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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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/

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/

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg’s 1981 action-adventure-fantasy paying homage to- and gently spoofing- the cliffhanger serials of the thirties and forties- but with the benefit of a mega-budget and then-state-of-the-art special effects, courtesy of the powerhouse production provided by George Lucas.  It would be pointless and impossible for me to write anything like a critique of this film- it has passed beyond the realm of review and into cinema legend, and did so almost immediately upon release, becoming an instant classic and creating a brand new archetypal hero in Indiana Jones, the mercenary archaeologist/adventurer at its center.  It spawned a franchise of three (mostly inferior) sequels, countless unworthy imitations, and it made an icon of its star, Harrison Ford, whose roguish charm melds so perfectly into his character that it is literally impossible to imagine anyone else playing it.  And, on a personal level, it became a major touchstone in my young manhood, a cultural phenomenon into which I dove headlong, making any sort of objective viewpoint about the movie completely irrelevant.  What I will say is that, after several years since my last viewing, the movie holds up brilliantly, seeming just as fresh and fun as it was 30 years ago, managing a precarious balancing act between the serious tone necessary to sustain its premise and the sly, unapologetic goofiness that keeps it fun and reminds us, constantly, that it’s only a movie- aided immeasurably by John Williams’ rousing, multi-faceted score, with its now-familiar thematic march, which is surely one of the greatest examples of the use of music to support and drive a film.  In addition, it struck me this time around that this movie represents Spielberg’s direction at its finest, the work of a young artist at the height of his powers, using his skills for the sheer joy of it- completely without pretense or the need to make any kind of statement, merely an expression of his own love of movie magic and an invitation to us all to share it with him.  Sure, you can quibble forever over the myriad gaps in logic and continuity that render the entire story ridiculous- an intentional element drawn from the grade-Z crowd-pleasers that inspired it- or you can point out the numerous visual and stylistic references to classic movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Lawrence of Arabia, from which the director derived his filmmaking vocabulary; but those things don’t matter, in the final analysis.  “Raiders” stands on its own as a great achievement in filmmaking, a timeless tribute to movies themselves and a magic potion to rekindle- even if only for a couple of hours- the adventurous imagination of the fourteen-year-old in us all.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082971/

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