Ragtime (1981)

s-l1600Today’s cinema adventure is “Ragtime,” a 1981 film based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow. Featuring a mix of real-life historical figures and fictional characters, it’s a kaleidoscopic look at American culture through a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century filter; but it’s really about how we, as a people, react in the face of social inequality – perpetuated by a cultural hierarchy based on income, fame, class, and (most of all) race – and about how, despite the changes on the surface – things are really much the same roughly a century later.

When it was originally released, this movie was highly anticipated; after all, it was the screen adaptation of a monumentally successful book, featuring the return to the screen of no less than film legend James Cagney after 20 years of retirement.  It was directed by Milos Forman, still one of the industry’s heavy-hitters after his multi-Oscar-winning triumph of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and enacting its sprawling story of an affluent, white American family – swept into the tide of cultural change by their involvement with a black man whose struggle for justice escalates into violent insurrection – was an ensemble cast of then-up-and-coming talents (including Mary Steenburgen, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin, and even author Norman Mailer).  Alongside these were revered veterans (Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Moses Gunn, Donald O’Connor) and a number of yet-to-be stars (Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson) in small but unforgettable roles. It was nominated for 8 Oscars (though it ultimately won none of them) and received mostly positive reviews – but it was a disappointment at the all-important box office.  People were, perhaps, not ready for the harsh look in the mirror that faced them in the story of Coalhouse Walker’s doomed and desperate quest for justice.

I dare say that in 2018, they are even less ready for it.

As for myself, as a blossoming cinephile, I loved this movie when I saw it in my youth – though as a whole, looking at it objectively, I can see that its fragmented approach to a sprawling and complex story (a quality shared by the original book, by the way) might leave many viewers feeling detached and unsatisfied.  For me, even when I was young, I appreciated the opportunity to pick up on the things between the lines on my own; so many years later, watching it again, that subtext emerged for me as even richer and more profound than I could ever have imagined as a teen.

Now, this once-prominent movie seems almost forgotten.  More people probably remember the Broadway Musical that came later (which was excellent, but also financially unsuccessful – though that was perhaps more due to its elaborate and expensive-to-maintain production values).  This is surprising in some ways, especially considering that it was directed by the great Milos Forman, whose immigrant eye captured the spirit of America with the clarity of an outsider and permitted a more honest portrait of its cultural life than any native might have done.

But on another level, it’s not so surprising. America loves itself, and “Ragtime” uses the lure of quaint nostalgia to offer a devastating glimpse at the not-so-lovable things that exist in the core of its identity. It gives us hope, perhaps, by showing the infinitesimally slow evolution that takes place amidst the turmoil, but it does not give us easy moral answers, and it does not give us a happy ending. In the end, it’s a snapshot of who we are (not who we were, despite the Gilded Age setting), nothing more nor less, and it’s up to us to make of it what we will.  For Americans of any era – but perhaps especially of this one – that’s not a pleasant prospect, so it’s no wonder this great film molders on the shelves of obscurity.

The good news is that, upon revisiting this classic, I found my youthful memories of its richness all held true; I could still revel in its sets and costumes, its exquisite cinematography, the perfect musical score – complete with authentic-sounding songs – by Randy Newman, and its wonderful acting.  As for the latter, Steenburgen and Patinkin stood out for me, then and now; James Olson’s quiet turn as a the head of the story’s anonymous family, who struggles to do the right thing even as he clings to the comfortable privilege of his role in a deeply patriarchal society, is unexpectedly sympathetic; and the remarkable Howard Rollins Jr. is breathtaking in the role of Coalhouse – which should have made him a much bigger star than he was to become before his tragic death from AIDS a little over a decade later.  Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from the great Cagney; delivering far more than just a stunt cameo, he is marvelously subtle and layered in his all-too-brief role as New York police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo).

As I allowed myself to revel once more, after nearly 4 decades, in its luminous, analog glory, my reflections were flavored by both the maturity I’ve gained in the intervening years and the context of current affairs in which I live now.  There was an increased respect for the understatement in the performances, which allowed volumes of subtext to resonate all the louder for being unspoken, and a more sophisticated understanding of the social strictures that dictate every event which transpires in the story as surely as if it were preordained by the heavens.  There was also a sense of history repeating:  the tabloid scandal of Stanford White’s dalliance with Evelyn Nesbit; the escapist distractions of Harry Houdini; most of all, the struggle of women, immigrants,  and people of color to rise above the profoundly unequal station allowed them in a culture still built upon sexism, racism, classism, and (perhaps above all) white male dominion – all these things, woven into the narrative of “Ragtime,” evoked for me deep echoes within our modern culture.  The faces, the names, and the headlines may have changed, but the failure of American society to live up to the promise of its idealistic values remains at the core of daily life in our nation.

It’s a disheartening observation, the key to the very purpose of both Doctorow’s book and Forman’s film, and it is almost certainly more so in an era when the resurgence of white nationalism and rampant capitalism have exerted a vice grip upon the cultural consciousness.

Yet woven into this cynical portrait is a thread of hope.  Ever so slightly, in tiny increments, humanity moves forward; a man of color stands firm in his demand for respect, a young man searching for place and meaning feels the call to activism, a woman finds her voice and asserts her will – for better or for worse, all these things work their way through the engines of fate that drive “Ragtime,” and it’s no coincidence that the film’s final, emotional denouement involves a car full of diverse, ethnically mixed people driving away into a new and happier life.  They have freed themselves from the chains that have bound them, and in so doing they become avatars for all those who would see our nation move away from the systems of the past that have so long kept it from realizing its own dream of itself.

That image in itself is reason enough to revisit “Ragtime” in this difficult day and age, and to have hope that this still-important American film will never be completely forgotten.

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LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929

 

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 comedy-horror film by John Landis, about a young American who survives an attack by a mysterious assailant while backpacking through England, only to find that he has become cursed to transform into a monster by the light of the full moon.  A quirky mix of madcap humor and gruesome horror, it was a fairly respectable hit upon its release, despite mixed reviews, and has since become something of a cult classic.  It was particularly notable for its then-groundbreaking make-up effects, which garnered their creator, Rick Baker, the first-ever Academy Award in the new category created to honor such work.

The movie opens on the moors of Northern England, where two young American friends, David and Jack, are on the first leg of a European hiking tour.  Arriving at nightfall in a remote village, they decide to stop off at the town pub in order to get some rest and sustenance.  The locals view them with suspicion, and when Jack asks about a strange 5-pointed star carved into the wall, they become downright hostile; the two young men decide to leave, and though they are warned to stick to the roads they soon become lost on the moor.  Things get much worse when they realize they are being stalked by a mysterious animal; when they try to run, it abruptly attacks them, savagely killing Jack and mauling David before the villagers arrive and shoot the beast dead as the young traveler loses consciousness.  He wakes up some days later, in a London hospital, where he has been sent by the locals to recover from his injuries.  The physician, Dr. Hirsch, and the attending nurse, the lovely Alex, are kind and sympathetic, but their young patient is troubled by the villagers’ official report that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic and not a ferocious animal.  Though the police put little stock in his traumatized memories, Dr. Hirsch decides to do a little further investigation on his own; meanwhile, David strikes up a relationship with Nurse Alex, moving in with her upon his release from the hospital.  Their romance is blissfully therapeutic, despite the young man’s troubling, violent nightmares; but harder to ignore are the visits from the increasingly decomposed ghost of his unfortunate friend Jack, who claims that they were actually attacked by a werewolf, and that David is now a werewolf himself.  Worse yet, Jack and all the other victims of the monster’s bloodthirsty rage are doomed to wander the earth until their killer’s bloodline has been severed- meaning that David, as the last surviving carrier of the curse, must die before the next full moon can transform him into a ravenous beast and lead to more senseless slaughter.  Though David is skeptical of the warnings, Hirsch is sufficiently convinced by a visit to the moors that his former patient may be a danger to himself and others, and he joins forces with Alex in an attempt to protect the young man from the darkness- whether supernatural or psychological- that threatens to take control of his destiny.

As written by Landis, who was inspired over a decade earlier when he witnessed a group of Central Europeans performing a ritual to prevent a deceased fellow villager rising from his grave, this grim and familiar tale is laced with the kind of hip, contemporary humor that marked the youth-oriented films of the period; arch, ironic, tongue-in-cheek, and self-referential, the comedy is a major ingredient in the mix, but Landis stops short of letting it undermine the gravity of his horror story.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, and many critics were at a loss to reconcile the seeming opposition of the movie’s two aspects; nevertheless, the apparent cross purposes complement each other in a way that makes for a unique and highly entertaining ride.  In addition, the two cultural sensibilities reflected in the film’s title are brought into the equation through the film’s overall style; the flip jocularity of the American mindset is superimposed against a background of traditional English influences that resembles a blend of Hammer horror and the Carry On series, with a slight dash of Monty Python thrown in for good measure.  The resulting subtextual implication in which the youthful, callow naïveté of the distinctly American personality is thrust into the Old World subtlety of European experience, suggests a story that is ultimately, perhaps, about the dangers of being overconfident in a world that is deeper and more complex than we know.

That’s not to propose that Landis’ purpose here involves any kind of socio-political statement; the “babe in the woods” undercurrent, extrapolations about cultural identity aside, serves mainly as a foundation for the uneasy sense of foreboding that pervades the film from its opening frames, when the hazy atmosphere of the isolated moors seems pregnant with ominous possibility and fills us with the dread of something unknown, lurking just beyond the hills or, perhaps, hiding in plain sight.  Confronted from the start with this landscape that is at once familiar and alien, we immediately bond with the two fresh-faced adventurers who, a few moments later, arrive on the scene- in a truck full of sheep, like proverbial lambs to the slaughter (to reinforce this idea, the pub through which they will soon begin their descent into horror is called “The Slaughtered Lamb”).  We are charmed by their banter, comfortable in their camaraderie, and touched by their friendship; we share their bemused outsiders’ perspective because we, too, are outsiders here, a commonality that helps us identify with them, but because they are so endearing, we also genuinely like them.  It is this factor, cannily accomplished by Landis in his script, that makes us cringe at a deeper level when they become victims of the inevitable carnage; and with this foundation laid, as the film follows the subsequent adventures of David, despite the cheeky comic tone maintained throughout, we can never quite escape or ignore the soul-sickening undercurrent of sadness which pursues us to the end.

Landis is able to pull off this delicate balance largely because he seems unconcerned with pre-conceived limitations of genre; as the director of the wildly popular Animal House and The Blues Brothers, he was the undisputed master of the kind of irreverent and iconoclastic humor that is on display in American Werewolf, and he confidently delivers the same lampooning style in his approach.  There is a definite anti-establishment flavor here that is cut from the same cloth as those earlier films, manifested in a continual opposition between stodgy decorum and free-spirited permissiveness.  The guarded discretion of the villagers regarding their town’s dark secret, the by-the-book attitude of the bumbling policemen assigned to de-brief David, and the stiff-upper-lip dispassion of Dr. Hirsch and even Nurse Alex as they become more deeply involved with their patient; all these are contrasted with the repeated disregard for rules of behavior displayed by the young Americans.  Jack and David challenge local custom with their questions in the pub, and later on, David flies against procedural form with passionate protests regarding the truth about his attacker on the moors, and he skirts propriety by crossing professional boundaries to initiate a relationship with his nurse; it is a similar lack of concern for the rules that allows Landis to blur the lines between comedy and horror with such disarming audacity.  In a way, it is as if he is attacking repressive authority on multiple fronts; not only does he sideswipe convention and cliche with satirical absurdity, and disturb order and decorum with gruesome violence, he also flaunts conservative standards of decency with a high level of sexual frankness and pointedly gratuitous nudity.

An American Werewolf in London uses all these ingredients, ultimately, in the service of providing entertaining thrills for the youth audience at which it was targeted.  The hip, comedic tone and the willful exploitation of sex and violence create an appealingly loose, edgy atmosphere, but it is the narrative itself that keeps us hooked, and Landis the director handles it skillfully.  The leisurely opening sequence is a small masterpiece in itself, and could stand on its own as a fine short film; the jocularity of the protagonists is slowly overtaken by the undercurrent of menace in a textbook example of building tension through visual storytelling.  As the tale progresses, we are subjected to alternating moments of hilarity and terror, often spiking one with the other, keeping us off balance at a visceral level while Landis fills the screen with artfully arranged variety of culturally telling details, from the recurring ironic presence of a Mickey Mouse figurine to the ludicrous porno send-up being shown at the cinema where David has his final meeting with Jack.  Along the way he continues to build on our emotional connection to David (as well as to Alex and, to a lesser extent, Dr. Hirsch, who become his allies) and offers up numerous stylish set pieces- a handful of nightmare sequences, a zany romp at the London Zoo, a gripping predator-and-prey chase in a “tube” terminal, an erotically-charged love scene between David and Alex in the shower- until he reaches the climax, an over-the-top blow-out of carnage and confusion in Piccadilly Circus that plays like a deadly slapstick farce.  Up until this point, his recipe works; the excesses of the finale somehow push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, and the callousness with which he treats the deaths of all these innocent bystanders feels a little too mean-spirited to be excused under the license of black comedy.  The final tragic confrontation which closes the film, a forgone conclusion since the very first frame, is also, undeniably, a bit of a letdown, and the promising potential for emotional payoff remains unrealized; it’s as if Landis, who has expertly managed to pad out what is essentially a familiar and simple scenario with clever distractions, has reached the bottom of his bag of tricks and decided to end his movie by hurriedly delivering the expected ending with as little fuss as possible.  Despite this anticlimax, however, Landis’ has invested enough into his main characters, on a deeper level than the snarky disaffection of the movie’s surface, to leave us in a state of satisfied melancholy as the end credits roll, and though we may have wished for an worthier ending for his clever mash-up, it must be admitted that his effort to present an oft-told tale in a fresh and surprising package has been, on the whole, a success.

A good deal of that success deserves to be credited to the charm of Landis’ leading players; in particular, of course, the considerable appeal of his star, David Naughton, whose earlier career as a pitchman for Dr. Pepper had made him a familiar face for most audiences, contributes significantly.  Attractive, affable, sincere, and possessed of a devilishly sly but somehow wholesome quality that makes him both sexy and endearing, his personality is well-suited to the demands of both the lightweight and dramatic aspects of American Werewolf, and watching him here makes us regret that, for whatever reason, he failed to become the rising star that his talent seemed to promise.  Matching him well is the beautiful Jenny Agutter, another familiar face (Logan’s Run¸ Equus) who never quite achieved full stardom, at least in the U.S., as Alex; she carries the same, sweet-but-sexy aura as her leading man, with an added layer of maturity and intelligence that makes her far more interesting than the standard damsel-in-distress usually found in monster movies.  John Woodvine is witty and refreshingly likable in his role as the benevolent older authority figure, Dr. Hirsch, and the assortment of recognizable English actors that constitute the cadre at the “Slaughtered Lamb” do a fine job of infusing life and dimension into the stock “superstitious villagers” characters that they represent.  The standout performance, though, comes from Griffin Dunne, as the doomed Jack; his lovably nebbish, self-deprecating nerd persona provides a perfect complement to Naughton’s all-American boy, and the chemistry they share is tangible- a factor that helps to add resonance to later developments when the deceased Jack returns to haunt his best friend.  Dunne manages, in those scenes, to bring the likable humanity of his character to the forefront despite the progressively hideous make-up he wears, undercutting the body horror of his walking-dead image with wit, pathos, and personality.

On the subject of the make-up, the aforementioned Rick Baker- whose prolific work in this field has always helped to redefine and push the limits of the craft- leads the pack in terms of kudos for Landis’ technical crew.  Not only do his remarkably detailed and gruesome prosthetic creations make for an utterly convincing conversion of Dunne into a grisly walking corpse, his work with Naughton’s transformation sequence, in which the handsome actor becomes the fearsome title creature, is a ground-breaking display of wizardry; a far cry from the old stop-motion effects used to morph Lon Chaney, Jr. in the classic Universal Wolf Man and its sequels, it is a truly hair-raising (literally and figuratively) pre-CG spectacle that reminds us all that movie magic did not begin with the computer age.  Also noteworthy is the cinematography by Robert Paynter, capturing the character and mood of the numerous English locations, from the desolate moors to the garish lights of Piccadilly, with a richness that gives weight to the proceedings; again, it’s a reminder of a now-bygone time, before the distinctive visual quality created by photography on actual film was supplanted by the high-definition digital imaging that dominates cinema today.  Finally, Landis gives his film a soundtrack that is comprised partly of effectively unsettling original scoring by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, and partly of a rather tongue-in-cheek selection of various popular recordings linked together by the subject of the moon, with several varied renditions of the standard, “Blue Moon,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” each figuring prominently in highly memorable sequences.

An American Werewolf in London is another one of those films that figured prominently in my own younger years; I have fond memories of seeing it, multiple times, on the big screen, and there was a time when I could quote virtually every line of dialogue.  In the ensuing years I assumed that my youthful enthusiasm, coupled with a fondness for monster movies and all things English, had probably paid a large part in my enjoyment of a film which, really, was little more than pulp cinema.  Upon my recent viewing, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in fact, Landis’ odd little film holds up extremely well, and, in fact, boasts many nuances- some of which are explored above- that I had not previously recognized.  It’s really a tight, stylish, and yes, classy movie; though it deliberately strives for the lurid, sensational atmosphere of both Hollywood exploitation cinema and British “penny dreadfuls,” and it offers up a considerable amount of nudity, sex and violence (the gory, nightmarish kind so gleefully proffered by the blood-spattered horror films produced in England throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s), it nevertheless maintains an elegant, restrained sensibility, suggesting far more than it shows and allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in a lot of the blanks.  Landis, for all his excess, does himself credit in his handling of the werewolf and its reign of terror, giving us only brief glimpses of the beast itself and using cinematic artistry- sound, camera perspective, editing- to build the suspense and fear; of course, we would feel cheated if he didn’t also deliver some good old blood-and-guts, and he gives us just enough of those to make us happy (if that’s the right word), but its also to his credit that we walk away feeling as if we’ve seen much more of a bloodbath than we actually have.  In the end, though, American Werewolf is most truly memorable for its unique hybrid personality, which lets us laugh, cringe, and cry a good deal more than we might expect.  It’s a smart, sexy, and surprisingly affecting film that has aged well, which is more than can be said for many of the more lauded-at-the-time works from the period.  Though it may not, at the time, have been as highly esteemed as Landis’ previous hits (mentioned above), and though, for many, his most important and lasting creation will always remain his video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” An American Werewolf in London  may well, in truth, be his best work as a filmmaker; at the least, it’s a definite crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to evoke a grin and a grimace from even the most hardcore horror buff.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082010/

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.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098253/

 

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.

 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081568/

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.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082348/

Parting Glances (1986)

Today’s cinema adventure: Parting Glances, the 1986 first (and only) feature by writer/director Bill Sherwood, hailed as a landmark in the history of gay cinema and also notable for featuring actor Steve Buscemi in his first major film role.  Made on a shoestring budget in 1984 and finally released two years later, it was chosen as the first movie to be restored by the Outfest Legacy Project in 2007, and it still stands today as one of the most refreshingly authentic representations of gay life yet to be seen on the American screen.

Shot entirely on location in New York, the film follows a young upwardly mobile couple, Michael and Robert, through the events of a 24-hour period; Robert is preparing to leave for a two-year work assignment in Africa, while Michael, facing the prospect of being left alone, ponders the uncertainty of their future together- as well as the inevitable demise of his AIDS-infected ex-boyfriend, Nick, with whom he still shares a deep bond.  As the couple attend a dinner party with Robert’s boss and then a farewell gathering with their friends, the movie gives us a cross-sectional slice-of-gay-life view of mid-eighties New York, using the various interactions and activities of its characters to explore not only the relationships at its center, but also the concerns and issues that affect them as a community and as individuals.

One of the primary reasons for the importance of Parting Glances, of course, is the window it provides into the days when the AIDS epidemic was at its height; it was a time when being diagnosed with the disease was, in essence, a death sentence, and the gay community was being ravaged.  This humble little film was one of the first to deal with this issue, and certainly the first to treat it with candor rather than with alarmist sensationalism.  Though only one of the characters is afflicted by the virus, it is clear through the conversations and situations we are privy to throughout that it’s a situation that deeply affects them all; it hovers around the edges of their lives like the ominous Don Giovanni-inspired specter that appears to Nick in a few key scenes, a factor in everything they do, say, or plan.  Despite its omnipresence, however, the subject of AIDS does not receive the kind of dour and mournful treatment one might expect, particularly from a film made in the midst of its darkest hold on the hearts and minds of the gay community; nor is it handled with the precious, maudlin sentimentality of so many of the movies that came after.  On the contrary, though its weight and seriousness are never in question, Parting Glances takes a disarmingly light-hearted approach to the disease: Nick does not play the morose and tragic victim; his ultimate decline and fall are a given, but, for now at least, he is still relatively healthy, and his brash,  vibrant personality is the heart of the movie.  He faces his fate with staunch acceptance, yes, but also with a hearty helping of gallows humor and nothing-to-lose directness.  The dire eventuality of his situation is implicit, and this film feels no need to hammer the audience with it; its focus, rather, is on the present moment, and the opportunity it affords for taking stock, seizing the day, and perhaps most importantly, tending the needs of the heart.

Though AIDS looms heavily over Parting Glances, it is by no means the only subject with which the film concerns itself.  The central storyline, after all, deals with the relationship of Michael and Robert, and its future- or its lack of one- is not contingent on a life-threatening disease; rather, it hinges on their own respective ambivalence, their fear of commitment, and their ability to be emotionally available to each other.  In short, the obstacles in their joint path, though they may be somewhat obscured or confused by the comparatively minor attendant factors of same-sex unions, are the same ones faced by any couple, gay or straight; the film does an admirable job of underlining this universality, placing the pair in juxtaposition with other couples, straight and not-so-straight, throughout its proceedings, and while it makes no judgments regarding the validity or moral superiority of any of these relationships, the dynamic between our two protagonists seems to stack up at least as favorably, more or less, as any of the others.  Michael’s relationship with Nick is also a key factor here- their easy chemistry and bantering rapport contrast sharply with the often strident interactions of Michael and Robert, opening up questions about compatibility and the line between romance and friendship- particularly among same-sex partners.  There are plenty of non-romantic relationships on display here, too: Michael and several other characters connect closely with Joan, the “hag” who hosts the going-away party and serves as a sort of combination best gal-pal and den mother; there’s also Robert’s boss and his wife, who bond with Robert and Michael, respectively; Robert’s former high school girlfriend, now married but still a confidante; and a number of other friends and acquaintances who interact with the couple and each other throughout the course of the film.  All of these exchanges offer insight into the social tapestry of this insular community, and key us into the pulse of this specific time and place, as well as revealing the repetition of timeless patterns and themes within the sphere of human connectivity, gay, straight, or anywhere in between.

It might seem like there’s a lot going on in Parting Glances, and of course, there is; but despite its busy agenda, it never feels as if it were packed too full, nor does any of it seem forced.  Thanks to Sherwood’s witty, flowing screenplay, all the major issues and themes work their way unobtrusively into the dialogue, weaving through the conversations naturalistically and convincingly instead of being introduced as didactic rhetoric; these are real people discussing their lives, not mouthpieces presenting a case, and as a result, the movie feels like a stimulating party instead of a public debate.  This organic quality is enhanced all the more by Sherwood’s engaging cast, who are clearly having a wonderful time as they present us with a wide variety of familiar “types” (as opposed to stereotypes) within the gay and gay-friendly community.  As Michael and Robert, respectively, are Richard Ganoung and John Bolger; both are attractive and likable, but they are not a cookie-cutter couple- each has their own distinctive persona, and they both clash with and complement each other in a highly realistic and believable manner.  Kathy Kinney plays Joan, providing a grounded, female presence with a character that rises above potential cliché; she is both insightful and incorrigible, and she conveys- subtly, and without self-pity- the resignation of a life possibly lived vicariously through her friends.  Also memorable is Adam Nathan, as a self-assured young “twinkie” who sets his sights on Michael; ready to claim the world from an elder generation that is not willing, quite yet, to give it up to him, he succeeds in being endearing instead of insufferable, and his scene with Nick on the stairs outside the party is a highlight of the film.  The standout performance, though, comes from Buscemi, who does a remarkable job of playing Nick; the character is doomed but delightful, a combination which could easily seem glib and artificial in the hands of a lesser actor, but he pulls it off superbly, making it clear that his sardonic wit and his edgy personality are part and parcel of who he is- not an affectation in response to his status as a member of the walking dead- and that underneath them there is a large and generous heart.  His desire to leave behind a legacy for his friends goes beyond the material items in his last will, semi-substantial though they may be (he is, it seems, a minor rock-and-roll star); he actively means to make a difference in their lives, and Buscemi’s work allows us to see the genuine love at the source of these efforts.  Lest we think his Nick is too good to be true, though, he still manages to get across, in little ways, here and there, that he is not altogether okay with what is happening to him, despite his brave face; but this never gets in the way of the positive energy he exudes throughout.  It’s a performance that should have made Buscemi a star, much sooner, and would have, no doubt- if the movie had been more widely seen.

There are numerous other enjoyable qualities here, not the least of which is the way the film captures the look and feel of mid-eighties New York; this is no surprise, of course, considering that is when and where it was filmed, but some credit is still deserved by the production designer (John Loggia), the art directors (Daniel Haughey and Mark Sweeney), and the set decorator (Anne Mitchell) for deciding what should go into the series of well-appointed homes and apartments that provide the setting, as well as to cinematographer Jacek Laskus for deciding how to film it, with special kudos to all involved for making it look so polished despite the bargain-basement budget.  Also contributing to its evocation of time and place are the soundtrack choices, a combination of songs by Bronski Beat and original, very posh-sounding piano music by Mike Nolan, with some operatic selections thrown in, by way of Nick’s LP player, for good measure.

It seems somehow wrong to say that a movie made at the height of the AIDS crisis, featuring AIDS as a major subject and set among the gay community, is entertaining and fun; but that’s exactly what Parting Glances is.  Though it is unquestionably dramatic in its overall scope and intention, it makes sure even the heaviest matter is carried along by an effervescent current, and precisely because it doesn’t continually remind us of how poignant and moving it should be, it ends up being extremely poignant and extremely moving- particularly, I might add, for those who have lost friends like Nick in the long battle with AIDS.  As its title suggests, this is a movie about saying goodbye, not just to the dead, but to the living as well- the continuation of Michael and Robert’s relationship is by no means a sure thing at the end, after all; but bittersweet as it may be, it is also a film about moving forward.  The script clips along, the actors and the camera are constantly in motion, and the entire flow carries us through to the end, leaving us with a tangible momentum.  People come and go, things change, but the world keeps moving, and maybe part of what Parting Glances suggests is that our only real way of leaving something of ourselves in the mix is to make sure our lives touch those of the people who surround us.  In this day and age, it’s possible to watch Parting Glances and entertain the hope that Nick will be one of those lucky survivors who managed to hang on to life until medical science caught up enough with the disease to at least stave off death, and that he, like so many millions today, could still be out there thriving as an HIV-positive man.  If so, he would be luckier than the film’s creator, who passed away from the disease in 1990, without making another film and without surviving to see the way this one was embraced and revered by his own community, as well as by the larger cinematic world.  His movie stays with us, however, and through it, he continues to touch lives today.  So perhaps, truly, he was a very lucky man indeed.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091725/

Nine to Five (1980)

Today’s cinema adventure: Nine to Five, the 1980 comedy caper that became a popular hit on the strength of its pro-feminist sentiment and made country-western singer Dolly Parton into a bona fide movie star by teaming her with established box office draws Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.  Following the exploits of three long-suffering office workers whose fantasies of revenge against their chauvinistic and dishonest boss become reality when they believe they have inadvertently poisoned him, director-and-co-writer (with Patricia Resnick) Colin Higgins attempts to mine laughs from the situation as his trio of heroines take advantage of their accidental roles as champions of female empowerment to strike some serious blows against the male-dominated order and implement sweeping workplace reforms in the world of corporate greed in which they are employed.  However, despite the considerable chemistry generated by its three stars and its frequent use of broad slapstick, the film contains few laugh-out-loud moments; most of the comedy seems predictable, falling back on the familiar clichés of countless movies that came before, with the result that the humor feels forced, imposed upon a story with higher aims in order to make it more palatable.  Higgins’ direction, however, does a marvelous job of creating the impression that there is a lot more smart, funny content here than there actually is: a terrific opening montage (truthfully, the film’s best sequence) sets the stage by showing us an entire city’s worth of hassled, stressed-out, put-upon commuters struggling to start yet another demeaning, frustrating day at work; and the use of a seventies-flavored realism in the lighting and cinematography contrasts nicely with the candy-colored trappings imposed upon the grim, utilitarian settings, reinforcing the theme of humanity struggling to assert itself in an oppressive environment.  As for the performances, the three stars are unquestionably delightful together; individually, however, one can’t quite escape the feeling that something is missing.  Fonda seems out of place as the recent divorcee braving the workplace for the first time, wearing her persona of sheltered naïveté like an ill-fitting costume; and Tomlin seems equally uncomfortable in the role of an exceptional woman whose gifts have been long subjugated, exuding a subdued bitchiness that somehow feels more bitter and mean than it might if she truly sank her teeth into it.  That leaves Parton to shine, which she does, stealing every scene with her now-familiar brand of sweet-but-feisty charm; and her refreshing energy is enough to overcome the shortfalls in her co-stars’ efforts and unite the trio as a formidable team; though the ultimate effect is a suggestion that it is their combined strength that gives them their power, it seems unlikely that this was intentional.  As for the remaining cast, Dabney Coleman is so on-target as the ladies’ loathsome boss that the character shaped and limited his subsequent career irrevocably; and veterans Elizabeth Wilson and Sterling Hayden (in one of his final screen appearances) add a touch of distinction to roles which are otherwise just office stereotypes.

Nine to Five became an instant hit upon release and remains a kind of minor classic today despite its numerous flaws; indeed, despite my above criticisms, I find myself holding on to a fond memory of it.  It’s a hard film not to like, one that seems greater than the sum of its parts, inspiring its audience to cheer on its protagonists, and providing an enjoyable- if unremarkable- two hours’ worth of entertainment.  Perhaps its staying power is due to its place in history; it represents a final flourish of seventies liberalism, a celebration of progressive populist values coming just before the Reagan era rolled over the cultural landscape, re-shaping it with trickle-down economics and populating it with voraciously greedy yuppies.  Watching it today, one can’t escape a feeling of bittersweet irony: its wish-fulfillment fantasy resonates with the cause of the underdog, those overworked and underpaid minions of the corporate empire, and seems brimming with the promise that social attitudes were poised to bring about the change depicted within; in fact, the opposite proved to be true- the liberality of the seventies was about to be shelved for a decade of self-aggrandizing greed.  In a way, the film foreshadows this, too: it’s very telling that the three heroines of Nine to Five succeed by beating their oppressor at his own manipulative, dishonest game instead of changing it for the better; and in the final moments we are informed (by the obligatory “where are they now?” subtitles) that two of them will abandon the fight for equality in favor of more traditional forms of feminine success.  Still, though it does less redefining of women’s roles in the workplace than reinforcing of the old stereotype of women as the unseen force behind the scenes, there is something gratifying about watching these three feminine underdogs stick it to the man; and that alone is enough to make Nine to Five seem as infectious and invigorating as its beloved title song.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080319/