Santa Sangre (1989)


Today’s cinema adventure: Santa Sangre, the surreal 1989 horror fantasy by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, about a young man, raised in a circus, who is dominated by his puritanical mother and driven by her to exact revenge for the sinful impurity which led to her brutal dismemberment.  Hallucinatory, disturbing, and gruesome, it received only limited release in the U.S. despite its director’s status as a revered avant-garde legend and the enthusiastic reception of critics, but quickly became a cult classic and has since been made widely available for home viewing.  Hailed by many as a masterpiece, it’s a bizarre visual feast, pervaded by a garish carnival atmosphere and a sense of sickly wonder, which offers the guilty thrills of Grand Guignol horror alongside religious, psychosexual, and social themes, providing an unforgettably nightmarish cinematic journey through the arcane and the unspeakable.

The story centers on Fenix, whom we first see as a patient in a mental institution- naked, animalistic, and uncommunicative, but beginning to emerge from his isolated state in response to the gentle coaxing of his doctor.  Through flashbacks, the origins of his traumatized state are revealed; we see his childhood as the son of a circus impresario and his aerialist wife, performing as a juvenile magician and surrounded by the extreme environment and eccentric denizens of their show-business world.  His libidinous father is enamored of his newest act, a tattooed contortionist whose abused deaf-mute daughter, Alma, has become a new companion for Fenix; his mother is also the fanatical leader of a cult dedicated to the memory of a little girl whose arms were cut off by rapists.  When the authorities close and demolish her church, and she catches her husband with his tattooed mistress, it is too much for mother to take- she attempts to punish the philanderer for his faithlessness, resulting in a tragic turn of events that leads to his death and her dismemberment, a tragedy witnessed by their horrified child.  When the film returns to the present, we see the adult Fenix gradually reawakening to his memories, culminating in his escape from the hospital and a reunion with his now-armless mother; together, they form an act in which his arms become hers- an odd symbiosis which carries over into their strange and secretive offstage life.  It gradually becomes apparent that Fenix’ limbs have become subservient to his mother’s will, and he is forced to do her bidding despite his own wishes- even when it means committing murder.  The situation becomes even more complicated with the reappearance of Alma, now grown into a beautiful woman; his feelings for her threaten to disrupt the twisted bond between mother and son, triggering a final battle of wills in which Fenix must attempt to regain control of his destiny and put an end to his mother’s vengeful reign of blood, once and for all.

This scenario may seem convoluted and illogical, but in Jodorowsky’s screenplay, co-written with Roberto Leoni and producer Claudio Argento, it all makes its own kind of sense.  It is clear from the beginning of the film, when we are first introduced to our damaged protagonist (crouching naked in a white room adorned with only a severed tree trunk, which he uses much in the way of a monkey at the zoo) that we are visiting a universe where the rules of common sense and linear thinking do not apply.  It’s a primal place, a realm of deep unconscious impulses and associations, where every occurrence seems symbolic and yet has simultaneous real-world significance.  In short, it is a dream reality, and one marked by the kind of feverish dread and sadness from which we long to awaken.  Into this soul-sick, delirious setting, the film weaves its epic tale of good and evil, complicated by deep-rooted familial bonds, contradictory moral strictures, and the personal needs of heart, body and spirit.  Along the way it mercilessly exploits our expectations and challenges our sensibilities, forcing us to endure depictions of unthinkable cruelty, incomprehensible depravity, and devastating heartbreak, so that when we are confronted with the grisly violence of murder, it seems almost a relief.  Certainly these scenes provide a kind of cathartic release for all the accumulated emotional saturation to which Jodorowsky’s film subjects us; but this does not mean that Santa Sangre condones or glorifies killing.  On the contrary, these periodic bursts of bloodshed only serve to compound the psychic despair that drenches the movie, until it seems that true evil is everywhere and all the good intentions in the world are powerless to stop it.  This, of course, is the ultimate point of Santa Sangre:  it is not enough to bewail and bemoan the workings of evil, or to regret one’s own unwilling or unknowing participation in them; the consequences may be dire, and the effort may be great, but conquering evil means taking responsibility for one’s own actions and exercising one’s free will by refusing to perform its bidding.  In a film so outwardly monstrous, the biggest shock of all may be that it is, ultimately, about the triumph of good over evil.

In support of his overriding theme, Jodorowsky has assembled a film worthy of his legendary surrealist pedigree.  He fills the screen with a progression of remarkable images, drawing heavily on the filmmakers who have influenced him- particularly Federico Fellini- but infused with his own darkly visionary sensibility.  Over the course of Santa Sangre he gives us a dancing dwarf, an elephant funeral, a pimp who gives cocaine to mentally handicapped children, naked whitewashed corpses rising from their graves, dogs and chickens feasting on human blood, a cross-dressing wrestler, and any number of other fascinating, macabre, unsettling sights and sounds; it’s an inundation of the bizarre that is so perversely gripping that looking away is simply not an option.  Jodorowsky is not merely being outrageous for the sake of shock value, however; every element, no matter how bewildering it may seem, has a concise purpose here.  The theatricality of the early scenes reminds us of the traditional view of the circus as a metaphor for life, but its larger-than-life atmosphere carries over into the film’s “real-world” setting- particularly in the nighttime streets of Mexico City, bedecked with the morbidly cartoonish imagery of Dia de los Muertos and populated with a frightening menagerie of revelers- suggests that the absurdity of life itself requires no exaggerated artistic conceit to expose its folly and decadence; the recurrence of quasi-religious iconography underpins an examination of hypocrisy in a moralistic dogma more concerned with punishment than salvation, more fixated on death than life, and more reverent of representation than of reality; and the heavy use of deep psychological themes throughout- symbolic bird imagery, the multilayered opposition of illusion to unadorned reality, the merging of sex and violence, the conflict between paternal and maternal influences- is carefully accumulated towards the director’s ultimate purpose of peeling back such complications to reveal the truth that choice, in the end, is what defines us.

For those who are just looking for a horror movie, Santa Sangre delivers on those terms, as well.  All of Jodorowsky’s avant-garde explorations are woven around a lurid tale of psychosis, murder, and mayhem that could easily have come from a mind like Stephen King’s.  In keeping with the film’s ironic title, much blood is spilled during the course of its story, in celebrations of gleeful gore managed with the flair of a true cinematic master; the macabre humor with which these killings are played out is worthy of Hitchcock- whose work, like Fellini’s, is echoed throughout.  Indeed, despite its serious agenda, Jodorowsky’s movie is laced with comical moments; part of the director’s style is to capitalize on the absurdity of what he shows us, eliciting laughter in the face of the strange and unfamiliar.  In a similar manner, he finds beauty in the grotesque and joy in the sorrowful, giving Santa Sangre an unexpectedly transcendent quality for such a gruesome saga.

Populating Jodorowsky’s epic is an assorted collection of personalities, some professional actors and many, clearly, not so professional.  At least a half-dozen cast members are relatives of the director, including his sons Axel and Adan, who portray Fenix as a young man and child, respectively.  Both deliver performances to do their father proud; as does the fiery Bianca Guerra as Concha, the unforgiving mother.  Also worth mentioning are Guy Stockwell as Fenix’ über-masculine, contradictory father and Thelma Tixou as his gyrating, tattooed mistress; many of the film’s remaining cast fall into the “where-did-he-find-these-people” category, conjuring memories of Tod Browning’s Freaks– another seminal influence for Jodorowsky’s vision- and providing indelibly-stamped images for the memories of any viewer.  The acting, needless to say, is not always stellar amongst these motley supporting players, though many of them do acquit themselves admirably; but even the most stilted and awkward performances contribute to the overall surrealism of the piece, an effect that is further enhanced by the obvious dubbing of some of the dialogue- a factor no doubt made necessary by Jodorowsky’s inexplicable decision to shoot his film in English, despite its Mexican setting and the fact that most of his previous work was produced in Spanish.

Santa Sangre is one of those film experiences that reminds viewers of the dazzling potential of the cinematic medium.  It transports us to a world that we have never seen, or even imagined, and opens pathways to the deepest, most private places of our psyches, making us aware on a level that erases the extraneous differences in our lives and connects us to the shared consciousness that unites us with the rest of humanity.  It manifests its own, utterly unique style while drawing from a sea of visual influences that includes not only the aforementioned filmic inspirations but such diverse sources as Frida Kahlo, the psychedelic counterculture, and the garish camp of lucha libre.  It’s a pity, though hardly a surprise, that this and Jodorowsky’s other films have remained more-or-less obscure; their edgy, unorthodox visual poetry is hardly the stuff of safe, commercial filmmaking, and the director’s long history and reputation as an iconoclastic free spirit has no doubt kept him distant from the profit-driven film industry establishment.  Nevertheless, the French-Chilean auteur maintains a large and loyal cult following throughout the world, and has enjoyed a long and remarkable career of which filmmaking is only a single facet; he is renowned as an artist, a theatrical director, an author, and a creator of comic books, as well as for his extensive work and research in the field of “psychomagic,” which has included a painstaking recreation of the classic Marseilles Tarot deck and the development of several therapeutic practices drawing on ideas from various so-called “occult” fields towards the purpose of psychological healing.  At the time of this writing, he is 83 and still active, at last report working on a film version of his autobiography, with which his stated goal is “to lose money.”  Perhaps the recent re-emergence of Santa Sangre, lovingly restored on DVD and BluRay and widely available on web-based streaming video platforms everywhere, will introduce the dark wonders of his world to a wider segment of the population and help to create a larger audience for his latest project.  At the very least, it may lead viewers to seek out and discover Jodorowsky’s other works, such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain, so that he may, at last, get the recognition he richly deserves as one of the great auteur filmmakers of our time.


Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Today’s cinema adventure: Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film exploring the dehumanizing, destructive effects of addiction through its depiction of three seasons in the lives of a group of interconnected characters. Noted for bringing the promising Aronofsky to the forefront of attention as one of Hollywood’s hottest new directors, it garnered many accolades- especially for the performance of its veteran star, Ellen Burstyn, for whom it provided a comeback of sorts, and for its powerful musical score by Clint Mansell. It also generated much controversy over its use of graphic drug-related and sexual imagery, receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA despite Aronofsky’s protest and appeals. When the director refused to make cuts, the distributor, Artisan, showed rare support by deciding to release the film without a rating; on subsequent home video release, a slightly edited R-rated version was made available in addition to the original cut, ironically missing only a few brief graphic sexual images- evidently, the hardcore drug use was considered less objectionable than the sex.

The film’s interwoven plot follows the fate of four Brooklyn-ites: Sarah, an aging Jewish widow whose life is mainly occupied with watching television infomercials; her son Harry, whose recreational drug habit is funded by the repeated pawning of his mother’s TV (which she promptly buys back, every time); his girlfriend Marion, an aspiring fashion designer supported by her wealthy parents; and his best friend Tyrone, who dreams of living up to his mother’s high hopes for him even as he slings drugs on the street. When Harry and Tyrone decide to go into the heroin business for themselves, using Tyrone’s connections as a source and planning to use the profits to open a shop for Marian’s designs, the future starts to look brighter for the three young people; meanwhile Harry’s mother is notified that she has been chosen to appear as a contestant on a game show, giving her a new lease on life, as well. However, the promise of these new developments quickly sours: Tyrone is arrested after being caught in the middle of a drug gang assassination, requiring Harry to use most of their profits to bail him out; and in her desire to lose weight for her impending TV appearance, Sarah becomes dependent on prescription amphetamine diet pills. To make matters worse, a heroin shortage forces Harry and his companions to resort to desperate- and progressively more degrading- means in obtaining the drugs to support their own worsening addictions, and Sarah is plagued by disturbing hallucinations as her sanity begins to deteriorate rapidly. With their dreams of a better life now hopelessly out of reach, there is nothing for any of them to do but spiral deeper into their private hells, driven by their addictions and haunted by the memories of what might have been.

Adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., the screenplay, co-written by Aronofsky and the author himself, paints a bleak and harrowingly realistic picture of the horrors of drug addiction; despite this, however, the film is not so much a polemic against drug abuse as it is an exploration of the very nature of addiction itself. Each of its characters uses escapism as a salve to ease the pain and monotony of their lives, whether it be heroin, food, sex, or mindless TV programming. The drugs which ultimately destroy their lives are merely a metaphor for the so-called “American Dream;” the film’s ultimate purpose is to expose it as a lie, a fabricated ideal of success which obscures the real human experiences of family, love, and community. In the pursuit of an unattainable goal, such tangible rewards go unappreciated and ignored, and are eventually lost; each of the film’s four central characters are inherently likable, essentially good-hearted individuals who embrace an illusion as a means to bring them the happiness they are sure will follow when they achieve their goals- but the means itself is a destructive, uncontrollable force which creates chaos, pulling them ever further from the fulfillment for which they long. It’s a powerful message, and the disturbing form in which it is delivered suggests some very uncomfortable questions about the level of addiction- in all its guises- permeating our society. Through the joined tales of each protagonist, we are shown the ease with which an average person can make the journey to becoming one of the millions of broken, lost souls from whom we quickly look away, terrified of being reminded of the nightmare existence which goes on between the cracks in our culture’s cheery, prosperous façade.

Jolting as the screenplay may be, what makes Requiem for a Dream such a ferocious and unforgettable film experience is Aronofsky’s audacious and hallucinatory visual style. The director keeps a clinical distance from his subjects, discouraging the formation of a sentimental connection by way of his constantly shifting perspective and his use of camera-and-editing-room trickery. He alternates between omniscient long distance shots and intimate extreme close-ups, underscores ironic parallels and repetitive patterns with rapid-fire cuts (known, incidentally, as “hip hop montage”), highlights isolation and disconnection with extensive split screen effects, heightens the surreal atmosphere with time-lapse and slow-motion photography, and takes us into the psyche of his characters with the use of lenses which recreate the grotesque and distorted imagery of their delusional perceptions. With all these visual elements in play, he still manages to build the pace steadily with progressively shorter scenes and more rapid and frequent intercutting as the movie moves towards its conclusion. It’s a visual thrill ride worthy of the Coney Island setting which provides a backdrop for several of its scenes, and a display of technical mastery that leaves no doubt of this director’s prodigious cinematic talent. More than that, though, the carefully maintained emotional detachment facilitates an empirical quality to his film, allowing him to place the emphasis on observation rather than drama. As his characters move through their experiences, Aronofsy lets the circumstantial developments of the plot serve merely as a means to elicit reactions from them, focusing instead on their behavior and psychology; he pays particular attention to the ritualization of their addictions, the fantasies and associations that arise from the situations in which they find themselves, and the ways in which they blind themselves to their own vulnerability. It’s an approach which sometimes makes us feel like a voyeur, with the characters as objects for our perusal and study- specimens instead of the more conventional vehicles for transference of audience sympathy.

It’s not all flash and style, however, and the solidly intellectual and aesthetic approach to the subject does not make for a cold film. Though Aronofsky maintains his artistic aloofness throughout, taking care not to sugarcoat his characters or their obsessions and making sure the absurdity of their fantasies never threatens to become overtly comic in tone, Requiem for a Dream is far from being devoid of humanity. On the contrary, the depth of emotion which each character experiences is given full scope and attention; it’s fair to say, in fact, that the real story lies more in their emotional journey than in the outward circumstances of their experiences. Certainly the full power of Aronofsky’s film derives from its emotional weight, and the detachment with which he depicts their struggles somehow has the effect of bringing their poignancy into stark relief, making us feel their misery far more keenly than if it were portrayed in a Hollywood-style, sentiment-drenched narrative. It’s not empathy, exactly, an effect Aronofsky works so diligently to avoid, nor is it pathos; rather, it is a form of psychic horror at the level of desperation to which these damned souls are driven to sink in their quest for gratification, something akin to the overwhelming sense of nameless loss experienced when we witness a tragic accident or a cataclysmic disaster.

Requiem for a Dream, as Aronofsky clearly understood, can only work so effectively upon us with a strong cast breathing life into the subjects under its director’s microscope. Jared Leto, as Harry, is a worthy leading man, providing a solid, grounding energy that makes even his most misguided actions seem like a reasonable idea; he gives his character intelligence and a genuinely good nature, making him the most likable figure in the film and making his deterioration the most heartbreaking to watch. Jennifer Connelly, as Marian, exudes the confidence and elegance of privilege but adds a palpable layer of little-girl insecurity; and Marlon Wayans, as Tyrone, exudes easy-going charm and a sincere warmth that makes it clear his intentions are as good as he says they are. The most unforgettable performance, however, comes from Burstyn, as Sarah; her unflinchingly honest portrayal is the centerpiece of the film, capturing us from her first moments onscreen- locking herself in the bedroom while her son steals her television, yet again, for drug money- and taking us on the ups and downs of her journey to hell without ever once resorting to cheap sentimentality or self-conscious mannerism. Her work in the final third of the film is particularly remarkable, giving it a tragic power that belies its disaffected style. It’s as real a piece of screen acting as you will ever see, fully deserving of all the acclaim it garnered for this magnificent performer; and, as a bonus, there is an added resonance in the scenes of her psychotic episodes, later in the film, which is unavoidably derived from memories of her iconic role in The Exorcist.

Aronofsky’s film benefits greatly from the work of these fine players, as well as from that of other actors in smaller roles- the criminally-underappreciated Louise Lasser, Mark Margolis, Keith David, and the grinning, unctuous Christopher MacDonald, as banal infomercial host Tappy Tibbons. There is also the gritty-yet-luminous cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the aforementioned score by Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos String Quartet, giving the film a distinctive tone which is at once majestic and ethereal. Ultimately, however, the success of Requiem for a Dream- and it is very successful- lies with its visionary director. It is he who has taken all these elements and brought them together to serve his purpose here; in doing so, he has managed to make a film which is simultaneously beautiful and horrific, scientific and operatic, and above all, indelible. His cinematic sensibilities have since been proven repeatedly, but never more definitively than with this film, which remains his best work to date- less formulaic than The Wrestler and scarier than Black Swan. Perhaps it is because of the universality at its core; though most of us, hopefully, will not succumb to the ravages of drug addiction, we can all see ourselves reflected in the four doomed people he shows us, choosing the quick and easy way to relieve the pain and monotony of our lives- fantasy, chocolates, television, movies, the internet, or whatever we may choose- just to give us, as Sarah puts it, “a reason to get up in the morning.” It’s not a cheerful movie- though, admittedly, there are some darkly ironic moments which might bring a morbid chuckle or two- and it doesn’t offer much in the way of hope or answers to the difficult questions it raises; but, of course, that’s what makes it so great. If Requiem for a Dream wrapped itself into a neat package, assuming a comfortable, morally appropriate stance or suggesting some false-ringing glimmer of light at the end of its characters’ respective tunnels, it would be easy to process it, set it aside, and forget about it; but I guarantee you, whether you love it or hate it- and there are many on both sides of that issue- you will never be able to erase it from your memory. If that’s not a sign of a great movie, I don’t know what is.

The World of Henry Orient (1964)

Today’s cinema adventure: The World of Henry Orient, a 1964 comedy directed by George Roy Hill, featuring Peter Sellers as the title character, a concert pianist whose libidinous exploits are complicated by the obsessive adulation of a pair of adolescent schoolgirls.  Based on a novel by Nora Johnson, daughter of Hollywood writer/director Nunnally Johnson (with whom she also co-wrote the screenplay for the film), it places greater emphasis on the coming-of-age story of Orient’s juvenile stalkers than it does on the misadventures of the loutish lothario himself.  It was successful with both audiences and critics, its popularity no doubt bolstered by the presence of its star, who was at the time entering the height of his career, and it was later turned into a Broadway musical, Henry, Sweet Henry, which enjoyed considerably less success.

Set in Manhattan, the film follows the experiences of Val and Marian, two students at an exclusive girls’ school who develop a close friendship; both are outsiders at school, and share an imaginative flair for fantasy and make-believe, which leads to their indulgence in precocious adventures together.  On one such outing, they stumble upon a clandestine rendezvous in Central Park between Orient and his nervous, married, would-be mistress, interrupting their tentative tryst and foiling the pianist’s amorous intentions.  Later, when the girls attend his concert with Marian’s family, they recognize him from their encounter at the park, and Val develops a crush; so the pair begin to follow him, watching his apartment and making a scrapbook about their obsession- as well as a fanciful diary documenting Val’s hypothetical romance with him.  When Val’s jet-setting parents return for a holiday visit, her strict and austere mother finds the secret volume, a discovery which leads to uncomfortable complications not only for the girls, but for the unwilling object of their affections, as well.

Though The World of Henry Orient was a fairly successful film at the time of its release, it has faded somewhat from cultural memory.  Part of the reason for this may be that much of its draw in early 1964 arose from the presence of three up-and-coming names in its credits- Peter Sellers, Angela Lansbury, and director George Roy Hill- each of whose subsequent work would soon eclipse the importance of this quaint little movie.  Another factor, no doubt, was the changing social landscape of the years shortly to follow its debut, in which stories about the wholesome innocence of childhood, no matter how well-made they may have been, seemed somehow to be less relevant and important than those addressing the “larger” issues that were suddenly confronting young people as they came of age during the upheaval of the late sixties.  Ironically, one of the key factors in the film’s initial popularity was likely the fact that, in its good-natured and sweet depiction of teen-agers, it represented something of a backlash against a decade of teen dramas in which modern American youth culture was depicted as a dangerous and depraved environment full of delinquents, drugs, and rock-and-roll; the two young ladies at the center of this film were a refreshing change of pace, and their problems were, in truth, more representative of those faced by the average teen in daily life.  Sandwiched between two eras of rapid cultural evolution, The World of Henry Orient enjoyed its moment in the sun while the world took a moment to catch its breath.

Whatever the reasons for its success or for its relative disappearance, Hill’s sweet-but-sophisticated little movie definitely holds up to contemporary viewings.  It’s worth noting that the title character’s name- a play on the name of renowned celebrity pianist Oscar Levant, whose surname means “Orient” in French and upon whom the character was loosely based- does result in some minor cultural discomfort surrounding Asian stereotypes; in deference to their idol’s unusual moniker, his two young stalkers adopt faux-Japanese code names and indulge in playful rituals which parody Eastern traditions, such as kowtowing to their collection of Henry-themed “relics” and sporting conical straw “coolie” hats as they stake out the pianist’s apartment building.  Aside from this, however, which can be written off as nothing more than playful, non-malicious fancy, the film’s gentle depiction of the transition from childhood into adolescence has a timeless feel, despite its distinctive, now-nostalgic mid-century Manhattan setting; much of this is due to Johnson and Johnson’s screenplay, which manages, through its focus on the universal concerns of young girls (and adults, for that matter) rather than on time-and-place-specific hotbed issues, to avoid any topicality that might have made the story seem dated today.  It also helps that the girls portrayed here are atypical teens, from a social standpoint; Marian comes from a “broken” home, living with her mother and another divorced woman (a situation with overtones which must have been provocative, even in 1964), while Val is the “problem” child of wealthy, distant parents who leave her in the care of hired guardians.  Coupled with the fact that neither girl is among the “in” crowd at school, and are therefore not surrounded by a gang of Hollywood-style adolescents following the latest fads and speaking in the teen-speak jargon of the day, this means that The World of Henry Orient is mercifully free of the kind of mass-media clichés that would make its appeal more ironic than sincere; this is not a picture postcard of idealized nuclear families getting mixed up in occasional kooky hi-jinks, but a story of real, not-so-average people going through genuine life experiences.  This is not to say there is a lack of goofy comedy; that is mainly provided by the over-the-top exploits of the title character, as portrayed by comic chameleon Sellers.  His Henry Orient is a ridiculously shallow, pompous charlatan: affecting the pose of a continental sophisticate as he slips back and forth between a generic, vaguely European accent and a crass Brooklyn-ese; falling over himself in his efforts to lure vulnerable, attached women to worship at the shrine of his ego; indulging in pretentious theatrical antics as he shamelessly fakes his way through an avant-garde piano concerto; and generally revealing himself to be a self-serving buffoon whose real personality is a far cry from the romanticized vision held by his two juvenile followers.  In addition to being funny, of course, this serves to illustrate the contrast between the girls’ rose-colored view of reality and the sometimes sordid truths of the adult world into which they are about to crash.  It’s a revelation that unfolds as the story progresses; as the movie’s focus expands to include the troubled relationship of Val’s parents, we are given more and more evidence of the gap between image and authenticity, and the all-too-frequent failure of adults to live up to the expectations of their roles.

In addition to the aforementioned performance by Sellers- who is, as always, a wonder to watch as he melds psychology and physicality together to completely become his character- there is the work of Angela Lansbury, whose icy turn as Val’s deceitful and hypocritical mother provides another sharp example of the gap between ideal and reality in the adult world, as well as reminding us that, before her success in Broadway’s Mame and her long tenure as television’s Jessica Fletcher re-invented her as a warm and lovable matron, this fine actress was one of the screen’s foremost bitches.  The hollowness of her worldly sophistication and her barely-concealed disinterest in her daughter’s life (until it affects her own image, of course) help to expose the character’s own desperate need for attention and validation, which, though it doesn’t exactly make her sympathetic, certainly paints a clear picture of who she really is, at the core.  Contrasting her unpleasant phoniness are Phyllis Thaxter and Bibi Osterwald, who embody good-natured warmth and unconditional love as Marian’s mother and her live-in, fellow-divorcee companion, making the point that an unorthodox family unit can be far healthier than a traditional one; as well as Tom Bosley, as Val’s father, who foreshadows his later success on Happy Days with his stolid performance as a man finally ready to assume the responsibilities of parenthood, even if it is a little late in the game.  Rounding out the adult cast is the always-delightful Paula Prentiss, as Orient’s skittish would-be lover, who manages to be likable and sympathetic despite the fact that her role is a caricature of upper-middle class shallowness and gullibility; she manages to hold her own opposite Sellers, matching his manic zaniness like a seasoned pro- no small accomplishment, to be sure.  The key performances here, however, are the children’s; Merrie Spaeth (as Marian) and Tippy Walker (as Val) fully live up to the demands placed upon them by their central roles in the proceedings.  Full of youthful giddiness, smart without being precocious, and capable of the honesty required to show us the full emotional journey of these two remarkable young women, they also provide a perfect complement to each other with their distinct and separate personalities- the more grounded Spaeth anchors the duo, while Walker gives us the edgier dynamic of Val.  Neither actress went on to an adult career in cinema- Spaeth became a noted political and public relations consultant, Walker opened an art gallery- but their work in this single film ensured them a secure hold on movie immortality.

As for the director, George Roy Hill does a superb job of juggling the perspectives of the various worlds within The World of Henry Orient.  He captures the irrepressible vivacity of youth with then-edgy techniques such as wildly tilted camera angles and montages utilizing both slow-motion and high-speed photography; he manages some grade-A comedic set pieces around his charismatic star, particularly the extended concert sequence in which the hammy Orient ad-libs his way through a performance at Carnegie Hall while frustrating his conductor and fellow musicians with his ego-maniacal shenanigans; and he uses the Manhattan scenery, lovingly photographed by Boris Kaufman and Arthur J. Ornitz, to full advantage, allowing the change of its character through the seasons to reflect the progression of his two heroines through their rite of passage.  Adding to the bittersweet, nostalgic delight is his confident reliance on the score by Elmer Bernstein, which evokes the carefree ease of childhood, the sweeping majesty of the city, and the emotional longing at the core of the story.

The World of Henry Orient is a difficult movie to criticize; though the themes it tackles are hardly momentous, there is an authentic quality to it that is impossible to dislike, which no doubt arises from the fact that Johnson’s novel was autobiographical, based on her own experiences growing up at a New York girls’ school.  Parenthetically speaking, the fact that she co-wrote the screenplay with her father is very telling, considering the turn of events which brings emotional closure to the story.  The unpretentiousness of the movie has made it one of those certifiable classics that is usually forgotten in discussions of great cinematic art, but is beloved by almost anyone who has seen it in its frequent appearances on the late-night movie broadcasts of the seventies and eighties; there is a comfort in its gentle portrayal of youthful fantasy meeting seedy reality, considerable appeal in the fact that it manages to be sweet without ever becoming cloyingly so, and an additional bonus provided by farcical tour-de-force performance of its star, surely one of the screen’s great masters of comedic acting.  When all is said and done, The World of Henry Orient is a film I can heartily recommend with more confidence than any number of “greater” cinematic achievements; it may not be a masterpiece, but it is one of the most likable little movies I can think of.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the auspicious 1966 debut feature from director Mike Nichols, based on the much-lauded Pulitzer-winning play by Edward Albee and starring the superstar husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Filmed during a fiercely guarded, top-secret nocturnal shoot, it was an eagerly awaited production which became an instant classic upon its release, and the intensity of its subject matter- particularly its then-shocking language- dealt a death blow to the antiquated Hollywood “decency” standards that dated back to the Hays Code of the thirties, leading instead- along with Antonioni’s Blowup– to the development of the MPAA rating system still utilized in the U.S. today.  In essence a powerhouse four-character showcase for tour-de-force acting, it depicts a single night of alcohol-soaked socializing between an older and a younger couple which becomes a vicious, no-holds-barred battle over the pent-up secrets, frustration, shame, and resentments that plague both marriages.  It garnered several major acting awards, including a second Oscar for Taylor, whose reputation as an actress was considerably bolstered by her remarkable, career-changing performance.

Faithfully adapted from Albee’s play by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the story focuses on George, a middle-aged history professor, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the small New England college at which he teaches.  As they are returning home at 2 AM from a faculty mixer thrown by Martha’s father, George is startled to learn she has invited a new, younger professor and his mousy wife to join them for nightcaps; though he resigns himself to their visit, he admonishes Martha against broaching any taboo subjects in conversation- particularly the impending homecoming of the pair’s teenaged son from boarding school.  When the younger couple, Nick and Honey, arrive, Martha belligerently defies her husband’s stricture, goading him into an ugly game of one-upmanship in which they both exploit every possible weakness to humiliate and hurt each other, even using their hapless guests as pawns in a dysfunctional war of wits that- it becomes clear- has escalated throughout their long marriage.  As the night progresses, their own secrets are laid bare, as well as a few of Nick and Honey’s, revealing the depth of their misery, the lengths to which they have retreated into fantasy, the extent of their verbal and emotional abuse of each other, and- perhaps most surprisingly- the intensity of the love that still endures beneath all the anger, lies, and recriminations.  By the time the sun begins to rise, both of the weary couples have undergone a purging of pretense and illusion that will leave them irrevocably changed- at least, presumably, until the next drunken faculty party.

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, its frank and explicit dialogue, coupled with its overt sexual implications and it’s harrowing emotional intensity, led many audiences and critics to believe it was an unfilmable play.  Though it was hailed as a masterpiece, and won both the Tony and Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, such was the controversy surrounding its content that though it was chosen by the Pulitzer judges as the winner of the prize for drama, the advisory board for the awards refused to present it, instead choosing to withhold that years’ prize in the category.   Nevertheless, Warner Brothers studio pursued the rights from playwright Albee, and despite protests and warnings from the Catholic Advisory Board and the MPAA, went ahead with plans to produce a film version that preserved the majority of the play in its original, undiluted form.  In the end, a few minor concessions were made (“Screw you” was changed to “God damn you,” at least in the American edit) and the script was abridged slightly for length, but, for the most part, the film version was released with its profanity and sexual content intact- and, perhaps unsurprisingly, became a major hit.

Although the publicity over its controversial content no doubt played a role in its box office success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has sustained its iconic status because it was never meant to be just a sensationalistic shock piece; the brilliance of Albee’s play crackles through every frame, with his dialogue virtually intact and his over-arcing vision maintained with an emphatic zeal for faithfulness.  Director Nichols, though already known as a wunderkind for his stage work, was making his film debut here; nevertheless he was given an unprecedented amount of freedom and control over the project, and his determination to translate the cathartic experience of the original work resulted in a film which brings the full, terrible power of the play to life.  Underneath the bombastic psychological warfare of its action, the saga of George and Martha’s walpurgisnacht is about the line between truth and illusion- more specifically, the dangers of living a life based on comforting lies and fantasy instead of frankly facing an unpleasant reality.  In mid-century America, it was a theme that hit very close to home; a generation after WWII, the cracks were beginning to show in the idyllic façade of the “American Dream,” and the growing discontent and disillusionment with its hollow ideals, which had long been voiced by the counterculture and its underground artists, had begun to find its way into the mainstream.  Virginia Woolf, with its portrait of a couple trapped in their nightmare of elaborate fictions and suppressed truth, provided a perfect catalyst for a nation afraid to face its own reality; and though its characters and setting are not overtly subversive, it is nevertheless a film which heralded the rise of anti-establishment sentiment in American cinema.  It’s telling that Nichols’ next movie, The Graduate, would be Hollywood’s first bona fide “youth culture” film to express criticism of the social status quo; Virginia Woolf is unmistakably cut from the same radical cloth.

As apt as this film was in capturing the zeitgeist of its era, the significance and power of its themes are undiminished by the passage of time; Albee’s magnificent play retains its relevance today, and this remarkable transcription of it seems as fresh and vital as if it were brand new.  Though its then-shocking profanity and its sexual frankness are now milder than much of our prime-time TV fare, the emotional intensity behind them makes for a fierceness that still leaves us reeling; it is not merely the saltier dialogue of Virginia Woolf that packs a punch, but the totality of its language- Albee’s dazzling symphony of words elicits responses on every level from the esoteric and intellectual to the visceral and primal, evoking laughter, horror, sorrow, fear, and every other conceivable reaction, in rapid succession and sometimes simultaneously.  By the end of this grueling evening of “fun and games” we are as stunned and exhausted as the film’s four characters, and like them, we are left facing the cold, unfriendly dawn in a world without illusions.  Of course, it’s not all dire depression and angst; Albee’s absurdist sensibilities are evident throughout, ensuring the continual interjection of ironic, dry, and dark humor, not to mention the considerable intelligence and wit he bestows upon his antagonistic protagonists.  Part of the great power of Virginia Woolf comes from its ability to elicit our laughter even as it is pummeling us with its existential themes and its social commentary.  Like the greatest of tragedies, it’s a play (and a film) that is full of out-and-out comedy, providing a much-needed release of tension and underscoring the ridiculousness of the human situation at the center of the drama.

Needless to say, the linguistic alchemy of Albee’s script would never work without the ability of a superb cast to bring it to life.  When Nichols chose Hollywood’s hottest power couple for the demanding roles of George and Martha, there was considerable skepticism over whether they would be up to the challenge.  Burton, of course, was well-established as a consummate actor, with copious legitimate training and a host of theatrical successes under his belt in addition to his film experience; his bride, however, was a different story.  Taylor had been a major star for two decades, and had previously proven herself as a superb actress (having already won an Oscar for her work in Butterfield 8, though many felt it was a sympathy prize); but she was primarily known for her remarkable beauty rather than her acting chops, and the role of Martha- a middle-aged, overweight, alcoholic harridan whose looks were meant to be faded, at best- was thought by most of the cognoscenti to be beyond her grasp.  Undeterred by preconceived doubts, the actress committed herself whole-heartedly to the part; she gained 30 lbs. in order to present the necessary voluptuous figure, and sank her teeth into Martha’s ugliness- both physical and spiritual- in order to do justice to the character.  Her embrace of these attributes does not result in a stereotyped, surface portrayal, however; her Martha is a monster, yes, but she is also every bit a woman- vulnerable, warm, loving, spiteful, frightened, jovial, capricious, calculating, and fully realized.  Taylor’s performance here is the crowning achievement of her career; far from being merely a star turn, it is an example of an actress claiming a role and making it so much her own that it is impossible to imagine another star playing it.  It probably goes without saying that her ferocity is matched at every step by her on- and off-screen husband; Burton, also giving a career-defining performance, gives us an unforgettable portrait of George, a character that has been described as an “angel with a devil’s tongue.”  Breathtakingly intelligent, unmistakably virile despite his crushing mantle of failure and disappointment, and compassionate behind the hostile irony of his icy mask, he takes us along on every step of George’s difficult journey, helping us to understand and to sympathize with a man who could easily come off as an impotent, disaffected snob, and making it clear that his task, like that of his sainted namesake, is to slay a dragon.  Together, Burton and Taylor become a force of nature, making George and Martha appear both as titanic archetypes of marital conflict and painfully real, fragile human beings, and convincingly conveying the familiarity and intimacy of a couple who have been through so much together they seem to think as one despite their embattled dynamic.

Though their roles are less showy, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, as Nick and Honey, respectively, are equally superb; as representatives of the younger generation, they enter the scene wearing the freshness and confidence of a new wave, seeming to embody the perfect picture of up-and-coming success that stands in stark contrast to the appalling discord of their hosts’ dilapidated lives.  It doesn’t take long for the shine to wear off, however; confronted with the harsh reality of their probable future reflected back at them in the grotesque form of their elders, their practiced poise begins to disintegrate, and their true natures begin to show through.  Segal’s Nick, hiding his own fears of inadequacy behind a smug golden-boy demeanor, lashes out with defensive hostility; while Dennis, a ball of barely-concealed insecurity as Honey, rapidly descends into a drunken spiral of infantile banality.  They provide the perfect foils for Burton and Taylor, helping to reveal the repeating pattern of self-deception at the core of the drama by giving us an example of a couple at the beginning of the cycle.  Dennis, like Taylor, won an Oscar, and both the men were deservedly nominated, as well, making this one of only three films ever to have gained Academy Award nominations for its entire credited cast (the others being Sleuth– the 1972 version, of course- and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry).

There are so many reasons to love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Haskell Wexler’s magnificently stark black-and-white cinematography, which captures beauty and blemishes in equally loving detail; Alex North’s haunting and evocative chamber-music score; the completely authentic setting which moves you part and parcel into George and Martha’s cluttered, musty world of booze and bric-a-brac, revealing them both as members of the intelligentsia and as the world’s worst housekeepers; and of course, overseeing it all, the sure and steady direction of Mike Nichols, who appropriately drives the piece like a master conductor presiding over a fine piece of music, finding new ways to position and move his camera, alternating between long, slow takes and short, bursting flurries, building the tension unbearably and giving the impression of heart-stopping action even though most of the film consists only of four people talking.  It earned him a place as one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers, and deservedly so.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those all-too-rare instances when Hollywood has managed to transfer a brilliant stage play to the screen more-or-less intact and done it full justice; though producer Ernest Lehman takes screenplay credit, his work mostly consisted of editing Albee’s original down to a shorter running time and making a few minor adjustments to compensate for the marginally-reduced ages of its lead characters- virtually every word is Albee’s, and apart from moving a few scenes outdoors and taking the characters on an excursion to an all-night roadhouse for one key sequence, the setting remains the same, as well.  Ultimately, of course, the play is one of those masterworks, like Hamlet, which can probably never be given a definitive treatment; it continues to be mounted in theaters around the world and performed brilliantly by actors who bring their own unique individual interpretations to its iconic characters.  Even so, this important and influential film remains the version which, in the collective imagination of our pop culture, is identified as the ultimate representation of the piece.  Though other actresses may give us a deeper Martha, or other directors may find a more visionary approach to the material, this group of artists have left their indelible mark on Albee’s play, and if you only see one version of it in your lifetime, you couldn’t do better than this one.  If you have never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so, as soon as possible; apart from the fact that it is one of the most important pieces of dramatic literature written in the last hundred years, it is also still one of the most searing, surprising and thought-provoking dramas you are likely to see, a far cry from most of the sterile, whitewashed, politically correct fodder that passes for adult entertainment today.

Beautiful Darling (2010)

Today’s cinema adventure: Beautiful Darling, a 2010 documentary feature focusing on the life of pioneering transgendered actress and Warhol “superstar” Candy Darling, co-produced by her longtime friend and roommate, Jeremiah Newton, and featuring archival and newly-conducted interviews with numerous of her famous and not-so-famous contemporaries and colleagues.  First premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010, it has since been shown at dozens of similar events around the world, as well receiving special screenings at several prestigious art galleries and enjoying extended commercial runs in major metropolitan cities across the U.S.

Written and directed by James Rasin, the film frames its examination of Darling- who began life in Queens as James Lawrence Slattery- through Newton, whose close relationship with the pop subculture icon gives him unique insight into her personality and her story.  As he prepares to have her cremated remains buried- along with those of his own mother- nearly 40 years after her death, he reminisces about her and shares his extensive taped interviews with such figures as Tennessee Williams, Valerie Solanas, Jackie Curtis, and Darling’s own estranged mother, conducted at the time of her passing in an effort both to come to terms with his grief and to create an archive documenting her personal history and relationships.  Combining this material with contemporary interview footage of former friends and associates (Paul Morrissey, Fran Lebowitz, Holly Woodlawn, Julie Newmar, Bob Colacello, Gerard Malanga, and many others) and excerpts from Darling’s personal diary (read by actress Chloë Sevigny), as well as a wealth of photos, both personal and professional, and film clips from her storied career, Beautiful Darling constructs a portrait of its subject as a brave and determined individual who pursued a personal dream against the societal norms and expectations of the era and became a counterculture icon and alternative role model as a result.  It also goes past the campy, glitzy surface of her persona and attempts to show us the very real person behind it, allowing us to feel a connection to her as a human being and bringing home the bittersweet story of a person whose hard-won success was marginalized and yielded little in terms of personal reward, and whose premature death from cancer at the age of 29 prevented her from living to see the gradual change that has led to greater acceptance of transgendered individuals and might have brought her greater recognition within the mainstream.

Rasin’s reverence for his subject is clear, as is the adoration of her former companion, Newton, as he lovingly shares his memories and the personal effects he has cherished from their time together; all the rest offer their individual perspectives on Darling, some more charitable than others, but mostly with fond appreciation and affection.  Of course, a multitude of interpretations and attitudes emerge regarding her motives, her character, her sexuality, her talent- but these stand out in contrast to the private voice of Darling herself, which reveals a smart, savvy, self-aware person, fully aware of her role in the circus that surrounded her and- most poignantly- increasingly worn out and disillusioned from the continual struggle to embody the glamorous movie star fantasy she had committed her life to making into a reality.  The ultimate impossibility of achieving that goal only to serves to make her considerable accomplishments all the more triumphant, and her refusal to give it up- even as she lay on her deathbed posing for a final glamour photo- inspires us and moves us with unexpected emotional resonance.

There are moments throughout Beautiful Darling that touch us with an immediate sense of humanity- the numerous clips of Candy in performance reveal the spark that elevated her above the level of just another drag act, the juxtaposition of early childhood photos with the various reminiscences from her mother and other figures from her former life as a boy give us a glimpse of her monumental struggle to find her identity, and Newton’s tender concern surrounding the arrangements for her impending burial allow us to share his sense of closure over his belated final farewell to his friend.  It is the power of these elements that make the film a superb documentary; there are few revelations here regarding the historical events of her life or her associations, though there may be some surprises for those viewers unfamiliar with her career.  The usual dominant themes, recurring in any examination of the time and place in which Candy enjoyed her heyday, are present here (the extreme, drug-saturated party atmosphere, the callous fickleness of Andy Warhol, the peculiar blend of degrading squalor and ostentatious glamor), and the archival footage and photos give us a titillating glimpse of the legendary settings in which pop-culture history was made (Warhol’s Factory, the back room at Max’s Kansas City, the streets of Greenwich Village); but what sticks with us, when the film is done, is the sense of Candy as a person, a bridging of the gap between her extreme and unique experience and our own, probably more mundane lives.  We are left with a feeling of respect for her bravery, and empathy for her deep longing to simply be herself; it’s a struggle with which we can all relate- gay or straight, male or female, conservative or liberal- and one which ultimately defines our lives, whether we decide to participate in it or not.

It is this universality that makes Beautiful Darling a powerful film, though it also succeeds in entertaining and informing us, and offers us the opportunity to become familiar with its charming and beautiful subject.  By appealing to that part in all of us that identifies with Candy’s inner yearning, Rasin’s movie challenges us to confront not only our own issues of identity, but our assumptions and prejudices about sexuality and gender as well.  Though this is not overtly a film about the evolution cultural attitudes towards transgendered individuals, it gives us dark hints about the very real danger a person like Candy Darling faced in mid-20th-Century America, and invites us to compare our contemporary level of tolerance with that of her day.  Certainly there has been progress, but Beautiful Darling begs the question: how far have we really come in our acceptance?  We have yet to see a mainstream media star who is transgendered, Divine and RuPaul (cross-dressers both- not transsexuals) notwithstanding.  Perhaps that day will come, eventually, and when it does, Candy Darling will finally take her place as the true pioneer that she was.

Daybreakers (2009)


Today’s cinema adventure: Daybreakers, a 2009 sci-fi/horror/action mash-up about a dystopian near-future in which an epidemic has turned most of the world’s population into vampires, and the remaining humans are farmed for their blood.  Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, it is elevated above the usual standard of B-grade schlock by the presence of an unusually distinguished cast, and features a slick and well-executed visual style enhanced by special creature effects from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.  It was met with fairly positive critical response upon its initial release, but despite the presumably heightened appeal of its combined fantasy genres, its box office performance was somewhat disappointing, owing largely to its competition with the blockbusters Avatar and Sherlock Holmes.

Set in 2019, Daybreakers depicts a world not unlike our own, a place where high-tech convenience and corporate domination rule the day; the fact that most of its inhabitants are vampires makes little difference- modern technology ensures the uninterrupted flow of culture by providing protection from sunlight, and industrial farming procedures provide the required supply of human blood, while the military takes care of hunting down and capturing the few remaining mortal survivors.  The rewards of embracing vampirism- immortality, superhuman strength, enhanced senses- seemingly outweigh any troubling moral concerns, at least for most, and the only real problem is the dwindling supply of blood- an ongoing issue which has reached the level of an international crisis as the non-vampiric representatives of the human race have reached near-extinction.  While corporate experts race to find a synthetic substitution, rationing and poverty have begun to take their toll by causing the malnourished to “subside,” morphing them into primal, instinct-driven monsters who terrorize and feed on their own kind.  In the midst of this dire state of affairs, Edward- a blood expert whose ethical beliefs lead him to sympathize with humans- becomes involved with a group of mortal fugitives that have found a cure for vampirism, and he joins them in their quest to save humanity.  The powers that be, however, have no interest in a cure, so Edward and his new companions must fight to stay alive until they can find a way to spread their miraculous discovery and reclaim the future of the human race.

The premise is undeniably intriguing, though it clearly requires some serious suspension of disbelief for viewers beyond the age of, say, 14.  The metaphorical possibilities are provocative; Daybreakers could be viewed as an allegory for corporate greed and its ruthless bleeding of the underclasses, or as an indictment of humanity for its merciless over-exploitation of natural resources, or simply as a parable about the conflict between the dark and light sides of human nature.  Implicit as these ideas may be in the scenario, however, the Brothers Spierig have included little, if any, subtextual emphasis on anything beyond the necessary psychological conflicts of the story, such as the desire of a corporate chief executive to bring his resistant daughter into the vampiric fold or the struggle for reconciliation between Edward and his military brother, who converted him unwillingly to his undead state.  There are unavoidable parallels, too, between the vampiric “subsiders” and the homeless population of our own world- viewed as undesirables, they are feared and persecuted, a reminder of the larger social problem of which they are a symptom and of the potential fate which threatens the entire civilization.  Here too, the film’s creators have chosen to leave the obvious comparisons in the background, instead treating this element as just another complication in their plot.

With all this possible social commentary inherent in the material, one might expect the filmmakers to find creative ways to explore it within the framework of the narrative, particularly since their screenplay was an original work, unencumbered by the need to adhere to an existing storyline; but throughout their movie, opportunities for such resonance are ignored, and the script contents itself with a reliance on melodramatic confrontation and goofy one-liners, setting up its conflicts sufficiently to allow for dramatic tension and to provide the justification for its climactic bloodbath, but leaving larger and more significant questions unasked and unanswered.  In essence, the Spierigs have made an extended chase movie, spiced up with the trappings of a sci-fi/horror fantasy, and everything else within it exists merely to serve its crowd-pleasing purpose.

This is not to say that Daybreakers is without redeeming quality; indeed, its lack of pretension might be its saving grace, keeping it from becoming one of those preachy, self-important epics that gives lip service to a politically-correct stance while asking us to believe in a patently absurd premise (such as the movie that buried this one at the box office, the obscenely successful Avatar).  The Spierigs keep it simple, confining their socio-political observation to the world of the film, and incorporating only as much of it as is needed to set the stage for their story.  Unfortunately, that story is not a particularly compelling one- the protagonist is something of a wimp, and the developments which lead to the film’s resolution are even more far-fetched than its premise- but it manages to be entertaining enough; and because Daybreakers does not take itself too seriously, we can allow ourselves to enjoy the gratuitous violence and gore that we ultimately expect from any vampire movie.  There is quite a lot of it, actually, increasing in frequency and intensity as the plot progresses, until it culminates in a climax dripping with cathartic carnage.  On this level, at least, Daybreakers does not disappoint.

Besides the guilty pleasure of bodies being exploded, incinerated, beheaded and otherwise torn to bits- justifiable because they are, mostly, vampires, after all- there are some other features worth attention in Daybreakers.  Most noticeable, perhaps, is its cool, slick visualization of a not-too-distant future marked by a sterile, streamlined elegance in architecture and interior design, and rendered in a muted palette of steely grays and icy blues by cinematographer Ben Nott.  The vampiric mutants, debased by their malnutrition into anthropomorphic creatures (which look decidedly similar to the notorious “Bat Boy” of tabloid fame), are effectively creepy and pathetic at the same time, and well-executed by their aforementioned creators at Weta.  As for the acting, well, clearly nobody expects Oscar-caliber performances from a movie like Daybreakers, but that said, the presence of a particularly high-grade trio of actors in the key roles- Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill- helps to elevate it from the level of a run-of-the-mill formula thriller to something at least a little more engaging.  Dafoe in particular deserves credit, in his role as a former-vampire-turned-human savior, for being able to utter some truly ridiculous dialogue with enough conviction to make it seem believable; and there is a nicely subdued and grounded performance from the less-familiar Claudia Karvan as the mortal female refugee who brings Hawke (as Edward) into the cause and becomes a possible love interest.  It’s also notable that she takes an active and heroic role in the proceedings instead of being presented as the typical passive woman usually seen in such male-centric adventures- though she does, ultimately, have to be rescued, it’s also true that Hawke’s character does too, and more than once, at that.

Daybreakers makes an attractive package, with its skillful technical and visual elements providing considerable distraction, and the work of its competent players ensuring that we can stay involved in its plot; but that plot is all-too-familiar despite the painfully clever conceits in which it is framed, and though it manages to grow on you as it goes, in the end it offers nothing more than a mildly interesting 90-minutes-plus of entertaining fluff.  The rich potential of its scenario seems to beg for further development, but goes unexplored, creating half-formed thoughts and ideas about its implications that are quickly left in the wake of its action agenda; the result, though not exactly a bad movie, is not exactly a good one, either.  Rather, it’s just another gimmicky thriller that capitalizes on the surging craze for vampires, and though it’s a well-made and fairly likable one, the sense of missed opportunity makes it very disappointing, indeed.


Art School Confidential (2006)


Today’s cinema adventure: Art School Confidential, the 2006 film by Terry Zwigoff based on Daniel Clowes’ underground comic of the same name.  The second collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes, it follows the efforts of an art college freshman to win the love of his dream girl by becoming a successful artist.  It shares many of the themes of their first joint effort, Ghost World, as well as its bleak world view and cynical take on humanity, and features an impressive array of talent in supporting roles.

The plot follows Jerome, a young man whose interest in art has more to do with his libido than his desire for self-expression.  Believing that success in the art world will allow him a limitless amount of female companionship; he enrolls as an art major in an urban college, where he has high hopes that his talent will quickly be acknowledged.  Instead, he finds himself just one of many frustrated hopefuls in a depressingly grim environment where the only topic more discussed than the uselessness of an art degree is the string of unsolved murders taking place near the campus.  Surrounded by peers who are self-absorbed, pretentious boors, and professors who are self-important, disaffected failures, more interested in their own stalled art careers than in nurturing the abilities of the students under their charge, he gradually realizes that success is more about playing the game than about talent.  To make matters worse, he is completely turned off by the dysfunctional girls in his dating pool, and he begins to despair that his fantasies of being a playboy artist will be crushed by the cold reality of adult life.  Things begin to look up when he meets a beautiful model who shows an interest in him, but after she is swayed by a handsome fellow student- whose work has gained more recognition than his own- his desperation drives him to concoct a deceitful plan which will put him on the fast track to success and win back the attention of his newfound dream girl.

On the surface, Art School Confidential feels like one of those eighties-era coming-of-age comedies directed by John Hughes, in which a geeky teen loser learns that being yourself is more important than being popular and ends up winning the boy or girl of their dreams by the final scene.  That description is not far off, but in this screenplay, penned by Clowes himself to ensure faithfulness to his own misanthropic vision, the formula is turned on its ear.  Jerome doesn’t want to be accepted as he is, he wants to be worshipped; and far from finding empowerment and self-actualization, he learns that being himself brings only further isolation and obscurity, and that if he wants his dreams to come true he will have to find a way to stoop lower than everyone else.  His story is shot through with the kind of social satire that hits uncomfortably close to home, threatening to undermine any preconceived ideas we might have about the underlying goodness of humanity; if there was ever any there, Clowes makes it clear that it has been thoroughly snuffed out by the degraded, ego-driven culture he shows us.  Like our protagonist, we look around desperately for kindred spirits, but the cast of characters offers us little solace; Jerome’s fellow students are a collection of affected misfits and pompous twits, and the adults are more or less an older- and more disillusioned- generation of the same breed.  Virtually every person in the film is motivated by their vanity, and everyone else around them is merely an object to be used in their quest for self-fulfillment.  This is true even of those few characters that seem sympathetic- including Jerome, who turns out to be more of an anti-hero than we surmise.  With such a disheartening perspective on the denizens of the art world- and, by extension, the rest of the human race- it’s hard to find any of the comedy very funny, at least in a laugh-out-loud way.  The film’s humor is dark, dry, and derisive; it is also arch and vaguely judgmental, casting a reproving eye on the professional and personal pursuits of all its characters and concluding that the bulk of human endeavor amounts to a desperate cry for attention.

For his part, director Zwigoff makes every effort to keep things light, at least visually.  He capitalizes on the movie’s teen-angst heritage with nods to the genre’s cliches, such as “getting-it-done” montages and character-based visual gags, and directs his actors with a clear focus on presenting its familiar types.  He obviously relishes the exploration of his quirky characters’ personalities, but he emphasizes the details of the plot enough to keep it moving effectively.  It’s also obvious that he shares Clowes’ ironic sensibilities, and he is careful not to undermine Art School Confidential by softening its snarky edge with sentimentality- although, with the help of his A-list cast of adult actors, he does manage to imply a more mature counter-perspective that includes at least a little mitigation of the seemingly soulless and shallow priorities exhibited by the inhabitants of his film’s inhospitably selfish universe.

For their part, the actors do their best to keep things real, without relying solely on the surface qualities of their stereotypical characters; overall, the cast manages to infuse a level of humanizing depth to the proceedings that keeps the movie from being an unrelentingly pessimistic existential polemic.  Despite their best efforts at honest playing- or perhaps, in many cases, because of it- there are few likable characters in Art School Confidential; the single most pleasant personality is exhibited by Joel Moore, as Jerome’s friend Bardo, whose portrayal of a proudly self-acknowledged failure is refreshingly free of barely-concealed self-promotional subtext- appropriately making this gregarious loser a comfortable island in a sea of  chilly attitudes.  Max Minghella is deceptively appealing as Jerome, until his quest for recognition turns him into a self-pitying cry-baby; and Sophia Myles, likewise, fools us into liking his would-be soulmate, Audrey. The good stuff, however, comes from the heavy-hitting support team of accomplished grown-ups; John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi all bring their skills to the table as they portray various representatives of the older-but-not-necessarily-wiser set, and the film leaps several notches up in quality when they are on the screen- which, sadly, is never for very long.

Art School Confidential is meant, of course, to be a comedic exposé of the pretentious, stagnated world of academic art, a subject ripe for vigorous satire.  The problem is that the humor seems to come from a rather mean-spirited place; Clowes and Zwigoff take a decidedly uncharitable view of almost every affectation and foible displayed by their characters, and at times their approach feels more like bullying ridicule than good-natured ribbing.  Their critical stance is certainly a valid one, but one can’t help feeling that the harsh perspective is a little too one-sided; after all, it’s easy to point fingers at the hypocrisy and artificiality we see around us, but it is perhaps more interesting to explore what lies underneath that surface.  Coming of age involves an awakening, a realization that the world is full of phonies and disappointments; but it also involves advancing past this stage to a more mature viewpoint, one with which we can discern the more subtle forces at work around us.  Art School Confidential strikes an attitude of smug contempt for its subject which smacks of sophomoric thinking, a pose which is ultimately no different than any of those assumed by the various characters it mercilessly skewers throughout.  It misses its mark not because of the darkness of its tone or its candid observations about the weakness of mankind- many fine films share these qualities, such as the work of director Todd Solondz, whose movies Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse are about as pessimistic as you can get but still engage and stimulate us with their depth and their humanity.  Rather, it fails because it lacks a certain maturity; instead of piercing insight, it offers blunt criticism, and in the end it leaves us knowing little and caring less about the inner workings of the world it portrays.  It’s a shame, because Art School Confidential has a lot of potential- both Zwigoff and Clowes are exceptionally talented, and one can’t help but feel that somehow, something was lost in the translation from page to screen.  There are times when the movie almost feels like it’s going to take off, and comedic moments that feel like they are about to make us laugh; but these are short-lived, and by the time we reach its somewhat predictable and not-very-satisfying climax, we have long since lost interest.  Fans of Clowes’ ironic-outsider flavor may find the movie easier to take than the rest of us, but those interested in discovering his work might be better-advised to go to the source rather than starting with this weak adaptation.  Still, the pairing of the author/artist and his filmmaking partner in crime seems a match made in heaven, and together they have managed to craft a very good film – but it’s called Ghost World, and the disappointment of Art School Confidential is probably all the more  bitter because they proved once before that they could get it right.




The Stunt Man (1980)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Stunt Man, the 1980 feature by director Richard Rush about a runaway fugitive who stumbles into the middle of a film shoot and finds cover working as a stunt man, only to realize that the movie’s megalomaniacal director may be planning to kill him for the sake of filming the ultimate stunt.  A difficult film to place within a genre, it was shot in 1978 and ended up shelved for two years by a studio that didn’t know how to advertise it; when it finally hit the screen it was only given a limited release, and it was largely overlooked by the public.  Nevertheless, it garnered considerable praise from critics and managed to earn several Academy Award nominations, including one for its star- and its main appeal, then and now- Peter O’Toole, whose performance represented something of a comeback in his storied career.

Adapted by Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus from a novel by Paul Brodeur, The Stunt Man follows a young Vietnam War veteran who is running from the law, having committed an unspecified crime after returning from his tour of duty.  With officers in hot pursuit, he runs into the middle of a film shoot, inadvertently disrupting a dangerous automobile stunt in which the driver is accidentally killed.  With a sudden new opening for a replacement and only a few days to finish his ambitious anti-war epic, the movie’s director, Eli Cross, takes the young outlaw under his wing, offering him a safe haven and a new identity- in exchange for completing the aborted stunt himself.  As he prepares for the big moment, learning the tricks of the trade and attempting to bond with the gregarious crew of movie-making gypsies that have taken him into their fold, he begins to suspect the flamboyant and mercurial Cross, who is obsessed with realism, of plotting to orchestrate his death in order to capture it on film.  Things are further complicated when he finds himself in a blossoming romance with the film’s leading lady, heightening his dilemma over whether to flee back into a permanent life on the run or stay and risk his own untimely demise.

If the premise seems a bit gimmicky, it is; The Stunt Man offers a highly improbable premise, riddled with plot holes and unlikely conceits.  This, however, is part of the sense of wicked fun that permeates the movie.  Rush and Marcus never take the pseudo-thriller plot too seriously; although they give an appropriate amount of weight to the psychological conflicts of its hero, they make certain that the overall tone is decidedly comic, flavored with cynical irony and self-satire, and they derive a great deal of nudging humor from the tricks they work on their audience.  Within its far-fetched scenario, The Stunt Man plays with our expectations and our preconceived assumptions in order to keep us off balance, establishing its young protagonist as our access point into its smoke-and-mirrors world and ensuring that we, like him, are constantly betrayed by appearances; this is, after all, a movie about making movies, and in keeping with its subject, nothing is what it seems.  At every turn, we are presented with illusions- many of them clearly established as such- and then find ourselves surprised when the truth behind them is revealed.  The film shrewdly manipulates our willing suspension of disbelief, understanding that we want to buy into its various cons, and exploiting our natural inclination to believe what we see.   Rush spends most of his movie exploring examples of the conflict between truth and illusion, from the oft-repeated assertion that King Kong was only 3′ 6″ to the extended sequence of WWI carnage enacted in front of a throng of horrified spectators at the beach, making for a highly amusing display of magic in which the tricks being performed mirror the tricks being played on us by the magician behind the camera.

Of course, this idea of illusion vs. reality, which fits so perfectly into the metaphoric possibilities of a self-reflexive movie about movies, is nothing new; it has been highlighted in works ranging from Fellini’s 8 1/2 to Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, providing fodder for low comedy to high tragedy and everything in between.  The Stunt Man, however, ties it to another theme, perhaps more immediately relevant to the lives of everyday civilians not lucky enough to be working in the film industry- namely, the difficulty of trust in a culture full of deliberate lies and manipulation.  Our hapless hero, ironically dubbed “Lucky” by his newfound protector (or, perhaps, persecutor), is full of paranoia and mistrust, the result of buying into a much bigger and more insidious con game than any cinematic sleight-of-hand perpetrated by Eli Cross and his crew; he has been cheated by a system that sent him to war on the promise of making him a hero and now treats him as a pariah, and had his hopes for a happy future shattered by faithless friends and lovers.  When the nature of his crime is revealed, we discover it was an act of anger and frustration over the raw deal into which he has been suckered- like so many of his generation.  Is it any wonder, then, that when he is offered a new lease on life by a representative of the dream factory, a man who blatantly and unabashedly manipulates truth and illusion in order to achieve his ends, he is wary of being suckered once again?  This is the central conflict of The Stunt Man; in a world devoted to illusion and deceit, where pretty lies often disguise ugly truths and trust is only a lure by which the foolish are led like lambs to the slaughter, the only hope of self-preservation is to doubt everything and everyone around you.  As Eli Cross puts it, late in the film, “Paranoia is a social disease; it’s got by screwing your fellow man.”  Whether he offers a cure or euthanasia is the primary question of The Stunt Man, and I wouldn’t dream of answering it here.  Suffice to say that the course of treatment has a few twists and turns.

Rush guides his film with bravura flair, capitalizing on his rare opportunity to both celebrate and send up the conventions of movie-making.  Infusing it with a certain tongue-in-cheek aura of self-awareness, he nevertheless dives headlong into the numerous opportunities for old-fashioned movie spectacle, with the added layer of showing us the spectacle behind the spectacle; he gives us a delight akin to seeing a magician reveal his secrets, only to discover the revelation itself is part of the trick.  He also takes advantage of the film-within-a-film milieu to capture a sense of bygone Hollywood glamour in the midst of the nuts-and-bolts candor of the contemporary setting, aided considerably by the extensive use of the historic Coronado del Rey Hotel, which serves as a location for much of the film; and though his film is primarily focused on psychological concerns, he fills it with action, not just within the framework of the “meta-movie” but expanding it outward into the surrounding real environment of the film as well.  The result is a movie that takes its time to get to its point but maintains the feeling of a brisk pace, enhanced by all the inherent details of its film-shoot backdrop, and keeps us engaged in its game of interchanging fact and fiction right up to the final playful moment.

The Stunt Man benefits from Mario Tosi’s cinematography, with its exploration of various qualities of light, both natural and staged; and the rousing score by Dominic Frontiere conjures the circus atmosphere of the movie-making world with a bravado that matches that of its director (the one onscreen, that is), and even includes a haunting vocal tune, “Bits and Pieces,” co-written by veteran songsmith Norman Gimbel and performed by the iconic Dusty Springfield.  As for the cast, a fine ensemble of likeable faces clearly enjoys itself with the material.  The titlular hero is played by Steve Railsback (whose careeer was mostly defined by his portrayal of Charles Manson in the TV film of Helter Skelter), who lets us see the vulnerable little boy inside even as he pulls off the hard-edged toughness he uses as a protective mask, and conveys the impression of a young man walking around in a state of prolonged shell-shock- which, of course, is not far from the truth.  The beautiful Barbara Hershey is highly effective as the leading lady (of both the film and the film within it), marvelously embodying the multi-layered quality of an utterly contemporary woman; she is sensual, independent, confident and full of a zest for her life and her work, but she also reveals the insecure little girl underneath the worldly actress- and, most importantly, she manages to find the balance between candor and mystery that keeps us from really knowing the sincerity of her feelings for “Lucky.”  Alex Rocco is memorable as an exasperated local lawman, as are  Allen Goorwitz, Chuck Bail, Adam Roarke, and Sharon Farrell as various members of the film’s cast and crew; but, without question, The Stunt Man belongs to its star, Peter O’Toole.

As Eli Cross, O’Toole’s famously over-the-top persona finds its perfect match; zooming around in his helicopter, descending from the heavens on his crane, and constantly enfolding his underlings with the enormity of his personality, he gives us the ultimate egotistical film director.  He is vain, dictatorial, demanding, pretentious, manipulative, and arrogant; yet he is also generous, gregarious, compassionate, and clearly more aware than anyone else of his own ridiculousness.  Cross plays himself with gusto, and O’Toole plays Cross with just as much of it; the legendary actor has said he based his performance on David Lean, the famously godlike director who helmed, of course, Lawrence of Arabia.  This may account for the unmistakable air of authenticity that underlies his work here, for despite his fully appropriate chewing of the scenery, every moment of his performance is infused with an absolute honesty and a fully recognizable humanity.  O’Toole’s Eli Cross is exactly the kind of larger-than-life man who is both worshiped and feared by those beneath him- and considering his God-or-the-Devil role in the proceedings of The Stunt Man, it’s a quality that fits to a tee, and makes the entire film work like gangbusters.

The Stunt Man is one of those odd little films that time forgot; a staple in the early days of cable TV, many have seen it- and liked it- and yet it has slipped into relative obscurity, no doubt due to its effervescent qualities that are likely to disguise its deeper matter for audiences who aren’t paying close attention.  For myself, I have noticed that when it comes up in conversation with someone, almost invariably the other person’s eyes light up- “Oh yeah, that’s a great movie!  I haven’t thought about that one in years!”  I’m happy to say that it holds up well, perhaps seeming even better now, though clearly the behind-the-screen technology it shows us is a bit dated in some ways.  The high-spirited camaraderie it depicts among its film-making “family” is timeless, however, and so are the themes it so cagily explores.  After all, today’s world is as full of phonies and liars as ever, and it is perhaps more difficult than ever to let our defenses down, for fear of being taken in and played for a fool- or worse.  The Stunt Man, in its quaint little tale of Machiavellian plotting in an insular world, provides an apt metaphor for the difficulties of overcoming paranoia in our own.

From Hell (2001)


Today’s cinema adventure: From Hell, the 2001 screen adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s award-winning serialized graphic novel exploring the real-life Jack the Ripper case through a fictionalized story about its investigation, starring Johnny Depp as the Scotland Yard Inspector in charge of the case.  As directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, it condenses the 500-plus page original to fit a running time of less than two hours, omitting much of the book’s rich, immersive material in the process, effectively transforming the piece from an informed- if dark- historical fantasia into a pop-art horror movie with pseudo-sociopolitical overtones.  Nevertheless, taken on its own merits, it’s a stylish and intelligent thriller, offering a fairly accurate (though highly speculative and sensationalistic) depiction of perhaps the most infamous true crime story of all time, as well as an excursion into the dark underbelly of Victorian London.

Adapted into screenplay form by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, From Hell blends fact and fiction as it unfolds its narrative, set mostly in London’s seedy Whitechapel District in the fall of 1888.  It’s a miserable, economically depressed slum, populated by rough laborers, criminals, and prostitutes- the latter of who are being savagely killed in a series of increasingly macabre and horrific murders.  In charge of the investigation is Frederick Abberline, an opium-addicted police inspector with a gift for psychic visions; his prescient insights into the case bring him to suspect an even darker and more insidious motive to the crimes than is suggested by their brutality, as well as leading to his personal involvement with one of the Ripper’s potential victims.  As he gets closer to the truth, he finds himself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secret intrigue, racing against time and facing powerful opposition in a desperate effort to prevent the monstrous killer from claiming more lives- including his own.  The plot unfolds against a backdrop of late 19th-Century English society, offering a bleak and politically-charged vision of a world in which disrupting the illusion of propriety is a greater crime than murder; the privileged elite exist outside and above the law, orchestrating and manipulating events from behind closed doors while the impoverished masses endure an unthinkably cruel and desperate existence with little hope of escape or betterment, and even those sympathetic to their plight are powerless to help them.

Moore and Campbell engaged in painstaking research in the creation of their graphic novel, meticulously incorporating the facts of the Jack the Ripper case into their multi-layered fictional retelling.  That effort is reflected in the film, though in a somewhat diluted form; on the page, the historical facts are presented side by side with the story, making for an immersive experience in which the reader can participate in the process of speculative myth-making, whereas for obvious reasons this cannot be duplicated onscreen without disrupting the visual (and emotional) flow.  In addition, the panoramic view of Victorian society offered by the original has been necessarily stripped down; though the filmmakers have clearly made an effort to provide as much of this background as possible, their running time dictates the removal of all but the most cogent information.  An unfortunate side effect of this streamlining is that key plot points, which might have been better masked in a more comprehensive script, become painfully obvious, making the film highly predictable to savvy viewers, particularly those familiar to the true events of the Ripper case.  It can be argued, however, that the film’s purpose is not to puzzle us with its mystery- which is well-known as an unsolved and probably unsolvable case- but to offer a social commentary by using its plot and its setting to parallel our modern world.

To this end, the Hughes Brothers sculpt their film to highlight the disparity between the upper strata of the Victorian population and the impoverished lower classes amongst whom the Ripper’s crimes take place.  The wealthy are isolated, arrogant, and dismissive of the concerns of the less fortunate, while the poor, in their struggle to survive, are greedy, opportunistic, and cruel.  It’s not a pretty picture of mankind, and there are few examples of middle class decency on display- only Abberline and his Shakespeare-quoting sergeant represent a compassionate view towards humanity, and even they are characterized by a mistrustful cynicism which reflects their exposure to the harsh realities of the age.  The nobility and their bureaucratic allies are portrayed as smug, self-appointed guardians of a status quo that favors their continuing prosperity, and many of them seem possessed of a sadistic streak, exhibiting an unmistakable delight in their infliction of suffering and the exercise of their power over the weak.  Each and every member of the ruling class is portrayed as contemptuous of the poor, even those who seem, on the surface, to be more enlightened, and the underprivileged commoners beneath them are shown to have suppressed any noble sentiments in favor of self-preservational hostility and practical amorality.  Providing illumination on this ugly portrait of mankind at its worst, the directors give us an unvarnished look at the wretched conditions of existence to which these masses are subject- the filth, the corruption, the continual struggle for inadequate food and shelter- and the opposing luxury with which their economic superiors surround themselves.

From a visual standpoint, the Hughes Brothers make their objective clear from their opening shot, which pans down slowly from an austere London skyline at dusk, offering glimpses of the various strata of society through their lighted windows until it reaches the dark and squalid streets of Whitechapel, where an assortment of dehumanizing activities are plainly on view.  The pair also take pains to recreate the dramatic visual atmosphere of the comic book format, reconstructing the composition of panels from the original and utilizing a color palette which conjures memories of the lurid English horror classics from the fifties and sixties- many of which share a similar setting and were clearly inspired by the lingering cultural memory of the Ripper’s reign of terror.  However, although these iconic forbears were noted for reveling in an almost gleeful depiction of blood and gore, From Hell is relatively short on explicit violence, though there are certainly enough glimpses of horrific acts and their aftermath to create the impression of having witnessed a bloodbath.  Similarly, despite its title (a reference to a letter sent by the real-life Ripper to taunt the police), the film is not a supernatural fright fest, though there is a not-so-subtle implication of a dark, possibly otherworldly force at work behind the killings; this is no tale of demons at large, wreaking havoc on a weak but innocent humanity, but an indictment of mankind at its basest and the depths to which it will sink in order to preserve its own selfish desires.  Ultimately, From Hell aims to derive its real horror from the implications of its clearly-stated premise- that the gruesome career of Jack the Ripper is but a prelude to the larger scale horrors that await in the coming century, the tip of an iceberg formed by the clandestine machinations of the world’s tightly-knit power elite.

This darkly cynical sociopolitical viewpoint is familiar to anyone familiar with Alan Moore, whose somewhat radical sensibilities are plainly displayed in such other of his works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, as well as his contributions to the Batman series.  While his leanings certainly come across in this screen adaptation, however, their effectiveness is certainly limited by its narrower focus.  Where the published work is overwhelmingly centered on his postulated notion of the killings as a symptom of a far-reaching social imbalance, supported by an interwoven tapestry of peripheral events which underline and reinforce his theme, the screen version fails to bring home the significance of this element, treating it more as a necessary conceit of the plot than as the main purpose towards which that plot is geared.  Though the writers and directors have clearly understood their task, and made considerable effort to stress the relevance of Moore’s allegorical subtext in their realization of his piece, they are ultimately defeated by the need to provide a Hollywood-style, story-driven thriller; the cold-hearted patrician gentry and the need-driven proletarian rabble are present, but the broad strokes with which they are painted render them clichéd, stock figures of the Grand-Guignol horror genre from which the film takes its cue, and the numerous scenes of social injustice and economic inequality come off as obligatory, the kind of standard fare usually found in dramas set in this period- and often presented with more conviction than we see here.  Coupled with the aforementioned predictability of the plot, the familiarity of these elements help to make From Hell feel like something we’ve seen before.

Though the film doesn’t quite live up to its potential, the actors acquit themselves admirably.  Johnny Depp is shrewdly cast as Abberline, who in real life was described by his colleagues as a highly capable officer with the demeanor of a mild-mannered bank clerk, though here he is portrayed as a decidedly more unorthodox figure, somewhat dissolute and highly unorthodox in his methods; Depp provides a perfect access point for a modern viewer, bringing a highly contemporary persona into the proceedings and providing his customary intelligence and commitment to the role, and if he sometimes seems to be sleepwalking through the film, this adds an appropriate layer of detachment to a character who is, after all, a drug addict and a visionary.  Heather Graham also brings a modern feel to her performance, though in this case it feels a bit less appropriate- she plays a prostitute who lives on the streets, and her level of intelligence and sensitivity seems a bit anachronistic; this is true of the portrayal of all the streetwalkers in the film, but in Graham’s case, given the conceit of her highly fictionalized role, it’s an acceptable disparity, and she succeeds in being likable and sympathetic in the midst of a cast of unpleasant characters.  The two stars, however, are ultimately less memorable than the host of fine British character actors who fill the supporting roles.  Particularly noteworthy are veteran character actor Ian Holm as gentleman doctor who assists Abberline in the case by providing his medical knowledge, and who may in fact possess more information than he is willing to share; and the always delightful Robbie Coltrane as the gruff but good-natured sergeant who serves as Abberline’s loyal assistant and friend.  The remainder of the cast get little chance to flesh out their characters, most of which come off as little more than ciphers in service of the story, but for the most part, they perform their tasks with a relish which goes a long way towards making the world of the movie seem believable, if not particularly compelling.

Despite the fact that it falls short of its considerable potential, From Hell is not a bad movie; it succeeds on a number of levels, not the least of which is providing a fairly gripping two hours of suspenseful- if unsurprising- entertainment.  It takes an oft-seen scenario and presents it in a form that both pays homage to the style of its former, more traditional incarnations and refreshes it with a modern and distinctive flavor of its own.  If it fails to capture the full power and ambitious scope of its source material, that is perhaps no surprise; Moore and Campbell’s creation is a complex work of art that is inherently best served by the medium in which it was first presented, and it is doubtful that any film could capture it faithfully without falling short on some level.  Nevertheless, it is a brave attempt, and if nothing else, it certainly provides inspiration for viewers to seek out the graphic novel and experience its brilliance for themselves.  Beyond that, it is a well-made, if ultimately ordinary, thriller, blessed with a talented cast and an impressive visual style; and for those who have an interest in Jack the Ripper and the world in which he existed, it’s a must-see, and as long as you don’t expect to learn anything new about the case (and you don’t mind seeing a long-disproved theory being put forward once again), you’ll probably find it a worthy rendering of this legendary chapter in the annals of human brutality.

Excalibur (1981)

Today’s cinema adventure: Excalibur, John Boorman’s 1981 filmic retelling of the mythic life of King Arthur, rendered against a lush backdrop of Irish locations and featuring a host of future stars before they became familiar faces.  It was a moderate hit at the box office, despite the mixed reviews of critics who praised its visual style but expressed bewilderment over its handling of the Arthurian legends; subsequent reviewers have gained an appreciation for its unique style, however, and not only has it grown in popularity among fans of the fantasy genre (over which it has exerted considerable influence), it is considered by many literary scholars and mythological experts to be the most faithful and definitive screen representation of its subject to date.

Boorman had wanted to make an Arthurian film since before his success with the thriller Deliverance in 1972, albeit focusing more specifically on Arthur’s mentor, Merlin; he presented his ideas to United Artists, who instead offered him the job of making a film version of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.  Agreeing to the challenge, he collaborated with Rospo Pallenberg on a screenplay for a three-hour adaptation of the classic, as well as creating extensive preliminary designs for the film.  The studio, however, passed on it, having decided the project was too costly. Boorman attempted to sell other studios on the film, but to no avail; however, he was able to secure sufficient interest from backers to revive his Merlin idea. With Pallenberg as co-writer once more, he fashioned the screenplay for Excalibur, and eventually incorporated many of the design concepts from the aborted Rings project to bring his Arthurian vision to life.  Drawing mostly from Thomas Malory’s epic 16th-Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, with some elements added from other early versions of the tale- as well as a few original twists of their own- their script is a stripped-down narrative of the archaic British legend, focusing on the key themes of its mythology- the transition from the brutality of the Dark Ages to a more enlightened time of justice and chivalry, the passing of old pagan beliefs with the rise of the Christian faith, the connection between the well-being of the land and its king, and the legend’s parallels with the Christ story.

The film chronicles the Arthurian tale from before its hero’s birth, depicting the rise and fall of his father, Uther, who, with the help of the mysterious necromancer, Merlin, unites the divided land and becomes its king, only to be defeated and overthrown as a result of his selfishness and lust; the sword of power, Excalibur, is driven into a stone, able to be removed only by his rightful successor, and Merlin spirits away his only child to be humbly and anonymously raised in secret.  When the boy grows to maturity, his destiny unfolds; he draws the sword from the stone, becoming the unlikely king, and is tutored in the ways of rulership by Merlin, who has reappeared to continue his shepherding of mankind into a more enlightened future.  In time, Arthur re-unites and brings peace to the land, establishing justice and a code of chivalry, and creating a fellowship of champions to represent these ideals- the Knights of the Round Table; along the way he wins the love of Guenevere, who becomes his queen, and Lancelot, who becomes his best friend and greatest knight- but therein lies the seed of doom for the utopia he has built, for their eventual betrayal of their king will tear the land apart, leaving it vulnerable to the dark ambitions of the sorceress Morgana, Arthur’s jealous half-sister.  The saga ultimately leads to the redemption of Arthur’s dream, through the quest for the Holy Grail, and his final battle with the forces of his bastard son, Mordred, and reaches its bittersweet conclusion with the heroic king’s final mystic voyage to the Isle of Avalon, where he will wait until the world is ready once more to welcome his vision of peace.

This epic tale has found expression in countless works of fiction throughout the centuries, but a comparatively small number of films have dealt with it, and even fewer have attempted to tackle the story in its entirety.  It’s easy to understand why: though it is full of possibilities for adventure, romance, and drama, it is highly esoteric at its core, rich with symbolic content that makes a literal screen depiction somewhat problematic.  To be sure, there are many possible approaches to the material which can bypass these elements; but when stripped of deeper meaning, the stories seem, well, pretty cheesy.  Boorman, however, takes the opposite approach with Excalibur– far from downplaying or obscuring the archetypal connections of the myth, he places his focus squarely on them.  The pageant of the story’s familiar events moves by quickly, depicted with indelible imagery and loaded with the kind of clanging medieval action that we expect from such a movie, but infused throughout with a deliberate awareness of its thematic essence; each episode plays like a ritual, enacted for the purpose of illuminating the spiritual and psychological experience it represents.  The “Dark Ages” in which the story takes place are clearly not based in a factual period, but are rather a manifestation of the collective unconscious, a dream-world in which the artistic imagination is unfettered by concerns of historical accuracy or temporal logic.  Boorman’s vision incorporates both the realistic and the fantastical, blending authenticity of detail with wild stylization in his depiction of costumes and armor, weaponry and technology, architecture, and even geography.  All these factors are represented by a mix of designs that spans some 500-odd years of period style, a deliberately anachronistic conceit intended to remind us that we are witness to an idealize fantasy and not a recreation of a specific era.  He further elaborates this meta-reality by enhancing it with his trademark emphasis on the primal power of nature, as well as with an extensive use of back-lighting and reflected colors to evoke a surreal, other-worldly aura; and as he moves the narrative towards its climax, he progressively blurs the line between reality and dreams, so that by the end, the two have become one and the same.

Although Boorman’s film is designed to elucidate the inner mechanics of its source material, his intention is not to provide an academic experience; his purpose goes far beyond a desire to illustrate the coded significance of a classic myth for an audience already familiar with its meaning.  Instead, Excalibur is an attempt to translate this antiquated story for modern consumption, to stimulate a kind of communion in which contemporary viewers can share the revelations within and experience them as relevant to their own lives.  To this end, the director uses all his cinematic skills to convey the universally understandable human element of the tale even as he unmasks the hidden principles underpinning it; he removes all but the most important episodes of the epic saga, distilling it into a document of the emotional arc experienced by the characters as they progress through its momentous events.  Consequently, the film creates a delicate balance between its larger-than-life atmosphere and the intimacy with which its key figures are portrayed.  It’s a disconcerting effect, to be sure- Arthur and his comrades converse in an odd combination of lofty speech and familiar banality, seeming at once to be both elevated and de-mystified versions of the archetypes they personify, and the visual interpretation of the tale evokes both the romanticized pageantry of an illuminated manuscript and the garish gore of a Hammer horror movie.  Doubtless this odd approach, which makes for a film that seems reverent and iconoclastic at the same time, accounts for the initial confusion of critics who saw Boorman’s film as a stylistic mess; but on a visceral level, it works exactly as the director intended, allowing audiences to access the story on both a metaphoric and a personal level.  In some ways, Boorman’s film is reminiscent of the work of Kurosawa and other masters of the Japanese cinema, presenting his epic of a mythic realm with a stunning visual approach that captures both the timelessness of its powerful symbolism and the immediacy of its underlying human story with equal power. For some, it may be disconcerting to see this legendary tale- perhaps the most seminal story in modern western culture- being presented in the milieu of a Samurai film, and the jarring contrasts inherent in the movie’s dual purpose may strike certain viewers as vaguely ridiculous, as if there had been a sudden invasion by members of the Monty Python troupe; but for those who can get themselves in tune with Boorman’s somewhat unorthodox vibe here, his vision yields remarkable riches.

Excalibur’s visual realization of the Arthurian world is, of course, the film’s most universally acclaimed feature. Boorman has drawn inspiration from the classic chivalric paintings of the Romantic era, as well as from his obvious passion for technical accuracy in his depiction of medieval warfare; the result is another level of contrast which infuses his movie with both ethereal beauty and barbaric cruelty. The striking and imaginative costumes merge prehistoric, pagan, courtly and even space-age styles for a highly distinctive and fantastical look, while the settings are a splendid mix of the highly theatrical and the naturalistic. Much of the film was shot on location at various real-life castles and ruins, and for the interior scenes, elaborate soundstage sets were built, using highly theatrical designs, as well as mirrors and matte paintings to create an even more expansive feel. The extensive forest scenery, most of which was located within a mile of Boorman’s home in Ireland, is all genuine; lush and verdant, it has a preternatural beauty that goes a long way towards making “the Land” into a viable character in the film. Extensive rain during production helped keep the locations vibrant, and the natural magic of the setting was enhanced by being back-lit with green to bring even more color into the scene. As captured by the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Alex Thompson, the entire package is a breathtakingly gorgeous feast for the eyes, full of unforgettable imagery.

As for Boorman’s cast, it was comprised by mostly unknown or little known actors- at least, they were at the time. Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciarán Hinds all made early appearances is supporting roles, and each of them stands out in their few minutes (or less) onscreen.  The beautiful Cherie Lunghi brings a disarming contemporary charm to Guenevere, making this complex feminine icon into a believable, understandable human being- no small feat, considering the multitude of differing feminine attributes she must represent in the story.  Nicholas Clay is stiff but sincere (and supremely handsome) as Lancelot, embodying the character’s soon-to-be-tarnished moral purity and suitably conveying the strength- if not the depth- of his passion for both his lover and his friend.  In the crucial role of Arthur is Nigel Terry, whose most prominent big screen performance prior to this was as one of the scheming princes of The Lion in Winter over a decade before; he has an Everyman simplicity that makes him an ideal stand-in for this common man’s king, bringing candor and humility to the role while also rising to the task of conveying the hero’s substantial nobility and determination, and though at times his delivery borders on being a bit awkward, the honesty of his performance shines through his expressive eyes throughout, accomplishing one of the film’s primary purposes by making this towering mythological figure touchingly and accessibly human.

The center ring in Excalibur, however, is occupied by two electrifying performers who, although they technically play supporting roles, are definitely the star attraction.  Helen Mirren, already a renowned stage actress, with a few notable roles onscreen, was nevertheless mostly unknown to film audiences in 1981; but as Morgana- the duplicitous sorceress who engages in a duel of wits and a battle of wills with the powerful Merlin as she plots to usurp her half-brother’s kingdom through witchcraft, incest, and deceit- she took a major step forward in becoming a recognizable force to be reckoned with.  She gives a deliciously theatrical performance, brimming with raw sexuality, barely concealed contempt, and an almost child-like transparency, and if at times she seems over-the-top, she is positively subtle in comparison to her co-star.  That position is occupied by Nicol Williamson, at the time the film’s biggest star, with whom Mirren exhibits a palpable antipathy; the pair had developed a strained relationship while starring together in a stage production of Macbeth and were not on speaking terms, but each accepted their roles without knowing the other had been cast- and the resultant fireworks give their screen time together an intensity that would be impossible to fake.  As electric as they are together, though, it’s still Williamson’s show.  As Merlin, he is magnificently outrageous; sporting a chrome skull-cap that makes him look as much like Ming the Merciless as the archetypal wizard he portrays, he chews the scenery with gusto, careening madly between blatant comedy and deadly serious intensity, declaiming his dialogue with a clipped, eccentric panache that helps to burn his numerous memorable lines instantaneously into the brain.  Off-kilter and alien, he seems like the product of another reality- which of course, he is- but underneath his potentially off-putting manic demeanor he is so endearing, so compassionate, so loving, that we cannot help but like him.  Somehow, he makes Merlin the most human character in the film; and though Boorman’s original plan to center his Arthurian epic on this mystical personage evolved into a more all-encompassing view of the tale, Williamson makes certain that he is still the most distinctive and memorable figure onscreen.

There are so many things I could go on about in this discussion of Excalibur: the battle choreography, the willingness to explore such esoterica as the concept of the Holy Grail, the brilliant and stirring use of classical music by Wagner and Orff alongside the original score of Trevor Jones.  Ultimately though, these things are best discovered through a viewing of this odd and underappreciated classic, not by reading about them here.  It’s probably clear by now that Excalibur is one of my personal favorites; this admission, however, should not stand as a disclaimer against my personal bias, but rather as a testimony to the greatness of the film.  Quibbling about stylistic issues is perfectly understandable, but in the long run, if you take Excalibur on its own terms, you cannot help but find that it is moving, exciting, funny, sad, and spectacular, and that not only does it stick in your brain for a long time afterwards, it holds up well and reveals new surprises on repeated viewings. That’s a pretty powerful recommendation in itself, but if you need more incentive, consider this: the story of Arthur and his knights is one of the most important influences there is on our culture.  Many of the underlying tenets of our modern world view are derived from it, the kind of concepts we take so completely for granted that we don’t even think about questioning their validity or where they came from; yet a majority of contemporary people have merely a passing knowledge of this landmark tale, derived from such popular culture manifestations as Disney’s The Sword in the Stone or the musical Camelot, which may have certain charms in their own right but do little towards encapsulating the majestic scope of their original source.  John Boorman has given us a worthy rendition of the story here, preserving the integrity of its core significance while setting it in a form which allows it to live for an audience of today.  at could be wrong with taking a glimpse at this shared cultural dream of our past, perhaps to gain a little understanding of where we have come from, and why we have made the journey?  After all, a myth is like a road map, allowing us enrich our lives today with the knowledge gained by those who came before us.  It can only be beneficial to revisit Arthur and his once-and-future kingdom of Camelot, especially in a form as vital and exhilarating as this film; there are lessons worth remembering here, and in the words of the king’s wise and trusted teacher, “it is the doom of men that they forget.”