which Black Widow feels of a unit with her earlier work, down to retaining a toned-down version of her trademark jittery visual style utilising handheld cameras and shallow-focus, ever-so-slightly disorientating camerawork. Of her three films Berlin Syndrome, a complex and discomforting work about a young woman held captive by a man she’s had a one-night stand with, probably landed Shortland the job of directing Black Widow, as both her most recent and one concerned with enslavement and coercion, although the opening scene with Natasha and Yelena playing feels closer to Somersault’s portrayal of hapless innocence and a blithe attitude to a world hiding cruel fates. Shortland’s approach is most effective in the early scenes which smartly establish the fake family as nonetheless inhabiting a working simulacrum of normality and functioning, as Melina schools the two girls with her vast knowledge of biology, before returning home to a family dinner where the chemistry of the family members feels genuine, no matter how many secrets everyone is keeping. The escape plays out as a mostly realistic thriller-action scene only punctuated by Alexei’s feats of strength. It all has a down-to-earth quality that worked well in the first MCU entry, Iron Man (2008), before the fantasy and sci-fi aspects trucked in from the source comics took over, and was revisited to a degree in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the entry in the series Black Widow most closely resembles.

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Of course, that kind of approach isn’t going to last forever in a movie that nods to Moonraker as a style guide, but Black Widow sustains it for a surprisingly long time. Indeed, there’s a surprising level of mostly implied but sometimes quite immediate meditation on cruelty and suffering, stated unnecessarily in the Nietzschean catchphrase Natasha and Yelena learn from Melina: “Pain only makes you stronger.” From the nightmarish tint of the opening credits vignettes Black Widow does its best to consider the process that made Natasha and Yelena so damn tough and capable as involving much pain indeed, including the previously-mentioned but still discomforting detail of their having received forced hysterectomies, which proves to be almost an aside compared to the level of control imposed over the newer Widows, who can be forced to blow themselves up. Young Yelena cries over a scraped knee; the older one uses a knife to cut out the tracking chip implanted in her thigh once she gains her autonomy. Returning to confront the institution that pulled her apart and refashioned her into something both more and less than human, Natasha is obliged to face up to the crimes she committed not only for Dreykov but in her campaign to escape his clutches, which claimed, as Natasha puts it, collateral damage. Natasha is genuinely shocked when she tracks down Yelena and her sister tells her Dreykov is still alive, so the sisters break Alexei out of the Siberian prison he’s been cast into for years hoping he knows the truth. He in turn leads them to Melina, who has remained Dreykov’s thrall and collaborator, having played a vital part in developing his mind-control methods, which Melina demonstrates on one of her pet pigs in a queasy moment.

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There’s an interesting edge of the Sadean to all this, communicated through Shortland’s obsessive use of red as a totem, symbolising, natch, the lingering influence of the Soviet Union but also associated with blood, suffering, plundering, and the loss of (and regaining of via the red gas) autonomy. Background trauma is a fairly compulsory aspect of modern heroic identity in fiction, particularly for superheroes, but Black Widow digs into something more rarefied and disturbing, conscious as it is that everything that makes Natasha a potent figure is also sourced in a history of anguish, down the to eventual, brutal revelation that Dreykov had her birth mother, who Natasha thought abandoned her, killed when she kept searching for her daughter. Shortland’s images, which often manage to escape the blandness of contemporary digi-cinema, feel more attuned to bodies, presences, putting muscle behind Johansson’s cumulatively palpable performance. Winstone’s Dreykov is a comparatively weak villain, but for a purpose. The career soldier and master of puppets is rather than someone actually brave and tough himself someone accomplished at using them: he’s less like an octopus with his tentacles reaching into everything and more like a lobster, safe and strong as long as his shell holds. The organisation he runs is one of the few ever presented in pop culture that feels as insidious and perverting as Fritz Lang offered in his Weimar thriller films, more so even than any of Bond’s antagonists, with Dreykov inhabiting his sky castle, plotting to quietly control the world and army of mind control victims, boasting that he can with one command cause financial chaos and cause mass starvation.

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Not, of course, that Black Widow makes as much of any of this as might have: despite offering something grittier than any other MCU film, it’s still trapped within that universe and all attendant commercial necessity. But it keeps its focus on the characters and the story infrastructure around them provides a blueprint describing their emotional landscape. The film’s best choice is almost entirely excising the rest of the MCU from proceedings, with Yelena making a quip about Dreykov not looking for revenge against Natasha lest he bring down “one of the big ones” from the Avengers on his head, and Alexei waxing nostalgic about battling Captain America in his glory days, only for one fellow prisoner to note that Cap was still in the Arctic ice when Alexei claims to have fought him. Yelena makes an acid comment at one point about Natasha posturing as a hero figure to little girls despite her history of bloodshed and the lack of choice afforded Yelena and the other Widows. It’s a nice line that makes a gesture towards dismantling the much-repeated pieties about superheroes, particularly the few female ones on the Marvel and DC movie rosters, serving as presumed role-models for their young audience when Natasha herself is not an easy identification figure. The film is then reasonably courageous in not trying to remake Natasha as some kind of straightforward character, but letting her inhabit a story with some nasty barbs. Only the character of Mason feels superfluous for someone as skilled in taking care of herself as Natasha, seemingly only really present in the movie to provide a kind of drone male all the better to show off Natasha’s dominant stature.

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The pivotal scene in the film comes once the “family” is reunited, observed in all their mismatched yet oddly bonded identities, cueing a dinner table scene with alternations of grievance, fury, affection, snarky élan, and personal chemistry: it’s a more interesting breakdown of the concept of a gang of would-be heroes as a family than the several others littering the current movie scene because the characters all have pretty good reasons to hate and mistrust each-other on top of sharing a relationship that was only ever a nominal ruse. And yet they find themselves inheriting all the urges and instincts of reality, as when Alexei tries in his oafish yet well-meaning way to comfort the injured and betrayed-feeling Yelena. Harbour’s Alexei is called upon to provide most of the film’s comic relief as the battered faux-paterfamilias, and yet even he’s stricken with an even worse dose of the same crippling melancholia. The once-proud representative of his nation, degraded and imprisoned through treachery, trapped in aging impotence boasting about opponents he never got to face before struggling to squeeze himself into his old costume, is finally given a moment to shine in the climax as he goes up against Dreykov’s secret weapon, the masked monstrosity codenamed Taskmaster.

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Taskmaster makes several attempts to catch up with Natasha and Yelena, almost killing Natasha when tracking down the cure shipped to her in Norway and then chasing the sisters through the streets of Budapest in an armoured car, two strong action sequences that thankfully don’t overstay their welcome. Taskmaster as antagonist has one intriguing specific ability, to match and exactly mimic an opponent’s fighting style. Taskmaster’s true identity would only be difficult to guess for anyone who’s never seen a movie: it’s actually the now-adult Antonia (a wasted Olga Kurylenko), left badly disfigured and paralysed by Natasha’s bomb rather than killed, and allowed to move by a computer chip installed in her spine that’s made her exponentially more strong and agile, at the price of being reduced to her father’s pure servant of will. This revelation is a bit rich given Taskmaster’s distinctly masculine build when masked, but then again a few dozen horror movies have pulled the same trick. More to the point, Antonia personifies Natasha’s sense of spurring guilt, and her turning out to still be alive helps finally mollify that guilt, whilst also providing her with a Frankensteinian doppelganger, the damaged emblem of what the other Widows only exhibit psychologically.

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Black Widow, as movies of this kind have to at the moment, must walk the middle path between the two most annoying factions in the online world: those policing it for any hint of sexuality that might give a teenage boy even the slightest pretext for a boner, and those policing it for any signs of unwanted “woke” messaging. For the former, well, there’s a coterie of fit women in catsuits, if never lingered on. Despite it being an inherent part of their function and training, the Widows seem to have had their sexual cunning and power removed along with their reproductive organs. As far as the latter goes, the Cold War redux themes are entirely facetious – Dreykov’s project is simply the accruing of power with only a veneer of Soviet nostalgia. The metaphors for villainous misogyny are rather more barbed and tightly wound into the story, but never belaboured through speechifying: they’re allowed to speak for themselves on the essential dramatic level. There’s been controversy recently as it’s emerged that the Marvel production house has been hiring directors from the indie film world to provide a veneer of creative cool and an injection of diversity but not letting them handle their own action scenes. Such a practice was once pretty de rigeur in Hollywood – Michael Curtiz and William Wyler amongst many had practiced action staging hands sub for them – but it does explain why the action sequences in the Marvel films tend to all feel interchangeable. I can’t complain here though: the mostly down-to-earth style of thrills in the early action scenes, and the final eruption of big, Bond-style chaos at the end, are exceptionally well-done, even if noting that a crashing car in the Budapest scene is infuriatingly CGI-rendered. I understand the temptation to take such short-cuts but it hurts the very essence of this kind of movie.

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The scene where Natasha and Yelena break Alexei out of jail, hovering over the prison with a helicopter and trying to scoop the old Red Guardian up before an avalanche hits, is good fun and at its best when the stunts look real and dangerous, like Natasha ducking the choppers’s sweeping tail rotor, but again is hampered by recourse to too many obvious special effects. The reality and film-texture-distorting impact of such effects might be said however to help such movies keep a foot planted in their drawn source material. The crucial dynamic in the film is most obviously between Johansson’s Natasha and Pugh’s Yelena, offering decent chemistry in their alternations of spiky attitude and quiescent affection. Their relationship is also informed by the women playing them, Johansson the still relatively young but by now weathered professional and familiar face pithed against Pugh, emerging as a star of potential after gaining attention with performances in films like Lady Macbeth (2017) and Midsommar (2019) where she played characters who meet evolve into fiends in the course of purging their own torments. Pugh’s still-young yet leonine face provides a great counterpoint to Johansson’s sleek features. Whilst she doesn’t yet have anything like the same following, Pugh offers real potential as a nominal replacement, partly because Yelena is a less sanguine creature partly defined by her edge of disdain, teasing her sister for being nearly as ludicrous as she is heroic, mocking her as a poser for her signature superhero landing in the film’s best running joke.

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But it’s Johansson’s film and she helps put it over the line with Natasha’s climactic meeting with Dreykov, after she and the rest of her “family” are ambushed and captured by Dreykov’s men thanks to Melina secretly calling them in. Dreykov is eager to reclaim Natasha not just for revenge but because she can help him subvert the Avengers and finally emerge from the shadows to become world dictator. Dreykov’s fail-safes include a mental block preventing Natasha from attacking him, triggered by his pheromones. Thankfully, Natasha’s long-established capacity to use her opponents’ overconfidence and arrogance, seen before to best advantage in The Avengers (2012), here resurges in a piece of narrative three-card-monte as it emerges Melina told her what to expect and how to circumvent it. Natasha gains access to Dreykov by wearing a mask disguising her as her mother, whilst Melina, Yelena, and Alexei escape from captivity and set about destroying the Red Room, which is actually a huge flying techno-fort hovering above the clouds.

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The confrontation between Natasha and Dreykov, which nods to RoboCop’s (1987) Directive 4 as Natasha finds herself unable to stab the man who perverted her life and murdered her mother, takes on a real edge of pathology as Natasha provokes Dreykov into punching her repeatedly, grinning all the time as he takes his best, meanest shots with a mocking pleasure bordering on masochism, a willingness to take punishment for her cause usually only reserved to male heroes. It’s a moment that highlights Johansson’s overqualified but definite affinity for the part, and gains its self-mutilating climax when Natasha, disappointed by Dreykov’s blows, instead smashes her nose against his desk to sever her olfactory nerve, freeing her to wail on him with impunity. Intervention by the other Widows saves Dreykov, as Natasha is despite her prowess overwhelmend and brought to the brink of ruin, only to be saved Yelena’s quick-thinking intervention. This leads to a fitting moment as Natasha releases Antonia, trapped by Alexei and Melina after a fight, from a prison cell as the Red Room begins to disintegrate, willing to face Antonia’s augmented wrath rather than leave her to die.

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Yelena finishes up killing Dreykov by thrusting an explosive into the rotor of his hovercraft before it can take off, exploding the craft and hurling Yelena out into a freefall towards earth. Natasha, in a spectacular nod to the famous opening of Moonraker, leaps from the Red Room and plunges after her whilst trying to pull on a parachute amidst falling hunks of flaming debris. Everything ends well, with Antonia and the other Widows successfully freed from the mind control yoke, Dreykov’s network open to dismantling, and the wayward family surviving and making their peace. Natasha heads off to her ultimate fate with her past thoroughly laid to rest. A brief post-credits coda in the usual MCU fashion provides the gambit for a new looming conflict as Yelena visits her grave and some shadowy government screwball (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hiring her to go after the man supposedly responsible for her death, handing her a picture of Clint. Black Widow isn’t a transcendentally great entry in the current superhero cycle, mostly hamstrung by its inability through obeisance to its franchise setting to go as far as it should have in embracing a more grown-up and gruelling type of story. But I still liked Black Widow more than I’ve liked most blockbusters in several years, and it cured some of my sourness towards the MCU, because it goes as far as it does.

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The Traveller (1974)

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Director / Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami

By Roderick Heath

Tehran-born Abbas Kiarostami first dabbled in painting as a teenager in the 1950s, won a competition that got him to his home town’s School of Fine Arts, and supported himself during his studies by working as a traffic cop. Kiarostami soon vaulted into a successful career in advertising in the 1960s, gaining filmmaking experience shooting TV commercials and creating titles for movies. Iranian cinema grew rapidly in terms of films produced in the 1960s, and a New Wave movement began to gather steam, sparked by films like Davoud Mollapour’s Shohare Ahoo Khanoom (1968), Masoud Kimiai’s Qeysar, and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (both 1969), with a stringently realistic, neorealist-influenced approach and resolutely earthy and immediate subject matter. The Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly so impressed by The Cow that it convinced him not to ban cinema in Iran after the Revolution of 1979. Inspired by the burgeoning New Wave, Kiarostami and some other new directors set up the Kanoon Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, to make movies for and about young people, and it soon became a notable production outfit for a string of important films. Kiarostami made his first film for it with the 12-minute short The Bread and Alley, leaving behind his schooling in the slickness of commercials for a more boldly original and experimental approach as he infuriated his crew by insisting on shooting a key scene without cuts, testing out his early conviction that he could generate greater intensity and conviction by reducing shots and edits to a minimum.

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Kiarostami officially made his feature-length debut with 1973’s The Experience, but he considered his true debut film to be his follow-up The Traveller. In the late 1980s Kiarostami rose to international prominence, cemented when he captured the 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, and helped other Iranian directors like Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf present a vanguard reintroducing the country’s culture to the world at large. Unlike many other Iranian filmmakers, Kiarostami weathered the Revolution, in part because his sense of parochial identity was a deep vein in his art, even liking to weave classical Persian poetry into his films, although his two late masterpieces released before his death in 2016, Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone In Love (2012), were made outside the country. Kiarostami’s mature cinema was equally acclaimed and derided for his peculiar approach to narrative cinema, often eliding seemingly crucial details and dialogue, utilising stringent long takes and a minimalist but beguilingly flexible visual style. The Traveller, an adaptation of a story by Hassan Rafi’i, has many hallmarks of a debut feature, emerging from the earnest zeitgeist of the era’s emergent national and regional film movements, counting the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves (1948), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) as immediate ancestors, and looks forward to subsequent independent films like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), in making a truthful-feeling study of the theme of a young person on an odyssey negotiating a world filled with indifferent if not actively hostile adults.

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Yet The Traveller is also something quite individual, a brief (73 minute) but vigorously expressive statement of intent from a director soon to become a major creative force. Wrought in the starkest production fashion with its lingering shots and cheap, black-and-white cinema verité-style photography, it’s also touched throughout with qualities of humour and flashes of dreamlike wistfulness. Kiarostami opens with images of boys playing street soccer in an alley in of some well-weathered corner of the town of Malayer. The passion of the boys for the game soon becomes quite apparent. There’s not much else for them to do in this place where a lot of them drop out of school and get into trades, and the older boys are already holding down jobs like bicycle repairmen. Kiarostami’s renegade antihero is Qassem Julayi (Hassan Darabi), a scallywag whose obsession with the sport, and the Persepolis football team in particular, is clearly linked with a sense of frustration and ambition he cannot otherwise articulate. The son of a carpenter, Lar, Qassem is becoming increasingly alienated from his family and schooling and pouring himself into his soccer obsession. After playing in the street match witnessed at the outset, he turns up to school with a bandage around his head and jaw claiming to have been delayed by a toothache and a trip to the dentist when he was actually playing, much to a teacher’s deeply sceptical response: “I hope it rots.”

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Qassem spends what little money he has buying a magazine for a photo of one of his player heroes, managing to use his father’s name to get a little credit to make up the shortfall, but he’s later sprung reading the magazine in class, the teacher prowling around behind the class and launching his sneak attack, and it’s clearly the most exciting thing that’s happened all day. His English teacher seems just as distracted by the outside world as his students, like Qassem silently doing sums over costs during class, as Qassem tries to work out how much money he’ll need to catch a bus to Tehran and see a big match live. Meanwhile at home Qassem faces constant pestering from his unceasingly critical and complaining mother (Pare Gol Atashjameh) who berates him for failing to study and pushes for him to quit school and get into a trade too. There’s a note of deadpan humour as her complaints continue all during dinner whilst his father doesn’t speak a word, seemingly having resigned himself both to her talk and Qassem’s errant nature: “It’s all in one ear and out the other,” she decries his lack of attention before asking for money to attend a mourning ceremony. Meanwhile Qassem seems to have trouble doing his studies by the dim lamplight in his house.

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Qassem irritably criticises his friends for playing badly during one of their street matches, but then admits that he didn’t play so well either, because he was too distracted by thoughts of going to Tehran to catch a big league game. His mother comes to school soon after and whinges to the school principal (Mostafa Tari), repeatedly commenting that she doesn’t know how to read and write whilst asking what should be done about Qassem’s bad behaviour, which has taken a new turn as she believes, correctly, Qassem has stolen five tomans she had squirrelled away. “You come once a year to see if the little vagrant is coming to school?” the principal demands, and declares: “He is not a child, he is a monster.” After a continuing dialogue of theatrically desperate appeal and contempt, as the principal sighs that he can’t punish the students without risking parental complaints, the mother gives him permission to do what he sees fit, so the principal calls Qassem in and begins caning his hands, the increasingly distressed Qassem nonetheless insisting all the while that he did not steal the money. Kiarostami cuts, with a sense of both dark humour and pathos, to one of the neighbouring classrooms, where the teacher is instructing his class on the workings of the heart whilst trying to ignore the sounds of Qassem’s punishment.

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In keeping with the Kanoon project’s avowed purpose, The Traveller is a film relevant to the kind of young person it’s about, but lacking any kind of pandering or patronising glaze. It’s a rigorously unsentimental, entirely convincing portrait of a boy, doing things many a boy has done regardless of cultural background, allowing the brat to be a brat whilst also understanding him. Whilst the film regards many of the adults around Qassem as vaguely absurd, there’s still a touch of sympathy for his mother, who really does work constantly whilst she complains about his bad attitude. Many films about childhood and adolescence take on a similar shape to The Traveller in depicting a youth engaged in an obsessive quest to realise a personal dream, often taking tentative steps towards adulthood in the process. It’s the sort of storyline that can generally be relied upon to touch a fond chord of memory in grown-ups, if also perhaps one of aggravation in parents. But where many stories of that type are nostalgic in cast, The Traveller is the very opposite, charged with anxious energy as it contemplates a budding antihero whose immediate future is bearing down upon him. Making Qassem a soccer fanatic roots him securely in his world, signalling his desire to join a crowd rather than follow some esoteric path, although his desires and impulses mark him as an outsider.

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Early in the film one boy leads his fellow students at Qassem’s school in a group prayer, a brief spasm of rhapsodic communal inclusion, although of course in their midst Qassem shows to Akbar the pilfered five toman note, his own private religion something rather distinct. The subtle joke about football being something like a secular religion in Iran seems not to have dated, as the theme of trying to attend a soccer match as an expression of both individual will and communal engagement would later be taken up, with obvious shifts in emphasis, by Panahi’s Offside (2006). The attitude of institutional cynicism displayed by the teachers is one of Kiarostami’s targets here, perceiving school in mid-1970s Iran as something like a prison for teachers and students alike, all sharing a penurious, demoralised distaste for their lot. Kiarostami is bitingly sceptical about the efficacy of the corporal punishment constantly turned on the kids, which he sees more as an outlet for adult frustration and aggression than as a cure for bad behaviour.  “He will just hit us – forget about Math,” Qassem comments when debating whether to go to class or get down to his more pressing business.

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As unscrupulous as Qassem’s behaviour becomes at points, the clarity and direction of his passion is singularly lacking in everyone else he knows. With his friend Akbar, Qassem begins looking for ways to add to the five purloined tomans, figuring he’ll need about forty to make the journey. He tries to sell his fountain pen to a storekeeper who coolly rebuffs Qassem’s forceful sales tactics (“You sell to kids but you won’t buy them from them?” Akbar queries incredulously) and calmly explains whilst never breaking from his menial tasks how buying from a wholesaler works to the pushy lads, who then moves on to trying to offload a stamp collection. Akbar steals a broken camera from his grandfather’s shed and the duo try to sell that: one potential buyer notices the camera is missing parts, but offers five tomans for it, but Qassem is angered by such a low offer. Instead, he comes up with a scheme: he and Akbar start pretending to take photos of their schoolmates, affecting a vaguely official mandate to charge them five rials apiece.

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The imprint of neorealism is vital with The Traveller, in the way Kiarostami shoots locations in artful but unpretty fashion and elicits immediate performances from a mostly non-professional cast, and some anticipation of the way he would regularly blur the boundaries between fiction and documentray. Qassem and Akbar run through the streets and bazaars of Malayer, a place that seems perched somewhere between ancient and modern worlds, pungent and ghost-ridden at the same time. Historic town architecture is recorded for posterity by Kiarostami’s camera along with oddities of the moment like the wall in a shop festooned with professionally modelled photos. But there are hints throughout of the unusual blend of impulses that would eventually define Kiarostami’s cinema. The visual texture and language changes during Qassem’s fake photography session, taking on a lyrical quality reminiscent of Truffaut in moving into montage, wielding rhythmic editing with some sprightly music now on the soundtrack, as Kiarostami matches Qassem’s cheeky wit with his own cinematic variety. He notes Qassem tucking his accumulating cash in his back pocket whilst lining up his shots of the other kids, and moves in from regarding the kids in distant poses to close studies that capture the children in all their alternate individuality, some fierce, some friendly, some humorous, some bovine.

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This allows Kiarostami to use Qassem’s eyes in capturing his generational fellows in all their collective and individual qualities, whilst Qassem play-acts something like a movie director as he instructs his subjects in their poses. The first hint here of the kind of meta-narrative play Kiarostami would often return to his movies, like the revelation of the moviemakers at the end of Taste of Cherry and the choose-your-own-narrative-truth of Certified Copy. Where in his later films Kiarostami would often feature loquacious and intelligent adult characters who work to verbalise their worldviews or play games with them in long, rolling conversations, The Traveller is more familiar to a certain extent as a social realist study in dealing with a boy whose age precludes him being able to articulate his problems. His actions are his expressions, but Qassem nonetheless has a certain quick-witted pugnacity in his interactions when he’s trying to gain something, cajoling insistently in his attempts to sell things of no value whilst insisting they do. “I’ve taken thousands of pictures with it,” he protests to the man he tries to sell the camera to, and, when he offers too little, “I passed up a better off last week.” Qassem definitely seems to have the stuff of a businessman in him.

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The problem with the inspired con trick at the school is it just doesn’t bring in anything like enough money. Depressed, Qassem and Akbar try to study for a vocabulary test, filmed in a tableau that becomes for the boys an unconscious lampoon of their school experience: Qassem testily waves a stick whilst Akbar stumbles through an array of thematically appropriate words: “Outlaw – it means a rebel…Discipline, obedience…Ambition, the desire to make progress.” Qassem suddenly has another brainwave to save his project, and sells his street team’s nets and gear, despite the whole team having pooled money to buy them. Qassem justifies himself because as the captain he’s always stuck with the job of lugging it around, and nimbly talks a member of another team into buying them, netting 25 tomans. Finally able to buy his bus ticket, Qassem hitches a ride back towards home from the station on the back of a horse-drawn buggy, perched with dangling feet above the road. This sequence presents Qassem at his height, having actually proven he can, by hook and by crook, affect his own destiny with the gift of the gab and unscrupulous manipulation if with little thought of inevitable consequences, now rejoicing if in bumpy manner in a sense of liberating motion, Kambiz Roshanravan’s sprightly traditional score matched to the whirling wheels of the buggy.

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The very title of The Traveller establishes Kiarostami’s preoccupation with characters whose physical wanderings, their incessant seeking, are matched to their attempts to understand themselves, to strain at the limits of their personal universes with all their small insults and frictions, whether seeking to enter others or even nullify themselves to end the questioning. Kiarostami’s film would later become famously preoccupied by characters driving and the things they do when nominally going someplace, culminating notably in the suicidal central character and his argumentative passenger of Taste of Cherry, their fierce verbal arguments matched to restless voyaging. Qassem is defined specifically as a boy in motion, shark-like in his need for constant forward movement, driven on by a specific motive to try and get something done before a looming psychological hammer, one he doesn’t quite understand, drops. Upon returning home and hiding his ticket in a schoolbook, Qassem faces a long, anxious wait and can’t risk falling asleep and missing the bus which comes through at near midnight. Akbar tosses stones at his window and keeps calling pathetically from the street, his loyal helpmate now unable to follow any further on his grand odyssey. Finally, when the appointed hour comes, Qassem sneaks out of his house. Where earlier in the film Kiarostami noted the streets of Malayer busy with merchants and artisans, now Qassem runs through a silent and deserted labyrinth. He only just manages to catch up with the bus and get aboard, and rides off into the great Iranian night.

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As Qassem’s bus arrives in Tehran, Kiarostami lingers on a shot of a man walking along the roadside as bus after bus arrives, each one presumably packed with travellers who, like Qassem, have their own little odysseys to enact, whilst connecting the heart of Tehran to the body that is the rest of the nation. Kiarostami avoids passing any overt judgement on Qassem’s amorality, perceiving his spurs and his neediness shading into desperation, which registers all the more plainly on his face as the film unfolds: the closer Qassem comes to his goal, the greater the ease and risk of losing it, a principal Kiarostami illustrates with bittersweet clarity. Of course, it’s tempting to link Kiarostami’s sidelong sociological observations and recording with the transformation that would come upon the country a few years later. Even with the pervasive gentle humour, it’s not hard at all to register a miasma of frustration and simmering disquiet, an air of recessive and backward testiness where the illiterate and entrenched incompetently rear the sort-of educated who confront a lack of outlets for their raised expectations. When Qassem does finally reach the football stadium, militaristic-looking policemen maintain a heavy-handed presence to stop any shows of wrath when the tickets sell out, which, of course, they do just as Qassem reaches the vendor.

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As the cops urge away the luckless, Qassem manages to still procure a ticket from a scalper and enters the stadium. Sitting in the bleachers with the adults attending the game, he gets into conversation with a weaver. After all his seemingly selfish and unscrupulous actions throughout the film Qassem is nonetheless generous, even insistent, in offering to share his food with the weaver, and the older man seems to embody something appealing to Qassem, who notes that as an independent worker he’s relatively free in his life. When Qassem furtively asks the weaver if he thinks Tehran kids would be his friends, the weaver replies that he does, but Qassem then recounts how he tried to befriend some who moved to Mayafer only to be rebuffed, and he irritably describes them as snobs: the weaver can only silently muse on this anecdote. When he learns the game isn’t going to start for three hours yet – sitting and waiting and chatting with other fans is something the weaver and everyone else takes to be part of the ritual – Qassem eventually decides to roam around for a while, exploring the environs near the stadium.

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The climactic scenes wield stinging irony as Qassem’s restlessness, having brought him this far, leads him away from his cherished goal, clambering over scaffolding in an arena being renovated and gazing in through the window of an indoor swimming pool. He knocks on the glass to attract the attention of a kid within, and tries to ask him how deep the water is, but the other kid can’t hear him and irritably turns away. This brief vignette that’s perfectly naturalistic and yet contains symbolic force, crystallising something deeper about Qassem and his journey, his solitude, unable to make himself heard, cut off from the world he seeks and his luckier doppelganger within, the infrastructure of that world a window and also a wall. Tired because he didn’t sleep at all the night before, Qassem sees a number of men sprawled on a grass verge under trees taking a nap before the game, and he lies down to join them.

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Qassem sleeps as the other men awaken and head off, and has disturbing dreams of being hounded and punished, of being caught cheating in class. His school fellows chase him down and take him captive, and then he’s suspended upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet, the other kids and his mother looming around him as sentries of judgement whilst he wails in pain, but without sound. Here Kiarostami confirms at least on a subconscious level Qassem knows he’s going to pay for everything he’s done, and it might even be said to finally offer a degree of imminent moral satisfaction. But Kiarostami maintains sympathy for the lad, inverting a usual method in showing us his dreamscape is no place of escape but rather where the things he quells during the day hatch out, with awareness of how all too often people elect to proceed in spite of physical threats with transgressive behaviour because otherwise they’ll kill some part of themselves, and the imagery of punishment is distressing.

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There’s a hint of the underlying influence of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), another classic about needy youth with its patina of surrealism mixed in with the harsh realism. Qassem lying down to sleep with the grown men contains a hint of political as well as personal parable, as if he’s performing an act of surrender. The punchline, of course, is that Qassem finally awakens late in the day, and runs up into the stadium only to find the match over and the crowd gone, leaving behind only their rubbish flitting on the breeze as if he’s the sole survivor of a slovenly apocalypse. Qassem, the boy in motion, lost in finally surrendering to immobility what he tried so hard to obtain, cheated by his own weak flesh. A lovely tragicomic ending, one that also sees Kiarostami perhaps deliberately reversing the cinematic device at the climax of The 400 Blows. Where Truffaut arrested his young runaway in an eternal frieze, poised between past and present, youth and adulthood, Kiarostami’s lingering long shot watches as Qassem starts running again, arcing away out of sight along the rim of the stadium. Qassem can only dash on to meet his fate, at loose and trapped, travelling without moving. For a film as short and straightforward as The Traveller seems at first to be, it’s a work entirely alive with promise.

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Major Dundee from Arrow Films

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Dear readers, if you just can’t get enough of my writing, or if you just want a top-notch edition of a classic film, Arrow Films are releasing a new limited edition blu-ray of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee on June 28. The release features both the theatrical and restored versions, the former in a 4K scan, commentary tracks by an array of critical and scholarly luminaries, a visual essay by David Cairns, spectacular artwork by Tony Stella, and an essay booklet featuring writing by Farran Smith Nehme, Jeremy Carr, and yours truly. This is a beautiful thing, people.

Here it is at the Arrow site
At Amazon
Via Zavvi, UK
Via HMV
Via DiabolikDVD
Via Grindhouse Video
Via Zavvi, US
Pre-order in Canada via Unobstructed View

You can also read my Film Freedonia essay about the film (not the same one as comes with the disc) here.

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Mikey and Nicky (1976)

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Director / Screenwriter: Elaine May

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Ned Beatty 1937-2021

It’s both excruciating and exalting to note that Elaine May was only the third woman to be a member of the Directors Guild of America, after Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Born Elaine Iva Berlin, May was the daughter of a travelling Yiddish theatre producer. When her father died when she was 11, her family moved to Los Angeles. May finished up dropping out of high school at 14, and later hitchhiked to attend the University of Chicago because it took students without high school diplomas, by which time she had already married her first husband, whose name she took. Quickly gaining a reputation for sparking arguments with teachers and students with outrageous and original statements, May found a simpatico mind in fellow student Mike Nichols. The two of them joined an off-campus theatrical group and began stirring attention, with May’s childhood theatre experience giving her a head start in confidence and authority. After Nichols was asked to leave the group for having too much talent, he and May formed a partnership in a comedy act that was soon generally hailed as groundbreaking and quickly gathered popularity, but their working technique proved to impossible to sustain and they called it quits in 1961. Both started on a path to becoming filmmakers as Nichols concentrated on directing theatre and May started writing for stage and screen and acting in movies.

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Whilst Nichols achieved success as a director with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (1966) and The Graduate (1967), May had to wait until 1971’s A New Leaf until she arrived as a moviemaker. Despite gaining some cult attention, May’s debut effort wasn’t a good experience, as her initial vision for the film was brutally edited by the studio. Obsessive filming practices, arduous and exacting editing process, and clashes with cast and studios became something of a hallmark of May’s productions as well as their odd and spiky brilliance. Her second film, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), was written by Neil Simon and proved her only real hit. Mikey and Nicky had a long and troubled shoot despite being initially slated as a fairly modest, low-budget drama, with May gaining industry infamy for the amount of film shot on set in her quest to get the best out of her actors. She finished up hiding two reels of the movie to keep the studio from sacking her and re-cutting the film again, but she finally lost a court case over control of the footage and the studio patched together a version to release that ultimately flopped. This, on top of all the squabbling, meant May didn’t get to make another movie until Warren Beatty, believing she still had unfulfilled potential as a filmmakers after she had written his Heaven Can Wait (1978) and parts of Reds (1981), hired her to make 1987’s Ishtar. But that experience proved another debacle as Ishtar became synonymous with egotistical on-set clashes and messy production resulting in a violently uneven if excessively criticized film. Her directing career finished, May nonetheless had success writing scripts for Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1997).

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Mikey and Nicky is certainly a highpoint and quintessential example of a celebrated strain of 1970s American cinema with emphasis on a raw, urban, unruly texture, as well as Hollywood’s uneasy and ultimately brief turn to auteurist cinema at the time, willing to give much rope to directors on the off-chance they might come back with a hit. Because May, who originally wanted Charles Grodin to play Nicky, finished up hiring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk to play the title characters, Mikey and Nicky is often seen as an extension-cum-assimilation of Cassavetes’ heavily improvised, off-kilter brand of independent filmmaking and narratives often revolving around stressed-out menopausal males. But whilst like Martin Scorsese’s early films and others on the ‘70s film scene May was assimilating Cassavetes’ influence, Mikey and Nicky is subtly distinct from Cassavetes’ films in form and style. It represents amongst other things May’s carbolic portrait of relationships between characters whose surface amity contains aspects of parasitism and destructive intent, sometimes mutual. To a certain extent May’s second two films reflect a meditation on her own artistic method over and above their immediate subjects, fumbling with deliberately errant process towards synthesis and insight in a manner reminiscent of the way she and Nichols made comedy: the shambolic texture, actually, carefully achieved, is the entire point.

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If the dopey songwriters of Ishtar presented a tellingly non-talented meditation on the concept of creative partnership, Mikey and Nicky is quietly vicious as well as wryly melancholic in portraying the hallowed, in pop culture terms, pair of pals from the old neighbourhood who know each-other inside out, resentments and failures of support turning gangrenous. Mikey and Nicky begins with Nicky (Cassavetes) locked in a hotel room in downtown Philadelphia, unshaven, filthy, stewing in a zone of fetid fear and paranoia. Having called his friend Mikey (Falk) and begged him to come but arranging a rendezvous down in the street, he sees Mikey down below wandering around in confusion, and gets his attention by tossing down a towel wrapped around an empty bottle. Mikey ascends to his room and quickly gets annoyed and frustrated as Nicky insists on grilling him timorously through the locked door. Once he finally does gain entrance, Mikey learns that Nicky expects he’s a target to be killed by mob assassins, for reasons hinted at throughout: Mikey and Nicky both work for gangster Dave Reznick (Sanford Meisner). Nicky and another employee, Ed Lipsky, who were in charge of the syndicate’s bank, started pilfering funds. Now Lipsky’s turned up dead, and Nicky expects to follow him soon. Mikey’s best advice to Nicky is to get out of town while he has the chance. What Nicky doesn’t know is that Mikey is trying to lead Reznick’s hired killer Kinney (Ned Beatty) to him.

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May’s perverse and sandpapery sense of humour manifests in the opening scene of Mikey’s attempts to follow the signs literally dropping from the sky that lead him to Nicky, before attempting to mollify the pathetic man within with gentle, increasingly irked entreaties through the hotel room door. “I don’t want you to see me like this!” Nicky insists. “Will you stop being a horse’s ass?” Nicky retorts: “How’m I gonna see you I haven’t seen you before?” Mikey tries breaking the door down and fails, but Nicky finally lets him in. Nicky is at his most desperately needy, embraced by Mikey and sobbing, and Mikey is soon making like a parent trying to feed an errant baby in trying to give Nicky a pill for his stomach ulcer, a sign of just how well the two men know each-other in all their physical and mental sore points. The latent ferocity and edginess within Mikey contrasts Nicky’s dishevelled paranoia, as Mikey quickly swerves from softly patient appeals to sudden ruptures, first when trying to access Nicky’s room and later when he goes to get coffee for him, an expedition that takes much reassurance and negotiation to undertake. Watched by the frantic Nicky from on high, Mikey enters a diner where the counter man (Peter Scoppa, who was also the assistant director) refuses his request of two coffees with separate milk and cream because that’s not how their orders work: Mikey tries playing along but suddenly leaps over the counter and manhandles the waiter until he surrenders the cream.

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Part of the reason for the film’s long and expensive filming was May’s delight in Cassavetes and Falk’s well-oiled and expert improvisatory energy and underlying friendship. But May wasn’t being merely indulgent, as the film evolves less as a portrait of a couple of mob-connected schmucks than an investigation of what friendship, particularly the male variety, actually means. May covers similar ground in a way to what Scorsese tackled in Mean Streets (1973), in the deep affection and mutual frustration of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s characters, but more mature, more deeply ingrained and spoiled. The official topic is the complexity and sometimes downright strangeness of male friendship, whilst at the same time, May’s fascination with people locked together in a blend of expedience and needfulness is a connecting thread in the three films she wrote as well as directed, particularly the marriage in A New Leaf where one of the partners is intent on murdering the oblivious other, but here gets its most complete examination. As Mikey and Nicky leave the hotel room once Nicky shaves and regains a modicum of his former savoir faire, they wander around town (May had to shift the shoot from Philadelphia to Los Angeles mid-film because of the budget overrun) and winnow through their lives and keep getting into randomly combative encounters. Nicky constantly seems to sense, however inchoately, the trap Mikey is leading him into, whilst Mikey often seems barely aware of his role in this lurking danger, even at one point deciding to leave town with Nicky to make sure he’s okay, even though he also reports back to Reznick on the phone, who then passes along the mission details to Kinney.

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Mikey and Nicky was a highly personal project for May. She reportedly drew on memories of members of her family connected with the mob, and had been kicking around variations on the material since the 1950s, perhaps with an eye initially to realising it is a theatrical project. The relationship of the two men has a more than faint echo of a classical kind of comedy duo, not perhaps May and Nichols themselves, but with distinct conceptual roots in the same kind of theatrical diptych. A schlemiel Vladimir and Estragon with all the shaggy, disparate energy that can well ironically from mental and moral exhaustion preserved. Once freed from the cage of his room and also set up on the open range that are the city streets, Nicky keeps wanting to go see a movie at his favourite theatre: a true movie lover will defy death to get their fix. This proves a curveball for Mikey’s efforts to rendezvous with Kinney, as he initially manages to get Nicky to settle down with him in a seedy bar to drink beer and milk: Kinney however gets lost when trying to find the bar, having to ask directions, and gets there too late. Mikey this time uses his oblivious wife Annie (Rose Arric) as interlocutor with Kinney by leaving word with her about the movie theatre they’re heading to. But as they ride the bus to the theatre Nicky suddenly decides he wants to visit his mother’s grave as they pass by the cemetery where she’s buried, and the two manage to get off after a fight with the driver (M. Emmett Walsh).

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Nicky’s unique capacity to keep pushing the envelope mixed with an edge of compelling charm, contrasts Mikey’s initially more disarming but also blindsiding blend of the gentle and the eruptive. When the two men go into a bar filled mostly with black patrons, Nicky get into an altercation with a man (Eugene Hobgood) after paying attention to a woman who proves to be his wife (Marilyn Randall). Rather than act apologetic or otherwise back down, Nicky responds with racist provocations, both infuriating but also unbalancing the other men, seeming just feckless enough to make them unsure as to what secret reserves of power or mere masochism he has. When another patron (Reuben Greene) tries to intervene and prevent a fight, he squares off against Nicky and comments, “We might be black, but we ain’t stupid,” to which Nicky retorts, “Then how come you’re black?” Later he insists on smoking on the bus and draws Mikey into helping him wrestle with the driver when he won’t let them get off the bus by the front exit. It’s a wonder he lives as long as he does. Nicky’s displays of crazy-brave truculence and his ever-ticking metre of macho investment in power relationships are given a rare edge by his fatalistic paranoia and efforts to prove he still has some remnant potency in the world with his refusal to be intimidated, but are also seemingly distinct aspects of his character, only more circumspectly worked.

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Mikey and Nicky roam through an insomniac world of intractable service workers, hostile gun-wielding storekeepers, edgy drinkers, exasperated hit men, sanguine but increasingly annoyed gang bosses, frayed and exhausted wives and mistresses, and all the other flotsam of the great American city at night. Their own messy and random shows of will and wont, incarnating the spasmodic spirit of people adrift on such a night even if they are technically renegades from the daylight world, contrast the people who need rigid lines of demarcation to keep up defences between them and the general craziness at loose. Meanwhile Kinney, who has the demeanour of a travelling salesman and about the same level of passion for his job – at one points he grumbles that with all the expenses he’s occurring the pay for the hit will hardly be worth it – is led on a merry dance through the same nocturnal world looking entirely out of place and sighing his way wearily through trying to find them in the movie theatre and driving around in circles in a haphazard search pattern. It’s hard to believe Kinney is a killer, but as the finale finally demonstrates, he’s good enough at it. Once he and Mikey are thrust into each-other’s orbit they form a duet of mutual aggravation as Mikey tries to guide him to where he last saw Nicky, before they’re forced to go to Reznick and argue over whose fault it is they couldn’t find him.

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“You won’t like ‘em,” ran Paramount’s resolutely uncommercial tagline for the film’s poster, and it is perhaps truth in advertising, as Mikey and Nicky are not particularly lovable or admirable or interesting guys, even as May and the actors makes them so palpable it’s impossible not to identify with them on some level. Nicky’s clammy, heart-galloping awareness of danger loans him a veneer of relevance as a representative of mundanity on the edge, all the voracity, conceit, pathos, and sheer balls of a natural-born shyster amplified and given glamour by proximity to death. Part of May’s fascination with the two, as avatars of the male of the species in general, seems to stem from a queasy amusement and desire to grasp at how they’re essentially a married couple, and have certainly sustained a more profound relationship with each-other than the women in their lives. One portion of Nicky’s seething lode of angst lies in his recent break-up with his wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten), who’s taken their baby to live with her mother after finally wearying of his general bullshit. Mikey by contrast plays at maintaining a stable suburban life with a wife who seems to barely know him but who insists he maintains a respectful and adult relationship with: “I don’t treat my wife the way you do,” he tells Nicky reproachfully, “If I’m gonna be late, or if I’m gonna be out all night, I call.” Mikey’s way with putting people on the spot with peculiar shows of honesty is both fascinatingly unguarded and also explains why he tends to put people on edge.

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Despite their closeness however there are vast gaps in what Mikey and Nicky know of each-other. Their fumbling search through the darkened cemetery in search of the grave of Nicky’s mother becomes a vaguely philosophical and metaphysical quandary couched in resolutely regular guy terms. Mikey bats off Nicky’s questions about his feeling about the possibility of an afterlife, which Nicky confesses he’s feeling keenly with his life under threat, before stating he doesn’t believe in it: “That mishigas I leave to the Catholics.” Mikey notes with a certain remnant resentment how much his late father liked Nicky because he always used to kid him. The two men are just about the only people they remember from their shared youth still alive, and Nicky himself confesses to wishing everyone from their youth was still alive, trying to articulate the feeling of being adrift in a world that has lost all its old markers of insularity and recognition, the gravity of identity that provided some illusion that the world at large had coherence: now there’s only the night world. Eventually it’s revealed Mikey gave Nicky his introduction to Reznick’s crew only for Nicky to quickly take root and become a bigger and flashier success, whereas Mikey learns that he makes Reznick uncomfortable. Mikey’s playing along with the attempt to set up the hit on Nicky is partly motivated through self-preservation instincts, knowing well his proximity to Nicky could make him suspect.

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The apotheosis for Nicky’s brinkmanship tendencies comes when he finally decides to visit his current girlfriend, Nellie (Carol Grace), a lonely woman willing to do just about anything for company. Mikey tries to strike up conversation with her as she explains her liking for keeping up to date by listening to the radio news, but it eventually forced to sit in her kitchen whilst Nicky seduces her and screws her on the living room floor. May shoots much of the scene in one, long, deadpan long shot from the corner of the room, encompassing both the carnal act in the foreground and with Mikey shrunken to his outpost in the adjoining kitchen at the back of the frame: May eventually moves to a shot of Mikey sitting and listening with a queasy look of wonder at how he’s finished up at such a point in life. Nicky however needs to twist the knife in both his companions a little more by convincing Mikey all he needs to do is make a play and he can have sex with Nellie too, but when he tries Nellie bites him and Mikey slaps her back before storming out. Nicky chases him, but Mikey furiously repudiates any remaining friendship with Nicky in recognising this as just the latest in many acts of wilful humiliation and bastardry, and the two men begin a fumbling brawl in the street.

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This entire sequence is remarkable in the fine-tuned inflicting of discomfort on both characters and audience, exposing the cruelly casual misogyny wound into Nicky’s worldview and which Mikey buys into until it literally bites him back, along with the signals of perversity that make all three of act the way they do, their mixture of need and pain and old-fashioned lust that must be worked through in a series of false guises. The encounter also rips the scab off all the wounds suffered by Mikey and Nicky’s supposedly umbilical relationship. Every slight, every piece of Nicky’s macho showmanship and one-upmanship, becomes a seed of grievance, whilst Nicky insists on further provocation and retaliation by smashing Mikey’s watch, which he loaned him earlier, Mikey’s only keepsake of his father, sparking their tussle. May gives away the fact that Mikey is betraying Nicky and leading him to his death so early in the film it removes any hint of suspense or mystery, and instead demands the viewer ponder why Mikey is doing this. During their fight Mikey confirms his belief Nicky sabotaged him with Reznick by “Making me out to be a joke.” Nicky defends himself by claiming he brought Mikey into the bank and also reminds him of the time he loaned him $200 when he needed it. Mikey response is to take $200 from his wallet, throw it on the ground, and tell Nicky, “You’re a piece of nothing,” the gesture that finally drives Nicky to attack him.

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The foreboding, which never really feels like such until the axe drops, invests Mikey and Nicky’s vignettes with implicit irony often intensified by Mikey’s split mind, as when Mikey, offended by Nicky’s suspicious questions, tells him, “I suggest you find somebody you can trust.” Once they split apart, the film changes gear subtly, as Nicky’s peregrinations become a series of encounters that underline how completely he’s managed to destroy his life and alienate anyone who might help him, in a manner that both fulfils the character study aspect of the tale and also its echoes of classic poetic realist and film noir works where a man out of time and luck searches for safe harbour. Meanwhile Mikey, in a manner quietly similar to the way Walter Matthau’s antihero of A New Leaf finds himself trapped within matrimony, is obliged to suffer his way through the rest of the night in the company first of Kinney, and then Annie, who reflect back only incomprehension and pettiness. Mikey finds Kinney in his car still waiting outside the movie theatre and drives with him around the streets where he left Nicky, at one point seeming to finally spot him and chasing him down, only to find it’s the wrong guy. The pair’s low-level bickering and frustration at not being able to find Nicky leads them to both go to Reznick and explain their failure.

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May used two different cinematographers in the course of shooting the bulk of a third and then had Lucien Ballard film the finale. The film’s ragged aural and visual language stemmed in part from the long shoot and the studio’s ultimately dismissive approach to getting it finally finished (at various points in the release version you can see film equipment and crew members hiding in bushes, flaws May cleaned up in her director’s cut), and the technical problems May had in making sense of the footage she had shot, often ending up with sound and vision forcibly patched together, particularly noticeable during the fight with the bus driver. But it also feels entirely appropriate for a portrayal of such flailing straits and exploring the fringes of big city life. May’s vision of her characters’ nocturnal odyssey pungent and authentic in its evocation of dive bars and dirty phone booths, rain-sodden streets and blearily bright shops backed up by the woozily intense and intimate camerawork, very often using hand-held camerawork. Beatty’s Kinney is the most conspicuously lost figure in this world, sometimes threatening to dissolve into the haze of mist and neon. The role deftly exploits Beatty’s excellence at playing superficially bland characters harbouring hidden strata of weirdness, sharpened to a wicked point when the man’s true nature emerges in the climax. Safe harbours beckon but a gauntlet has to be run with so many: the succession of encounters with taciturn workers in boles of commercial life ends with Nicky entering a candy store where he seeks out ice cream and comic books as if he’s reverting to childhood whilst the elderly owner packs a pistol and curtly tells his customer not to get the comic books sticky.

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Mikey and Nicky’s relationship to power, the dynamo of their city’s underworld life however cutely it’s hidden behind the dreary frontage of Reznick’s perfectly ordinary house, is the force that keeps them in an orbit, each allowing them to put up Potemkin villages in their lives to maintain some basic semblance of purpose and prosperity, something Mikey seems better equipped at maintaining than Nicky. May’s simultaneously sarcastic and realistic approach to depicting authority was to cast Meisner and William Hickey as Reznick and his lieutenant Sid Fine as both men were hugely influential and respected as acting teachers more than as performers at that point. Supposedly she originally wanted to cast a Paramount executive as one of the gangsters, only for the studio’s owner to nix the idea, but the mischievous attempt confirms the film is in part a sardonic meditation on May’s own relationship with money men. Meisner is particularly good as the stony, terse mob boss who is nonetheless as much prisoner of his employees’ quirks and incompetency as they are of his power, worn to quiet exasperation by the comedy of errors reported to him throughout the night and then grunting uncomfortably as Mikey insists on apologising for Reznick not liking him before laughing and sending him home. Reznick proves why he’s the man at the top of the totem pole at least by realising Nicky will probably turn up at Mikey’s house at some point and he insists Kinney wait outside for him, obliging Mikey to explain patiently that his neighbourhood has its own patrol service that will swoop down on anyone loitering like that.

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Nicky is at least canny enough to keep dashing into the shadows anytime a car passes by, in between attempts to take refuge first with Jan and then with Nellie. Jan is charged with hissing rage at him, at first barely interested in his protestations that he’s being hunted: “They’re gonna kill me.” “Well, I’m not interested…people get angry when you steal their money.” Nicky’s desperately clingy attempts to wring some iota of affection from her earns her smouldering anger, telling him to instruct her how his girlfriends and Reznick treat him so she can copy them. Nicky’s rejection is compounded as his infant daughter starts crying when he tries to play with her. There’s a final show of something like compassion from Jan as she asks of Nicky before embracing him, “What do you want from me, to die for you?” Nicky’s final scenes have grace-notes of self-awareness, as when he comments toJan about his fight with Mikey, “I did too much to him.” There’s similarity in May’s simultaneously acerbic and empathetic portrayal of Nicky’s unmoored neediness to what Lupino offered the more officially sympathetic title character in The Bigamist (1953), viewing masculinity in its troubled, exposed, love-needing state. At the same time May and Jan and Nellie share a trait of sensing the limits of such empathy.

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Nicky’s return to Nellie’s apartment is an even more telling seen as he busts her door chain and swaps slaps with her, before wearily settling on her bed and confessing he set up the scene earlier because he was angry she slept with two other guys he knows, only for Nellie to retort that he sent them to her, well aware of the games Nicky likes to play and was happy to go along with their subterranean logic, but finally rebelled when it became too obvious, too clumsy, too much about Nicky’s ego rather than some kind of naughty conspiracy. Mikey meanwhile keeps a vigil looking out his living room windows, groaning as Kinney keeps circling the house and attracting the patrol’s attention, whilst Annie insists on staying awake with him, leading to the pair to begin a fumbling conversation as the insecure Mikey asks his wife whether he repeats himself when he talks as Nicky accused him of, and when she says, “I never notice it,” he commands, “From now on when I do something, notice it.”

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May evokes her own character in A New Leaf as Annie is defined as a woman blankly grateful for the semblance of suburban normality Mikey has given her even, half-singing “You walked into my life!” in her gratitude for being delivered from solitude and pining, even if the cost is living with someone she barely knows in the real sense, scarcely aware of what he seems to do for a living or the meaning of all the signs and portents accumulating through the night until the final gunshots. And yet she doesn’t know things that have cemented him and Nicky together in their shared reality. Mikey eventually mentions to Annie his younger brother Izzy who died of a fever when he was a teenager, one of the tales of the past mentioned briefly between Mikey and Nicky earlier. Mikey begins recounting the pathetic story relating to the smashed watch, which his father, who he describes as “a sour man,” gave to Izzy as he was dying, then reclaimed it after he passed and gave it to Mikey. The one totem of Mikey’s father he has had and lost was actually a kind of cursed object reminding him of the paternal love he was never granted, whereas Nicky and Izzy were able to illicit it.

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Annie’s bewildered, empty reactions reveal a total incapacity to process her husband suddenly revealing the void in himself. May here seems to be clawing at some common, barely acknowledged sense of trauma connecting the bodies of American life, ensconced now in prosperity but with feet in the muck of a past that’s still raw in memory. This sets the scene for the devastating climax as Nicky arrives, demanding entry, with Mikey pretending to not be home and getting Annie to fend him off instead. When Nicky spots Kinney approaching in his car, his demands become more frantic and desperate, slamming the wood and crying out “Get me a doctor Mikey!” over and over. Mikey starts pushing furniture up against the door to keep him out, barricading himself against the looming chaos with the stuff of his bourgeois life. Finally Nicky’s cries are silenced as Kinney fills him bullets and drives off with a look of satisfaction. May fades out on Mikey’s haggard expression as he rasps a final request for Annie to go to bed. As May started regarded Nicky’s face in the first seconds of the film, so she ends it regarding Mikey’s look of glazed, haggard fatigue and dumbfounding, as if Mikey is not so much shocked and sad that he finally did such a thing to a friend as he is amazed he had the capacity to do it, that in the end self-preservation was the strongest and most authentic of instincts. Now Mikey is alone in the most profound sense, the last keeper of profound memory, full of stories boring and irrelevant to anyone else. One of the great endings, for one of the great American films.

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The General (1926)

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Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Screenwriters: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Fifth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2021, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and/or available online

Long after most of the continent of silent cinema split away and became the rarefied preserve for a sector of movie lovers, silent comedy has retained its impudent life, its heroes still recognisable. The works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Max Linder, Mabel Normand, the Keystone Kops, and even the ill-fated Fatty Arbuckle still have the ability to charm and wow any given audience. Think of how many pastiches of it you’ve seen over the years, automatically making the connection between farce and the stylistics of silent cinema, a language unto itself. Silent comedy survives because the emerging art form and style were uniquely well-suited. Slapstick, loud and crude and personal on the stage, became a weightless ballet of pure movement without sound and the ancient traditions of mime and farceur suddenly found a new and perfect venue, cutting across all conceivable boundaries of cultural and linguistic tradition. Despite an intervening century of argument about the two actor-directors, Chaplin and Keaton merely offered distinct takes on the basic comic concept, of a man fighting both other humans and the random impositions of life in a rapidly modernising world for their share of dignity.

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Chaplin’s Little Tramp, trapped eternally on the wrong side of the glass from acceptance into the world, had a least a certain degree of roguish freedom, a capacity to pick himself up and move on after calamity, to compensate for his eternal exile. Keaton’s characters were trapped within the world, surrounded by bullies and blowhards as well as ornery if not downright malignant machinery, more able to play the romantic lead but always obliged to prove himself, never given the option of failure or surrender. Keaton, blessed with the real first name of Joseph as five previous generations of Keaton men had been before him, emerged from his mother in the town of Piqua, Kansas in 1895, a pure happenstance as his parents were vaudevillians and that was where they happened to be at the time. Keaton’s father was in business with Harry Houdini with a travelling stage show that sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton supposedly gained his stage name when he weathered a tumble down a flight of stairs at 18 months of age, and Keaton himself said it was Houdini who so anointed him. Contrary to his later persona as impassive and unflappable, Keaton’s initial persona in his performances with his parents was a temperamental brat who would fight with them and hurl furniture about.

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Keaton had to dodge enforcers of child labour laws to continue his career but he was on the rise as a teenager as his alcoholic father faltered. Around the same time as a stint in the army during World War I, Keaton encountered Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, already an established and popular comedy star, who encouraged him to try acting in a short he was filming. Keaton adapted so quickly Arbuckle brought him into his company immediately. Initially uneasy about his new medium, Keaton nonetheless became swiftly enraptured by the mechanics of filmmaking, borrowing, disassembling, and rebuilding a camera overnight. After making 14 shorts with Arbuckle, including his directing debut The Rough House (1917), Keaton gained the backing of Arbuckle’s producer Joseph M. Schenck and appeared in the first of his solo starring vehicles, The Saphead (1920). As he moved into making feature films, Keaton tried to stretch his screen persona, but had more luck with stretching his approach to filmmaking to a degree that was at the cutting edge of filmmaking at the time, resulting in exercises like the still-vital experimental cinema of Sherlock Jr (1924) and the self-satirising, proliferating selves of The Play House (1921) poking fun of the one-man-band tendencies of Keaton and many of his fellows.

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Demonstrative in his early appearances on screen, Keaton began perfecting his “great stone face” act. He became the emblematic stoic, beset at all times by the random perversities of the world and muddling through. Keaton was proud that his persona was essentially that of a working man, getting on with things, holding to principles no matter how drastic his situations became. The General, Keaton’s magnum opus, came after an unbroken run of success, but Schenck, who by this time was the head of Metro Films, soon baulked as Keaton spent upwards of $750,000 on the production. Keaton shared directing duties with his constant writing collaborator Clyde Bruckman, and filmed the movie, set in Georgia during the American Civil War, in Oregon instead to take advantage of the old-fashioned railway equipment still littering the landscape, including two vintage locomotives the production bought up for shooting. The shoot became increasingly arduous particularly as the engines kept sparking fires in the locality, and the climactic shot of a train wreck became the single most expensive image created in the silent era. The General proved a failure with the 1926 audience and also critics who seemed bemused by Keaton’s insistence on blending comedy with more serious aspects. This hurt Keaton’s career, compounded when his production company collapsed during the shooting of Steamboat Bill, Jr (1927), and forced him to take refuge with MGM, a partnership that began well with The Cameraman (1928) but soon became a ruinous straitjacket for the creatively sovereign and personally fraying Keaton.

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The reason for The General’s failure seems mysterious today, given that it’s long since taken pride of place as Keaton’s most regarded film and one of the essential works of cinema in general. There are some possible reasons, including the unpopularity of films with its Civil War subject matter, as well as more subtle dimensions to what Keaton was trying to do. The General’s simple plot is also the engine of its purity, a work about motion and possessed of it, the mechanical problems with which Keaton liked to illustrate a proto-existential worldview now become not only an aspect of the drama but its governing and dominating infrastructure. Keaton was inspired by the true story of a raid to steal a train and wreak havoc led by Union soldier James J. Andrews, as recorded by one of his men William Pittenger in his memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. The real story wasn’t a lark – Andrews and several of his men were captured and executed as spies – but a surprising amount of the story’s detail, including the name of the captured train and a pursuit by hand-cart, wove its way into Keaton’s telling. Keaton cast himself as a train driver whose chief motive is recapturing his beloved locomotive, the General, from the men who steal it.

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There’s a touch of irony, given the way even the Civil War seems to be being perpetually refought rhetorically today, apparent in the way Keaton decided to play a character who becomes a Confederate hero because it suited his assailed, everyman persona better, noting that given the South lost the war it was easy to take pity on. The film conspicuously avoids any degree of political dimension beyond automatic sectarian feeling, but the very name of Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray, identifies him as the emblematic Southerner. The first dialogue title card tells us, “There were two loves in his life. His engine – and—” before cutting to the photo of Johnnie’s lady fair Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) pinned to the engine canopy. At the outset Johnnie pulls the General and the Western and Atlantic Flyer train behind it into the town of Marietta, Georgia, in early 1861. Johnnie’s simplicity and almost childlike affect are confirmed as he happily shakes hands with a couple of urchins interested in the engine, and the lads bend over in inspecting the pistons in imitation of Johnnie’s focused obsession with the running of the locomotive. The kids follow Johnnie single-file through the streets of Marietta as he advances with intent towards Annabelle’s house, only for him to pass by Annabelle herself whilst she’s borrowing a book from a friend: she spots him and joins the procession to her own front door, before politely stepping before Johnnie and entering her home before inviting him in.

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There’s already an amusing obsession with linear movement, pursuit, and little surprises of chance here that reverberate through the rest of the film apparent in this gently comic sequence. The emphasis is placed on Johnnie’s intense experience of the moment, his tiny gestures and large all part of his attempt to maintain a glaze of courteous eligibility to Annabelle and her family. Inside, the two boys sit in polite attendance whilst Johnnie tries to woo, and finally to get rid of them he makes like he’s leaving, donning his hat and waving the lads through door, before closing it on them. Johnnie’s romantic connection with Annabelle is however immediately threatened with far more dramatic import for him than any other factor as her brother (Frank Barnes) informs her father (Charles Smith) that Fort Sumter has been fired on and war is breaking out. Father and son immediately prepare to go volunteer, as does the virtually oblivious Johnnie, who nonetheless once his patriotic duty is pointed out to him becomes properly determine to follow through.

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Heading to a general store where the clerks have set up a swiftly formed recruiting office, Johnnie finds himself refused induction without reason, although the audience is privy to the recruiters’ conversation about him which establishes he’s far more useful as a train driver than a soldier. Johnnie, in his annoyance, tries again with face partly concealed by a cocked hat, using a pseudonym and, guessing why he was refused, also giving another profession. Recognised and refused again, his next attempt to steal another man’s induction card sees him finally booted out the back door. Walking past Annabelle’s father and brother as they queue, they invite him to stand in line with him, but he sadly shakes his head. Taking this as his sign that he doesn’t want to serve, they tell Annabelle about Johnnie’s cowardice, and Annabelle refuses to listen to Johnnie’s account, telling him no to speak to her again until he’s in uniform. Keaton illustrates Johnnie’s forlorn lot with one of his most famous visual gags, as Johnnie settles wearily upon a piston and doesn’t notice to one of his fellow drivers moving the train down the line, Johnnie lifted and lowered by the motion of the piston in an ingenious counterpoint to his arrested obliviousness. This is one of the great screen depictions of sadness, and one that also suggests a rather bluer joke: Johnnie will be alone with his piston for some time to come.

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Johnnie’s predicament elicits sympathy for his protagonist, in a fairly familiar manner for Keaton, as misread and beset, regarded with suspicion as unmanly and shiftless. When the narrative picks up over a year later, Keaton depicts a Union general, Thatcher (Jim Farley) making plans with his chief spy Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender), who wants to raid into Confederate territory, steal a train, and use it as a Trojan horse to wreak havoc along the line to make Thatcher’s planned advance easier. Unfortunately for Johnnie, the General proves in the right place and the right time for Anderson and his men to grab as the train pulls up in their planned rendezvous town of Big Shanty. Annabelle is aboard the train as she’s heading to visit her father who’s been wounded in battle, with Johnnie shooting her mournful looks as he tends to the engine. Annabelle goes back to the train after everyone’s alighted for dinner to dig through her valise for her purse in the baggage compartment, just as Anderson and his men congregate by the train and move suddenly to capture it. Anderson takes Annabelle captive and ties her up whilst the train tears out of the station. Johnnie, seeing only his train being taken, give chase on foot, pursuing along the narrowing course of the railway line into the distance as everyone else gives up.

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The following chase is an extended set-piece where both the orchestration of the great, unwieldy train sections and Keaton’s willingness to constantly put his body on the line, his ability to depict struggle and imagination purely by body language, are equally important. Small wonder Keaton was considered quite the heartthrob by female fans. First Johnnie clambers aboard a handcart and manages to get it moving by utilising his whole body weight upon the crank. He’s given a chance to catch up as Anderson keeps stopping the General so his team can rip up the tracks. When Johnnie hits the gap he’s thrown off the cart as it runs off the tracks, throwing Johnnie off, the luckless engineer landing on his backside whilst the cart tumbles down the slope into a river. Undaunted, Johnnie spies a man who’s just hitched up his early bicycle at his front gate: in a perfect blend of Keaton’s athletic prowess and his skill in framing it, he dashes into the shot, springs upon the seat, and takes off in renewed pursuit without missing a beat. He follows it up with a hilarious travelling shot of him trying to ride the wooden-wheeled bike along a bumpy path only to tumble over again. When he manages to reach the next stop on the line, Kingston, Johnnie finally returns to his native realm as he alerts the soldiers on a pulled-up troop train to the theft, explaining he thinks deserters took it, and leaps to the controls of the engine named Texas, only for him to accidentally leave behind the soldiers as the engine hasn’t been connected to their carriage.

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The General is reminiscent of Keaton’s earlier The Navigator (1924) in revolving around his character’s battle with a large and intractable piece of machinery – there it was a ship, and Keaton was playing a rich kid learning independence. The General by contrast offers up Johnnie as an ordinary man who knows how to do one thing exceedingly well: run a train. He approaches everything else with the same quicksilver inspiration fuelled by necessity, proving himself remarkable if also often ridiculous throughout, which could be Keaton’s ultimate commentary on being human altogether. That Johnnie doesn’t even know that both of his “loves” have been snatched by the raiders gives antiheroic piquancy to his adventures. When they’re finally reunited and Annabelle expresses her thanks for him coming to rescue her, he looks like he’s tried to swallow a doorstop for a moment before simply going along with it. Johnnie ultimately finds himself gaining real heroic status by the film’s end, but he’s also just as often lucky or unlucky. Keataon’s single most famous and endlessly recreated joke, the collapsing wall in Steamboat Bill, Jr that falls upon the oblivious hero with his life only saved by his body lining up with a window, contained a similar sense of both the haphazardness of life and the vulnerability of people as well as the mysterious grace that pulls them through danger.

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Today, it feels as if The General has had its deepest impact less on comedy than on modern action cinema, with its depiction of chaotic events caused by a similarly blend of heedless motive and snowballing cause and effect. The film’s imprint can be registered in sequences as disparate as the climax of Stagecoach (1939), the desert truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and a vertical edition in Die Hard (1988), as well as overt tributes like the climax of The Lone Ranger (2016). One of the few followers who genuinely grasped onto what Keaton had demonstrated with the film has been Jackie Chan, who set about emulating him in both his action and comedy staging and dissolving any conceptual distance between the two, as well as playing with Keaton’s mechanistic sensibility. Of course Keaton didn’t invent a connection between slapstick comedy and action: it was lurking since the very beginning of cinema, Chaplin had done funny-thrilling cliffhanger sequences like the finale of The Gold Rush (1923), and Lloyd made a career out of them. But the way the action plays out in The General, hinging on details like the rate the trains burn wood at and use up water in their boilers, and the limitations of the trains as machines that can only move where track lets them, tries to take a certain realism as a starting point rather than a burden or nicety for Keaton in creating his epic slapstick.

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Decades later, in an interview for the book The Parade’s Gone By, Keaton would recall the problems presented for comic filmmakers by moving from short two and three-reel films into features, because previously none of them had ever done anything as undignified as write a script. Longer films demanded strong storylines rather than haphazard farce, unless they could fit in a dream or fantasy sequence. Writing films for them became chiefly a matter of coming up with a good start and a good ending and everything in between would take care of itself. The situation presented in The General could almost be a commentary on this creative process, setting up the motivating idea and finding every way possible of impeding the rush to the end. With Sherlock Jr Keaton had taken the dream option to dig into the very workings of cinema and correlating them with the malleability of the psyche, The General instead surrenders most of the way to the working of the world, the machine, the narrative. One possible reason the film didn’t quite land with its contemporary audience might well lie in the fastidiousness of Keaton’s method in this regard: the situation isn’t just a pretext but a structure, the necessary linearity of the train chase Keaton’s vehicle for exploring cinema narrative itself as a chain of events.

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When Johnnie loads a cannon he’s hauling in his attempts to halt the other train, only for the cannon to start losing inclination: after haplessly detaching the cannon car, Johnnie flees right to the very cowcatcher on the train’s front in his fear of the cannon going off: right at the last moment the curving of the track abruptly opens a clear field of fire for the weapon, which goes off and blasts a crater narrowly missing the General and the raiders. In another ingenious bit, Johnnie, trying to clear the tracks of sleepers the raiders drop behind them to impede their pursuer, balances uneasily on the cowcatcher and fumbles to grab up one sleeper and uses it to flip another out of the way. This stunt, exceptionally dangerous and utterly beguiling, is also in the flow of Johnnie-as-dynamic-problem-solver a rough draft for video gaming. In terms of staging and technique this sort of thing wasn’t so different to the meticulously orchestrated automobile and trolley car chases Mack Sennett had done with the Keystone Kops, but Keaton’s more meticulous, slow-burn method approach resists their frenetic tenor.

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The paradox in this is it helps Keaton achieve a more authentically absurdist tone. Johnnie keeps blinking in bewilderment when an unhitched carriage from the train ahead seems to appear and then vanish, and twists in seemingly settled forms and functions, like the missing rails that throw him from the handcart: everything works until it doesn’t, and the tunnel-visioned Johnnie is as helpless despite his proactive efforts in the face of such undermining as the audience. Keaton illustrates how and why Johnnie keeps getting this impression, but the man himself is left with the woozy impression of reality suddenly rewriting itself. So whilst The General doesn’t entirely lack the flecks of surrealism in his earlier films as inanimate objects do strange and unexpected things and quirks of chance and fate unspool with teasing wit, Keaton nonetheless insists on a precise sense of how his jokes connect with the necessarily rolling logic of the situation. Keaton was making a movie for a cinema age that was evolving, becoming more technically and aesthetically engaged with its own nature: whilst radically different in form from what the Soviet realists were doing, Keaton nonetheless explores his awareness of cinema as a system of images.

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At the same time The General also nudges the melodramatic style of early silent film in a manner that suggests Keaton was already feeling and playing upon a certain tide of nostalgia. When Anderson ties up Annabelle, the film recalls the straightforward suspense scenarios of the days of Pearl White, whilst the storyline as a whole nods back to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1906). Keaton makes sport of the melodrama elements, of course. Once Anderson is knocked out during Johnnie’s recapture of the General, he starts reviving at one point, potentially threatening a fight or hostage-taking, only for Anderson to be accidentally knocked out again, and he doesn’t stir again until the very end. Nostalgia is indeed a powerful impulse throughout The General with its blend of dreaminess and immediacy in looking back to days of yore. The storyline pastiches the romantic mythology of the era with Annabelle the curly-tressed maiden of good white Southern stock who must be rescued, but Keaton teases it in ways D.W. Griffith never would have. Annabelle’s name pays heed to Edgar Allan Poe’s lost heroine. Keaton had poured over photos by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner to absorb the period look, and the influence is plain, both in the crisp approximation of the old daguerreotype image and the sensitivity to light and shade in the moments of scenic beauty he allows, glimpses of flood-flooded forests and glistening hills of grass.

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Indeed it’s easy to see Keaton lampooning Griffith, making sport of one of Griffith’s famous “iris” shots when Johnnie spots the captive Annabelle through a hole in a tablecloth, and in the finale when Johnnie advances with a flag like Ben Cameron in The Birth of a Nation (1915) only to accidentally take up a heroic pose on what he thinks is a rock but proves to be an officer bent double. Keaton’s take on Johnnie’s loyalty is hardly antiheroic – actually Johnnie is one of the great screen heroes, almost casual in his acts of astounding bravery once properly motivated. But he does incidentally deflate any sense of grand and noble motives beyond wanting badly to be perceived as worthy by Annabelle and to do a good turn for people he knows and bewildered by everything outside that frame of reference: Johnnie is utterly ordinary in this regard. In the motif of Johnnie being ostracised for not becoming a soldier Keaton seems to have been more thinking of the schisms over such things that gripped all sides during the decade-past Great War, offering implicit sympathy for anyone who couldn’t serve as they might have liked. In the climax Johnnie reverts to a childlike state as he playacts a leader of importance whilst a proper Confederate General (Frederick Vroom) rides a white horse behind him, men gesticulating in imperious manner, the real manipulator of life and death on a mass scale and his impish, accidentally satirical mirror.

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Johnnie’s distraction is at a zenith when he keeps laboriously chopping wood for fuel whilst the General and the Texas barrel past the Confederate and Union armies, breaking the handle on his axe and leaving him still trying to chop with the head. If as Talleyrand said treason is a matter of dates Keaton offers it more as a matter of place: Anderson hurriedly changes out of the Confederate uniform he’s donned as they enter the Union zone, and later Johnnie has to reverse the procedure, casting aside the Union uniform he puts on to rescue Annabelle. The Union raiders think the pursuing train is packed with avengers on their trail, and so throw everything they have in Johnnie’s path to hinder him. They only, finally realise their pursuer is a single man when they halt the General atop a trestle bridge and rain down firewood on him. Johnnie stops the Texas and runs off into the woods as a driving rain starts. Soon he happens upon a farmhouse which the Union soldiers are using as a headquarters Johnnie sneaks into the house and finished up hiding under a dining table the Union men gather around to discuss the next part of their campaign, alerting Johnnie to the army’s planned sneak advance across a railway bridge at Rock River. Keaton’s delight in discursive twists in the scenes he sets up extends here as the scene seems set up for Johnnie to be exposed and chased out, but even getting burnt by a cigar and almost sneezing, not to mention beholding the captive Annabelle, don’t manage to overwhelm his composure.

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Johnnie’s rescue of Annabelle is a more subtle example of Keaton’s gift for deadpan staging – a club clutched by a disembodied hand reaching out of a doorway knocking out a sentry; Johnnie dresses in his uniform and then wallops another guard with his rifle butt with the same cool sufficiency. A toppled vase during Johnnie’s plucking Annabelle from her room doesn’t attract attention, but when she’s caught in a bear trap Johnnie extracts her only to get himself caught three times. The pair sleep out the dark and stormy night and find the next day what seemed like the middle of nowhere is adjacent a Union army camp. Johnnie and Annabelle prove an able team as Johnnie proposes to sneak Annabelle onto the train by stuffing her in a sack that was filled with boots and getting close enough so that she can pull a pun detaching the engine from the train being formed behind it, before Johnnie stows her in a boxcar. Johnnie then springs into the cockpit, knocks out Anderson as he oversees the operation and pushes out a couple of other men, before gunning the engine and tearing out of the camp. Union soldiers immediately give chase in the Texas. This time the reverse chase is faster, more urgent affair, as Johnnie tries for most part to maintain his lead on the chasers, but faces a lack of fuel.

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The wry spectacle of Johnnie and Annabelle working to keep their escape going in their different ways helps elucidate another dimension to the film, as Keaton’s musing on coupling as the natural and unnatural consequence of love. In this regard Keaton might have been taking a little inspiration from Arbuckle, whose comedies often revolved around trying to settle into domestication only to be faced with mounting chaos. Keaton had built his film persona around the disparity between his own wiry, hangdog appearance and his physical dynamism, and the constant motif being underestimated. This motif is linked here to the way Johnnie proves simply doing his job is heroic and worthy of mythic valorisation, where it’s initially read as a moral failure by those who require more exalted proofs, insufficient to win Annabelle’s hand. Their intuitive partnering whilst on the run sees Annabelle as inspired in helping foil their pursuers: at one point she ties a rope between trees on the trackside, a device Johnnie doesn’t think will work, but it proves to slow and stop the chasers: the couple are already married in essence as a working partnership. At one point Johnnie gets left behind when he jumps from the train to work a switch, so he runs down the slope to where the railway doubles back, only for Annabelle to manage to throw the train into reverse, returning the way it’s come and forcing Johnnie to dash back up the slope again.

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But Annabelle also tries to domesticate Johnnie’s work space, cleaning up the cockpit with a broom and carefully selecting pieces of wood worthy of fuelling his engine. Johnnie sarcastically hands her a twig to add to the fire which she happily does, whereupon he starts throttling her, before suddenly kissing her, and turning with equal suddenness back to his tasks. It’s both a funny and faintly shocking moment, then and now, capturing something violently bipolar about love, both delighted and infuriated by the cost of surrendering personal realm to another. Finally Johnnie and Annabelle reach the Rock River bridge and set it on fire. When the Union commanders try to send the Texas through after it as they launch their assault, the bridge collapses as the Texas passes over, dumping it into the river below. This amazing shot – the one that cost all that money – is the climax not just of the railroad action but of Keaton’s entire, life-sized aesthetic, and one that counteracts the absurdist pull of his jokes. Here, finally, the laws of gravity and probability assert their usual, implacable prerogative – on Johnnie’s enemies.

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Johnnie and Annabelle deliver warning to the Confederates about the attack, and the battle sees the Confederates managing to beat back the Union soldiers. Johnnie is an amusing spectacle acting like a commander whilst waving a captured sword, the blade constantly flying out of the hilt, but he becomes more engaged as the General sends him down to instruct an artillery battery as the Union soldiers are creeping their way across the river using boulders as cover. As Johnnie tries to explain himself to the gunners, a Union sniper keeps shooting them down one by one, Johnnie increasingly bewildered by why soldiers keep dropping dead as he speaks to them. This is probably as dark a piece of humour as Keaton ever offered, punctuated when he draws his sword and the blade flies off again, only to land right in the sniper’s back. As he tries to fire off the cannon himself, Johnnie misfires the cannon, but his wild shot knocks out a weir holding back river water that crashes down upon the Union soldiers and drives them back, helping end the battle. This finale offers a key change from the structure of the rest of the film, and Keaton was criticised at the time for mixing in straight warfare with comedy. It nonetheless a brilliantly filmed sequence that contains some of Keaton’s most gorgeously crafted shots and elegantly sarcastic humour.

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Johnnie finally becomes not just a hero but a soldier, the trade he happily declares his profession as he’s enlisted into the army. This comes after the Confederate General commands him to take off Anderson’s false uniform in what seems to be a moment of punishment and reckoning, only for the General to then procure him a Lieutenant’s uniform, donning it before the delighted gaze of Annabelle and her wounded father. The film’s very last joke revisits the sitting-on-the-piston gag but now with Johnnie settling down to kiss Annabelle, adjusting their position so he can rapidly salute the enlisted men passing by. If the first version of this moment contains an extremely coded masturbation joke, this one is about getting properly down to business. It’s also poking fun at the natural next stage of Johnnie’s journey, negotiating the perversities of a different kind of machine: the military. The General was first screened on the last day of 1926 in Tokyo of all places, with the likes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Sergei Eisenstein’s October, William A. Wellman’s Wings, and a host of other films all released within the months on either side, a moment that marked the high-water mark of silent cinema’s ambition and genius. But the form’s apotheosis was also its sunset, and the transfer to sound would claim many victims, including Keaton. Either way, The General is one of the great films, silent or talking. It’s also something better than great: it’s actually, genuinely funny.

The General can be viewed for free on YouTube and innumerable other places.

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

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

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2010s, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Film Freak 2019

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By Roderick Heath

If there’s any conviction underpinning my yearly film round-ups, it’s the feeling that the movies are talking to each-other. In 2019, it seemed the conversation was more intense and deeply interwoven than ever. As the way we consume cinema evolves and a moment of generational change looms in terms of who makes and watches movies, the common references and preoccupying themes gained something like a collective voice. Filmmakers and their on-screen avatars faced the treachery of their bodies, floated in dreamscapes of nostalgia and sore memory, felt the nature of identity becoming porous and confused, and pondered the meaning of relationships between people in many different figurations testing all for their perversities. 2019 proved a formidable year in terms of the sheer number of excellent films; indeed, I’d say at this point the best year of the closing decade by a good measure. This is not to say it didn’t have its share of duds, disgraces, and acreage of mediocrity. But it was a year when old cinema heroes and new ones offered a surfeit of boldness and quality, all determined to prove their boisterous energy and vision.

02
Parasite

Perhaps it’s a result of facing excruciating political choices and dim prospects, but many of 2019’s films betrayed a desire to crawl into a subliminal space of dreams and remembering and wrestle with the meaning of experience, in what might called, however paradoxically, urgent nostalgia. Films as violently disparate as The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Pain and Glory, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Nightingale, Us, Ash is Purest White, The Souvenir, In Fabric, Ad Astra, High Life, The Aeronauts, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, revolved around an unstable evocation of pasts, presents, and futures private and communal, featuring characters who, willingly or not, drift into places beyond recourse, obliging them to justify their living tenure. Many dug into a place in the creative mind where fetid experience and adored art mash together in a polymorphous lode, often conflating filmmaker and on screen characters in implicating webs, autobiography and cultural reportage merging. Works like The Lighthouse, In Fabric, Under the Silver Lake, and The Wind saw characters plunge into zones where all certainty over what constitutes reality dissolved.

03
Ford v Ferrari

Protagonists of films like Pain and Glory, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Rambo: Last Blood, The Irishman, and King of Thieves struggled with their own fraying bodies and wits, forced to recognise the limitations of their prowess and power, several tossing away their curatives in exchange for more direct purgation. The hero of Gemini Man was literally confronted by his own clones, young versions free from such weary flesh but lacking the seasoning imbued by hard experience too. Many stories of 2019 dealt with harsh necessities, people seeking sustenance and shelter without time for navel-gazing, like the lost folk of The Chambermaid and Little Woods and Arctic, the rogues of Dragged Across Concrete and Triple Frontier, Les Misérables, Hustlers, Joker, Birds of Passage, and Parasite. Works as tonally diverse as Hustlers, Holiday, Booksmart, Richard Jewell, The Hustle, Marriage Story, Ride Like A Girl, Men In Black: International, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ash Is Purest White, The Aeronauts, and The Nightingale portrayed women trying to assimilate themselves into realms more usually associated with masculine behaviour, often for reasons blending wisdom and futility and finding their efforts leading them to places that left some triumphant but others discomforted, even damaged or perverted, by the experience. Adoring artists feverishly sketched the forms of their beloved in Pain & Glory and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, trying to capture the fleeting being in a moment, or lost themselves in the orgiastic in the likes of Tempting Devils, The Beach Bum, and Under the Silver Lake, trying instead to accept with equanimity the fluidity of ardour.

04
Fighting With My Family

Property, and characters’ desperation and determination to hold it or regain it, was central to many stories, and some had to surrender it amidst hard choices. The antihero of Uncut Gems forced himself into situations of existential risk purely to feel that kind of shocking urgency and danger. Nor were there hard borders between the wistful and the immediately anxious stories, as a film like The Last Black Man In San Francisco perceived the connection of the two states. Studies of close friendships and family, the people we share life with in bonds of need that sometimes turn strange and painful in their very necessity, also permeated 2019. The people we lean on as life whittles away choices and chances, the people life would be unbearable without even if it’s unbearable with them, in relationships that can be noxious or umbilical or both – the tethered sisters of Little Woods and generational unions of Fast Color and Shaft, the magnet pals of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, and people trapped together in situations they can’t escape, like the aging bastards of The Irishman and the fraying coworkers of The Lighthouse and the crumbling interstellar exiles of High Life. Others searched for those who taunted in their absence and embodied gaping holes in psyche and memory, the son hunting for his multifarious father in Ad Astra, the sought-for ghost of a lover in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and reunited gangster and moll in Ash is Purest White. Deterioration and death waited for all, from the poet of Hotel by the River to the killers of The Irishman and Ash is Purest White. Only taking on a burden of care saved many a 2019 character from sliding into limbo.

05
Arctic

Joe Penna’s Arctic gave Mads Mikkelsen a strong if strenuous role as one such character who enacted perhaps the most basic and essential variation on that theme. Mikkelsen played a plane crash survivor stranded in remote and icy climes, who does everything right in weathering his situation but finds himself obliged to take a dangerous chance when a helicopter that comes to rescue him crashes too, forcing him to care for an injured woman. The storyline obeyed familiar beats of the survivalist tale without much variance, but Penna distinguished it with patient, detailed filmmaking, well-matched to Mikkelsen’s expert depiction of a good and sensible man driven through stations of bitter humour and tragic acceptance in learning just how bad bad luck can get when contending with an indifferent universe.

06
The Aeronauts

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts took authentic history as a leaping-off point, mashing together real events and personalities from the pioneering days of ballooning, portraying prototypical meteorologist James Glaisher’s landmark ascent and inserting a female pilot to accompany him, imaginary if a composite of some real figures. In abstract it sounded a bit try-hard when it comes to fashionable revisionism. In practice, thankfully, the film proved a vivid, gorgeous-looking Jules Verne-esque adventure that played smartly on Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ established if previously ill-served chemistry, and found effective ways to complicate a straightforward story, with an eye to the way science and showman’s hoopla have so often been obliged to play uncomfortable bedfellows.

07
1917

Sam Mendes made 1917, his first non-James Bond feature in a decade, as an attempt to render a revisit to the grim trenches of World War I an immediate and intense experience rescued from all hint of period quaintness, depicting the fates of two luckless soldiers dispatched on an urgent and dangerous mission across No Man’s Land to prevent a doomed attack. Mendes joined the growing ranks of directors who have made a movie in a simulation of a single camera take. The approach sometimes paid off, particularly during an unblinking depiction of a character’s slow death. But as is often the case with such strenuously achieved cinema, the hoped-for immediacy and realism was instead squelched by a tendency to theatrical awkwardness in acting and dialogue, and Mendes’ tendency to offer excessively preened visual flourishes was pushed to the nth degree: too often, for all its would-be sombre grandeur, the film resembled a video game where for each level survived you met a prominent British actor.

08
The Nightingale

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra expanded on their debut Embrace of the Serpent in continuing to study the travails of South America’s indigenous peoples, portraying traditions tested to the limit by involvement in the drug trade. The Babadook creator Jennifer Kent released her sophomore feature, The Nightingale, a gruesome revenge saga set in Tasmania in the bloody throes of colonisation, where an Irish convict lass is compelled to join forces with a bereft Aboriginal tracker and chase down and kill the thuggish English officer who brutalised her and her family. Kent roped together some very trendy themes and points of thorny, lingering contention in a potentially fruitful manner, and offered a couple of properly powerful scenes, when her heroine confronted the reality of brutal payback and her hero despaired at an act of apparent hospitality. To describe the bulk of the film as blunt and heavyhanded would be understating things, however, with the conflation of a specific and personalised battle with evil, represented by Sam Claflin’s ridiculously over-the-top villain, with a general portrait of historical brutality, ultimately self-defeating. Kent’s attempts to extend the best aspect of The Babadook, its delving into a subliminal world afflicting a troubled mind, proved merely clumsy.

09
Monos

Alejandro Landes gained wide attention and acclaim with his debut film Monos, grappling with South America’s agonised recent history of guerrilla warfare as glimpsed through a cracked and absurdist lens. Landes portrayed a gang of teenage warriors, impressed and indoctrinated as members of an insurgent force, assigned to guard a dairy cow and a ransomed American doctor, but who steadily become wrapped up in rites of passage and tribal power games until their cause, and their community disintegrates in a welter of bloodshed and lunacy. Landes’ fragmented images were alternately impressive and opaque, the arty postures vigorous and overbearing, with early scenes chasing a Dogtooth-esque vibe in portraying strangely socialised behaviours but without the same precision, whilst nods to Lord of the Flies towards the end were likewise a bit tinny. The basic storyline, although more conventional, steadily gained force and tension, and the sense of place, particularly when the guerrillas relocated to the jungle, was palpable.

10
The Last Black Man in San Francisco

In a year filled with some extremely accomplished studies of more quotidian situations, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco became one of the year’s major indie successes, depicting a flailing man’s efforts to reclaim the house his family once owned, now a pricey piece of desirable real estate in once-homey, now-gentrified inner San Francisco. Talbot took on a theme difficult to dramatize, the angst and disruption caused by urban renewal and displacement of black neighbourhoods, with first-time actor Jimmie Fails, whose experiences inspired the story, proving a thoughtful lead. Talbot offered an open-hearted humanism, permeated with an honest sense of yearning and regret, that felt peculiarly acute in describing 2019 as a moment. Still, his direction alternated interludes of attentive and nuanced beauty with patches of mannered windiness, the slight story taking far too long to play out, and the personal drama trickled away.

11
The Art of Self-Defense

With The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns returned to the appeal of cultish allegiance for disoriented personalities he explored in Faults, in depicting a dweeb accountant’s rebirth as a karate student following a vicious assault, only to find himself under the thumb of a fascistic sensei, played with a drone of cold wit by Alessandro Nivola so sly it was almost occult. Stearns’ style, this time inflected by a blackly comic absurdism enacted by a selection of characters at once pokerfaced and verbose, lacked the cryptic and dreamlike visual quality that marked Faults, but the film’s wry confidence in depicting an increasingly bizarre and shocking situation, and the ironic sharpness of its denouement, marked it as a small gem.

12
Uncut Gems

Fraternal directing duo Benny and Josh Safdie continued a negotiation with the mainstream whilst retaining their squirrely street energy with Uncut Gems, making ingenious use of Adam Sandler’s talent for playing fraying hotheads by casting him as Howard Ratner, a jewellery seller out on a limb thanks to his love of gambling and other rowdy appetites, trying to land a big score with a hunk of illegally imported black opal before loan sharks come in to feast. Whilst the Safdies tried valiantly to set up political and spiritual subtexts, the real engine of the drama was simply Howard’s endless capacity for self-sabotaging risk-taking. This added up to my least favourite work by the Safties to date however, lacking the submerged and alien sense of individuals cleaved out of society found in Heaven Knows What and Good Time, instead offering a hyperbolic update of ‘70s films like The Gambler and California Split, deployed with a high-pressure style but without that much to say about the lead character other than his being a very trying, half-smart jerk: the schmuck also rises.

13
The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell took up a basic story template that’s been run ragged in American indie films, the uneasy family reunion where a lurking crisis threatens general high spirits and feels, and gave it a unique bilingual gloss. Wang recounted a lightly fictionalised take on experiences with her family returning to China to stage a fake wedding as an excuse to say goodbyes to the clan’s elderly matriarch, whose diagnosis with a fatal illness they’ve elected to keep from her. Wonderful performances from Awkwafina as the frustrated, terminally honest artist and Shuzhen Zhou as the beloved, unflappable grandmother, coupled with Wang’s well-knit flow of vignettes and a meditative sense of cross-cultural and intergenerational attachment, amounted to a lovely piece of work. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir offered a similar project, transmuting personal experience into an inquisitive artwork, although Hogg’s labours proved much more complex and ambivalent, testing all her sentimentalities.

14
Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart took on one of those cultural grail quests that occasionally preoccupy both filmmakers and the commentariat – to make a hit girls-behaving-badly romp. Wilde revealed directorial promise, particularly in a marvellous sequence in which Kaitlyn Devers’ nervous queer heroine gains her mojo as she swims amidst jostling bodies on a high of sensual possibility only to run aground on heartbreak. The film also had a starting point with potential – what happens when the intellectually confident start trying to be socially and sexually adventurous? But the script was a grab-bag of tones and ploys for Twitter feed approval, the film less about and for teens than for an older audience’s idealisation of themselves, and an overt attempt to make a woke artefact that forgot to check its own haute bourgeois privilege. Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot was a similar attempt to make an of-the-moment work pleasing its presumed progressive audience as it portrayed a romance between Charlize Theron’s glamorous Secretary of State running for the Presidency and Seth Rogen’s shabby but zealous journalist-turned-speechwriter. What could have been a smart new age take on The American President instead lurched between incompetently deployed jokes, unable to decide whether to aim for satiric hyperbole or something more credible.

15
The Beach Bum

Recovering arthouse sleaze merchant Harmony Korine returned with The Beach Bum, featuring an impishly cast Matthew McConaughey as a sometime poet who’s abandoned himself to a wild bohemian lifestyle around the Florida coast, forced to return to his art after his rich wife’s death but still refusing to take anything seriously. Korine located a new, if still very earthy breeziness as he blended a hyperbolic take on the mystique of the wild-living genius, with a gamy modern twist on classic anarchic comedies by the likes of Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers. If Korine had set out to counter the tendentious and dogmatic tenor of much cultural attitude in 2019 he couldn’t have done better in his depiction of absurd and happy hedonism as a curative for artificially stoked angst, and Korine’s eye, as hinted on Spring Breakers, has evolved into a good one. But his familiar monotone dramatic style, able to focus only on one mode of behaviour reiterated endlessly, meant that despite some comic and visual coups, The Beach Bum turned pleasantly dreary well before it ended.

16
Under the Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake was supposed to be released with all the occasion due a notable new director following up a hit like It Follows, but after a weak reception at Cannes it was eventually, rudely dumped. Whilst enlarging upon aspects of Mitchell’s first two films, this one proved something else again, a portrait of shambling bohemian discontent and disconnection contending with malign and paranoid forces of money and power. Under the Silver Lake was by turns fascinating, dazzling, annoying, silly, undercooked, and ardent, alert to the incoherence of the moment if also often inclined to chase its own blue balls. In short, a definite failure that was more interesting than most successes. For his first film since the gimmicky but compelling Locke, Steven Knight offered Serenity, at first seeming to be a sun-kissed neo-noir piece that proved rather a meta-narrative stunt. Even before it reached a truly stupid central twist, the film was beset by pointlessly showy direction and overheated performing from a strong cast who deserved a straight-up, old-school genre vehicle: only Jason Clarke’s malignant gangster offered real juice.

17
The Hustle

Writer and actor turned director Stephen Merchant aimed for and scored a modest populist hit with Fighting With My Family, recounting the real-life rise of a goth girl from a wrestling-mad Norfolk family who found fame and fortune with WWE after overcoming a crisis of identity. Despite Merchant’s brainy reputation the result was a succession of trite and familiar loser-makes-good audience manipulation ploys, leavened largely by Florence Pugh’s excellent lead performance and the generally good-natured support around her. Chris Addison, another talent honed on British TV, made a foray into star vehicle directing with The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels casting Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway as con artists (and actors) engaged in a duel of abilities based in their disparate varieties of guile and skill. The script was broad and the humour leaned on the comic value of colliding chic and crudity like a crutch, but despite the general caning it got from critics I finished up mildly enjoying it, mostly because of Wilson and Hathaway’s gusto in their roles.

18
Rambo: Last Blood

2019’s action cinema quite often resembled that of thirty years ago. Rambo: Last Blood saw Sylvester Stallone returning to his other beloved hero role for some septuagenarian slaughter, this time avenging the despoiling and death of his housekeeper’s daughter at the hands of a scummy Mexican drug cartel. As an extension of Rambo lore it was at least slightly better than the previous film in the series, with some lip service to the lingering sway of PTSD to leaven dully xenophobic politics and a stagnant sense of what the character means. Adrian Grunberg’s anonymous if efficient direction and a painfully straightforward script made for a contrived and negligible experience for the most part, but the bloody climax, if not exactly making the outing worthwhile, did at least deliver a hot dose of entertaining violence. Michael Bay was one of several big-time directors who explored the pleasures and pains of Netflix bankrolling in 2019, with his 6 Underground debuting on streaming despite being made with all of Bay’s blockbuster braggadocio undimmed. Ryan Reynolds turned his patented wiseass act to playing a billionaire who’s faked his own death in order to set up a team of talented pros for the purpose of taking down an evil dictator. Bay wielded all his craftsmanship and managed for a time to sustain a free-flowing tapestry of frenetic humour and flashy, even beautiful imagery, particularly in the lengthy, bravura opening chase scene. Melanie Laurent was particularly good as the team’s deadpan resident badass babe. The problem was, Bay’s hasn’t gained any capacity to vary his style and rhythm, every scene pushed to an artificial extreme, and by the second hour it was more chore than thrill ride.

19
Daughter of the Wolf

Hans Petter Moland remade his own Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance in the USA as Cold Pursuit, sold as darkly comic variant on the accustomed Liam Neeson action flick. The original plot was transposed to the Rocky Mountains, with Neeson’s irate father out to destroy a drug dealing syndicate to avenge his son’s death, accidentally sparking a gang war in the process. Some touches, like having the villain be an über-macho fad food freak, hit the right zone where gallows wit and noir unease can mix, but the movie still felt like a theory by its end, not quite funny, not quite exciting, affecting sardonic distance but foiling itself with rather too much CGI. David Hackl’s Daughter of the Wolf took a similar winterbound setting for a far more traditional type of revenge flick, with Gina Carano playing a rampaging army-trained momma bear chasing down her kidnapped son and doing battle with the “family” of Richard Dreyfuss’ monstrous criminal patriarch. Scruffy production values and a basic script kept the result from being much more than streaming fodder for a rainy evening, but as with Hackl’s Into the Grizzly Maze it was honourable as a cheap and efficient blood-pumper, anchored by Carano’s convincing toughness and Dreyfuss having a ball as he officially enters the “old coot” phase of his career.

20
Us

Neil Jordan returned with his first feature in six years, Greta, starring Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman acclimatizing to New York who becomes the object of obsession for the title character, a crazed, aging, would-be maternal moulder, played with crafty bravura by Isabelle Huppert. Ultimately the film proved a nasty, chamber-piece variation on Jordan’s fascination with characters trapped in situations defined by perverse modes of loving, but only after trekking through many a stalker movie cliché and never really engaging with the sort of emotional complexity Jordan was once a master in locating. The fun performances, also including Maika Monroe’s hilarious turn as Moretz’s sturdy gal pal and a cameo by Stephen Rea as a mordant private eye, did most to keep the film animated. Jordan Peele unleashed a second helping of his special brand of socio-politically charged horror-fantasy after Get Out with Us, an off-kilter tale of an upwardly mobile black family being tormented by a gang of enigmatic doppelgangers. Peele’s visual talent is swiftly evolving with flashes of genuine strangeness and intelligently oneiric imagery. These remained largely isolated, however, amongst a story at once bold-type and vague in its symbolic dimensions, the solid suspense filmmaking balanced by an overdrawn and sometimes borderline silly glaze of would-be creepiness.

21
The Wind

Emma Tammi’s The Wind, whilst straying more overtly into the blurry hinterland between psychodrama and horror film, sought to portray desolate straits in an isolated setting, depicting two frontier families contending with a destructive force that might be supernatural or mental, the difference between the two increasingly beside the point. Tammi’s direction was initially intriguing, with a potent sense of place and mood nimbly complicated through a splintered sense of time. The Wind nonetheless lost cohesion as the threat became more literal and overt, whilst the acting was awkwardly TV-like and callow. The Vanishing saw Danish TV director Kristoffer Nyholm tackling an infamous mystery of Scottish history, the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote island early in the 20th century, for a grim tale of madness and murder. The Vanishing proposed a solution to the mystery in a basic film noir plot, with a more allusive patina imbued by the theme of men contending with the corrosive and destructive intensity of grief. The actors did their best to imbue proceedings with gruff and hirsute grit, but the storyline was far too stock and predictable, and the film overall proved drab and demoralising where it should have been flavourful and exciting.

22
The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse proved a very different piece of work even in dealing with the same basic setting and theme. Eggers’ second feature also offered a similar proposition to his first film The Witch, studying characters stranded in a setting geographically and historically remote, succumbing to a collapsing sense of reality. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson brought startling, stylised passion to the project in depicting the grizzled, perhaps deliberately histrionic and hammy elder and his young, quietly neurotic employee who alternately loathe and love each-other. When the film concentrated on their fluctuations of affection and hatred, accord and dominance, it was interesting. And yet The Lighthouse felt less mature than The Witch in its bombardment of hoary surrealism, sickly physical textures, and general portent rammed home almost from the opening frames, overloaded with suggestions of the supernatural and even religious symbolism and yet offered with little sense of measured effect: the totality looked uncomfortably like an overblown student film.

23
High Life

Claire Denis’ High Life was an even more high-falutin’ take on the same motif of disorientating isolation, again armed with Pattinson. This sci-fi chamber piece depicted a spaceship crammed with prisoners sent on a one-way trip to check out a remote black hole. Juliette Binoche was the ship’s witchy doctor, pursuing a sideline in experimental fertilisation, eventually leaving Pattinson’s monkish survivor to raise his biological daughter alone after his fellows all crack up and die. The result was familiar Denis in the stringent evocations of weird sexuality and psychological torment. Something about the movie overall didn’t gel for me, however. The provocations were a bit too predictable, the approach uncomfortably pitched between realism and stylised allegory, and the tone of acting apart from Binoche rather stilted. By the end, the attentiveness in Denis’ best work to finite glimmers of the sublime amidst the forbidding had devolved here into a vague, zombified sort of sentimentality. One scene, the freakish “fuck box” excursion for Binoche, was basically the justification for the whole exercise. James Gray’s Ad Astra was similarly preoccupied with space voyaging as a metaphorical canvas of evoking human connection and alienation, depicted in a relatively more conventional narrative, but Gray managed something surprisingly akin to cinematic jazz in setting up vast surveys and big feelings and yet managing to syncopate them allusively.

24
Dragged Across Concrete

Back down in the mean streets, men and women still battled for such petty issues as money and power. J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier leaned, like The Vanishing, on a Treasure of the Sierra Madre riff in portraying a team of former soldiers turned Robin Hood adventurers out to steal a drug lord’s fortune only to crash literally and metaphorically into the rugged and impoverished Latin American landscape. Chandor’s storyline offered some dramatic turns and the methodical directorial method was initially engaging. But as the film became more serious it proved excruciatingly heavy-footed on all levels, indecisive in toggling between a dark parable about corrosive greed and a more forgiving attitude towards its mercenary heroes. S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete was another variation on the same basic motif of blue-collar warriors contemplating a turn to the dark side to combat financial distress, in this case Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan’s unruly cops, balanced by Tory Kittles’ more practical and patient ex-con, who all find themselves contending with an especially scummy crew of bank robbers. Zahler proved gutsier than Chandor if also perhaps disingenuous in portraying his antiheroes’ crude and unromantic aspects. Zahler’s style, offering concerted escalation of narrative through a minimalist palette, was still effectively peppered with islets of startling brutality, but now stumbled into the blurry area between slow-burn and long-windedness, trying to tell a taut thriller story with all the nimbleness of an oil tanker trying to turn.

25
Les Misérables

Brian De Palma’s long-delayed Domino invoked a similar sense of urban warfare, although its thematic reach invoked geopolitics and media event-making, his heroes defined by the struggles to direct their well-honed skills despite their own earthbound humanity. Ladj Ly hijacked the title and original spirit of Victor Hugo’s venerable Les Misérables for a very contemporary study of the Parisian neighbourhood where, long ago, Hugo wrote his tome, now crammed with poor immigrants. Ly depicted a newly transferred cop’s experiences with his bilious, exasperated partners and the seething, easily provoked denizens, with an adolescent boy’s act of thievery kicking off snowballing acts of abuse and confrontation. Ly expertly charted the social schisms and little ironies inherent in the locale and cleverly built tension as the seemingly happenstance meshed into a trap of fate, even if the essential set-up wasn’t that original and the sociology never deeply interrogated: how many times in movies and TV have we seen bullish cops and troubled youth make friction until they kindle a blaze? Moreover, the movie resolved in a lady-or-the-tiger situation more liable to exasperate than distress.

26
Shaft

Where the first John Wick movie, the renascent Keanu Reeves’ all-style-no-substance action franchise, left me quite bored, the second episode at least managed to complicate its oddball universe and leave off on an intriguingly precipitous note. The third episode, Parabellum, got off to a good start as Wick had to battle off armies of assassins, including one stirring quote from Sergio Leone, and fun turns from Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos. But as it lumbered on it became clear that for all the hyped-up yet pointless fight sequences, this episode was simply one long exercise in marking time, quite truly sound and fury signifying nothing. Nominally engaging a similar zone of urban thriller grit but in a completely different key, Tim Story’s Shaft invoked not just the stature of Gordon Parks’ 1971 hit but also John Singleton’s 2001 sequel-cum-reboot. Samuel L. Jackson reprised his role as John Shaft Jnr, Richard Roundtree returned as the grizzled but still potent elder, and Jessie T. Usher was installed as grandson JJ, a milquetoast FBI agent who evolves into a next-generation standard bearer. The original’s suave, clever, worldly Shaft was left far behind, instead offering more a riff on Jackson’s familiar persona as a truculent hard-ass, and the new edition tended far more cartoonish than its predecessors. But Jackson and Regina Hall as his perpetually aggravated ex gave performances of whirling-dervish comic ability, the outing had spunky energy and real understanding of the appeal of star power, earning the status of guilty pleasure.

27
Avengers: Endgame

2019 delivered a deluge of would-be blockbusters, most of them at least nominally in the science fiction genre. The superhero vogue reached its official zenith with Avengers: Endgame, a pseudo-epic that saw the familiar team return for one last adventure with daunting stakes, trying to undo archenemy Thanos’ exterminating victory through time travel. Endgame certainly hit the spot for a vast number of moviegoers. It left me dispirited, however, even in comparison to the better-organised, more exciting Infinity War. The directing Russo brothers sacrificed vast swathes of running time to reiterating well-worn parental traumas for its characters whilst neglecting their camaraderie, served some heroes very poorly, and slogged through a plotline more busy than epic. Worst of all, it somehow became the biggest hit in movie history whilst representing cinema’s ultimate surrender to a drearily digitised aesthetic somewhere between seniors insurance commercial and video game desktop wallpaper.

28
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Another great epoch in blockbuster hype concluded as J.J. Abrams rounded off the third Star Wars trilogy, delivering Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams had a job of work ahead of him to conclude the saga in anything like a coherent and satisfying manner, especially considering how the previous episode left much of the narrative infrastructure in tatters, and the disorderly development of the new trilogy was more obvious than ever. The strain of trying to come up with something momentous enough to please fans, critics, the studio, and general audiences all at once showed, in a film stuffed to bursting point as it laboured to do justice to the characters and motifs already in motion but introducing a grab-bag of new ones too. And yet as a totality the episode was as much buoyed by excess as it was hampered, with a blissfully freewheeling pace and a real sense of dramatic weight in its most important scenes. The storyline took the crucial duologue of heroine and antihero to some interesting new places, and Abrams offered some powerful flashes of visual mystique.

29
Captain Marvel

Shazam! proved an entertaining and well-made entry for the Warner Bros./DC universe, which confirmed signs in last year’s Aquaman that, having abandoned cyberpunk grandeur as the series model, the new one is ‘80s blockbusters. Director David F. Sandberg went for a full-blooded tone and really grasped the empowerment fantasy complete with a finale where its collection of hapless orphans became a stable of bemuscled champions, whilst only slightly diluting the found-family sentimentality with knowing. The familiar enemies of lumpen CGI and over-length did retard the product, but not too greatly. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel aimed for a similar gloss of playful nostalgia, casting Brie Larson as a spirited military pilot who evolves into the eponymous spacefaring swashbuckler after getting caught in the middle of an intergalactic war. Larson and costar Samuel L. Jackson did their best to make everything seem gallant and chirpy, but the script might as well have been was written on a tissue, and Boden and Fleck’s direction was stupefyingly plastic.

30
Brightburn

David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, written by two members of the Gunn family dynasty, offered an intriguing basic premise in taking up Superman’s origin story in all basic details but recasting the adopted alien superbeing as a psychopathic parasite whose genetic programming kicks in at puberty, leading him to wreak carnage as he comes to understand his role and powers. There was certainly a prospect here to deliver a scurrilous assault on the all-conquering superhero genre and a twist on slasher movie chestnuts, and it mooted an interesting, emotionally immediate theme in the spectacle of desperate broodiness turning a blind eye to all warning signs. Actually delivering on such potential proved beyond the filmmakers: the storyline showed it cards far too soon, and devolved into an inevitable string of bluntly gory killings as a sense of the inevitable robbed proceedings of surprises and tension. F. Gary Gray reportedly had a hard time behind the scenes in taking on another backdated franchise, with Men In Black: International. The filmmakers had the right idea in reuniting Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson to expand on their chemistry, and the notion of turning the established concept’s framework from cop tale to extra-terrestrial spy movie parody, with Hemsworth as a hunkier Maxwell Smart, could have resulted in something really good. The movie failed to do anything even faintly original and exciting with such quality parts, however, completely neglecting the founding film’s oddball streak as well as its propelling concept as a metaphor for modern subcultures, filling in instead with weak plotting and some laboriously on-trend nods.

31
Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a designated critical and box office bombsite, but I liked it a lot. Debuting director Michael Dougherty honoured the old Toho franchise with real affection, and added new layers. Like its monsters it was a bit too big and cumbersome. But it also wielded a proper sense of immense spectacle that also described the emotional chaos of its human characters, and gained zany energy in fusing together classic bits of kaiju eiga and Lovecraftian lore. Of all the FX spectacles released this year, it seemed the one least embarrassed with itself. Simon Kinberg, like Dougherty a Hollywood player trying to level up, took his tilt at ushering out the X-Men franchise as we’ve known it with Dark Phoenix, recapitulating Jean Grey’s infestation by an alien energy that exacerbates her wild mutant talent. The film was met with particular derision, but again I liked it more than the last 3 or 4 entries in this franchise, with Kinberg retaining a down-to-earth approach to action, and a serious sense of the characters, contending in their different ways with knowing the extraordinary is possible whilst languishing in a depressingly predictable world: this felt more keen to the moment for me than many number of others attempts to nail the zeitgeist down. But the very end went bewilderingly awry, punching unexplained holes in series continuity for the sake of an unearned note of closure.

32
Fast Color

Julia Hart’s Fast Color offered an intriguing variation on the notion of people with extraordinary powers subsisting in clandestine fashion, used to illustrate an intriguing metaphor for the covert strength and resilience of matrilineal traditions, in depicting three generations of African-American women blessed with mysterious but tormenting gifts that ultimately prove to have world-saving potential. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was particularly good in the central role and Hart’s direction effectively fused the mundane and the fantastic, although what felt like a very cramped production limited its ultimate effect. Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate had some unusual similarities, in also concentrating on a rebel band of mutually reliant women contending with impending apocalypse and pursuing authority, whilst also trying to revive a doggedly beloved but waning franchise. The return of Linda Hamilton’s majestic Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sardonically pokerfaced T-800 offered shots of grizzled, nostalgic appeal to punch up a script lacking any true innovation and imagination. Actually, Mackenzie Davis provided the best reason to watch as the latest dedicated defender from the future, even if the plot gave her tour of duty little to distinguish it.

33
Joker

M. Night Shyamalan signalled intent to get back in on the superhero craze he gave some impetus to with 2000’s Unbreakable, offering Glass as a sequel to both that film and 2017’s Split. The movie pitted Bruce Willis’ homey hero against Samuel L. Jackson’s nefarious title character and James McAvoy’s multitude of acting class skits, with Sarah Paulson added for a neat study in smiling castration as a psychiatrist with a mysterious agenda. The result was initially engaging but went nowhere fast, Shyamalan backsliding with alarming speed into familiar habits of empty showmanship and witless meta pizzazz that laboured desperately to disconnect itself from any hint of the material’s pulpy roots. Todd Phillips’ Joker became the year’s succes de scandale in netting the Golden Lion at Venice whilst provoking oodles of ridiculous pre-release commentary. When it did come out Joker scored big at the box office and became perhaps the instant go-to archetype of what you think is a really great grown-up movie when you’re 13. The actual movie, a middling rip-off of several superior films and sporting a violently overhyped Joaquin Phoenix performance, wielded an effectively grimy feel, but only offered vague and generic social critique and misfit-turned-vigilante clichés, so loosely anchored to a nominal basis in comic book lore that it managed to betray both those roots as well as any ideals of proper drama.

34
Dumbo

Disney’s much-discussed and wearying grip on the box office in 2019 came in large part through expertly playing to several audiences, offering up plenty of material for young viewers whilst also repackaging old successes just in time for the first wave of Millennial nostalgia. Whilst Jon Favreau and Guy Ritchie were richly rewarded for doing hackwork in helming The Lion King and Aladdin respectively, Tim Burton placed his neck on the chopping block as he deigned to helm one of Disney’s live-action remakes of more hallowed animated fare, in his case Dumbo. Burton’s film was imperfect but at least an honourable negotiation, his familiar gothic tint lightly applied to lush period Americana, perfect for a tale of the misbegotten’s gentle melancholia struggling to bloom for a romantic adventure. The film had a better performance from its CGI title character than many real actors offered in the course of the year, and Burton’s theme of the regret inherent in selling private dreams to large entertainment concerns came perilously close to biting the hand currently feeding him.

35
Aladdin

Aladdin was a much bigger hit, but despite Ritchie’s relentless attempts to invest the splashy production with vaudevillian energy, the project never felt anything but forced and hollow. Will Smith turned hammy and floundering with third-rate material as an all-powerful Genie who still couldn’t conjure up good comedy writers. The rest of the cast was boring and wooden, and the price we keep paying for “Let It Go” notched higher with the one new song tacked onto the dolorously well-scrubbed score. Rob Letterman’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opened a campaign to build a big screen franchise out of the gaming and anime property. The product was so functional, processed, and bland it made Styrofoam seem tasty, and yet it was kept watchable by Ryan Reynolds’ affable shtick as the mysteriously loquacious title character, and Kathryn Newton’s zest as a plucky reporter: anyone wanting to update Torchy Blane for the 21st century should hire her.

36The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 offered a gallery of cute animated house pets, many of them blessed with voiceover work by a top-drawer cast, and their adventures in trying to save a white tiger cub from a vicious circus owner whilst canine protagonist Max (Patton Oswalt) learns to let go of his protective role over his owners’ infant son and mans up under the tutelage of a gruff farm dog (Harrison Ford). The film certainly wasn’t any sort of classic, but it was slickly animated, occasionally quite funny, and offered an unpretentious simile for the trials and tribulations of helicopter parenting. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part saw Mike Mitchell subbing for Phil Lord and Chris Miller, taking up the lingering note of threat to lad paradise at the end of the first instalment to portray one boy’s efforts to play nice with his sister through the prism of unruly Lego avatars. As a second helping, it couldn’t recapture the original’s furious pace and heady legerdemain in making comedy from nerd-canon literacy. But in some respects it was more sophisticated and substantial in marrying absurdist humour with insight into childhood dynamics. Plus that song got stuck inside my head.

37
Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez joined forces with writer-producer James Cameron to adapt the manga Alita: Battle Angel as a CGI-heavy action-adventure flick, following Rosy Salazar’s robotic heroine from junkyard foundling to unleashed supersoldier. Rodriguez executed the film in a more colourful and expansive version of his stylised Sin City films. Salazar proved a capable star as the empathic but vigorous title character. The movie ultimately left a bad taste in the mouth despite her however, with swerves into ugly violence and distressingly tacky-looking special effects throughout. Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth made waves by scoring a colossal success at the Chinese box office, evincing that country’s new outlook in offering not historical gallivanting but mammoth sci-fi action filmmaking. As a movie, The Wandering Earth was much less notable, a flat, flashy, alternately wooden and overacted assimilation of Hollywood’s goofier precincts, and how much it entertained depended on how much you wanted to turn your brain off. Zhang Yimou’s Shadow was more traditional, a martial arts action flick set in a mythic past, albeit with the action essentially offered as decoration for a dark melodrama about identity and loyalty that built beautifully to a finale where underclass rage and feckless aristocratic entitlement meet and lose all shape: the result was perhaps Zhang’s finest excursion into genre film to date.

38
Crawl

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl sounded just like what the doctor ordered amidst the desultory mid-year blockbusters, an unpretentious thrill-ride built around a perfect cliffhanger situation, pitting a young would-be swimming champ and her injured father against alligators amidst a raging hurricane. The result was entertaining in a kinetic and mindless manner, but the attempt to stretch the situation out to fill an entire movie via contrived thrills, as well as a rather tinny dramatic pitch, kept it from being anything like as good as it could have been. Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It concluded with It: Chapter Two, a capstone taking up the tale of Derry, Maine’s Losers gang, now forty-somethings in various states of middle-aged unease, forced to return to their home town and do battle once more with the monstrous wraith Pennywise. The film’s bloated expanse incidentally confirmed how clumsy Muschietti’s first part was in laying out story essentials by having to introduce some here via flashbacks, whilst being incompetent in itself. The characters were still sketchy assemblages of identifying traits and cliché traumas battling an endless succession of lacklustre shock sequences, building to a finale that tried to make an agreeable point about victim empowerment that unfortunately reduced an unholy cosmic terror to something that could be defeated by a schoolyard chant, an event horizon for the horror-is-a-metaphor-for-something school of thought. Good actors like Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy went terribly wasted.

39
Gemini Man

Hobbs & Shaw set out to expand the Fast and Furious franchise by forcibly uniting Dwayne Johnson’s hulking FBI agent and Jason Statham’s reformed mercenary, in an entry replete with middling rival alpha comedy and passable action scenes. John Wick and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch failed to inject much of his patented Vodka ad style, and Idris Elba and Eiza Gonzalez were pathetically wasted as the android villain and a criminal queen. To be fair, though, eventually it cut loose with a gleefully ridiculous finale, and Vanessa Kirby as Shaw’s kick-ass sister gave a dose of elegant spunk. Ang Lee continued his recent campaign to revitalise cinematic showmanship through technological advancement in releasing Gemini Man, Will Smith’s second underwhelming stint in front of a green screen for the year. Lee pitted the middle-aged Smith against a CGI simulacrum of his younger self, as he played a brilliant but burned-out hitman forced to go up against a clone raised by his former mentor turned enemy. In flashes, Lee recalled the graceful staging and sense of physical action of his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon days and he tried to work in his familiar motif, the struggle with one’s sense of self and one’s progenitors, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong gave expert support as Smith’s allies. But the storyline was excruciatingly familiar and clichéd, decorated with action sequences lacking real conceptual edge, whilst the fancy effects proved largely underwhelming and sometimes actively annoying. Worst of all, Smith was called upon to give one of the least animated performances of his career so the one-note inexpressiveness of his digital doppelganger wouldn’t seem too flaccid.

40
Knives Out

Jim Jarmusch, having tackled vampires in 2014 with Only Lovers Left Alive, turned to the living dead for The Dead Don’t Die, depicting the chaos befalling a small town during a zombie apocalypse, with Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny as the outmatched local cops, and Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician with a secret, amongst a host of other notable players. The result was fitfully amusing and Jarmusch indulged a waggish brand of fourth-wall-breaking, with characters who know the film’s theme song and have read the end of the script, plus a late swerve into another genre. But the film almost entirely lacked its precursor’s richness as a deconstruction of genre concepts, settling instead for recapitulating the already given themes of the Romero zombie flick as a dull screed with some witless satirical jabs, and failing to make much of his excellent cast save a superlative Sevigny and a cunningly deadpan Driver. By contrast, Peter Strickland’s return with In Fabric saw the director balancing black comedy, fetishistic horror, and surrealist consumer satire with dazzling gall. Rian Johnson recovered after his divisive Star Wars outing with Knives Out, a wry and energetic twist on whodunit essentials that suited Johnson’s sensibility far better, with a pointed, merrily obvious subtext taking aim at arrogant privilege being displaced by immigrant pluck and decency.

41
Hellboy

After patiently waiting nine years for a new movie from Neil Marshall, it proved especially disheartening that he should return with a reboot of Hellboy, stepping into Guillermo Del Toro’s very large shoes for a movie that never stopped feeling like a studio trying to squeeze juice out of a convenient intellectual property. Miraculously, some essence of Hellboy as a character, along with his circle of outcasts and eccentrics, came through, and Marshall occasionally nailed the tone of gory-corny musketeering he was aiming for. But overall the film badly lacked Del Toro’s playful yet earnest connection with the material, with lashings of CGI bloodletting that couldn’t hide how rote the effects and plot stakes were.

42
Top End Wedding

Elizabeth Banks took a stab at rebooting Charlie’s Angels with a suitably trendy makeover, casting aside the day-glo jesting of the early 2000s films as well as the glycerine gloss and blow-dried spunkiness of the old TV series, instead slotting a new selection of omnicompetent ladies into a free-range mash-up of other heist and action movies. The film’s many miscues included casting Kristen Stewart, hardly known for on-screen levity, as the scrappy, zany team member, failing to back her up with some strong and defined star charisma in her co-stars, using a script crammed full of harvested internet memes, and piling on girl power touches about three decades past their use-by date. That might all still have been forgivable if the film had any real wit or skill in staging action, but the result seemed only desperate to be called fun and affirming. The Sapphires director Wayne Blair and star Miranda Tapsell reunited for Top End Wedding, a starring role Tapsell cowrote for herself. Tapsell’s enormous appeal and skill as a comic performer and a generally good-natured vibe in contending with the clashing vagaries of modern and traditional identities helped keep the movie watchable. But the confused story and pat emotional resolutions saw Tapsell cheating herself of a vehicle worthy of her.

43
Ride Like A Girl

Rachel Griffiths, an actor who had shown a breezy touch in her sporadic short films, made her feature debut with Ride Like A Girl, a biopic depicting the often gruelling life course jockey Michelle Payne travelled to gain her landmark 2015 Melbourne Cup win. Payne’s story was certainly worth a movie and came with its feminist message built in, and the ever-undervalued Teresa Palmer supplied a strongly felt lead performance where you could feel the character’s many hard knocks etching themselves on her bones. But again the script was a cornball amalgam of crowd-pleaser clichés and formulaic dramatic swerves, with costar Sam Neill gorgonized by some of the dramatic beats and lines he was obliged to enact. The project as a whole was swathed in impersonal gloss, with Griffiths’ direction long on cute touches like a flock of betting nuns, but short on specifics, like scarcely properly identifying many members of Payne’s big brood.

44
Midway

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan was another Aussie film depicting a true subject, albeit one rather more grave, depicting the clash between green conscripts and their estranged leadership when thrown into a vicious battle with North Vietnamese soldiers in 1966. Red Dog director Kriv Stenders handled events mostly with insipid professionalism, although he did try early on to offer a dialogue of perspectives on battle – chaotic immersion for fighters, distant glimpses for hapless entertainers, sputtering radio reports for the commanders. That gave way however to overworked visuals and clunky war movie cliches. Somehow screenwriter Stuart Beattie dared not only to offer a variation on “It’s quiet” “Yes, too quiet” but followed it immediately with one soldier showing another a picture of his family. Another recreation of a famous battle, Midway saw Roland Emmerich trying to mesh his penchant for historical subjects with his more familiar trash-spectacle expertise in depicting the early months of the Pacific War, climaxing in a big, brash recreation of the titular naval battle. Emmerich’s long-apparent desire to make a proper 1950s B war movie with modern special effects finally found true realisation, and early reels loped awkwardly with some tonelessly jut-jawed acting and lapses into near-cartoonish affect. Like a few of Emmerich’s films it proved however cumulatively something better than initially proposed, as he tried to counterbalance a straightforward depiction of heroism with a more holistic and attentive attempt to convey a moment in history and its players than Michael Bay’s haplessly melodramatic Pearl Harbor. Emmerich’s fluid visual gifts touched the wartime action with a sense of beauty as well as thrilling immediacy.

45
Hustlers

British bandit of bland James Marsh offered King of Thieves, recounting the true story of a gang of elderly underworld figures who banded together to pull off a colossal diamond heist, only to be undone by their long-simmering enmities and tunnelvisioned worldviews. It was worth watching to see a battery of terrific actors still strutting their stuff as men to whom age brought no wisdom, and yet Marsh’s limply jaunty style couldn’t mesh with the low-key storyline and the script never worked out what the real crux of the drama was. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers was another, lightly fictionalised spin on a real-life case involving sympathetic devils, a gang of strippers who, hitting hard times after the global financial crisis, started drugging and robbing men under the guise of hard partying. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez anchored the film with smart performances, and Scafaria’s direction was both muscular and finely textured, turning sequences of bump-and-grind and felony into arias of physical and mental contest, making it one of the best of the many fake Scorsese films in recent years. Scafaria also managed what most directors to try it before her failed to do: weaponize J-Lo’s celebrated booty. The characterisations were shallow and evasive, however, with Lopez’s character in particular intriguingly sketched but never fleshed out, and Scafaria left me unsure us to just how seriously we were supposed to take its characters’ facetious self-justifications as social commentary.

46
Synonyms

Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday offered a more focused and quietly remorseless tilt at a similar subject, portraying an attractive young female trophy who in one gesture rebels against and accepts the logic and cruel pleasures of an abusive subculture. Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms recounted the anxious adventures of a young Israeli man fresh out of the army, who lands in Paris determined to recreate himself as a Frenchman, a being he conceives in the most quixotic fashion. He is slowly disillusioned in the face of poverty and the subtly vampiric relationship he strikes up with a privileged, arty young couple, whilst his strong young buck’s body slowly becomes a rather cynical object of exploitation for him and others. Lapid, dramatizing his own experiences, managed the creeping transition from a sprightly tale of romantic overreach to a clammy portrait of a man’s incapacity to escape himself and the immigrant’s agonies in trying to change from one state of sponsored self-delusion to another. Tom Mercier’s excellent lead performance was charged with just the right kind of neurotic energy. And yet something about the film didn’t quite cohere, its calculated ambiguities, particularly in regards to the central character’s mentality, ultimately rendering it merely a collection of impressive vignettes rather than a coherent character and social study.

47
Luce

Julius Onah’s Luce took up a similar concern, the discomfort of the transplanted, and also had a certain resemblance to Brightburn. The title character, a former Eritrean child soldier adopted by some Americans bourgeois and transformed into a poster boy student, seems to begin a war of nerves with a teacher he believes unfairly treated one of his friends. The film, adapted rather obviously from a play, tackled a host of hot-button notions and was most effective at portraying the kind of performances black (and other) Americans are expected to put on for the sake of enforced equilibrium: Octavia Spencer, as usual, was splendid in an hesitantly written role. The pseudo-thriller framework was more aggravating than tension-provoking, however, foiling its dramatic punch as it reduced the essential question to whether or not Luce was the next Obama or Unabomber, as one of far too many recent dramas unambiguously about ambiguity, before throwing up its hands.

48
Share

Pippa Bianco’s Share was another adventure in high schooler angst and one that took seriously an issue Luce grazed rather foolishly, analysing the impossible position of a teenage girl who awakens on her front lawn after blacking out at party and must face the legal and personal fallout as fragmentary video footage of the party leaks out. Bianco did an admirable job avoiding the tone of an op-ed piece or cautionary after school special, the fuzzy digicam naturalism meshing effectively with a story rooted in disorientation and confused feelings, although the story and characterisations ultimately proved a little too superficial and so never really transcended the realm of illustrative cautionary anecdote. The Upside, Neil Burger’s remake of the French hit The Intouchables, relied entirely on the expert playing of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston as a man flailing after a prison stretch and a paralysed tycoon who forge a friendship and help each-other overcome their various life crises. The film got a long way on playing games with prettily photographed stereotyping and the most obvious tweaks therein – ha ha! a black ex-con liking opera! a stoned rich white guy! – but did offer flashes of emotional depth as it unfolded.

49
Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name united a formidable battery of creative talents: screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tackled another of their trademark biographical subjects in Rudy Ray Moore, the flailing nightclub comic who reinvented himself as a folk hero with his Dolemite character and found unlikely cinematic success. Craig Brewer took on directing duties and Eddie Murphy played Moore. Murphy was characteristically terrific, nailing Moore’s blend of bluster and ingenuity, and he was backed up by some delightful supporting turns including Wesley Snipes as the perplexed D’urville Martin. Overall the film was good fun, even if the script recycled a few too many jokes and flourishes from the writers’ Ed Wood, and Brewer’s direction was oddly lacking in his usual, shaggy energy and texture: where Moore’s work had madcap confidence, Brewer’s take on it was only slick and sufficient. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood likewise revisted a wilder, woolier age in filmmaking, and amongst its manifold qualities it depicted the co-dependent reliance of actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman-cum-dogsbody-cum best pal Cliff Booth, as they face unemployment and more overt terrors in a changing cultural moment.

50
Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods played as a fringe underclass variation on the topic of women relying on each-other in tough times, with Tessa Thompson and Lily James playing sisters in a North Dakota town, one trying to walk the line after being busted for smuggling prescription drugs out of Canada and the other contending with an unwanted pregnancy. DaCosta’s terse, evocative direction and sense of milieu went a long way, and Thompson and James cemented their resumes with effective if occasionally theatrical performances, as well as Lance Reddick as a solicitous parole officer. Ultimately, though, the film didn’t really distinguish itself that much amidst a plethora of recent movies depicting hard times in flyover states, with a cliché collection of bearded deadbeats offered as foils for the heroines. Chinese wunderkind auteur Bi Gan went for a deep dive in carefully delineated zones of cinema and consciousness with Long Day’s Journey Into Night even as he also described a depressed and backwards region and the people subsisting there. His film was half bleary meditation, half lucid dream about making peace with the past and self in the context of China’s gritty and decaying provinces not yet caught up with the national boom.

51
Marriage Story

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White likewise wrestled with the sense of jarring uprooting and the petty sadisms of aging. Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory took on the same concerns with a more overtly autobiographical inflection, meditating on the director’s life and career in a tapestry of past and present, art and life. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also transmuted a director’s personal experience into a would-be incisive drama laced with barbed comedy. Baumbach depicted the agonising way good intentions in divorce easily slide into recrimination and legal drama, as Adam Driver’s engrossed New York theatre director ends his union with Scarlett Johansson’s once-and-future LA star wife and struggles to stay in his young son’s life. The film neatly captured the ratcheting frustration such situations generate, and sported terrific supporting turns from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as divorce lawyers who channel their personal outlooks into cases. But as usual with Baumbach I found it overall too archly loquacious and smugly theatrical to really galvanise, and also far too tightly wedged in a privileged niche. The characterisations evoked the surface furore in a disintegrating partnership but stopped well short of really exploring its central figures as both individuals and a failed couple, whilst Baumbach’s efforts to net awards attention saw a new mawkishness and episodes of strident acting spectacle bloom despite the stars’ great efforts. Also, Randy Newman’s score annoyed the shit out of me.

52
Jojo Rabbit

Marriage Story was however certainly part of a terrific year for Johansson, who also invested her mainstay heroine Black Widow with a tint of melancholic necessity in holding down the fort before meeting a tragic end for a noble cause in Avengers: Endgame, and was tremendous as the doomed radical mother of Jojo Rabbit. The latter film saw Taika Waititi, after his own sojourn in Marvel service, returning to his more common concern with a child’s perspective on the adult world this time attached to a risky topic. Jojo Rabbit was the account of a young German boy weathering the last six months of World War II, instilled with fanatical love of Hitler so thoroughly that he conjures his own fondly imagined version of the Fuhrer as a mentor, but eventually confronts reality when he discovers a Jewish girl living in their attic. Waititi’s evocation of the young hero’s viewpoint with all its transformative inflections helped the film keep balanced whilst exploring madly divergent tones, although Waititi’s goofy, anachronism-laced approach hampered any hope of truly disquieting meaning, not quite working as a portrait of a specific age nor exactly nailing a more general thesis about misaligned hero worship and in-crowd longing.

53
The Two Popes

Most other 2019 films dealing with history played a more familiar game. The Two Popes offered an intriguing proposition, a chamber piece drama describing the retirement of the arch-conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his uneasy conversations with the modern and open-minded Jorge Borgoglio, about to become Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles trying to imbue a distinctively South American lilt to the portrayal of Francis’s ascension. The stage was set for a meaty portrayal of two completely different men enclosed nominally by a common tradition expounding on serious and urgent moral issues and the various crises facing the church, as inhabited by two great actors. That film never quite arrived, however: what we got instead was a sort of buddy comedy and glossed-over piece of Church-approved marketing that quite literally muted Benedict’s role in hampering action against criminal priests, whilst offering a once-over-lightly portrait of Bergoglio’s own experiences and lapses under the Argentine junta, before assuring us that as long as the Pope can enjoy a soccer game everything’s pretty forgivable. Some of Meirelles’ lushly decorative shots confirmed he still has an eye, but he should still be ashamed of himself.

54
Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets followed his drone war drama Eye in the Sky as another slickly packaged study of contemporary political dilemmas, this time recounting the true tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun’s struggles with government chicanery in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Keira Knightley’s customarily strong central performance, capturing Gun’s unstable mixture of flighty uncertainty and deeper resilience, gave the film backbone, and Ralph Fiennes was equally good as her calm and cunning lawyer. Gun’s story, however, was a bit too thin and anticlimactic to justify an entire movie, and the neat, audience-flattering approach to a fraught moment in recent history was ultimately a bit cheap. Scott Z. Burns likewise tackled the War on Terror’s fallout in The Report, a journalistic portrayal of the efforts of a US Senatorial staffer to compile a comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture program unleashed on captive suspects in the wake of 9/11. Burns’ crisp direction laid down the details with admirable clarity, ably describing the way bureaucracy and political balancing acts foil accountability, even if the gestures towards character drama and tension were mostly supernal.

55
Hotel Mumbai

Anthony Maras made a bold feature debut with Hotel Mumbai, recounting the dreadful events in the Taj Hotel at the climax of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Dev Patel wielded his familiar aura of guileless yet stalwart humanity as the waiter who exemplified the hotel staff’s dedication amidst the horror, amongst a squad of quality actors. The depiction of the events as a pulse-pounding thriller veered towards the tactless on occasions amidst the delirious carnage, but Maras managed to coherently depict the furore of such nightmarish straits and maintained a sense of pathos even in the gunmen, depicted as bribed and brainwashed yokels who nonetheless thoroughly owned their villainy, driven to acts of astounding callousness to nullify their own bewilderment at a word that refuses to obey a neat moral order. James Mangold got back to doing what he does best for his first non-Wolverine movie since the ‘00s for Ford v Ferrari, recounting a clash of carmakers in the mid-1960s climaxing in the infamous 1966 Le Mans race, but more deeply interested in the travails of the people hired to enact contests of plutocratic ego with their own acts of genius and physical commitment. The script leaned a tad too heavily on some conventions straight out screenwriting manuals, and yet Mangold’s flashy, detailed direction and lush sense of the period backed up the terrific cast’s expert work in creating a popular entertainment actually worthy of the name.

56
Richard Jewell

Martin Scorsese’s name was used in vain throughout 2019 when he dared critique the notion that popularity is virtue in cinema, but he put his money where his mouth is in style with I Heard You Paint Houses, called The Irishman in promotion, a revisit to his old gangster movie stomping ground based in the allegedly authentic exploits of Teamster official and supposed Jimmy Hoffa assassin Frank Sheeran. Clint Eastwood tackled another page of recent history in his ongoing project of locating unexpected value amongst ordinary, often scorned people, with Richard Jewell. This time he harked back to the mid-1990s and the story of the portly security guard whose punctilious approach to his job helped save lives amidst the infamous bombing of a public concert during the Atlanta Olympics, only to find himself the lead suspect behind the attack chiefly because of stereotyping. Eastwood’s cool and measured directing counted amongst his best as he depicted the actual bombing, even down a witty use of the Macarena to not just nail down the time period but describe a moment of communal experience. But he also nudged the material towards the melodramatic and partisan as he offered a version of Jewell that did some caricaturing of its own, making him seem more like a persecuted naïf than he ever appeared in real life, and his enemies in the media and FBI into blunt instruments of ego and unchecked power. It was a reminder that Eastwood, once a nuanced and complex conservative artist, has lately been degenerating into punchy propagandist. Nonetheless, within such limits the cast had a ball, particularly Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Olivia Wilde as the tabloid spirit incarnate.

57
Dark Waters

Dexter Fletcher followed his rescue work on 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody with Rocketman, a portrait of Elton John, tracking his rise from prodigious but emotionally bereft boy, through stardom and a spiralling crisis of drug use whilst contending with his queerness, to eventual recovery and self-acceptance. Fletcher mashed together approaches and styles, making the film part standard biopic, part jukebox musical, part sub-Ken Russell fantasia, and part TV talent show bumper, sporting Taron Egerton’s superficially convincing approximation. None of it congealed, however, with a desperate shortage of story to tell, a surplus of shallow psychology, and even a lack of promised gritty sexuality: despite Fletcher’s many, often clumsy magic-realist flourishes, it couldn’t even finish with good spectacle. Todd Haynes turned his rarefied, acquired-taste aesthetic to a mainstream end with Dark Waters, the tale of a corporate lawyer drawn into advocating for a West Virginia town where he has roots as it becomes clear residents’ lives have been poisoned by Dupont dumping carcinogenic Teflon waste from a local plant. Haynes made it a fittingly explanatory companion piece to Safe, as well as a peculiarly muted and world-weary variation on the familiar crusading lawyer tale, noting the capricious nature of life between the official margins as the case drags on for years and the might of a monolithic corporation seems intractable. Mark Ruffalo did fine work in the lead, although Bill Pullman stole scenes as a colourful legal ally.

58
A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick resumed a relatively conventional narrative form for A Hidden Life, contending again with the issue he wrestled with in The Thin Red Line, the possibility and meaning of pacifistic stands in wartime. This time he recounted the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler. The leisurely three-hour running time was wielded with a sense of purpose, as Malick tried to capture a sense of open spiritual experience balanced by a portrait of a society sliding towards bigotry and scapegoating. The customarily dazzling imagery drank in the beauty of Jägerstätter’s native Alps and was attentive to the physical immediacy of his performers, and despite a grim theme and length the film held attention easily. That very silkiness was a signifier of the underlying problem, however, as it failed to truly ignite the sweat-inducing fires of imminent martyrdom and real moral and mortal terror. Malick’s sense of Jägerstätter’s saintliness was so airy it never touched earth. As a whole it proved one of Malick’s least original and compulsive labours to date, as the straightforward method cut off access to his poetic arsenal whilst failing as prose to really gain access to any character’s head, so Malick was largely reduced to offering variations on the same two or three scenes over and over.

59
The Chambermaid

The Chambermaid, actor-turned-director Lila Avilés’ debut feature, depicted the working travails of Evelia, palpably incarnated by Gabriela Cartol, a young, single mother who works in a luxury downtown hotel in Mexico City, and her encounters with coworkers and guests, trying to maintain a taciturn and businesslike demeanour in her quest to get ahead. Avilés deftly sustained a mode of cinema based around the rhythms of a workaday world, a constant roundelay of toil leavened by flashes of both farcicality and crisis amidst floating islands of luxury, populated by the daffy despots of privilege. Only towards the end, as Avilés piled up dashed hopes for Evelia, did it start feeling untrue to her initial, observational project in order to underline a point. Tell It To The Bees, one-time Super Mario Bros auteur Annabel Jankel’s adaptation of a respected novel, wanted to be a British equivalent to Todd Haynes’ Carol as it portrayed a working class woman of the mid-1950s with a young son who, after breaking up with her thuggish husband, falls in love with a female doctor new to her town. Holliday Grainger and Anna Paquin did right by their roles, but the film’s sluggish, precious tone and ridiculous late swerves into both melodrama and magic-realist inanity aimed for daring but gained only embarrassment.

60
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was a carefully paced, concertedly self-serious period drama about a young female painter commissioned to paint the portrait of a young bride-to-be for a distant, arranged intended’s inspection, but finds herself falling in passionate love with her moody, cloistered subject instead. Sciamma managed for the most part to walk a fine line between potential traps of Harlequin romance and anachronism, delivering a keenly felt tragic romance laced with finely observed touches and excellent lead performances. That said, I found the early scenes, with the artist-heroine’s attempts to divine both her own nature and the mysterious blank that is the assigned centre of her art with an implied struggle between phony artistic conventions and psychological reality, more interesting than the affair once it fully bloomed, the style a little too cleanly glazed to entirely evoke the depth of anarchic passion running under a staid surface the title image evoked, although the elegance of the last shot was a great salve.

61
Transit

German director Christian Petzold, maker of Phoenix, returned with another tale of people displaced and cleaved from identity by war and dislocation, Transit. Petzold’s boldest decision was to take Anna Steghers’ World War II-set source novel and retain its period specifics, but play it out in present-day surrounds, Nazi occupiers dressed like French SWAT teams and the like, erasing the gap of years between the refugee crises of the past and present to elucidate our short tribal memories. Petzold’s vision proved beautifully controlled in parsing his characters’ state of entrapment in an everyday setting, and the quietly tormenting anxiety of the refugee’s lot, watching as they try to cling to their morals and illusions. But as with Phoenix, Petzold’s penchant for vaguely Hitchcockian images and themes in his human drama, attached to a central anti-romance revolving around concealed and mistaken identities, cut against the grain of his cool realism and failed, ultimately, to truly resolve into something persuasive.

62
Non-Fiction

Bong Joon-ho captured the year’s Palme d’Or with Parasite, a film that started off as a jolly-nasty satire about a hard-luck family who efficiently insert themselves into the lives a richer clan with various acts of fraud, before becoming a malicious morality play. Bong’s filmmaking was at its most energetic and deceptively amusing throughout, and it’s somewhat easily the best of his work I’ve seen. But Bong’s brand of social satire, much as it wields hipster appeal, remains one-note, and the late swerve into bloodletting mostly came across as an attempt to make the film seem less like a well-shot sitcom, whilst failing to even try living up to the more insidiously Bunuelian aspects of its set-up. Non-Fiction was one of those very French movies Olivier Assayas makes in between his attention-getting exercises in po-mo mindbending, tackling the upheavals facing the French publishing industry in the internet age. Such cultural dislocation is experienced by an equable editor trying to decide what his career mission is, his actress wife ensconced in a TV cop show, and a shambolic author who can only write about personal experience, even as their private lives suggest not everything changes in such realms. As a movie it was entertaining if relatively slight for the director, with pretences to hot-button commentary already dated. Assayas’ handling was still sleek and witty, and the portrayal of the randy intelligentsia shot through with both acerbic knowing and affection.

Performances of Note:

Fabienne Babe, Tempting Devils
Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows
Juliette Binoche, High Life ; Non-Fiction
Tom Burke, The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir
Gabriela Cartol, The Chambermaid
Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917
Deng Chao, Shadow
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die ; Marriage Story ; The Report ; Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, In Fabric
Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Endgame ; Jojo Rabbit ; Marriage Story
Sun Li, Shadow
Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum
Vincent Macaigne, Non-Fiction
Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Ruth Negga, Ad Astra
Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense
Brad Pitt, Ad Astra
Christopher Plummer, Knives Out
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out ; Uncut Gems
Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell
Victoria Carmen Sonne, Holiday
Zhao Tao, Ash is Purest White
Ensemble, The Irishman
Ensemble, Hotel By The River
Ensemble, The Lighthouse
Ensemble, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Favorite Films of 2019

63

Ad Astra (James Gray)

Familiar in aspects and yet in totality a creation with a singular creative stamp, Ad Astra was unmistakably a James Gray film even as it saw the director making a valiant stab at breaking out of his craft-art niche to paint on larger canvases without sacrificing his delicate textures. Gray managed a twinning of opposites, a grand odyssey rendered as a sombre, semi-abstract, psychological tale, a story invoking big ideas and vast realms but in the most interior emotional terms. Ad Astra teased apart the Kubrickian blueprint that’s long held sway over the space movie even whilst seeming to honour it, demanding we turn our attention from fantasies of gods and monsters to study the face in the mirror.

64

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

In a particularly excellent year for Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke didn’t offer formal stunts as heroic as Bi Gan or action spectacle as fervently as Zhang Yimou. But his patient, accumulating style, punctuating an earthy sensibility with moments of lyricism and fantasy, tackled a common theme in recent film, people tied together as they slip from youth to decrepitude and confront their mistakes in spasms of anger and acquiescence. His characters, a gangster and his girlfriend who somehow manage to keep betraying and exiling each-other even as they stumble on through changing times into shambolic co-dependence, made for a sarcastic kind of neo-Western, as China’s prosperity cleared the boondocks of its last feudal lords and drowned memories along with cities under the rising tide.

65

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra)

Made amidst the directing team’s divorce but betraying only sublime balance of sensibilities, Birds of Passage saw Gallego and Guerra following their debut Embrace of the Serpent with another study of South America’s troubled native populaces. This time focusing on Colombia’s Waayu people, the duo used an ill-starred marriage as the central catalyst for a descent into hell, as a tribal identity made potent by tradition is laid waste by involvement in the briefly enriching drug trade. The plot recalled classic gangster movies but told in a manner closer to the cool, folkloric approach of directors like Paradjanov and Herzog, with references to Ancient Greek literature offering mythopoeic echoes to hint how the same stories recur from age to age, world to world.

66

Domino (Brian De Palma)

Domino limped out into the light after several years on the shelf only to be swiftly reburied in general estimation, a once-titanic director tackling a low-budget Euro-thriller that arrived backdated and curtailed. And yet Domino proved a superlative example of what a great director can spin from such crude circumstance, ransacking the material for opportunities for clever filmmaking and sigils of sharp characterisation, along with De Palma’s still-quicksilver feel for the game of cinema correlated with political messaging. De Palma wove in a needling dialectic about characters who cling to philosophies that underpin their actions in the world, and the sorts of faiths, and illusions, that sustain them on the way. Movies of 2019 that cost a hundred times as much couldn’t boast set-pieces as beautifully sustained and diagrammed as the key early rooftop chase and the climactic terrorist attack at a bullfight.

67

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi)

Gaining bizarrely little acclaim despite being a highly accessible yet still rigorously fashioned film from a major director, Everybody Knows saw Farhadi landing in Spain and making deft use of stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, cast as former lovers who find themselves bound together in a fraught reckoning when Cruz’s daughter is kidnapped. If the story frame was melodramatic, it served Farhadi well in lending new intensity and purpose to his usual, novelistic texture in exploring human dynamics, detailing sweat-inducing straits of personal crisis and families in stifling proximity with a needling understanding of the way even the most intimate relationships can be contingent on money and the things it can accomplish. All was fleshed out with a lively, convincing portrayal of communal joy and friction.

68

In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

In comparison with Peter Strickland’s last two works, lushly suggestive and esoteric imaginative realms where dream and waking worlds slowly merged, In Fabric to a certain extent offered a more waggish and explicit, if still often surreally fractured, variation on his honed aesthetic. This time the melding of retro horror tropes with a satire on commercialism’s distorting effect on lifestyle alternated the truly weird with a skit-like sense of humour in recreating bygone textures, in devices like tacky ‘70s late-night TV ads as vehicles for evil influence. The compensation for the new archness was a diptych of insidiously brilliant character portraits, as Strickland pitted hapless everyfolk in oblivious contest with agents of dark forces masquerading as purveyors of consumerist paradise, churned together with a delightfully bizarre and sickly-erotic evocation of the stygian, delivered in images that came on with mesmeric verve.

69

Holiday (Isabella Eklöf)

Sharp and bright as jagged glass and about as cuddly, Holiday presented for our consideration the tale of a young woman who’s attached herself to the boss of a drug trafficking crew and vacations with him and his hard-partying but dreary and moronic clique, weathering storms of abuse and violence in exchange for being an anointed creature of the globetrotting set. When she reaches out for a more becalmed form of affection, the gesture leads to some nihilistic conclusions. Holiday overlapped with Ash is Purest White and well outpaced something like Hustlers in contemplating a young woman who proves far tougher and more dangerous than anyone expects. Eklöf’s cool, taut filmmaking and unnervingly sustained, rhetoric-free approach paid off in a finale that made its central character’s recourse to violence shocking but comprehensible on several levels, from psychic pressure release to self-reassuring achievement of equality.

70

Hotel By The River (Sang-soo Hong)

Hong’s long been a quietly marvellous filmmaker who always manages to skilfully work invest novelty and dexterity into his movies despite their superficial similarity. Hotel By The River took up some of Hong’s well-trod concerns, like artists dealing with the mess of real life and characters wandering in places of humdrum exile where everything feels at once familiar and disorientating, with a new lilt of aged and wintry regret. Here his most lovingly crafted images, crystalline in their simplicity and integrity, became the aesthetic springboard for the deftly tragicomic, in his twinned depictions of mutually reliant women and a father and his sons whose lode of tension and resentment boils over. The very end stepped over a threshold other directors this year marched up to and paused before. Death is an end to pain; it’s the living we have to worry about.

71

I Heard You Paint Houses (aka The Irishman) (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s epic anatomisation of both recent American history and a film genre he helped invent, the modern gangster movie, The Irishman pieced together a cold indictment of both its specific players and the world they represented, relating the maybe-true adventures of hitman and Teamster official Frank Sheeran, who confessed to killing his legendary former boss Jimmy Hoffa. Rarely has such a long film been so tightly wound and cohesive in first forcing the viewer to understand a certain subculture’s worldview and then obliging us to consider the ugliest consequences for buying into it. A great piece of moviemaking that was also that rarest of cinematic blessings, a coherent and fitting monument to filmic figures of the calibre of Scorsese and his battery of still-mighty stars.

72

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

Bi’s second feature felt in many ways like the essential condensation of 2019’s cinema even as it beat most of it to the punch. Bi portrayed landscapes physical, mental, and artistic whilst correlating cinematic experience with the haze of memory and the transformed lucidity of dreaming, via a tale that can only be described as the story after the story, his characters wandering about in the wreckage long after a standard-issue film noir plot has played out, trying to piece together an accurate sense of the past’s meaning and the present’s possibilities. The airier themes were coupled with a pungently evocative contemplation of life in modern China’s backwaters, whilst the long final sequence was an act of cinematic cabalism.

73

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A droll, Cassavetes-like character study and a Proustian recreation of a lost time mated with meta-western and true crime drama, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood saw Quentin Tarantino lingering in unusual territory, at least before the characteristically outrageous finale, in contemplating the terrors of middle age and the travails of weathering a hostile zeitgeist. His ninth film proved at once deeply funny and cumulatively, emotionally piercing, finding a uniquely nimble way to study both the fear of creative irrelevance whilst also celebrating the lingering influence of pop cultural heroism, a force imbued with strange magic: even if it can’t literally save lives, as the climax ironically depicts, it still elevates and envelopes commonplace experience with epic lustre, giving form to modern life it too often otherwise lacks. The Manson Family murders offered their legend as the basis, only to be rudely inverted as the antiheroes doled out harsh chastisement to malign berserkers.

74

Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

The thought of Pedro Almodovar, ever the colourful raconteur and provocateur, getting gloomy and facing up to the predations of age sounded in abstract like a thoroughly depressing chore, and Pain & Glory tackled the subject with a lightly fictionalised gloss that might have proved in the hands of a lesser artist a study in navel-gazing. Almodovar instead turned this into the stuff of one of his best films, a memoir-like portrait of a once-outrageous gay film director struggling to overcome niggling physical ailments and general dejection as he faces decline only to be released for new adventures thanks in large part to revisiting the past and his formative experiences. The film was loaded with beautifully crafted images and portrayals of characters laced with both cutting wit and insight, as well as a spry sexiness that was ultimately invigorating. Antonio Banderas deftly incarnated both the director’s troubled and meditative streak and his remnant lode of bantam cock pride in creative achievement.

75

Shadow (Zhang Yimou)

With Shadow, Zhang tried his hand again at the same conceit he fumbled years ago with The Curse of the Golden Flower: using the trappings of a wu xia saga to depict forms of evil, particularly the venomous nature of unchecked power, and vagaries of identity, as people deform themselves into perverse shapes to fit into social roles even as they contort with lethal vivacity in battle. This time Zhang applied his most dazzling and accomplished stylistics to a cunningly developed and focused story, avoiding his usually lush colour schemes, adopting a nearly monochrome look instead, to lend a noir-like texture to his narrative, where the abstract political games always had a precisely identified impact on human players, complete with a barbed punchline that did cruel things with the familiar worm-turns tale.

76

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

Hogg’s fourth feature gained her a breakthrough to broader recognition with an autobiographical story, but The Souvenir was still a rarefied piece of artistry, building a subtle yet definite emotional texture whilst also unfolding in layers of reference and aesthetic query. Like Almodovar, Hogg asked intelligent questions of a familiar mode of storytelling, scratching out its own path in considering the quandary of an artist’s growth, taking shocks through risk in life. The Souvenir reached back into Hogg’s past and retold a tragic romance, framed through not merely a metafictional statement about artistic becoming but also perceiving how all realities, personal and cultural, are amassed in webs of borrowed likenesses and echoes. How do I know who you are? is also How do I know who I am?

77

Tempting Devils (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

Cheap-looking, capriciously horny, and barely distributed, the final film from an old pervert saw Brisseau plying arthouse-softcore as the shiny wrapping on a beguiling package filled with deeply sardonic romantic and slapstick comedy, philosophical inquiries into art, love, death, and transcendence, anecdotal portrayals of endemic social evil, and gleefully tacky special effects where lesbian threesomes hovered amidst galactic visions. Brisseau managed at once to send himself up mercilessly whilst also becoming himself at last in entirety, and of the many filmmakers to offer studies in imminent mortality of late, his seemed the most blithe, the most determined to do a good turn in trying to release people from cages of varying types. Whilst Tempting Devils certainly wasn’t the most politely refined work, it was lively, funny, and heroically accepting of human strangeness and resilience in ways many a more polished and posturing release of this year failed to be.

Honourable Mention

The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns)
The Chambermaid (Lila Avilés)
Dumbo (Tim Burton)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Transit (Christian Petzold)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold)
Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (Martin Dougherty)
High Life (Claire Denis)
Hotel Mumbai (Anthony Maras)
Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)
Les Misérables (Ladj Ly)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)
Shaft (Tim Story)
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams)
Under The Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Us (Jordan Peele)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

1917 (Sam Mendes)
Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)
Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
Brightburn (David Yarovesky)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck)
Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland)
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)
Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)
Gemini Man (Ang Lee)
It: Chapter Two (Andres Muschietti)
John Wick – Chapter 3: Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)
Joker (Todd Phillips)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Long Shot (Jonathan Levine)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie)
The Vanishing (Kristoffer Nyholm)
The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo)

Crap

Aladdin (Guy Ritchie)
Glass (M. Night Shyamalan)
Men In Black: International (F. Gary Gray)
Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher)
Serenity (Steven Knight)
Tell It To The Bees (Annabel Jankel)
The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)

Unseen

An Elephant Sitting Still ∙ Asako I & II ∙ Atlantics ∙ Bacurau ∙ Bombshell ∙ Border ∙ The Burial of Kojo ∙ Diane ∙ Doctor Sleep ∙ Frozen II ∙ Gloria Bell ∙ Honey Boy ∙ Invisible Life ∙ Just Mercy ∙ The Lion King ∙ Little Women ∙ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ∙ The Mountain ∙ One Cut of the Dead ∙ Peterloo ∙ Queen & Slim ∙ Sunset ∙ Tigers Are Not Afraid ∙ Toy Story 4 ∙ Waves ∙ The Wild Pear Tree ∙ Young Ahmed ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2019

As Tears Go By / Days of Being Wild / Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Avenging Conscience / Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout The Ages (D.W. Griffith)
The Awful Doctor Orloff / A Virgin Among The Living Dead (Jesus Franco)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah)
Bigger Than Life / Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim)
The Blue Bird / Victory / The Last of the Mohicans (Maurice Tourneur)
The Boy Friend (Ken Russell)
Cairo Station (Youseff Chahine)
Carnival Rock / Sorority Girl / A Bucket of Blood / The Young Racers / Bloody Mama (Roger Corman)
The Champagne Murders (Claude Chabrol)
Cotton Comes To Harlem (Ossie Davis)
Darling Lili (Blake Edwards)
Dolemite (D’urville Martin)
Foxhole in Cairo (John Llewellyn Moxey)
Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill)
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nabuo Nakagawa)
Godzilla vs Monster Zero (Inoshira Honda)
Glastonbury Fayre / Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg)
Hangmen Also Die! / Cloak and Dagger / American Guerrilla In The Philippines (Fritz Lang)
Head (Bob Rafelson)
The Hired Hand / Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda)
Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni)
It’s Alive / God Told Me To / The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
J’Accuse! (Abel Gance, 1919)
The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille)
La Venere d’Ille (Lamberto and Mario Bava)
Man’s Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks)
Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer)
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 / Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise)
The Outlaw and His Wife / The Monastery of Sendomir (Victor Sjöström)
Private Hell 36 / Flaming Star / The Killers (Don Siegel)
Red Ball Express (Budd Boetticher)
Robbery (Peter Yates)
The Shanghai Drama (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Mauritz Stiller)
Svengali (Archie Mayo)
Ulysses (Mario Camerini)
Wavelength (Michael Snow)
We Were Strangers (John Huston)

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