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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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2010s, Action-Adventure, Chinese cinema

The Grandmaster (2013)

Yi dai zong shi

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

Wong Kar-Wai’s return to cinema screens after a lengthy fallow phase carries huge expectations for a man who, alongside John Woo and Zhang Yimou, is arguably the most reputed Chinese-language filmmaker worldwide. Wong gained his stature in international cinema in the 1990s partly for his lushly textured cinematic sensibility and partly because his trove of thematic interests, his simultaneous sense of vibrating modernity and underlying longing for the past, marked him as an artist with a finger on the pulse of the age.
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With the landscape of urban Hong Kong as his hyperkinetic muse, Wong’s visual panache matched, on levels both explicit and sublime, his fascination with the problems of human accord. In films like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), he created a version of the modern world where human beings, as compartmentalised as the tiny apartments and hole-in-the-wall eateries they frequented, were floating human islets grazing against possible mates and friends. The simultaneous urges in the density of contemporary life towards isolating, alienating atomisation and compressed, forced communing worked a constant pressure on the psyches of his characters, who then maintained their own peculiar methods for holding the world at bay, like the shopgirl in Chungking Express who blares out “California Dreaming” as a wall of noise against a grubby reality. Wong’s vocabulary of images and ideas, his unique way of filtering them through storytelling conceits that seemed somehow hip and quaint all at once, essayed through one of the most virile, formalistically confident eyes in contemporary film.
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Wong briefly stepped out of his familiar mode with a take on the wu xia genre with the epic Ashes of Time (1995, revised 2007), but that film, which had a troubled production, proved a typically hallucinatory, internalised revision on that style, with Wong distorting it to suit his own mood rather than vice versa. His shift into a semi-historical perspective on his key concerns with In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004), presented mesmeric studies in shifting cultural paradigms, his singular men and manifold women living and drowning in seas of neon-lit, corrosive emotions, which clearly continued his favourite themes but now accented them through a love of nostalgic artifice. His most famous characters, the suffering twosome of In the Mood for Love, refused to succumb to amoral pleasures in a quietly upending age, and finished up wounding themselves, but got on with the painful business of living. The general critical failure of Wong’s U.S. excursion My Blueberry Nights (2006) after 2046’s mixed response nonetheless demanded Wong retreat and reorientate. The Grandmaster sounds in abstract like a shift of direction for the director in tackling a biopic that’s also a martial-arts action drama. But, as the melancholic warriors of Ashes of Time and the oddball spin on the loner-assassin motif in Fallen Angels portended, The Grandmaster proves rather a dizzying sprawl of images and almost associative storytelling methods that revise how this, or indeed any, kind of filmmaking can deliver. It may be Wong’s most stylistically and thematically ambitious work.
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The grandmaster of the title is Ip Man, a figure with folk-hero lustre in Hong Kong for popularising the Wing Chun kung-fu style and, amongst many students, most famously taught Bruce Lee. Ip Man has already been the subject of films and TV series, including a pair of popular recent films starring Donnie Yen. But in Wong’s hands, Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) proves as much mediating viewpoint, conceptual linchpin, and witness to an era’s passions and tragedies as he is protagonist. Wong’s film ultimately becomes more akin to a heroic epic in the original sense, in that it’s partly about the deaths and births of nations, in this case the severance of modern China from its past, and the creation of modern Hong Kong. Wong tests Ip Man’s folk-hero status less by de-romanticising him than by studying the forces that create such figures and bury others. Thus, Wong turns the stuff of paperback heroism into raw material for one of his elusively poetic meditations on time and fate.
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Whereas Wong’s early, young characters were always nagged by ennui, because of their sense of disconnection from the past, his later, older ones are always haunted by its contradictory loss and simultaneous, unavoidable influence on the present. Ip becomes one of Wong’s dreamer exiles, first glimpsed engaged in spectacular battle with challengers on the streets of his native city of Foshan, possibly in the course of his actual job, which was as a policeman. The opening credits see architectural and decorative patterns and inky credits warp and dissolve in water, introducing the film’s constant motif of water as visual conduit for time, whilst the fight takes place before a set of iron gates that become a recurring image invoking Ip’s life and losses. Ip is glimpsed in a bar pronouncing the essence of Kung Fu: “Two words. Horizontal. Vertical. Make a mistake—horizontal. Stay standing, and you win.”
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This essentialist formula for fighting could make an equally good one for life in general, and Wong proceeds with that very assumption, albeit in a fashion that explores the different ways one can win and lose, fail and fight. Wong immediately depicts the more thrilling version, as he starts his film in the midst of a violent melee. Ip smashes his way through a dozen street toughs, including one fearsome opponent, Tiexieqi (Cung Le), who squares off with him in a one-on-one battle, the duo churning in the tempest like saurian beasts. This scene is an ecstatic deployment of cuts and camera moves, rendered in stark, near-monochrome colours: shots alternate blindingly fast moves and slow-motion close-ups of hands, feet, clothing, raindrops, broken glass, and walloping blows. A rickshaw is hilariously crushed by the simultaneous blows of Ip and his opponent, and the enemy finishes up sprawled on a toppled iron gate, flattened by a fearsome flying kick by Ip, who then strides away tugging the rim of his jaunty white hat like a Chinese version of a Bogart hero, confirmed in his Herculean talents. Other battles like this recur throughout The Grandmaster, but they’re largely untethered to any specific sense of narrative cause and effect. They are, rather, sufficient unto themselves as islets of furious action, displays of the physical genius of Ip and “Razor” Yixiantian (Chang Chen), exiles from the Mainland now surviving in the urban wilderness of mid-century Hong Kong, more depictions of their existential situations than battles for any real end. Wong’s fragmentation of the fights into impressionistic affairs turns the battlers into cosmic forces, working upon beads of water and other objects in the same way history at large works on these people.
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Wong sets up a dialogue between his narrative in shifting between Hong Kong in the mid ’50s, and mainland China in the late ‘30s, when Ip, a citizen of Foshan and then on the cusp of his forties, first gained real fame in the martial arts community when he was chosen to represent the loose confederacy of southern Chinese martial arts schools against a northern fighter. Ip’s voiceover says that at the time, we was in the long spring of his life as a wealthy family man married to the lovely Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo), who watches over her husband with a solicitous, indulgent eye and is described as “a woman of few words, because she knew their power.” But the stability of his life was counterpointed by his accomplishment as a martial artist, having been anointed as a promising figure in his youth by the aged founder of the Wing Chun school, Chan Wah-Shun (illustrious director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping).
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The challenge from the north is brought by a potentate of martial artistry and the values attendant to it, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Gong unified northern schools into a federation and has nominated formidable protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his successor. But he still plans to duel a southerner himself, as he believes Ma San is too aggressive and hungry to make a name for himself. Ip volunteers as a challenger in noting that he’s a comparative nobody, but his challenge is accepted because the battle in the rain has gained him notoriety. His nomination as champion is controversial as he’s still largely unproven as a fighter, and he’s rigorously challenged by fellow southern experts to make sure he can handle the various northern styles. Gong himself has a young daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who’s learned her clan’s famed “64 hands” technique, but whom her father wants to become a doctor and avoid the sometimes brutal world he inhabits.
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The film’s early scenes, taking place in 1937, are set almost entirely within the Republic House, a brothel nicknamed the Gold Pavilion by clientele, which the southern Kung Fu adherents frequent as a kind of clubhouse and occasional field of battle. Wong’s recreation of the vanished world of classy, institutional bawdyhouses and the martial arts fraternity is similar in mood to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s studies of fin-de-siècle moods and aesthetics in Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Three Times (2006). In contrast to Hou’s static panoramas, however, Wong’s rendering is replete with dreamlike, elliptical and obtuse framings that suggest the bustle and intimacy of this world, as well as its claustrophobic, clannish qualities. Wong’s camera is as happy caressing the hems of dresses and shoes of its characters, like noting the tiny bound feet of the Peking Opera artist who gives Ip one of his tests wearing dainty boots that belie her amazing athleticism and skill, as it is recording the fearsome speed and detail of the fighting styles. The ornate atmosphere is violated when fights take place, as when Ma San swats aside several southerners who try to challenge Gong, sending them crashing through walls and down stairwells, or flipping them right around with casual contempt. Ip prizes precision above all things in kung fu, a trait that serves him largely well in fights that take place within the stately confines of the Gold Pavilion, but which later foils him in a telling fashion.
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When the time comes for his fight with Gong, however, Ip finds the master has more than a mere match of physical skill in mind. He poses a problem that demands philosophical rigour as well—to try to break a cake Gong holds and simultaneously ponder the dumpling as a symbol for China itself and the martial arts community’s place in it, as the pressure of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the flailing responses from the Kuomintang seem destined to cause the south to secede. Ip succeeds in snapping the cake and answers the riddle by dismissing its precept, in arguing that their kind can look beyond their own borders and consider the world their field of interest. There’s a clever confluence here, in anticipating the effect Ip’s ideas would have on the international popularity of kung fu, whilst also paying heed to a great genre motif of posing a challenge to the young would-be master that’s as much spiritual and intellectual as physical. Gong warns Ip that his victory will make him famous and a target because everyone will want to fight him. He’s immediately confronted by Gong Er, who is determined to regain her family’s honour. Thus, another great stock figure of wu xia enters the tale, or rather two: the vengeful offspring of a defeated champion and the plucky female warrior wanting to prove herself in the arena.
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Wong assiduously deconstructs these figures, but also elevates Gong Er’s conflation of them to a status of classical tragic heroine. When the old men who patronise her suggest her predicament is the will of heaven, she retorts with razor-sharp contempt, “Maybe I am the will of heaven,” a statement of tremendous pith but also hubris on her part, highlighting the tragic theme most precisely. Unsurprisingly for a director who has tended in the past to luxuriate in his actresses as both performers and imagistic fetishes, particularly the veritable harem of 2046, to a degree scarcely seen since the heady days of Sternberg and Dietrich, Zhang soon becomes the magnetic pole of the film. Gong Er and Ip’s battle in the Gold Pavilion sees martial arts mastery take on cryptic sexual qualities, bringing the equally talented man and woman into the most startling intimacy possible without any actual erotic contact, faces brushing within millimetres of each other as their bodies orbit, gravity made nonsense by their will and skill. Gong Er technically bests Ip by forcing him to land heavily on a step and break it, thus violating his own rule, and the two part seemingly as friendly equals. They are haunted thereafter by recollections of the fight and its dreadful intimacy, and they continue to correspond in planning a return bout for which Ip will head north, even buying his wife a coat for a winter journey. But the outbreak of new war soon sees Ip lose his two daughters, his money and home, his wife, and finally, his country.
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Many of Wong’s films are close to being omnibus works, collections of interlocked short stories in which elements mirror and repeat with algorithmic variations, with characters and situations that comment on each other sometimes in isolated episodes and other times in counterpoint. The Grandmaster is looser in this regard, as his shifts of time zone and focal character are less formally precise, in keeping with a story that works more as a chain of vignettes than a linear account. Although Wong certainly tells a story, he privileges loose ends and fragmentary insights as much as he does the core plot, justified by the nature of his tale and his essential point about Ip Man as an avatar for an age that tore societies to shreds. People are lost to time and memory. Both Ip’s wife and children are ripped away from him by war, and the world he knew disintegrates under the pressure of history, which he describes as going from spring to winter in one moment. Wong’s filmmaking follows suit, as he leaves behind the amber tints and fraternal bosom of the Gold Pavilion for visions of Gong Er standing in snowy vistas and riding steam trains bustling with industrial-age power. Gong Er encounters Razor, a nationalist spy and another superlatively talented warrior who’s been wounded and is trying to hide from Japanese soldiers searching the train that’s taking Gong Er to medical school. Gong Er pretends to be Razor’s sweetheart, and, once the soldiers leave, Razor and Gong Er share a charged moment of tactile communion before he flees.
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Wong employs film references galore throughout The Grandmaster, and this scene particularly recalls Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), except with Gong Er the willing saviour rather than randomly chosen target in fake romantic contact to throw off pursuers; hints of Brief Encounter (1945) percolate as well. Here, as elsewhere in the film, however, Wong employs melodrama tropes only to fracture them and study them like facets of hallucinatory beauty and artifice, creating a romantic dream expostulated in fetishized textures: the ice on the window, the blood dripping from the seat and caking Razor’s hands as he fondles Gong Er’s fur coat, all forming a moment of distilled fantasy-nostalgia. Razor never becomes a major protagonist like Ip and Gong Er in spite of his seeming lode of lethal cool and ability; rather he becomes a contrapuntal figure to both, finding a niche for himself later in Hong Kong as a barber and pacifier who keeps gangsters from taking control of the street. But Razor never gains the kind of status Ip does in spite of his action-hero background. Wong here ventures into territory similar to Quentin Tarantino (a fan and proponent) as he invokes the metatextual nature that often inflects genre storytelling, particularly in wu xia, based in a common pool of mythology, with characters transgressing the boundaries of tales and tellers and gaining some life of their own. Razor, who could be the hero of his own story, becomes a memorable bit player in Gong Er’s, just as she is one in Ip’s legend as Wong tells it. Gong Er’s own fate is bound up with her fervent need to prove herself a worthy vessel for her clan’s legacy.
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When Ma San became a collaborator with the Japanese, Gong disowned him and the two fought, with Ma San killing the old man. Gong Er was aggrieved and further stung by the requests of her father’s clansmen and adherents that she desist from reprisal. Only her bodyguard and clan loyalist Jiang (Tielong Shang), sticks by her. She asked for a sign whilst praying in a temple if her father approved of her desire for vengeance, at the price of giving up all other worldly fulfilments, and received it in the form of a candle burning before a Buddha statue. Wong certainly offers everything one could hope for in the mode of a romantic-action epic. There’s a tale of unrequited love, thunderous fights, a grand revenge saga, a strident bad guy, a determined revenger, a vast scope, and extraordinary vistas portraying an exotic, lost world. Only Wong breaks it all with his conceptual hammer and then pastes it back together as pulp travesty transformed into poetic saga—and yet there’s reality behind even some of the film’s more romantic conceits. Gong Er, for instance, is based on a woman who shot a warlord in the back after 10 frustrating years of seeking revenge against him for killing her father. Such touches confirm the sensation that there’s another element in play here, detectable even without reading interviews with Wong that confirm it: he’s trying to recreate the Hong Kong he grew up in, where men and women with legendary pasts had retreated into hidey-holes in their new home, getting on with the banal business of living. Because of the outlawing of the martial arts schools by the Maoist government in 1949, all of the masters vacated en masse for Hong Kong.
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One might contrast Wong’s investigation of this fecund theme with a far less imaginative film like Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), which could only state, not find dramatic irony in the fact that its irrepressible real-life protagonists finished up running a Brooklyn trucking firm. Wong takes a step further back than In the Mood for Love and 2046, films which achingly recreated the Hong Kong of Wong’s youth in the brief time of pacific grace between the Maoist triumph in China and the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia and looks to the even crueller crucible of the age before, transmuted via legendary characters. Characters like Jiang, who was once an imperial executioner (and the character in The Grandmaster who most clearly looks like a classic wu xia stock figure), and Gong Yutian’s contemporary and fellow in pre-Republic revolutionary assassination Ding Lianshan (Benshan Zhao), harken back even further to the forces that dragged China into the modern age. Crucial to the film’s structure is the disparity as well as the attraction between Ip and Gong Er: whereas Ip obeys the precepts of his Wing Chun creed and keeps moving forward in spite of awful loss, Gong Er renders herself a prisoner to the past. Wong underscores the mirroring in Ip and Razor’s experiences by depicting both in thrilling, visceral battles in the rain, except that where Ip’s fight is bloodless, Razor has to contend with assassins trying to knife him. Shots of blood falling into rainwater and sullying it communicate the essence of a more primal, brutal aspect to Razor’s experiences, as he’s pushed from nationalist patriot to lone-wolf survivor in the Hong Kong street.
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Wong, who spent a year obsessively editing this film, finally turned in a rapturous mural of oneiric images, all carrying the powerful sensatory charge of sights, sounds, even scents recalled from a past just over the horizon: the whole thing could be an opium hallucination breathed in by Gong Er in her declining days, much like one of its evident models, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Grandmaster is feverishly drunk on its own highly romantic, deeply aestheticized take on a lost past. Undoubtedly for wu xia aficionados there are references and genre tropes aplenty here to masticate, but its cinematic language and references are far wider. Its closest relative in recent western filmmaking as a realm of thundering steam trains, stylised elemental extremes, and fervent human feeling, was Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), and David Lean seems a point of common reference. But whereas Wright’s film was dancelike and theatrical, Wong’s is at once dense and aerated, musical in texture.
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The opening fight sequence seems to take up the gauntlet thrown down by a great scene in Yimou’s Hero (2002) where action, rain, and music entwined in a synergistic dance. Indeed the stylistic gauntlet Yimou threw down with his deliriously stylised wu xia movies has remained a standing challenge for action filmmakers worldwide since, as Yimou turned his artful eye to aestheticizing genre precepts with Hero and House of the Flying Daggers (2004) with formalistic brilliance and purified, archaic, thematic concerns. Wong’s aims are ultimately different: he doesn’t offer patriotic apologia as Yimou did in Hero, nor create an uncomfortable crossbreed as Yimou did in The Curse of the Golden Flower (2005), but rather meditates on the nature of modern peace as a catharsis bought by conspicuously ignoring the horrors of the recent past. Wong confirms his debt to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America by including a music cue from that delirious saga, but the kinship is equally signalled by shared traits and motifs, like railway stations, exile, and opium as both plot devices and style keys. Indeed, if Tsui Hark hadn’t already claimed the title, Once Upon a Time in China might have made a good name for this film.
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Where Leone and Lean were sleek, spacious, classical stylists even when adopting elliptical storytelling devices, however, Wong is situated in some post-Impressionist zone, piecing together his vision in points and patches of colour and light. Wong manages to produce a film that is both intensely thoughtful, replete with sequences of quiet intensity that nonetheless remains in near constant motion, achieving a kind of ecstatic flux that can, like a great kung fu fighter, shift from any stance to another with ease. The beauty of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s photography is both heightened and undercut by Wong’s fast-paced, occasionally enigmatic, eliding approach to cutting. Potentially languorous tracking shots are constantly cut off mid-flow, and early scenes are filled with vertiginous barricades between figures within frames, capturing the hermetic aspects of the time and place, as esoteric soup recipes and ancient creeds have their last moments of exacting consequence. One recurring shot depicts two fighters facing off with one centre-frame, the other circling into the shot closer to the camera, and the cut coming as they block out the opponent, cumulatively creating a tension and amplifying the sense of physical intricacy. Conversely, when he’s shooting fights, Wong becomes fiendishly precise, opposite to most other contemporary filmmakers, often alternating from eye-level shots to high, overhead views in obedience to the lateral-horizontal precepts of Ip’s philosophy.
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Leone’s influence is particularly strong in the nominal climax, in a railway station on New Year’s Eve, 1940, when Gong Er finally ambushed Ma San and taunted him into a duel. Wong partly spoils his own climax with a flash-forward already depicting Gong Er in 1952, a cagey, still-beautiful but frail and haunted woman who resists Ip’s entreaties to teach him the 64 hands technique. Her battle with Ma San, the culmination of her campaign of payback, is an instant classic and indeed perhaps the best individual sequence in any movie of the past 10 years. Similar to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), it commences with a long wait in the railway station as Gong Er studies flames in a brazier whilst Jiang sits on the platform, drifting in a wintry reverie where even the flicker of light bulbs and the swirl of snowflakes seem invested with ineluctable sense of momentous forces gathering: Gong Er strides through steam and smoke like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), anointed as a titanic hero. In her furious bout with Ma San, they badly wound each other. Ma San seems to come out the worse, as he ricochets off a moving train and is left sprawled on the platform, admitting defeat and allowing Gong Er her moment of triumph. But when she returns home, she coughs up blood and faints in a shot of deeply morbid ecstasy.
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Wong provides the pay-off for the grand revenge saga the audience expects, but with a radical tweak that fulfils a note many other action films only suggest. For Gong Er, her defeat of Ma San is the highpoint of her life, a moment after which everything else, thanks to her vows, can only be addendum, anti-climax, and wastage. The Grandmaster‘s concluding passages are a return to classic Wong territory as it reduces its vast tapestry to a portraitist study in frustrated romantic melancholy, as Gong Er and Ip Man encounter each other in Hong Kong. Gong Er confesses her pained and resigned desire for Ip, whilst never releasing herself from the strictures of her vows, and a button, saved from the winter coat Ip bought for his wife for their planned trip north, becomes the orphaned relic of their mutual desire. Ziyi’s face, tearful and yet perfectly composed, becomes at last a pool of wan splendour, calmly studied after the furious onrush of the film preceding this moment. Gong Er dissolves like a dream in a welter of opium and visions of herself as an impossibly perfect girl practising her moves like a dancer in the snow. Ip finds himself stranded in the present tense, taunted by his own emotional imperfection and losses, with his wife dying on the mainland, separated from him by more than water or politics. Nonetheless, he survives, artfully clobbering his way to preeminence in Hong Kong and becoming mentor for a new generation. Undoubtedly, The Grandmaster might prove a frustrating experience for viewers expecting a traditionally structured story that delivers familiarly neat character arcs and studious explication. Indeed, Wong’s original concept was just such a movie. But the finished film is a different, far more adventurous success, a bold, extraordinarily executed fusion of approaches that adds up to a genuinely great cinema experience.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Foreign, Japanese cinema

Sex and Fury (1973)

Furyô anego den: Inoshika Ochô

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Norifumi Suzuki

By Roderick Heath

In the late 1960s, Japanese cinema artisans, like many around the world, were driven to court youth markets and shake up the gentility of traditional cinema as cultural mores altered rapidly. But the Japanese film industry, unlike western ones, which mostly maintained a rigorous separation of mainstream and exploitation cinema, saw at least for a time a much bolder sea-change. Once-hidebound studios like Toei and fresh young filmmakers ranging from eager hacks to artistic guerrillas turned increasingly to tales of violence and sexuality. This gave birth to what has been generally memorialised as the “Pink” cinema, and one substratum of this, “Pinky Violence” films, has found some belated popularity outside Japan for it sheer, outrageously enthusiastic indulgence and correlation of soft-core sex and sadism of a variety that few Western filmmakers ever felt comfortable blending. Norifumi Suzuki’s Furyô anego den is certainly a prime example of that kinky new wave, but it demands attention for being one of the most visually and conceptually arresting films of the early 1970s, a bizarre, twisted, pop-art, even poetic, blood-and-skin action flick.

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Like Toshiyo Fujita’s Lady Snowblood of the same year, (and, like that film, another influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, 2003), it’s about a vengeance-seeking heroine whose art with a katana blade matches her streetwise wits in contending with monolithic corruption. But where Lady Snowblood is tough, semi-realistic, and structurally ironic, Sex and Fury is flashy and self-consciously pop in its stylisation, blurring into surrealism on occasion. Commencing with a title sequence that evokes, to my eye, the effects of a lot of hipster Eurocinema of the previous decade, including the James Bond films, Suzuki’s film suggests an effort to try to find a new export market, including, as its narrative does, not only visual shout-outs to foreign cultural phenomena but also a prominent Western character in the story. Suzuki’s almost abstract visual patterns kick off in a pretitle sequence in which a young girl, Kyoko Kazai, a picture-perfect specimen of Japanese girlhood swathed in an elegant kimono and balanced preciously on clogs, walks with her genial police detective father along a covered walkway framed by red trestles. When the girl loses her ball, she chases it, and whilst her back is turned, her father is set upon by lurking assassins who riddle him with stab wounds.

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Cut to 20 years later, and the girl has grown into a pickpocket and brutally talented warrior calling herself Ochô Inoshika (Reiko Ike). Ochô is the most admired member of a gang of whores and pickpockets led by Ochô’s adoptive mother Ogin (Akemi Negishi). She becomes enmeshed in a larger power game when young radical Shunosuke (Tadashi Naruse) attempts to kill plutocrat Kurokawa, who is capping off a rise to unrivaled power and prestige through his business machinations and as the head Seishinkai political faction. Shunosuke’s attack fails, and he flees, wounded, only to run literally into Ochô. She tends him before passing him on to his fellow radicals, reflexively stealing his fob watch in which she find the photo of a beautiful European woman. Ochô is still searching for her father’s murderers, working from the only clue he left her, three hanafuda gambling tiles displaying a deer, a boar, and a butterfly that he clutched as he lay dying. She has traveled to the town of Kanazawa to look to gambling kingpin Inamura for help in tracking down her father’s assassins and witnesses a violent spectacle in which a man is caught cheating and is summarily murdered by Inamura’s agents. He dies in Ochô’s arms, sputtering claims that he’s been set up and begging her to take his money and save his sister Yuki from being sold in a brothel. But before Ochô can leave the gambling house, she’s set upon by Inamura’s thugs whilst she is bathing, prompting Ochô to spring out of the tub and tear pell-mell through the attacking force like a provoked demon.

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This brain-boggling scene would justify the film’s canonisation on its own. Anticipating and rendering rather timid the nude fight scene in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Ochô, naked as the day she was born save for the elegant sprawl of tattoos on her chest and back, springs, twists, leaps, and rolls in contending with the assassins, blood spray steadily decorating her body in variegated patterns, and her own deep delight in dealing out death all too plain on her face. She is, all at once, an object of fetish, a study in motion, a dream of vengeance, and a cultural artifact as boldly revealing and reveling in the strength of the female body as any on record. Technically noteworthy is an extended shot that concentrates merely on Ochô’s legs after she dashes out of the house and does battle in a snow-covered courtyard, watching her dancerlike motions, feet dabbing at the snow, severed limbs and spitting blood dropping like rain around her. Ochô survives this battle, makes contact with both her sisters in crime and with Shunosuke, and then tries to buy Yuki (Rie Saotome). But Yuki, being kept in the whorehouse of scar-faced pimp Kizugen, has caught the eye of construction magnate Iwakura, who declares, “Deflowering virgins is my specialty.” Iwakura’s determined to keep hold of Yuki, however, leads him to propose a novel solution: he wants Ochô to play cards for Yuki, against Christina (Cristina Lindberg), a British dancer who’s also a famous gambler. They’re keenly contrasted types, Ochô with her traditional dress, Christina doll-like in her Victorian hoop skirts, and yet both possess streetwise cunning and cool self-control when it comes to their contest.

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The contest between Ochô and Christina comes at a swanky function given by Iwakura’s industrialist partner Kurokawa, with Western guests present, including the stern Guinness (Mark Darling), an American businessman who’s conniving with and undermining Kurokawa to gain control over the Japanese government. Christina is actually his agent, whom he’s planning to use as a honey trap to infiltrate Kurokawa’s household. When Shunosuke and other radicals storm the ball to try again to kill Kurokawa, Christina shoots each of the intruders, but cannot shoot Shunosuke—he’s her former lover and the reason why she agreed to become Guinness’s pawn, the only way she could get into Japan. Shunosuke escapes, and a shaken Christina loses her card game with Ochô. Ochô compounds Christina’s humiliation by stealing her revolver, which brings a harsh punishment from Guinness. And yet Ochô, Shunosuke, and Christina all find themselves on a collision course with Kurokawa’s cabal, and soon enough Ochô discovers that Kurokawa and Iwakura sport tattoos on their backs corresponding to the boar and deer: their current prosperity is rooted in their assassination of her father, who was investigating one of their scams.

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The film is saddled with some poor humour provided by the dopey student Kanichi who’s a kind of mascot for the pickpockets, prompting a dim scene in which he presents the women a strange new invention he stole from a woman—a condom. The most significant problem, however, with Sex and Fury is that whilst it doles out both title items liberally, there’s too much of the sex…no, seriously. The middle third bogs down with a proliferation of fan service: Yuki being raped by Iwakura; Christina being sexually bullied by Guinness; Iwakura drooling over Ochô; Iwakura sleeping with Kurokawa’s wife; Christina subjecting herself to a lesbian partnership with Kurokawa’s serving girl to excite the onlooking tycoon. It does all, however, relate to the film’s peculiar texture: the victimhood of the women plays as an inverted assault on the classic “fallen women” dramas of Mizoguchi. Apart from the innocent Yuki, the female characters, particularly Ochô and Christina, put up with gross subjugations in their silently relentless efforts to gain their desired objects.

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A crucial apex comes when Ochô saves her fellow hustlers from torture by Iwakura’s thugs by agreeing to sleep with the sexually gluttonous villain, but gains her vengeance by coating her skin with a poisonous paste that sends Iwakura, who has licked her body, into contortions of agony before expiring. The old association of sex and death and the image of the femme fatale have rarely been as concisely codified as it is in this moment. Yet there’s a further twist to this sexualised warfare: Ochô is still to uncover the dread secret at the heart of her life’s enigma—her mother was Kurokawa’s wife, the possessor of the butterfly tattoo that is only revealed under a shower’s hot stream. She was a whore Kurokawa ordered to marry Ochô’s father to keep an eye on him, and then arranged his killing. Kurokawa’s wife’s efforts to appeal to her long-lost daughter are met with Ochô’s horrified derision, and when Kurokawa catches her trying to free Ochô, he strangles her, shutting this grotesque family tragedy down.

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In spite of the stalling proliferation of skin scenes, Sex and Fury’s a great pulp genre yarn infused with a near-surreal visual rapture in a mixture that perpetually eludes most Western filmmakers. Suzuki’s direction of Ochô and Christina’s card game is a little suite of increasingly intense close-ups, Christina’s forehead sporting drizzling sweat as her mind fills with intense sensual memories of her affair with Shunosuke, whilst the two equal/opposite women try to stare each other down over their cards. Later, when Iwakura’s men capture Ochô’s fellows in the pickpocket gang, they tie them up and beat them in a fun fair parlour, where psychedelic light effects whir and a projector shows propaganda paintings and photographs from the Sino-Russian War, explicitly linking the gangsters’ abuse of the women’s bodies to the predations of the imperialist triumph.

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It’s in the last half-hour when the film really hits its stride, as Ochô and Shunosuke team up to try to assassinate Kurokawa, attacking him on a train, but having to contend with his team of guarding thugs, which includes, most bizarrely, a team of flick-knife-wielding nuns who press Ochô into a corner whilst Shunosuke fights Kizugen and falls from the train. Christina, outraged to realise that Ochô was trying to kill Kurokawa with her stolen gun, knocks Ochô out with it and later, with apparent enthusiasm, whips a bound and prostrate Ochô in the basement chapel of Kurokawa’s mansion with a colossal, art-nouveau stained-glass portrait of Jesus in the background. Ochô writhes under the thrashing a buckskin-clad Christina delivers, whilst Kurokawa, his wife, and his platoon of nuns watch in indulgent dispassion.

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Such a delirious blend of religion, fetish, politics, and the compulsory plot-enabling brutalisation of a hero who will resurge with rampant, justified ferocity inherent in this scene is hard to top, but Suzuki does manage it, in a scene in which Christina ventures out to meet Shunosuke on the docks after receiving a message purportedly from him. Realising they’ve been fooled into coming together, the two can’t escape the hail of bullets sent their way by a gloating Guinness. Despite Christina’s way with her gun and Shunosuke’s efforts with a sword, they both finish up riddled with bullets, prompting Suzuki’s most amazing, emotive visuals as Christina, blood pumping from her chest, throws her head back, her hair swimming in a lustrous wash, before she collapses, hazily gazing at a Union Jack flying over the dock through a pall of glittering snowflakes.

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Christina and Shunosuke die holding bloodied hands, but not before Guinness, near to deliver a coup de grace, receives a katana blade in the gut from Christina with her next-to-dying breath. It’s an operatic scene of violence and loss that would have made Sergio Leone proud. Meanwhile, Ochô manages through her resourcefulness to escape her bonds and rips her way through Kurokawa’s associates and bodyguards with unstoppable force, receiving sword gashes and bullet wounds, but still coming on with unremitting rage until she’s skewered the villain with her blade. The very final scene is suspiciously similar to that in Lady Snowblood, with Ochô tumbling through the snow, badly, but not fatally wounded, except here the flakes transform into gambling tiles as a motif that suggests that Ochô’s life has been and will always be dominated by the perversity of chance and the symbolic taunts of the deer, the boar, and the butterfly. But despite the verboten generic niche it occupies, Sex and Fury demands respect for its stylistic and thematic boldness.

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Above all, fearless actress Reiko Ike could well be the most genuinely convincing female action hero I’ve ever seen in a film. Perhaps sword-fighting in the nude makes that an easy conquest, but Ike’s physical keenness and portrayal of athletic killer instinct is something else, especially in the finale as her eyes grow wider with bloodlust as she hacks her way through opponent after opponent until her body begins to give in to all her wounds. When it comes to a Swedish actress delivering English dialogue written by Japanese filmmakers in character as a Englishwoman, Lindberg is as awkward as you’d expect, but her physical performance is actually very good, and her status as a cult figure of Swedish cinema is readily understandable. Director Suzuki’s apparent talent, much like that of the closest European comparison I can make, Jesús Franco, was likewise lost as the film industry pushed further toward outright porn and horror, but he did receive a lifetime achievement award at the Yokohama Film Festival in 1985.

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1950s, Drama, Epic, Religious

Ben-Hur (1959)

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Director: William Wyler

By Roderick Heath

Ben-Hur is still amongst the most dramatically nuanced, intricately constructed, and sheerly entertaining of the old-school blockbuster epics. The film’s reputation for at-all-costs size and bludgeoning bluster has always somewhat obscured what a damn well-put-together piece of moviemaking it is. It was a career highlight for William Wyler, who, after decades of refining his cinematic technique, applied his integrity and care in drawing out realism in his acting and approach to mise-en-scène to the most unlikely genre and came up trumps. The pressure was on Wyler, as MGM spared no expense on the risky production to save itself from bankruptcy; he likened the experience to working as one of the film’s galley slaves. Nonetheless, with its great cost and even greater profit, Ben-Hur represented the high-water mark of Hollywood’s efforts to combat the encroachment of television, both in terms of popular appeal, production craft, and confidence in the act of total cinematic creation. Within a decade, filmmaking looked and sounded completely different.

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Ben-Hur was chosen as a project by MGM executives and brought to fruition by producer Sam Zimbalist, who died during filming, because of the great success they’d had more than 30 years before with Fred Niblo’s entertaining, if comparatively cartoonish silent version, a production that had been hellishly protracted and fatal for several crew members. Wyler’s film is often considered together with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) for obvious reasons: both are religious-themed sagas, both star Charlton Heston, and both feature Martha Scott as his on-screen mother. Actually, the films are quite different. DeMille’s film is spectacle in the purest sense, achieved in his cheerfully two-dimensional, almost ritualised style; Ben-Hur attempts to be intimate and artful in balancing out the grander elements, and employs naïf touches more carefully throughout. DeMille based his visual style on academic historical painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whilst Ben-Hur’s production designers and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees obviously went to school on Renaissance Italian painters like Caravaggio and Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel panel “The Creation of Adam” provides the iconic backdrop for the credits.

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Ben-Hur was, of course, based on the novel by Lew Wallace, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and the narrative sustains a counterpoint of the life of Jesus and its hero, a fictional Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), commencing and finishing explicitly with Gospel scenes. But at the heart of Ben-Hur is a Dumas-esque tale of betrayal and revenge. The pretitle sequence, a visually striking Nativity scene, hits exactly the right momentous note, with the standard picture-book images of the Magi gathering along with sundry locals to look upon the holy family. A shepherd blows his horn to announce something incredulously wonderful in the most nondescript of forms, ringing out with curious eeriness as the Star of Bethlehem fades, leaving us momentarily with the remote, rugged landscape of ancient Judea before Miklos Rosza’s grandiose horns blare out a thrilling fanfare. And yet a stand-out quality of the film is that the first hour is chiefly a series of carefully wrought, complex, interpersonal scenes that build the drama in a mosaic of phrases and gestures.

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Messala (Boyd), appointed as military governor of Judea where his father had once served, returns to the land where he grew up, full of swaggering pride in gaining his appointment and overjoyed to see his youthful chum Judah again. “Close in every way!” Judah states happily when the two men bond over a little javelin target practice. But the differences enforced by time, nationality, and personal philosophy keep revealing themselves, in their first meeting and again when Messala visits Judah’s home, greeted like family by Judah’s mother Miriam (Scott) and especially his besotted sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell, Wyler’s sister-in-law), becoming evident in such throwaway yet charged moments as when Messala realises he’s committed a faux pas in recounting tales of glorious Roman slaughters to Judah’s family—citizens of a conquered nation.

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But the break doesn’t fully manifest until Messala presses Judah to give him the names of Judean patriots who dislike Roman hegemony; their rift suddenly defines itself in religious, personal, cultural, and political terms. When Tirzah accidentally knocks a tile from the roof of their house, causing the new governor to be injured, Messala grasps the opportunity to further his career and punish his former friend by having Judah, Miriam, Tirzah, and Judah’s slave accountant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) imprisoned. Judah spends the next four years chained to the oar of a Roman war galley.

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One of the assistant directors on this film was 30-year-old Sergio Leone. I’ve always suspected the influence of Wyler’s technique on his—that way both men had of constructing quiet, rhythmic, slow-burn sequences full of small but eventually revelatory details. It’s particularly evident in a scene like the one on which the ship Judah is serving is taken over by the new admiral, Quintus Arias (Jack Hawkins), who, fascinated by Judah’s still-fiery hate and determination, tests him and all the other slaves by making them row at increasingly high speeds, trying to shake the impenetrably hard stare Judah keeps fixed on him. It’s a galvanising scene that possesses undercurrents of emotional, physical, and sexual power. Judah is subsequently herded up to Arias’ cabin and offered a chance to become a gladiator, his near-nakedness and the disparity of power between the two men full of potent homoerotic overtone. Although rebuffed, Arias is still intrigued enough to make sure Judah is left unchained during the subsequent, thunderous battle with Macedonian pirates.

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Another strong aspect of Ben-Hur is the level of physical grit and gore it allows to seep into the usually cardboard epic genre, and the sea battle offers great examples—a man so desperate to get a chain off his ankle he rubs the flesh off his leg, another man with a severed arm sporting a stump of bone, and half-a-dozen rowers crushed by the great ram of an enemy ship puncturing the hull. Whilst the model work of the ships shows its age, the editing and staging of the whole sequence is impeccable cinema. Judah, having saved Quintus from the ship and stopped him from committing suicide when he thinks the battle lost, gains his freedom thanks to the amusingly dotty-seeming Tiberias (George Relph), and becomes Arias’ adopted son and a champion chariot driver.

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Judah finally returns to Judea to meet in swift succession one of the Magi, Balthazar (old Scots stalwart and compulsory epic star Finlay Currie), who’s searching for the holy child he saw born, and his host, Sheikh Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). Before you can say “dramatic device,” the Sheikh offers Judah the chance to race his four white Arabian steeds against Messala’s champion blacks at the great circus in Jerusalem, an offer Judah initially turns down. When he finally gets home, he finds his house being cared for by Simonides’ daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who was supposed to have been married, but instead has settled for caring for her father, who emerged crippled from the prison where Miriam and Tirzah remain. Judah confronts Messala and demands he get them out, but when they are extracted from the black hole they’ve been kept in for five years, they’re found to have contracted leprosy. Returning to the house of Hur at night, they beg Esther to keep their illness secret, so she tells Judah they died in jail, prompting him to finally seek out revenge on Messala on the circus track.

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Ben-Hur is melodrama, no question, but the film aims unabashedly to transcend into myth, a form always distinguished by a simultaneous cosmic and microcosmic sweep. Wyler pays close attention to totems and symbols with important emblems recurring throughout. Horses, from the pale horse Judah offers Messala at the start to the Manichaeistic duel of their white and black steeds in the chariot race, are emblems of good and evil. Water—the water that Jesus gives to Judah at the moment of crisis, and that Judah tries to give back at the end, the cleansing rain that falls at the end—is the sustenance of faith. Rings—the ring of slavery Judah removes from Esther at the outset to keep as an emblem of chastity, and the ring of Arias—are the bonds of family and loyalty. The crossbeams at which Judah and Messala aim their javelins clearly anticipate the crucifix, and the spear they both throw in friendship Judah soon enough takes up and aims at his betraying friend. The structure of the drama sustains the weight of the metaphysical mythology, particularly in building first to the good-versus-evil climax of the chariot race and then the more subtle miracle that erases suffering.

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A majority of the screenplay was famously rewritten by Gore Vidal, but credited only to initial author Karl Tunberg, and Vidal’s contributions are usually only mentioned in terms of his playful gay subtext. But Vidal’s fingerprints are all over other aspects of the script, particularly in the portrayal of militaristic imperialism, which reflects a lot of Vidal’s meditations on the patrician America with which he was familiar, and the pointed portrayal of Judah’s refusal to name names to Messala: Judah is destroyed by blacklisting. “Patriots?” Messala repeatedly sneers when refusing to countenance the idea Judah offers that men who dislike the system aren’t necessarily dangerous or wrong. It’s also hard to miss the political wish-fulfillment of Jewish Judah and Arab Ilderim joining forces to combat a common enemy. Ilderim even pins a Star of David to Judah’s cloak to “shine out for your people and mine” before the race, and the conclusion is altered from the book (where Judah became a Roman aiding the Christians in getting a foothold there) for a true homecoming.

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Whilst the story is officially New Testament, the plot is closer to Job, and the characterisations of Judah and Messala stand in effectively for a battle of creeds as well as more personal motives; Judah eventually channels his hate for Messala into a general disdain for Rome, which he feels twisted his friend up with evil values. Wyler’s deep-focus, widescreen compositions, always a hallmark of his style, are used throughout for grand dramatic purposes, as when Judah hides behind a stone whilst Esther gives food to Miriam and Tirzah—the landscape and composition of the shot communicating the jagged pain he’s in. The moment when Judah and his family retreat under a hail of stones by people hysterical at the proximity of lepers, whilst the blind man to whom they just gave a coin sadly drops that sullied money onto the ground, offers wild disparities of provoked emotion encompassed within the same shot.

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I love the gothic vibe that infuses the film at several junctures, particularly the creepy scene when Miriam and Tirzah encounter Esther in the courtyard of the house of Hur, swathed in concealing robes like living ghosts with Hammer horror leaves swirling desolately in the winds; Judah later describes their state as like “living in a grave!” The conclusion is similarly lushly stylised, as Wyler cleverly has the miracle of their healing revealed in strobing flashes of lightning, the Hurs contorting in pain and the world consumed by momentary furious darkness, as a flailing storm plunges and washes Jesus’ spilt blood down to mingle with the earth. This works better than the Sunday school visions of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount and the passion play affectations of his end, but the overt contrast between the patient, tactile realism of the rest of the film and the mystic visions of Jesus does place the juxtaposition of the sacred, profane, and merely earthly with fervent effect.

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Of course, the chariot race is the film’s great set piece, and that sequence, directed from start to finish by Andrew Marton and realised thanks to the skills of Yakima Canutt and his team of stunt artists, is still an effortless contender for the greatest action sequence in cinema history. That’s largely because it’s a carefully composed movie in and of itself, with fluent logic of detail, from the wicked spikes that jut from Messala’s chariot and Judah removing his helmet to make sure his enemy can see his face, to the climax of the race when Messala gives into his most debased impulses and makes the mistake of trying to beat Judah—he starts whipping him—rather than his chariot. The widescreen compositions are particularly great in absorbing the landscape of wildly working horses and wheels, the hysterical tumble of events as chariots crash, men are killed, and Judah himself is nearly vaulted head over heels when his vehicle has to jump a crashed opponent’s. The decision to leave music out of the scene is particularly admirable, opting for the urgent thrum of hooves and the roars of the crowd, building to the inevitable comeuppance of Messala, stamped into a bloody mess and lolling broken in the sand, sudden shame and regret stamped on Judah’s face.

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The old line “should’ve ended at the chariot race” has never really rung true for me, though, because Ben-Hur still manages to go to an interesting place after this; the simple effect of the race’s concussive, satisfying violence gives way to a portrayal of the inability of such vengeance to heal hurt. Messala’s so desperate to keep hurting Judah even after death that he delivers an evil piece of news rather than let surgeons try to save his life, and his malignancy, as Esther somewhat too pointedly states, seems to take Judah over. Judah rejects Pontius Pilate’s (Frank Thring Jr.) offer of protection as a gnawing, increasingly inhuman passion for violent cleansing consumes him. As the religious vignettes move in, meaningful lines like “In his pain, this look of peace!” get a bit much, but it’s still notable to me how carefully Wyler builds the rhythm of the film toward the final miracle. He also manages, unlike so many screen depictions of the Crucifixion, to communicate a proper metaphoric sense of what the event signifies by concentrating not merely on horror, but also on consequence; the healing of Miriam and Tirzah is in itself symbolic of moral and emotional renewal. Wyler, who was Jewish, wanted to make a film that appealed to all faiths in portraying faith itself as an ennobling ideal rather than a mere sectarian triumph. Even a godless heathen like me likes the point.

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Ben-Hur cleaned up at the 1959 Oscars, taking home 11 statuettes, including one for Heston. It might not be Heston’s best performance—he’s arguably better, for instance, in El Cid—as he tends to hit some of his dramatic moments too hard, too early, but it’s still admirable how he prevents the mass of the production from crushing him. He acts like a man with a weight on his shoulders, his great bearish frame buckling under the impact of suffering, constantly wishing to bring his innate physical and psychological strength to bear, but hampered by his own better sense and will. Boyd, on the other hand, is beautifully, perversely malicious as Messala: I especially love the mordant precision with which he pronounces the lone word “Return?” in mocking Judah’s promise of revenge. Neither man was a subtle actor, but the job of keeping their bristling bombast in balanced counterpoint is nicely fulfilled by Harareet, the only actual Palestinian in the film. The more I watch the film, the more I admire her performance in a problematic role. Griffith, as Ilderim, gives the kind of hammy, scene-stealing performance that’s easy to love, and Hawkins is as fine as he ever was. No, Ben-Hur’s not perfect—I’d really like to know who does Jesus’ hair—and yet it still stands effortlessly tall.

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Action-Adventure, Foreign, Women's Film

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Shurayukihime

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Director: Toshiya Fujita

By Roderick Heath

The late ’60s and early ’70s were something of a golden age in Japanese commercial cinema, with rugged genre reinventions displaying a great confidence in a modernising milieu and industry. In particular, a number of electrifying, blood-lusting, visually chic jidai geki works like the Lone Wolf and Cub series initiated by Kenji Misumi and Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood cast a long shadow even on Hollywood filmmakers. A key correlation between these works is the way they contrast intense, heightened physical beauty captured in the crisp, muted colours Japanese cinematographers made their own in the era and rapturous pseudo-poetic stylisation with ruthless violence and aestheticised gore. Another more immediate link was the fact they were both based on the work of manga author Kazuo Koike, who also contributed to the scripts.

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Lady Snowblood is particularly notable for offering a memorable heroine in Meiko Kaji’s Yuki Kashima, and for Fujita’s inventive, layered, pop-cinematic techniques. This jaw-dropping melodrama, set during the early Meiji period of the late 19th century, when Japan was undergoing tremendous social upheaval, offered fascinating cross-cultural blends in style and dress that have been a powerful fetish for anime artists. Fujita commences with a scene of birth that’s a bleak inversion of many a nativity scene, with Sayo Kashima (Miyoko Akaza) giving birth in prison, white snow falling outside, her red-clad fellow prisoners trying to midwife as she painfully and fatally gives life to Yuki. A jump cut reveals a grown Yuki, calling herself Lady Snowblood, taking on and besting in brutal fashion the bodyguards of a yakuza boss and then dispatching the boss with cold aplomb after describing herself as vengeance personified. This assassination, it soon proves, was on the behalf of the leader of a gang of beggars, Sir Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), because the boss had dispossessed them of their village and left them to scrounge a living.

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As repayment for her service, Yuki requests that Matsuemon and his followers find for her three ruffians, Banzô Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara), and Gishirô Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada). This trio and a fourth confederate, Tokuichi Shokei (Takeo Chii), were scamming peasants afraid of a government draft and murdered Sayo’s husband Gô (Masaaki Daimon), an innocent schoolteacher coming to take a rural post, to prove their ability to sniff out and fend off federal officials. They also slaughtered her young son and held her captive and raped her for days before Shokei dragged her to Tokyo as his concubine. There she knifed him during sex, a crime for which she was imprisoned, but Sayo made sure she got pregnant by screwing any man she could, with the intention of producing a child who could carry on her vengeance. In spite of Sayo’s death just after her birth, Yuki can remember her momentous entrance into the world.

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Raised by one of her mother’s fellow prisoners, Tajire no Okiku (Akemi Negishi), Yuki was roughly drilled in swordplay and athletic feats by Dôkai (Kô Nishimura), a priest and former government official who delighted in making Yuki an unwavering force of punishment for an increasingly corrupt, shapeless, despicable society. Lady Snowblood is Fujita’s most famous and acclaimed film, and his formal innovation in telling his story is rich. The ritualistic form of much Asian action cinema is intact, with Yuki moving from target to target with relentless, mounting mayhem after intensive training in the art of killing. But Fujita essays the narrative in chapters, utilising a circular style in revealing the story that ties intricately to the what-goes-around-comes-around moral and multigenerational shape of the tale.

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Flashbacks and backstory points of reference are explicated in freeze frames, black-and-white sequences, illustrations from manga, constructing a substantiated vision of the motivating past filtered through artifice: Fujita makes explicit that the art of telling Lady Snowblood’s story is part of that story. It’s easy to see why the film was a profound model for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and not merely in its thematic and stylistic preoccupations with the beautiful agent of apocalyptic destruction at its centre, but also because it utilises an imaginative, self-reflexive approach to telling a generic story that suggests boundaries extending beyond the immediate borders of the film. The story is recounted by an off-screen narrator, author and journalist Ryûrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), who stumbles upon Yuki’s tale when he visits the grave of Tsukamoto and passes by Yuki, who’s outraged to find one of her nemeses is dead and has assaulted his tombstone instead and sliced the heads off the decorating flowers.

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Ryûrei learns Yuki’s story from Dôkai, who hopes that the story might flush out Yuki’s last opponent, Okono, now a yakuza matriarch. Ryûrei turns Yuki’s biography into a popular book, introducing a note of meta-textual irony to the proceedings, especially when Ryûrei begins “Chapter Four” only to have the villain of the piece walk in to tell him to stop. The title’s motif is constantly reflected, both literally—much blood gushes out upon the snowy streets—and metaphorically, the contrasting textures of pure snow and sticky gore reflecting the perverse disconnect between Yuki’s serene appearance and inner demons. Those demons manifest in her wide, remarkable eyes, with their reddened rims burning in her almost spectrally pale face, offered in awe-stoking close-up. It’s also there in the careful costuming and set décor in the opening birth sequence, and repeated through the reiteration of the image of emanations from the “netherworld,” a blood-red snow that cleanses. Lady Snowblood came out of an era in which women were becoming both more overtly heroic and yet more often brutalised on screen, especially in Japanese films, concurrent with the increasing international profile of women’s lib (it’s revealing that Kaji, who had risen out of sexploitation films at Nikkatsu Studios, fled to Tohei as Nikkatsu went deeper into producing “pink” porn-and-violence movies). Although they’re far more common now, Yuki is one of the first and truest ass-kicking women of cinema, and though the film hardly celebrates ruthless violence inflicted by anyone, this telling social dimension of the story plugs into a broader mythology of generational revolt and historical anger.

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Yuki’s first claimed scalp of her mission elucidates a theme of female exploitation, in presenting Banzô as a wash-up living off his daughter Kobue (Yoshiko Nakada), who pretends to make baskets but is actually whoring herself out. Banzô gambles the money some of her clients give to him, trying to cheat, with Yuki rescuing him from the clutches of yakuza only to confront him on a stormy beach and slice him open after asking, “Look into my eyes. Do I remind you of someone you once raped?” The sins of the fathers are indeed being repaid, and Yuki finds an enemy in Kobue, but also an unexpected helpmate in Ryûrei, who is, she learns in shock after saving him from Okono’s clutches, is actually the son of Tsukamoto. Worse yet, his father isn’t actually dead, having faked his demise to escape investigations into his smuggling operations, a fact of which Ryûrei is unaware until his father comes to him and tells him to desist in recording Yuki’s tale.

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Ryûrei is a scurrilous muckraker assaulting the new order of things, whereas his father has become a war-profiteer, engaging in building up Japan’s military force and hosting parties for international guests to cover and help his secret arms deals. Yuki and Ryûrei crash one of his masked balls to do him in, leading to a familial bloodbath in which Ryûrei tries to hold Tsukamoto still long enough for Yuki to stab him while father empties bullet after bullet into his son’s body. Yuki skewers them both, and Tsukamoto plunges over the balcony into the midst of his horrified guests, pulling with him the Rising Sun flag (and the US flag nearly goes with it), in an image that’s as metaphorically radical as above-ground Japanese cinema gets.

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Then again, an interesting aspect of post-WWII Japanese genre cinema, especially of the historical variety, tends to be its outright cynicism over institutions and social roles of the past, unlike many equivalent western genres, like Hollywood and British swashbucklers, Italian peplum, or pre-Peckinpah westerns, instead fixating on warriors and nobles and yet very often portraying a corrupt, decaying, brutal world. Figures as grimly determined as Yuki or Lone Wolf and Cub’s Itto Ogami, or outcast, like Zatoichi, are heroic merely by standing for a principle and their towering skills. Kaji was a big star with young pop-loving audiences, sustaining a recording career simultaneously with her acting; her appeal was pitched for that generation, and one of the films she followed Lady Snowblood with was the antisocial Bonnie and Clyde variant Jeans Blues (1974). Yuki, the narrator reminds us, possesses a compassionate heart underneath her stoic exterior, and meets a soul-cracking problem when she thinks her mission is over and faces potential romance with Ryûrei; her entire life is predicated to a violent mission that puts her, as Dôkai says, beyond even Buddha’s redemption. And yet her rampage seems connected to natural justice, finding echoes in the snow and the waves that wash about Banzô’s body, white foam staining red.

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The film’s cool hysteria is remarkable. Fujita eschews all but the most basic stunts for Yuki to perform (a stink bomb hidden in her hair is as fancy as her tricks get), and in spite of the stylistic flourishes, Lady Snowblood walks a tricky tightrope that offsets lyricism and action with a raw realism. It doesn’t quite belong in the same fantastic world of superhuman protagonists as other such films, even when taking into account such wacko moments as Yuki recalling the scene of her own birth and holding an unspoken conversation with nemesis Tsukamoto. Fujita realises some startling images, like the prepubescent Yuki stripping off her dress and dodging Dôkai’s sword strokes, sucking on the wound he leaves on her arm with fearless bloodlust, and Yuki’s final anguished scream as she touches a handful of bloodied snow to her face.

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Multitalented star Kaji had, after leaving Nikkatsu, found proper stardom in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, and later gained her highest accolades in a film version of classical playwright Chikamatsu’s Sonezaki Shinju (1978). Yuki is a role that suits her dark, marauding intensity perfectly, and she also sings Yuki’s gorgeously melancholy theme song (I also recommend the compilation of her various film themes and pop hits, “Zenkyoku Shu,” one of my favourite albums ever) that punctuates the start and conclusion of the film: the rest of the film’s jazz-pop score, by Masaaki Hirao, is terrific too. The third-act complication, of course, removes Yuki’s moral quandary by killing off Ryûrei and leaving her to stumble away from the carnage, with one of Tsukamoto’s bullets in her, to receive another indelible wound from Kobue’s dagger. Yuki crawls away, bawling in crushing existential anguish at where her life has led her. But right or wrong, good or bad, Yuki simply refuses to die, and the film ends with her looking up to the rising sun, still hovering between worlds. Of course, Fujita and Kaji reunited for a sequel the following year.

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2000s, War

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, a French farmer (Denis Menochet) watched a German motorcade approach his property, bringing into his life one Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), an efficacious, polite, good-humoured SS enforcer who picks at any situation, character, and attendant appearances until the truth finally comes out—which in this case is that the farmer is concealing a Jewish family under his floorboards. Landa’s death squad fire into the floor, killing the family, except for one of their girls, Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), who flees. Landa, instead of gunning her down, calls after her in his pleasantly mocking way, “Au revoir, Shoshanna!”

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Four years later, Shoshanna, now a grown woman and running a movie theatre in Paris, finds the path of her life crossing not only with Landa again, but also a charming young Nazi war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), his patron Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), and through Goebbels, the whole Nazi leadership. Also on a collision path with Shoshanna is a vengeful unit of Jewish-American commandos who have been spreading terror throughout the Reich with their unorthodox tactics, like scalping and baseball-bat beatings, using German film star and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to forward their aims. Personages and events collide until the chance to end the entire war in one night falls into Shoshanna’s lap…or is it Landa’s?

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I’ll crawl over barbed wire and eat turds to defend Quentin Tarantino, and I think I had to do that for Death Proof, so you’ll know I don’t count it lightly when I was initially tempted to call Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s most original and least coherent film. His most original in that it plugs into a new current of creativity, sporting a finale quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. His least coherent in that although it sports scene after scene of intricately handled drama and humour, dynamic in its textures and incidents, it fails to add up to a grand and unequivocal whole. Condemning any artwork for not delivering what one hopes for and ignoring what it does deliver is one of the cardinal sins of criticism. So wishing for Tarantino-does-Where Eagles Dare might not have been wise, but yeah, that’s what I was wishing for. If you think it’s headed for a taunting, thrilling, Alistair MacLean-esque battle of wits between Landa and the Basterds, think again. Tarantino has much bigger fish to fry, and the Basterds come across as a retained element of older drafts of the script.

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The film is not actually a war movie. Instead, it is as intimate and, in a curious way, as resolutely down to earth, as Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown, which may indeed have been a conscious choice in pushing as deeply into fantasy as he does here. As in his early films, violence comes in sudden, intimate eruptions; there are no set action pieces like the House of Blue Leaves battle in Kill Bill Vol. 1 or the climax of Death Proof. It has much in common with Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which also churn retro movie imagery, modernist force, raw melodrama, and femme fatale glamour into a lumpy, but lucid singularity. All three films reflect that the Second World War is now a long time ago, but its imagery and associated emotions still retain awesome power that infuse explorations of still-contemporary concerns from across the spectrum of the modern world—sex, class and race, the manipulation of imagery, the nature of political leadership—with eternal potency.

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The tenor of the film, confirmed by the disgust a protagonist feels for watching himself in a war movie, seems dismayed by the impersonal slaughter of the genre. It doesn’t suit Tarantino’s fetishist tendencies or his what-goes-around-comes-around moral schema, which is vital to all his films. Although the very end of the film sports random, injudicious killing, it’s tackled with a vengeful gusto that captures the nature of true wrath. Nor is it as much a comedy as Tarantino’s other films. Although often very funny, Tarantino’s jokes are sleights of hand concealing a punch to the belly that arrives with more force than ever before. Inglourious Basterds is, deep down, a rather serious movie, which is perhaps why it’s not quite as much fun as expected. It approaches with deadly intensity the confrontations where life and death depend on the smallest gestures, and finds real disgust in Goebbels playing the maestro of movie-making in serving up violent spectacles for propaganda, and in the final, metaphorical edition of the guilty, postwar habit of giving a pass to former Nazis when they were useful, as Landa tries to wrangle himself a hero’s welcome to the United States. As far as it departs from the historical record, Basterds is vitally interested in the spirit of the epoch it portrays.

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So what kind of film is it? I’m not really sure, hence my feeling that it’s something original. It’s easy, but also incredibly reductive, to say that it’s a movie-movie, but that is, in a way, not at all true. Independence Day is a movie-movie. Basterds is something far more complex. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych, it leaps off from the telling image of an orphaned child seeking redress, and balances on a knife edge between tactile and immediate realism and flourishes of raw fantasy—even more so because Tarantino resists stylistic flourish and visual digression more than in any other film. Much as Pvt. Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) takes a baseball bat to Nazis, Tarantino takes one to the familiar beats of melodrama; what appears to be set-ups for long narrative arcs may instead end in a blink, with the offhand death of seemingly important characters, as Tarantino tries to keep a step ahead of expectations. And yet, finally, this begins to hurt his capacity to sell a story. So many potentially terrific characters vie for attention that they end up cancelling each other out, so that, for instance, Bridget’s startling demise at Landa’s enraged hands and the liebestod consummation of Shoshanna and Stoller’s charged relationship don’t quite carry the weight they ought to.

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I’m not sure if the film’s relatively restrained tone is the product of personal consideration or the result of commercial necessities. Although the chattiness, profuse film and cultural references, and moments of utter fantasia comprise a work no one else could have served up, in sheer cinematic terms, it’s Tarantino’s most limited and least stylish work. It mostly lacks the balletic camerawork, the relish of staging, the ukiyo-ye colour and fairytale art direction that gave the Kill Bill films their pep or Death Proof its forceful action sequences. Inglourious Basterds has so much to do in its running time that it both adds up to a hell of a ride and slight letdown. The Basterds themselves barely do anything that’s necessary for the course of the film, which instead, takes refuge in a series of Leone-esque scenes that in a rather more dialogue-driven fashion than Leone, trace small power plays, ploys, and vagaries of intent between characters in charged situations, building to explosive outbursts.

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Tarantino almost entirely avoids showing the Basterds in action; there’s one scene of them terrorising and disposing of prisoners after a battle. Only right at the end do two of them, Donnie and Omar (Roth and Omar Doom playing the same two scrubs they played in Death Proof in period drag, which is pretty funny in itself) get into action. The three key—and best—sequences are queasy-making epics of expectation and violent pay-off: the opening in the farmhouse; a taut set piece in a bar in which British lieutenant and former film critic Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender), who has been assigned to contact Bridget and accompany her to the premiere, tries to bluff his way through a conversation with a suspicious Gestapo officer (August Diehl); and the finale. The film’s pitch is to be a Jewish revenge fantasy by believably hijacking the rather grotesque propositions of ’70s Nazi exploitation films like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974) and Lager SS5: L’Inferno delle Donne (1976), and turning them inside out.

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And it is, finally, a hellish moment when the revenge finally arrives, Shoshanna’s filmed face, laughing mockery at the film audience being burnt alive and machine gunned from above by Donnie and Omar, whose faces are glazed with psychopathic indulgence. This comes after Shoshanna shares a kiss with her black projectionist and lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido), the ultimate slap at Nazi ideals. The whole sequence, whose orgiastic mixture of pop art and reverse-holocaust is something genuinely apocalyptic and disorienting, is distinctly less cynical than the finale of an obvious precursor, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). In the latter film, the indiscriminate slaughter of Germans and their whorish companions was detached from a context of the actual war, portraying instead a war of base, rugged individualism against oppressive culture; Tarantino’s film displays the revenge both a specific culture—Judaism—and a cultural trope— cinema—against abusers of both. Inglourious Basterds, both literally and in the textures of its filmmaking, sets itself against the appropriation of the raw potency of cinema, and it feels as much Tarantino’s “fuck you” to cultural dullards and the visual and conceptual blandness of much of contemporary cinema as it is to Nazism. In such a context, even Tarantino’s more wayward impulses service his messy idealism.

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I certainly won’t complain about the cast. Pitt, sporting a consciously pasted-on hillbilly accent (“Bon-jaw-no!”), is hilarious in the few scenes in which he has anything to do, but he’s far from the centre of this opus. Kruger, who’s grown exponentially as an actress since her underwhelming Helen of Troy (2004), might have stumbled directly out of a ’40s film with her alternations of bright-eyed bluff and gimlet-eyed grit. Mélanie Laurent is affecting as Shoshanna, rising star Fassbender is amusingly retro, and Brühl communicates both humanity and subtle prerogative in Stoller. Christoph Waltz’s Landa is as sublime as advertised. Anything Omar Doom does cracks me up. I’m not sure why Rod Taylor’s Winston Churchill or Mike Myers’ Lionel Mandrake-esque British general are there, but they are there, to be enjoyed in any fit manner.

Big, unwieldy, and eccentric, Inglourious Basterds will nonetheless stand as one of the signal movie events of the year.

Standard
2000s, Drama, Korean cinema

Oldboy (2003)

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Director: Park Chan-wook

By Roderick Heath

Revenge is an ugly thing, and the violence used to accomplish it grotesque and self-consuming. Such is the truism nearly as old in literature as literature itself. Sophocles and Euripides evoked the theme. Shakespeare and the Jacobeans interrogated it in depth. Park Chan-wook stomps it into the ground. Many critics, discussing films like this, pass that notion around as if it’s something original and newly crucial. Of course, questions of revenge and films about it gained a curious urgency after 9/11 and the general atmosphere of the War on Terror. Suddenly, men and women were mercilessly ripping their way through hordes of bad guys, looking en route into their own hearts of darkness in films as diverse and tonally incompatible as Kill Bill, Man on Fire, The Punisher, Spider-Man and on and on, and schoolmarmish worry faces were made by critics and filmmakers like the excruciatingly boring Michael Haneke, pointing out that our love of onscreen violence is feeding into our general bloodlust and making us tools of political violence.

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The ethical problem that ought to be examined, and yet often remains unexamined is what is the difference between justice and revenge? If justice is not forthcoming, is revenge permissible? Do they not share the same philosophical roots in social theory? Is not the idea that what goes around comes around central to all notions of communal existence? What are our moral concerns anyway? What do we wish to defend? Do we wish to defend anything? Without gods to command us, how and why do we maintain standards of human decency? With gods to command us, how do we balance our duty to moral prescription with a merely human desire for evening the score and protecting the security of our lives? None of these questions will be answered by watching a Chan-wook Park film.

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Chan-wook is a fashionable figure, and Oldboy is currently sitting at #118 on the IMDb’s Top 250 list. His Vengeance trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005)—are something like Stations of the Cross for their maker, a devout Catholic. But his films must not in any way, shape, or form be mistaken for ethical or theological investigations: they are sadomasochistic engines of masturbation for violence freaks pretending to be moral fables, each of them acts of unadorned savagery served out by ludicrous characters in ludicrous situations. Normally, I’d let that stand. To engage and work through our darker notions is one of the primal attractions of the cinema—and art in general. Art has no imperative to be moral or even fair. It’s all about context and balance. Of the Vengeance trilogy, the most bearable is Lady Vengeance, chiefly because the central character is the best-conceived avatar of Chan-wook’s concerns, a woman who balances saintliness and devilishness in equal proportions, lets each fight within her, and channels a century’s worth of onscreen feminine martyrs into her image in the process.

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Oldboy, at the other extreme, is one of the worst, most repugnant, pointless, and wrongheaded films I’ve ever sat through. Two hours of imprisonment, teeth-pulling, bone cracking, hammer beatings, stick lashings, incestuous couplings, tongue-slicing, and altogether merciless assault on all human nature could be withstood and even admired if any of it made a lick of sense. But the film’s Jacobean excesses are merely that—excesses. There’s no sense of rhythm or steady ground where the yardsticks needed to care can be planted. What any of this means in terms of society and the individual, which even in a play as bad as Titus Andronicus is still the vital question, is never suggested. Oldboy exists in a vacuum of cause and effect, meaning and imperative.

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Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a tipsy, talkative businessman who, after being briefly picked up by the cops with his friend No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), makes a phone call home to his daughter and then vanishes. He’s been spirited inside a strange prison cell that has been decorated like a normal apartment, where he spends the next 15 years being subjected to occasional gassings and hypnotism. With a television as his only friend, he learns a lot from it, endlessly imitating the fights he watches on it and becoming an adept martial artist. Right at the point when he manages to carve a hole in the wall, he’s released, awakening on a rooftop inside a suitcase. Stumbling through the world, he enters a sushi restaurant and encounters a pretty young chef, Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), and faints after consuming a live octopus and receiving an enigmatic phone call from his antagonist.

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Mido inexplicably takes this middle-aged weirdo in and aids him as he contacts Joo-hwan and sets about tracking down his enemy. He locates the imprison-your-enemy business run by Park Cheol-woong (Dal-su Oh), whose teeth he rips out to extract information about who had him locked up there before battling his way out through a horde of Park’s thugs. Dae-su never suspects that his quarry is a step ahead of him all the time, set on leading him and Mido into the most grotesque of traps. Dae-Su’s persecutor proves to be someone who went to the same school, Evergreen (their alumni homepage is called “Evergreen Old Boys”). He is one Woo-jin Lee (Yu Ji-tae), a tycoon who has sought to destroy Dae-Su’s life because Dae-Su had, in a youthful moment he had forgotten, spied Lee and his sister Lee Soo-ah (Yun Jin-seo) engaged in an incestuous relationship. He had told Joo-hwan, and rumours spread that resulted in Soo-ah’s suicide.

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In addition to the past 15 years of intolerable punishment, Lee has contrived an extra penitence in a twist I saw coming from, oh, about 40 minutes earlier: he had used hypnotism to make Dae-Su and Mido to fall in love because, yes, Mido is Dae-Su’s daughter. And so, rather than ripping out Lee’s windpipe, as would be permissible, Dae-Su is reduced to begging him not to reveal the truth to Mido, and he cuts out his own tongue as a totem of his apology for destroying Lee and his sister’s lives. Lee commits suicide, and Dae-Sun undergoes hypnotherapy to forget the truth, allowing him and Mido to walk off into the sunset.

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I doubt the Oldboy cult is really about much more than the visceral thrill of teenagers (of all ages) the world over cooing at the consumption of squirming tentacles and hammer-claw dentistry. Oldboy is undoubtedly strong filmmaking, in a kind of tricky, live-action cartoon fashion, down to the already famous and influential corridor fight, staged in a single shot that must have tested the mettle of its actors to the limits. But it lacks that cool, Kurosawa-influenced realism that made Mr. Vengeance drag me along to an equally nihilistic end, nor the fairly well-judged stylisation of Lady Vengeance, which helped me swallow a rather over-large horse pill of a conceit. Nor is the filmmaking actually radical enough in style and concept to assault the audience’s perceptions of the politics of power, gender, and society, as in, for instance, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967).

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Links that might have been fashioned between Lee’s position as a corporate captain and Dae-su’s status as a self-deluding victim of a TV-fed consumer culture just aren’t there. It’s possible that in Korean society, where many citizens have been kidnapped and held for decades across the border, this is a more vivid anxiety than anywhere else. But there’s no political context: this is pure rat-in-a-maze taunting. Lee’s a gothic supervillain with incest on his mind, hiding in his penthouse, just like Mason Verger, the alternate villain of Hannibal (2001). Rather than build up to anything chilling, or cathartic, or even trashily entertaining, it’s all an adolescent monument to asking what more the audience is willing to put up with. It contains dark humour, and yet totally lacks the playfulness and meta-narrative irony that made the often equally dark Kill Bill bearable, nor does it have Tarantino’s sense of characterisation.

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That it doesn’t know when to quit is the real problem, pushing to an unbearable finale in which Dae-su grovels, sings his old school song, and generally tries everything up to and including taking the scissors to his tongue to elicit an iota of relenting from the truly monstrous Lee Woo-jin, a sequence that completely used up any sympathy I had for Park’s films. It’s supposed to be crucial that Dae-su is willing to do anything to prevent his daughter know she’s in love with her father. But the cumulative effect is so viciously, unremittingly hateful that it directs my hate neatly at the people responsible for the movie. “A grain of sand or a stone, they both sink in a river” goes the maxim that Lee quotes to Dae-Su. “Don’t diddle your sister in a schoolroom and expect to get away with it forever,” is the apt response, but no one gets around to that. In fact, there’s very little sophistication to the narrative at all. The characters are flat and absurd, their emotions inflated and yet unconvincing; the visual storytelling is sometimes opaque, but only in an irritating way; the hero’s decisions and actions are often startlingly senseless; and, even for a film that knows it’s absurd, the plot is incredibly opportunistic.

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Park’s moral propositions are consistently, offensively stupid, from letting a bunch of hysterical parents cut bits off a paedophile murderer in Lady Vengeance to this nonsensical cavalcade of disproportion. Whatever commentary is supposed to be garnered is nullified by the total tone-deafness of nuance and scale. Much like the childish reductions of Old Testament brimstone and audience-taunting anti-climaxes in films like Se7en (1995), the endless Saw series, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), where justice is cheated either through its insufficient or misdirected application, Park’s philosophical level never rises above the schoolyard, bullying his viewers into bending in reaction to his provocations and dulling their brains into stupefied nonresponse.

Standard
2000s, Action-Adventure

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) / Vol. 2 (2004)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

As an aficionado of his performances in films like Boxcar Bertha (1970), Bound for Glory (1976), and The Serpent’s Egg (1978), I didn’t need Quentin Tarantino to remember for me what a great actor David Carradine could be. Yet Carradine’s peculiar life and death confirm that he was as a man much like the characters he often played—rootless, peripatetic in life and career, taciturn and emotionally ambiguous in image. His long attachment to the half-baked TV series Kung Fu, Roger Corman, and New World Studios saw him crowned king of 1970s and ’80s trash, blotting out his best achievements. In many ways, his career replicated that of his father, John, in becoming the sort of face cinema needs but rarely treasures; Ingmar Bergman cast David in The Serpent’s Egg because of Bergman’s admiration of John. Carradine himself seemed surprised that he could still rise to the occasion when Tarantino cast him as the titular rogue in his colossal diptych, Kill Bill.

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I am glad that Tarantino remembered how cool Carradine could be, because his crocodilian charm is crucial to the success of Kill Bill, a work I make no apologies for considering one of the greatest of the decade. Deliriously entertaining, colourful, and altogether unique in its blackly hilarious melding of cherry-picked clichés and vital characterisation, Kill Bill is, at the very least, the sort of film no other director could pull off. Tarantino is, in many ways, the straight man’s Pedro Almodovar: a self-conscious quoter of generic traditions, fueled by the strong emotional charge inherent in disreputable cultural detritus, setting his ardour of artifice and ground-level feel for human interaction in a pas de deux as intricate as the swordplay.

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Kill Bill wants, first and foremost, to be an exciting, funny, and strangely romantic action film. It’s the tale of Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), known only as “The Bride” for most of the film. She awakens from a four-year coma, and begins a determined effort to wipe out the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad—Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), Budd (Michael Madsen), O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), and Vernita Green (Viveca A. Fox), and their boss Bill—in revenge for their murder of her fiancé (Chris Nelson), friends, and her unborn infant, as well as the cap Bill put in her own crown. She quit Bill and her life as one of the Vipers (code-name Black Mamba) when she found she was pregnant with Bill’s child, and tried to settle into a normal life, but Bill tracked her down and instituted the carnage. In her bloody revenge, she takes out redneck rapists, hordes of yakuza bullyboys, a psychotic schoolgirl, and a Franco-Japanese lawyer dressed like a Star Trek villain. A major criticism leveled at the film is that the first part contains all the great set pieces, and it’s true—the House of Blue Leaves sequence is one of the mightiest set pieces in cinematic history and a notable riposte to Hollywood’s increasing inability to shoot action scenes. But it’s the second half that has the truly relishable character turns: Hannah’s imperiously sexy Elle; Madsen’s weirdly sympathetic, if irredeemably vicious, Budd; Michael Parks’ sibilant, courtly but malevolent pimp Esteban Vallejo; Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei; and, of course, Carradine’s Bill.

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Tarantino’s direction, Sally Menke’s editing, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography were all at their height, and scene after scene is a treat for the eye. I once went to a dance venue where the DJs projected Vol. 2 on a screen, and the film’s purely rhythmic structuring adapted itself to any beat the DJs spun. In closer analysis, the structure of Kill Bill also reveals a vital aspect more floridly than any other of Tarantino’s films: Kill Bill revels in the dialectic between fantasy flourish and realism. The film begins with an ordinary suburban household becoming the scene of a ruthlessly violent struggle, and concludes with what is essentially a tiff between former lovers. In between comes a work that builds to the height of generic stylisation, in the epic House of Blue Leaves battle, and yet maintains an amusing contrast with everyday, tactile realism. For all their startling gifts, the characters live in most bog-ordinary of settings: trailer homes, suburban bungalows, sushi parlours, and bland hotels. Budd contends with the sarcasm of a cocaine-snorting titty-bar owner (Larry Bishop), and Tarantino notes with intimacy something as throwaway as Budd’s methods of making cocktails. Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) and his assistant (Kenji Oba) run a sushi bar and squabble like an old married couple. Such touches provide the messiness of the everyday, constantly bumping against the formalism of generic material where yakuzas duel with samurai swords because it’s more honourable.

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Tarantino’s bent is not satiric, however, though it is ironic. It’s more a tacit acknowledgement how much the life-and-death dramatics of our beloved fantasies inform our perceptions of our everyday lives. The film’s musical leitmotif, Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) ,” is the story of a woman whose play-act gun battles as a child reflect an adult betrayal by her childhood sweetheart, and the film itself concludes with a duel of plastic guns and a literally broken heart. Despite the gushing blood, the film’s truest paragon of life and death is a dead goldfish. The disconnect between Bill’s voice and actions in the moment he shoots his former lover in the head, proclaiming himself at his “most masochistic,” hints at the later contradiction that asserts itself in Bill. He’s effortlessly the most charming guy around, and the most violent—the bad boy of many a woman’s fantasy and reality. Flashbacks to Bill and Beatrix in their prime reveal a young woman almost goofily in love with a wise elder; when she returns, hardened to the point of psychopathy, their interactions nonetheless confirm a still-guttering mutual love, irreducibly shaded with hate and hurt. “I knew what would happen when I shot Mommy,” Bill confesses to his and Beatrix’s daughter BB (Perla Haney-Jardine). “But I didn’t know when I shot Mommy what would happen to me.” He goes on to use the corniest trope of super-villainy, the truth serum, to extract from Beatrix the exact nature of her motives in abandoning him, in the film’s most crucial union of the fantastic and the emotionally imperative. If Rear Window (1954) is the cinema’s greatest portrait of pre-wedding anxiety, Kill Bill could be its greatest divorce drama.

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The Bride’s relentless vengeance, dealt out in unremitting havoc, takes in a variety of shaded, apposite figures that evoke family roles: her sister in injury, O-Ren Ishii; Bill and Budd, mutually recriminatory brothers; Bill, both lover and father-figure of Beatrix; Bill “collects father figures” like Esteban; Elle kills the more formidable, more beneficial paternal figure for Beatrix, Pai Mei, and as her evil double, supplants her as Bill’s lover; Vernita, living the hidden, suburban, maternal life Beatrix aspired to; Go-Go (Chiaki Kuriyama), who could well be the kind of violent youth Beatrix was. It’s not hard to read, in Bill’s status as a fatherless child of the borderlands, and the revolving theme of severed and transient family, a certain level of self-analysis on Tarantino’s part, except that his way of analysing it isn’t through confessional filmmaking. So many of Tarantino’s protagonists are rootless, living out of motel rooms, lapping up television shows and shreds of culture, and threatening to bust out of their cages. Kill Bill quotes westerns, women’s melodramas, kung-fu, and samurai flicks, becoming a kind of pan-cultural epic of trash. When Bill delivers his theory of the nature of Superman in relation to a critique of humanity, it’s pretty well true of this film, too: humanity critiqued through the costumes it likes to dress its concerns in that save us from the boredom of being ourselves.

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Much like a classical epic poem, Kill Bill’s story is in motion when the tale begins, and it stretches off in all directions, both in time and into other films. Tarantino has always embraced ideas of intertextuality—that common body of elements crucial both to the production of any genre and their academic study. He stretches it to the limits by having every character a player in some other story (although only one, Pai Mei, is a true stock villain, from Chinese mythology). Each journey affects another: The Bride’s vengeance is not merely self-contained, but the result of an Ouroborous-like cycle of violence, where many of the major characters are defined by the loss of someone invested with love or trust (O-Ren’s parents murdered; Beatrix’s and Bill and Budd’s families mysteriously absent; Hattori betrayed by student Bill). This flux isn’t resolved until the most vital of family connections, mother and child, is restored (BB’s name confirms the closure). Even then the story isn’t finished—Vernita’s daughter may one day come seeking her own payback.

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Tarantino internalises not only the tropes of eastern genre films, but also their more notably dark sense of human conflict, and, paradoxically, their cartoonishness. Blood spurts, head and limbs roll, guts spill, small armies are butchered, and there’s enough go-for-broke grotesquery to satisfy, but Tarantino uses distancing effects—anime, black and white, ludicrous sound effects like tumbling ten-pins, and fights staged and lit like modern dance routines—to discharge most of the brutality. Kill Bill is, in many ways, as much a musical as a melodrama. One major model was the Lone Wolf and Cub series, where, likewise, a strangely touching parent-child relationship is counterbalanced by hair-raising violence, as if simultaneously acknowledging the potential cruelty of life and the power of the family unit in alleviating it. Kill Bill also notes the common elements in the disparate cultural entertainments that confirm the righteousness of heroic enterprise, the essence of honour, the immutability of family and loyalty, and the amount of joy so many people find in watching heads get cut off onscreen.

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Kill Bill is also a film with a genuinely dynamic and interesting female hero. Most stabs at creating action heroines come across like fashion models jammed in cat-suits, or men in skirts, but Beatrix is detailed, emotionally and intellectually complex, and not exactly the nicest woman in the world. She’s a savage killer, and once she commits to vengeance, she pursues it without mercy, to the point where she leaves children without parents. She’s also an actual female protagonist who experiences specifically female problems—the whole narrative is spun from the fact that she abandoned her previous lifestyle to bring up her child, thus contending with a difficulty that confronts many women. The film then, through all it flights of fancy, is sustained by a critical sense of The Bride’s incensed pride and sense of loss, leading to a final scene where she weeps in gratitude and grief for everything her mission has brought her.

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Bill had to be a very specific mixture of bastard and charmer, convincing enough to be the man a woman like Beatrix could both love and loathe with such finality. One of the film’s few lacks is a scene that shows Carradine cutting lose as Bill (although the DVD of Vol. 2 includes the deleted “Damoe” scene, which illustrates both how awesome, and awesomely unprincipled, he is), but Carradine communicates both a certain leathery, hardened brutality, as well as a soul-deep ache underneath his amiable, talkative, stylish exterior. He heads towards what he knows is his well-deserved end with a strange dignity: note how well Carradine plays the scenes where he quietly gets drunk enough so he knows he’ll be little threat to Beatrix.

He’s the man.

Standard
1950s, British cinema, Film Noir

The Long Memory (1952)

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Director: Robert Hamer

By Roderick Heath

The great works of British film noir are far less well known than the American, but it was one of the few genres that thrived for the British film industry after WW2, providing a needed counterpoint of down-and-dirty contemporary angst and grit in a period of British cinema remembered mostly for stoic-heroic war films and Ealing comedies. Of these works of distinctive British noir, by far the most famous is Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), given a mighty boost in notoriety thanks to its Graham Greene screenplay and American stars. But Brit-Noir is a rich seam of the genre lode, with some individualistic and parochial charms that distinguish it from the brand being made across the Atlantic. Where the expressionism-stoked American noirs of the ‘40s pushed towards hyper-stylisation and neurotic intensity, the British genre is far more restrained and naturalistic, absorbing the lessons of neorealism in a slightly different fashion.

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If the American films are driven chiefly by psycho-sexual anxiety, with their proliferating femme fatales and mentally twisted antagonists, and barbed portraits of the American dream of power and money, the British films tend to be about ordinary people put through the torment of having their sense of stability drop out about them. Hitchcock, of course, was the first major British director to riff on those themes, but Brit-Noir would take it in different directions. A startling number of Brit-Noir films feature a finale where the villain or hero—it doesn’t matter much which—is, like Harry Lime, hunted into a tighter and tighter corner by relentless authority. The Long Memory portrays Britain as it was then—depressed, hungry, worn out by war, and full of the poor, dispossessed, transient, and criminal. It’s a relic from a time and world not so long past and yet almost vanished in many respects, like the film’s casual yet endlessly fascinating depiction of London as one of the world’s busiest ports, the Thames riverside in which the action unfolds clogged with the detritus of decades of capitalist adventuring, imperial trade and triumph, now left piled in the muddy fringes.

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The Long Memory was Robert Hamer’s follow-up to the success of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), the signal Ealing comedy and one of the driest black comedies ever made. Hamer wrote the script for this thriller with Frank Harvey, adapting a novel by Howard Clewes. At first glance, the about-face from a period satire to a contemporary thriller is startling, but both films are most definitely about trying to survive in a world that is set up not to care about you, fuelled by the hypocritical divides of English society. Both are dramas of insiders and outsiders, with powerful undertones of class rage, and studies in forms of painful love. It’s also riddled with Hamer’s richly understated humour. John Mills plays Phillip Davidson, just released from an eight-year stretch in prison for murder. Looking for a place to be forgotten by the world, he holes up in an abandoned barge laid up in mud in the Thames estuary, with only a wandering hermit who claims ownership of the barges as his unwelcome company.

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But Phillip has a mission. He wants to track down the people responsible for his imprisonment—Captain Driver (Fred Johnson), his daughter Fay (Elizabeth Sellers), and Tim Pewsie (John Slater)—who stitched him up for the murder of the malignant people-trafficker Boyd (John Chandos) to hide their own involvement in Boyd’s crimes. Boyd had actually clubbed one of his customers over the head in a fight over payment, and then seemed to drown when Driver’s boat caught fire and sank. Only one charred body was found, and the guilty trio reported only Boyd was present and that Phillip killed Boyd in a fight. Phillip was only present to ask the Captain if he could marry Fay.

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After his release, Phillip finds that Captain Driver drank himself to death, Fay has married the detective on the case, Bob Lowther (John McCallum), and become a middle-class housewife, and Pewsey, a middle-aged wreck, has recently left his own wife (Thora Hird) for a younger mistress (Mary Mackenzie). Phillip also soon finds himself the target of two more pieces of unwanted attention—one from a newspaper reporter, Andrew Craig (Geoffrey Keen), who finds himself in an ethical bind in needing to please his noxious editor (Laurence Naismith) but becoming increasingly disturbed about harassing an already tortured man and the other from Ilse (Eva Bergh), a refugee girl who works in the incredibly sleazy nearby diner, whom Phillip saves from rape by a sailor. It’s the first kind thing anyone’s done for her in years, and Ilse falls hopelessly in love.

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The Long Memory is fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is its gloriously seedy evocation of a post-industrial, post-war wasteland inhabited by wronged men, waifish but gorgeous refugees, brain-addled palookas, dim-witted waitresses, braying-voiced tarts, effeminate hermits, shadowy criminal networks, and rancid alcoholics. The estuary is a smoky, lonely, flat, muddy place, a literal vision of the mood of desolation that fuelled the post-war work of Samuel Beckett. City lights twinkle in the distance. Ships pass by constantly, their horns singing of far-off places. In the diner, everyone has a mystery concealed by raincoats and hunched shoulders— Phillip with his dark mission, the policeman following him, the agents for the mysterious criminal activity swirling about the estuary.

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This world is contrasted starkly and incisively with the middle-class realm that Lowther inhabits and defends, and to which Fay has married up. Hoping to hover in dutiful nicety, Lowther and Fay are slowly dragged back down into the muck by secrets and guilt. Hamer brilliantly cuts between two couplings in separate beds—Phillip and Ilse, who forlornly attempts to break through Phillip’s shield of misanthropy, and Fay and Lowther, with Lowther prodding at and finally breaking her shield of lies. The contrast in the surroundings—the first couple’s squalor, the second’s refined security—cruelly highlights the similarity of their interactions.

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Like many true noir films, The Long Memory is about people trying to cling to existence and their humanity; crime is a negative expression of their desires. There’s the suggestion Captain Driver fell into the most disgraceful end of his business, having started off aiding IRA soldiers. The most humorous scene in the film shows Hird’s Mrs. Pewsey barging in on her husband and his lover to rub down his chest to relieve his yearly attack of allergies. Her brusque devotion contrasts with his grousing: “Women! Bad enough having one, now I’ve got two of ’em!” The film is driven as much by Lowther’s pained attempts to both do right by his job and wife as it is by Phillip’s narrative, building to a key moment. The superintendent paces his bedroom, musing sadly that he probably always knew Phillip was innocent, and later confirms to Fay that “I stood on that corner three weekends running,” hoping to bump into herl.

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Ilse struggles to find the inherently kind man in Phillip that keeps emerging briefly (in the flashback, Phillip was wearing a cricket jumper, shorthand to tell us what a naïve middle-class git he originally was). When he discovers Fay’s duplicity, Lowther feels bound to make things right for Davidson, even if it means him losing his job, her imprisonment—the total devastation of their bourgeois security. “We don’t want anything as a large as (justice),” Ilse states, in riposte, “just the right to exist.” It also anticipates the modern shift from viewing the media as heroes to media as muckraking scum. Craig at first gets on the wrong side of Phillip when, irritated by his manner, he makes a snide joke. Phillip gives him a shove and plunges into the hold of the barge. But Craig has a wryly idealistic view of his job. “Do you realise that we represent the two great guardians of the public interest?” he asks Lowther, whose dour reply is “We’ll talk about that some other time,” and later considers having arresting him as a nuisance.

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As Craig becomes more affected by the story, he finishes by snarling at his editor, “People’s lives add up to more than a few lines of print!” The editor snidely responds, “Don’t forget to take your halo with you,” before telling another journalist (Peter Jones) to make Davidson’s story into “something to read on a rainy afternoon.” The journalist does that by feeding Phillip Fay’s address. Ironically, Phillip loses the urge to take violent revenge, encouraged by his growing attachment to Ilse. “I suddenly realised,” he states to Fay, “all this time I’d been nursing a hatred for a great villainess, but when you opened the door, I only saw a tawdry little coward.” Phillip has already terrorized Pewsey into making a statement of his innocence simply by standing outside his door all night.

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The emphasis of the film is on Phillip’s journey from glowering, vengeful outcast back to a man of moral fortitude and love of life, but it also offers a last twist to ensure an action climax. Phillip discovers that Boyd is still alive and running the shady smuggling activities simmering in the background. When Phillip confronts Boyd, he sets about beating the crap out of his nemesis, but can’t follow it through. “Revenge is just not worth it. It makes you feel just as filthy as the other fellow. And I’d hate to feel as filthy as you.” It’s a near fatal hesitation. Boyd shoots him through the arm and pursues him to his barge home. The two men battle cat-and-mouse in the grimy, hulk-littered mud, as Lowther, Ilse, Craig, and the police race to the rescue.

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Mills had previously played a neurotic noir hero in the superb The October Man (1947), penned by Eric Ambler, giving him a thankful break from playing bright-eyed Cockney lads and upright military heroes. But Mills is at his most down-and-dirty in The Long Memory, convincingly embittered and more often than not a jerk, yet still unable to completely suppress his charm and likeability. The main weakness of the film is Elisabeth Sellers as Fay. Although Sellers was a fair actress and does Fay’s foundering despair well, she couldn’t effectively portray the opportunist scrubber lurking underneath Fay’s bourgeois enamel—in the flashback she’s a dull caricature of the girl your mother told you to stay away from. John McCallum, who was married to ’30s starlet Googie Withers, is a prime portrait in English psychology, affecting as the appropriately tight-assed and yet strangely ardent Lowther. Around them, some of Britain’s great character actors (Hird, Keen, Naismith, Chandos) prove why they are great.

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1970s, Horror/Eerie

Last House on the Left (1972)

 

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Director: Wes Craven

By Roderick Heath

From among the other talented filmmakers of the early ’70s who began in or gravitated to horror, Wes Craven is one of the few who has managed the impressive feat of surviving. Red Eye was one of the best-made, least pretentious, most pleasurable films of 2005, whilst Cursed was one of the worst, which sums up Craven’s uneven career in a nutshell. Best known for the well-conceived, badly executed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the Scream franchise, Craven’s films often balance a deft realism with a heightened, often high-camp wit, built of cleanly constructed shots, well-filmed action, sleek framing (great in widescreen), and an assured ability to slowly crank up narratives to a frenzied pitch.

 

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Craven, like Hitchcock, deals with the violence and chaos lying just below the surface of normal life. Even more than Hitchcock, he details the capacity of average people not to survive, but to respond to evil with equal violence. The worms turn and prove often to be alligators themselves in ferociously Darwinian narratives that often pointedly satirize their eras. Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes take on the outsider terror of the ’70s-era bourgeoisie. A Nightmare on Elm Street saw the pitch-black side of repression and past evil swallowing up Reagan-era children; The People Under The Stairs portrayed Bush One-era urban life as a prison run by fascist capitalists named Ron and Nancy. Scream exactly described the emotional paranoia and media-obsessing self-distancing of Generation X.

 

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Last House on the Left, Craven’s second film (after a porn film, Together, in 1970) in collaboration with producer Sean S. Cunningham, is one of those fascinating experiences of watching a director learn how to make a film as the work is progressing. In its first half-hour, no amount of auteurist squinting can make out much talent. The plot is acknowledged by all as a modern-day spin on the Swedish myth Ingmar Bergman filmed as The Virgin Spring (1961). Dr. John Collingwood (Gaylord St. James), an affable, greying academic, his wife Estelle (Cynthia Carr), and teenage daughter Mari (Sandra Cassell), live in leafy upstate New York. The Collingwoods are neither insufferably square nor certifiably hip, and are mildly uncomfortable with their daughter’s bursting sexuality, pithy teenaged attitude, and choice of friend in Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), a slightly older girl with a penchant for pot and wayside excitement. Estelle gives her daughter a present—a peace-symbol necklace.

 

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To a soundtrack of awful faux folk/rock (by costar David Hess, a Tin Pan Alley escapee), Mari and Phyllis drive into Manhattan for a concert whilst listening to a radio news report about the recent jail break of sex offenders and low-rent criminal masterminds Krug Stillo (Hess) and Weasel Padowski (Fred J. Lincoln), with the aid of their bisexual moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Krug’s drug-addled, browbeaten son Junior (Marc Sheffer). Wouldn’t you know it that what Mari and Phyllis try to score some weed, they approach Junior, who takes them to the apartment where the gang are holed up. Swiftly, Krug, Weasel, and Sadie rape Cynthia, whilst Mari watches in frozen terror (the intended impact of this moment is blunted by its home movie staging).

 

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Hoping to escape to Canada, Krug and his cohort stuff their two prisoners in the boot of their car and drive out of the city; being idiots, and more impressed by TV than real life, they ponder if their actions will make the great list of “sex crimes of the century.”? The Collingwoods, worrying about their daughter’s overlong absence, call the police. Just a few hundred meters away, Krug and company have pulled over into the woods, where they force the two girls to have sex with each other after various acts of torture. It’s here that Craven gains tense control over his grisly material. Aiming for a detached, unremitting approach, the unblinking camera and stark staging makes the scene intensely convincing (even the actors, especially Cassell, were freaking out). Craven stated his desire was to approach violence in a confrontational, entirely unromanticised way, and in this he certainly succeeds.

 

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Craven’s background – a would-be hipster philosophy professor who had gotten bored with academia and moved to Greenwich Village – is evident, at first clumsily, but with increasing precision. The film is culturally engaged to an extent the film’s standard reading – as the ultimate parental cautionary tale – hardly encompasses; amidst the many issues tossed at the screen include such hot-button issues as Vietnam, the generation gap, feminism, and the peculiar violence fascination of the hippie era that made hits out films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and this one. The narrative is driven by a series of essential conflicts: rich/poor, suburban/urban, mainstream/outsider, sex/violence, unmotivated violence/revenge, “good” family vs. “bad” family.

 

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Mari tries to convince Junior, who likes the girl but is too psychologically defeated, to help her escape. The spunkier Phyllis makes a run through the woods, but – in a merciless fright moment – is caught, stabbed, and gutted in a series of flash cuts that make the violence thankfully incoherent but even more sensually violent. Krug rapes Mari after carving his name on her chest. Mari stumbles in a daze down to wash in a pond as Krug and gang stand, uncomfortable, even ashamed, in temporary awareness of their loathsome acts. Krug dutifully shoots Mari in the pond, and she sinks into the slimy water.

 

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This intense drama is cross-cut with very bad comic relief by the sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his deputy (Martin Kove, later of Karate Kid villain fame), while responding to the Collingwoods’ plea for them to find Mari, find themselves desperately trying to get a life after their car breaks down. Krug, Weasel, Junior, and Sadie clean up and head for the nearest house, where they pose as travelers needing a place to stay for the night. Yup, it’s the Collingwood place. The Collingwoods treat their guests to a blackly comic, hospitable dinner as their guests struggle to be convincingly square salespeople. Junior is afflicted with nightmares that Estelle tries to soothe, but then she recognises Mari’s peace necklace around his neck. Estelle wakes John, and they search the woods. They find Mari’s body and howl in agony over it. Rather than calling the police, John and Estelle now plot their own intimate vengeance.

 

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Craven pulls off a thunderous finale, and lays down a blueprint for many of his later films, not just in having his heroes turn tables on their savage nemeses, but also in their method. John, like later Craven heroes, proves that humans became the dominant species on the planet not just by being violent, but by being intelligently so. Estelle lures Weasel outside, pretending to respond to his self-promotion as a super-stud. She convinces him to tie himself up to prove his prowess as Estelle performs fellatio on him, and then she bites off his penis and spits it in the pond. John wakes Krug and tries to shoot him, but Krug, quick and tough, beats John in a straight fistfight. Junior tries to help John, but at goading from his father, the emotionally broken youth shoots himself. Krug’s escape is halted when he grabs an electrified door knob, one of John’s traps. Whilst he struggles to stand, John descends to his basement and returns with his chainsaw, and relentlessly presses toward Krug until he corners him. Sadie flees, but is caught and disemboweled by Estelle. The sheriff and deputy arrive just in time to see John cut Krug in half. The final image is of the distraught John and Estelle clutching each other in the charnel house that was their home.

 

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As this synopsis indicates, Last House on the Left isn’t a cute horror movie, and yet it resists becoming just another gore flick. It is rigorously low-tech and oddly honourable in its purpose. Craven is never tempted to indulge, and he knows when enough is enough. The Collingwoods’ revenge is both atrocious and entirely sympathetic, and Krug and his band, though vicious and crazed, are not blank-faced ciphers of evil. They’re weedy, underclass offspring who rudely destroy the shallow rebellion fantasies of Mari’s generation (she has a Mick Jagger picture on her bedroom wall under which Krug and Sadie later sleep) and the tranquility of bourgeois life. Along with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Last House on the Left was one of a batch of hugely controversial studies in violence released in the 1971-72 season. Unlike Kubrick and Peckinpah, Craven does not blur the morality of the sexual violence with matters of sexual desire, dominance, and aggressor- identification. In Phyllis’ case, there’s a brief, promising flash of modern heroine spunk when she escapes that Craven’s later heroines, like Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in Scream, display. Krug, well embodied by Hess, commands none of the sly heroism of Alex as a sleazy thug, pathetic in his hollow-souled, deadbeat monstrousness.

 

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Last House on the Left proved enormously profitable as well as controversial. Five years passed before Craven followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes, which, in many ways, is a remake with a more fantastic set-up. Producer Sean S. Cunnigham would, for his own shot at the big time, concoct a Halloween rip-off entitled Friday the 13th (1980) that would invert everything that was worthy about Last House on the Left as the ultimate body-count porn. The best of the Friday the 13th series, Part II, was directed by Steve Miner, a student of Craven’s who was employed as an assistant director and editor on this film. Last House on the Left’s influence was strong on other low-budget beasts like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), knock-offs like Lipstick (1976) and I Spit On Your Grave (1979), through to art films of the ilk of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. The Hills Have Eyes was remade by a French director, suggesting Craven has become canonical there.

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