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Child of God

(Check out my previous film review in this series here: All The Pretty Horses)

Before I jump back into reviewing straightforward Westerns, I’ve got a few genre-bending numbers in the week ahead, as well as this review of the 2013 arthouse Southern Gothic film Child of God. The film is an adaptation of American author Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel of the same name, and like most of his works (and especially his earliest works) it is especially gruesome, bloody, nihilistic, subversive, and artistically daring. Through this story of an asocial idiot who becomes increasingly isolated from those around him and falls into a life of crime and taboo behavior, McCarthy works to press the patience of facile Christians who must call even this disgusting being a ‘child of god’ and a ‘brother’ to be totally consistent with their doctrines, despite one’s visceral response to the contrary.

The result is to make intellectually honest Christians aware of a core hypocrisy within the character of themselves, and by extension, of a diametrical opposition between the nature of the world as it is and the sugarcoated fables of religion, which tell us that all people have moral worth and ought to be treated fairly. The gut reaction to the character of Lester Ballard is to either morally support the town’s lynch mob attempt to wipe him off of the face of the earth or to hope to hell the lawman Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) catches the guy and is able to lock him away and throw away the key.

Helmed by actor, director, producer, writer James Franco, the film was his second work in the medium of film to recognize and champion the literary heritage of the United States. The first work entitled The Broken Tower, and released in 2011, was a biopic on the life of Hart Crane in which Franco played the man himself. In the years following Child of God, Franco has directed two adaptations of classic novels by William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and The Fury), and an adaptation of a little known novel entitled In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. Franco has also portrayed the great American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the 2010 experimental film Howl, centering around the book’s obscenity trial in 1957, and is currently directing and writing a film chronicling the early life the American gutter poet (and one my top five favorite authors of all time) Charles Bukowski simply entitled Bukowski. Franco’s work in cinema is certainly setting himself up as something of an obscene, gritty James Ivory. And a large Criterion Collection release ought to be somewhere on the horizon despite (and possibly because) most of his films in this vein being critically divisive.

Child of God is set in the 1950s in Sevier County, Tennessee. The elder Ballard’s wife leaves him behind with his teenage son to raise on his own. Her departure is mysterious and not explained in the film and ultimately drives the elder Ballard to taking his own life out of emotional pain and desperation. Lester remains at home, not knowing how to pay bills or make a living, as he is a bit touched (as my grandparents generation in Appalachia might’ve quipped) . Eventually, the bank forecloses on his family’s home and land. Ballard gets a job digging post holes until he can afford a rifle and then commences to threaten all those who attempt to buy or sell the home at gunpoint. He grows increasingly mad and eventually loses his home.

Over the course of the film, we watch Ballard roam about the woods and countryside as if in some arthouse nature documentary chronicling the exploits of an incensed God-man, now unhinged and capable of extreme violence at any moment. He happens upon a woman in the woods who has been raped and left behind by someone else. At least, this is seemingly what has happened. The woman makes fun of Ballard, and in response, he steals the last tatters of her clothing and lopes off into the woods, leaving her naked and exposed to the elements as punishment for her rude behavior. When she later turns up at the police department, she claims that Ballard raped her (and is obviously thereby protecting the real criminal). Ballard is taken into custody by Sheriff Fate, and as the fates would have it, after an extensive stay in the jailhouse, Ballard is freed after Fate figures out that the woman lied.

Ballard moves through the world like an animal with no concern about morality or law as these are social forces only and are not present in the state of nature. This brute man finds that he is attracted to women and has an innate need to procreate after stumbling upon a couple copulating in their car on a dirt road late at night. As such, when he runs across a suicided couple within their car on the same road a few weeks later, he takes advantage of the young woman’s corpse inside, and even later returns to take her photograph and some money from the young deceased man’s wallet inside, before also hauling off the corpse of the girl to store and bone in the remote hunting cabin he occupies out in the forest.

The grotesque horror of this man’s very existence and the fact that none of his evil is perpetrated for the sake of evil, but by the ignorance inherent within so-called innocents (in truth, persons outside of socialization and thereby more natural men and women than those around them), gives viewers an attempt to stare directly into the abyss, if willing to do so. The world stripped of the social impulse, the world of true libertarianism, both devoid of religion and of the common human experience: a husk of life left without morality as either a social or a metaphysical impulse, which reveals why either one or both of these forces (religion and social solidarity) are necessary for society to function, lest we become brutes like Ballard. The Ayn Randian pursuit of individualism for its own sake is important to the development of worthwhile human beings and personas, but without being balanced by social conventions life is not worth living at all.

The proper response to narratives of idiots, to serial killers, or to soldiers fighting in aimless wars is to recognize the abyss of nihilism and the lack of meaning and morality beneath all of the social world we have built as a species. And to then champion the structures in place and to work constantly to make them safer, stronger, more inclusive, and less subject to manipulation by psychotic businessman and politicians. Oh, and to realize that inclusivity cannot and must not preclude locking up those types, as well as the aforementioned like Ballard, who are irredeemable, and though not deserving of it (deserving being a metaphysical concept that has no real place in a good social system), must nevertheless be separated from civil society. Permanently.

 

Cody Ward

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byNWR Beta Launch!

Last year, and into the beginning of this year, I reviewed every single feature film ever directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Find the beginning of that series here) as well as a number of documentaries on the man’s life and work. I developed an intense interest in this artist whose personal creative inspirations come primarily from kitsch filmmaking and Criterion classics, like my own. Who is color blind like myself, but manages to use color in novel, interesting, and thematic ways in his films. A man prone to oscillation between self-deprecation and grandiose statements about his own creative genius.

Towards the end of this period, I found out that he was in the beginning stages of launching a new streaming platform for films of a rare nature. Films that are hard to find, but legendary, films that express something poignant about the psychical chaos hidden deep within the American psyche. Southern Gothics, American Neo-realism, Independent films, Exploitation cinema, Hellfire and Brimstone pieces and Godsploitation, and works of undefinable genre. The unearthing of these works, which he has collected the rights to and fought to restore and preserve were a revelation to me. As such, I spent a month reviewing a number of these prospective titles.

Shanty Tramp and Hot Thrills and Warm Chills. Night Tide and The Exiles. If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? and The Burning Hell. And now, I’m excited to announce, that as of today, byNWR, Refn’s new free streaming film archive, interview and essay compendium has made its Beta debut. I suggest you go check it out and spend a few weeks digging deep into the core of what it means to be American through these tales of crime, of passion, of the exuberance of life lived authentically as an engagement into the existential quest of finding what it is that makes you who you are.

In a time when political life is a shit show and the news serves only to provoke anxiety, fear, and disillusionment, a retreat into the past might be just what is called for. Because without that perspective, our art is barren. In the words of Devo: ‘We need art to again be an affirmation of life and values in the face of the corporate boot coming down and kicking you in the head.” byNWR is just one new step that could lead you and I toward that direction, and thereby toward a much-needed revivification of a culture that has been forced to repeat itself over and over, producing nothing new of note or import, since the late 1970s.

Now is the time. Go forward bravely and fight to carve life into art before the alabaster dwindles to nothing!

 

A Manifesto, and an update,

Cody Ward

All The Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy is an author close to my heart. His prose has the muscular quality of top-form Hemingway, the occasional irreverence of Bukowski, the mythic nature of Faulkner, and a surreal or postmodern underpinning always threatening to emerge and engulf his readers in incredulity at the absurdity of the nihilistic worlds he fashions together in his own symbolic West, which is ultimately a stage for the conflict of intellectual traditions. First of foremost of that conflict between the Western intellectual tradition of rationality and supposed human epistemic omnipotence, and newer forms of uncertainty and mysticism arising constantly as the logical consequences of this former intellectual project.

Those who undertake to create film adaptations of McCarthy’s novels or plays are typically those with an intellectual or artistic bent who do so because they value his work and understand it at a deep level. Some past cases of films like these that I had seen were the masterful Coen Brother’s adaptation of No Country For Old Men in 2007, the classic dystopian metaphysical horror film The Road in 2009, and Ridley Scott’s amoral adaptation of the play The Counselor in 2013. As such, I had high hopes for the first major film adaptation of a McCarthy work in 2000’s All The Pretty Horses, based on his 1992 novel of the same name.

The film was directed by Billy Bob Thornton after the break away success of his Southern Gothic classic Sling Blade in 1996. The original cut of All The Pretty Horses came in at over 3 hours in length, had a slow, methodical, epic pace and was reportedly extremely well suited to the style of McCarthy’s writing. The story, set in 1949, the definitive death of the frontier and a move into Industrial America, Electric Music, and pop culture, was accompanied by a spare guitar score played on era-correct instruments. And the entire affair was set to be a great follow up to Thornton’s previous film, and could have established him as something of a promising visionary director at the time. Instead, the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein (known for raping films well before the current allegations about his sexual misconduct) forced Thornton to cut the film down to less than 2 hours in length, and also replaced the score without the director’s approval with a more conventional piece. The result was a picture maligned by most critics that made back only $18 million USD on its more than $50 million USD budget, and brought Thornton’s directorial career to a halt (he only directed a couple pictures over the next two decades).

Despite the film’s truncated form, the kernel of what Thornton had envisioned for the picture is still there within it. The focus on metaphysically and generally philosophically charged language verbalized in a brute, terse manner is maintained throughout the film, which consequently almost borders on presenting the audience with mere types instead of characters. Some critics find this approach to storytelling abstruse and obscure, but those men and women are also the kinds of readers who would likewise champion the use of types in classic works by Dostoevsky, Kafka, or Nietzsche. In other words, they are typically hypocrites who might find the value of such an approach in the novels of Cormac McCarthy with his Kid and Judge archetypes running throughout All the Pretty Horses, and then somehow fault it when these types are the symbolic trade of the celluloid medium, which is possibly even more suited to their use. After all, cinema is an art form first and foremost that can do anything paintings, photography, music, art installation, or literature can do. And before the advent of sound to the medium, character development was the last thing in artists of the medium’s minds, as it should be today.

And again, despite the critiques of fools and backbiters and those without a real critical bone in their bodies, the film does manage to develop the character of the Kid. John Grady Cole (played by Matt Damon) has dreamt of taking over his grandfather’s ranch for the entirety of his childhood. But times are changing and the old frontier lands will yield significantly higher profits for the family if sold to oil barons instead of toiling away raising cattle on them for the next fifty years. As such, when Cole’s grandfather passes away, his mother quickly decides to sell the land and thereby destroys all of Cole’s hopes for a life on the range. The death of these hopes is visually symbolized by the corpse of the grandfather Cole, who appears visually similar to the great Western character actor Slim Pickens (though Pickens passed away almost 20 years prior, in 1983). The death of the Western genre, the death of the West, and the end of all romanticism for Cole in the hopes of working the land upon which his grandfather, and his grandfather, worked their entire lives.

Cole decides to leave the ranch and head south past the Rio Grande and into Mexico where a real frontier still exists and one can find steady work as a cowboy. He takes along with him his trusty friend Lacey Rawlins as well as two horses they steal from the ranch i the dead of night and on they go. Along the journey, they run into a young boy named Jimmy Blevins who has likewise stolen a horse, as well as his stepfather’s gun and some supplies in the hopes of making it down in Mexico, and escaping constant beatings at the hands of the man. Blevins has obviously had a difficult life, which has turned him into a good shot as well as a youth prone to outbursts of violence. This tendency within the boy will later prove his downfall. Rawlins and Cole will not escape its repercussions unscathed either.

Over the course of the film, Rawlins and Cole make it to their destination and meet a woman along the way who owns a small bar. She is, notably, the same actress as Bennie’s girl in Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The two men find a ranch and impress the biggest tycoon (Ruben Blades) around by breaking in over a dozen wild horses in a week. Cole falls for the man’s daughter (Penelope Cruz). Loves begin, crimes catch up to their perpetrators, and lovers are forcibly wrenched apart. By the end of the film, Cole has realized that there is no place on Earth coincident with his romanticism, no place that measures up to his ideal type of Paradise. The Kid becomes The Man, develops into a disillusioned soul who is by no means completed by film’s end. One can imagine his past traumas developing into alcoholism or drug use. That he will have his share of women, but will experience a dearth of truly good times for the remainder of his days. And that he accepts this begrudgingly and will remain a haunted man like his father Cole (Robert Patrick) before him: a Tennessee Williams type, divorced, down and out, drunk, and jaded by the hand he’s been dealt in life, and the knowledge that there is no better hand to be had. Except death’s sweet release and the hope that things will be better once he returns to the wellspring of his being, to the womb, the mother, the vacuum of Being, to the void.

 

Cody Ward

 

[Next up: Child of God]

 

 

The Lord of the Rings

(Check out my previous Ralph Bakshi animated feature film review here: Wizards)

By late 1977, Ralph Bakshi had shown himself to once again be a profitable director of animated features. His 1977 film Wizards had turned a profit in a pretty big way despite the previous feature Coonskin being a controversial picture that resulted in a box office flop. Bakshi was still interested in creating more fantasy films at this time. So when he heard that the live-action fantasy director John Boorman had just written a script for an adaptation of Lord of the Rings, and that the project was in production hell and would probably never be produced, he talked to the studio heads at United Artists and had them buy the property from Boorman for $3 million USD.

Bakshi then secured a financing deal for an animated film trilogy of the Lord of the Rings cycle for which he would produce all three collectively for $8 million USD. After some deliberation, the studio decided that Bakshi should only make two films instead, but with the same budget. The first being called Lord of the Rings Part 1 and being based upon The Fellowship of the Ring and the first half of The Two Towers. The second would be based upon the second half of The Two Towers and all of the Return of the King. However, the studio objected to the film being called part one as they believed no one would come out to the theaters to watch half of a movie, and as such, the first film was called merely The Lord of the Rings. 

Bakshi used a novel approach to animating on his second fantasy film. He had experimented previously with rotoscoping, but decided this time to rotoscope almost all of the human characters in the film. As a result, Bakshi went to Spain to film almost all of the scenes in the film with real actors, who were then animated over to give them an extremely life-like performance. These shots were overlayed on top of either experimental footage and psychedelic backgrounds, or, for the majority of the film, traditionally animated cels as backdrops and scenarios. The process was almost the exact opposite of Bakshi’s methods on his film Heavy Traffic where he animated his characters and placed them within real-world backgrounds from photographs that had been underexposed and copied multiple times to give them a real, lived-in look.

The total rotoscoping approach had never been tried at the same scale as it usually yielded extremely ugly animation and wasn’t particularly liked by audiences. However, Bakshi managed to change the entire formula by directing his actors to act as naturally as possible instead of acting broadly and cartoony as in the Fleischer Brother’s rotoscoped film Gulliver’s Travels some forty years prior. The result is a very natural rotoscoping, which creates beautiful performances often indistinguishable from traditional animation. However, rotoscoping is much cheaper and had the added benefit of saving time and money in the process. Don Bluth would later use this same approach to masterful effect on his 1997 film Anastasia. 

The rotoscoping in Lord of the Rings also allowed Ralph Bakshi to do what is normally impossible in an animated film: create battle sequences with dozens or even hundreds of people. Typically, this approach is functionally impossible through traditional animation as each person has dozens of separate key animation frames for any thirty second sequence. Further, in-between frames must be made in the dozens to connect the actions from frame to frame. One or two animators could work on such a sequence for just a few characters and keep each action in mind without confusing anything in the process. But one or two people creating a battle sequence of hundreds of characters strains credulity and is virtually impossible. And when dozens or hundreds of animators are employed on such a sequence, the budget begins to bloat, inconsistencies run rampant, and the whole sequence is bound to turn into a shit show. Through rotoscoping, the actions and key frames and in-between actions are all already completed, and the process is much simpler. As such, Bakshi was able to create the largest battle sequences in any animated film until the CGI age (which suffers from a flaw Bakshi’s film does not: repetitiveness of characters).

Rotoscoping also made the sequences with Orcs and Wraiths particularly frightening and akin to the demons from Wizards. This adds some continuity between the two films and makes them into a perfect pair for a cult film viewing with friends, Bakshi fans, fantasy junkies, and cinephiles.

The voice actors in the film are mostly British film actors and include great performances from John Hurt as Aragorn and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) as Legolas. The production was a star work that critics and film writers latched onto from the start and which attracted all kinds of people to it, including Mick Jagger, who wanted to provide a voice for the film, but was turned down by Bakshi. The film’s score is noteworthy not for the orchestral score that eventually made it into the film, but for the original plan of Bakshi’s to include Led Zeppelin music throughout. And although admittedly not the biggest Led Zeppelin fan, I can imagine how amazing a Lord of the Rings battle scene would be when accompanied by Immigrant Song.

Ultimately, the film was a box office success and made back $30.5 million USD on a $4 million budget. It was Bakshi’s biggest success in this regard since his feature film debut as director on Fritz the Cat. Though the idea of the studio to release the film as The Lord of the Rings, and not as The Lord of the Rings Part 1 backfired and ended in the film garnering many bad reviews. Viewers thought the film was meant to encompass all of the Lord of the Rings cycle, and when it didn’t, they often became confused and annoyed that someone would choose to only adapt half of it and call the entire work Lord of the Rings. Misunderstood critical backlash to the film made the studio wary of financing its sequel, and consequently none was ever made, except if you count its spiritual successors in the Rankin/Bass animated films The Hobbit and The Return of the King.

For all of the grandiose, epic quality of the 2000s Peter Jackson version of The Lord of the Rings, I would still call Bakshi’s film my favorite of all the film adaptations of the epic fantasy property. Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, did an amazing job condensing The Lord of the Rings down to less than two and half hours length in his screenplay for the film. I could rationalize and debate constantly about why this version is my favorite, but at the end of the day it’s probably mostly because of the nostalgia with which I hold it in high regard as the first version I ever saw of the classic Tolkien trilogy. The one that sparked my interest in Middle Earth, motivated me to later read the books, and to finally read books within the fantasy genre broadly (C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia was a major influence as well). I just wish Bakshi made the sequel.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: American Pop]

Strangers on a Train

(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Beat The Devil. Or my previous Hitchcock essay here: Foreign Correspondent)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological thriller film noir Strangers on a Train really begins the classic period of American Hitchcock filmography from the early 50s to the mid-60s when he directed his greatest works. The transformative potential of this film in particular is notable due to Hitch’s cinematographic collaborator on the film, a Hollywood staple named Robert Burks. Strangers on a Train would be Burks’ first film for Hitchcock in what would become a 14-year working relationship during which Burks provided cinematography on I ConfessDial M for MurderRear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Birds, and finally, Marnie in 1964.

Their close working relationship during this time, which included every Hitchcock film from 1950-1964 except for Psycho, developed an iconography of signs and metaphors, of visual cues and expressions that produced Hitch’s most symbolically-laden imagery to date. And practically every film they worked on together are either classics of Hitch’s film output (e.g. Rear WindowThe Wrong ManVertigoNorth by Northwest, and The Birds) or critical classics that showed Hitch similarly at the height of his powers.

On the production end of things, Strangers on a Train is important for another interesting reason: it’s script process. The film is an adaptation of the first novel by Patricia Highsmith who was put on the map by it’s adaptation as a major film by Hitchcock and through the Hollywood system. She would later become known as something of a mistress of the dark for her ability to write great thrillers from existentialist and psychoanalytic angles, low-brow fiction from a high-brow perspective that was unafraid to broach the evil at the heart of all people and its latent potential for brimming over from the unconscious locus of possibility into the light of the day, into reality. She was later given the moniker of ‘the poet of apprehension’ by Graham Greene for her ability to construct a taut thriller akin to the level, at least, of Hitch’s own renowned ability in film, to create complex stories that could keep the average reader on the edge of his/her seat.

After acquiring rights to the book’s film adaptation (for a low-ball $7,500 USD, which Hitch managed to swing by keeping his name out of negotiations, as the knowledge of his attachment to the project would have run up the cost significantly), Hitch hired Whitfield Cook to create a treatment. Cook’s major contribution was the heightening of the latent homosexuality of the book’s protagonist Bruno Antony, which managed to make it into the film in a veiled manner. After Cook’s job was finished, the production began searching for a ‘name’ writer to attach to the project in the role of principal screenwriter.

An extensive search began in which the offer was flatly rejected by John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder along with five others,. Dashiell Hammett was in talks for a time to do the job before he too pulled out. Finally, the acclaimed hard-boiled author Raymond Chandler was broached by the production and accepted their offer to adapt the screenplay alongside Hitchcock. But the two famously butted heads regarding method as Hitch enjoyed talking about themes and motifs ancillary to the job of actually writing the script, often taking hours to do so. Chandler was as hard-boiled and straight-forward as the protagonists in his own works and as such, rebelled openly against Hitch’s methods and wanted nothing more than to get down to the nitty gritty of writing, and of finishing the script. After making a crack about Hitch’s weight and spending some weeks unable to accomplish anything on the script, Chandler was fired from the production.

A search for a new screenwriter began and was quickly found as the studio recommended Czenzi Ormonde. She proved up to the task and began work on the script just at the same moment that Hitch began shooting scenes in Washington D.C. Alongside the associate producer Barbara Keon and Hitch’s wife Alma Reville, Ormond worked on the script, only finishing the final scenes days before they were shot. In the end, much of the film was shot off the cuff and the ending sequence wasn’t decided upon until the very last minute. All of which, I believe, adds a certain kinetic force to the filmmaking. Hitch couldn’t, as he was characteristically won’t to do, storyboard every last sequence, and as such, Robert Burks had more power of creative input. As a result, the film is more traditionally expressionist than the typical Hitchcock film and incorporates more techniques with experimental force than on almost anything since his breakthrough film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, in 1927.

The film is the story of a pair of men who are, in a sense, doubles or doppelgangers of one another. It opens with two men leaving two separate taxis, both men wear nice suits and carry briefcases, they both enter the same train, the same passenger car, and sit across from one another. The light character in this play of opposite doubles is Guy Haines, a rising tennis star (tennis being a common Hitchcockian trope) on the amateur circuit with designs on a new woman, a new wife named Anne Morton, the daughter of a Senator who could catapult the young man into a future career as a politician. His shadow, Bruno Antony, a psychotic man with a flamboyant demeanor who suffers from a complex derived, no doubt in large part, to an overbearing and overly protective mother (as is so common in the cast of characters within a Hitchcock film).

Bruno hates his rich father who, quite logically and rightly, wants his son to work to gain his keep and build his own fortune. The old man refuses to give Bruno a large stipend with which to while away his time and insists that the middle-aged man work for a living and develop himself in the process. Bruno wants to bump off the old man, but he wants to do so without being caught. So he has tracked down Haines in an attempt to make him an offer. Bruno will knock off Haines’ current wife if Haines kills Bruno’s father. This way, Bruno reasons, both of them will have an alibi as they can arrange to be elsewhere when the murders are committed. Second, since the two of them have no connection to one another, the real murderer in each case cannot be identified as the suspect by the police (unless someone makes a grave mistake in the process and leaves themselves open to being caught on grounds of some strong material evidence). In a few words: the perfect murder (another trope common to Hitchcock’s films).

Haines views the offer with suspicion and pegs Bruno from what he is: an insane man. He leaves the train and stops off in his hometown of Metcalf to arrange his divorce from his wife Miriam. We find that not only is she an extremely promiscuous harlot who has pushed Guy into moving on to Anne Morton by seeing another man and becoming pregnant by him, but Miriam has also found out about Guy’s D.C. aspirations (which hinge on his marriage to Anne) and has decided to make him into an even bigger cuckold. She blackmails Guy into not filing for a divorce with the information that she will claim the child is his and that he is unjustly leaving her, which will damage his reputation and his chances in Washington. She wants Guy to bring her to D.C. with her and continue their marriage, though she has no plans on aborting the child, or becoming faithful to him once they move.

Guy is incensed, as he should be. Miriam had been asking him for a divorce for months and finally, once he has gained the funds to go through with the paperwork to do so, she is now blackmailing him. Miriam deserves to die. Guy shows his anger in public against her, handling her physically and trying to coerce her into signing the divorce papers she had agreed upon, indeed insisted upon, mere days prior by telephone. Later, on the phone with Anne, he tells her that he could just strangle Miriam. So, when Bruno goes through with his side of what he thought was an agreement and strangles Miriam to death at a local fair in a secluded spot known as ‘Magic Isle’, Guy is an immediate suspect.

But he has an alibi, he thinks. When returning to D.C. from Metcalf, he met a man on the train who was a professor. The man spoke with Guy about mathematics and told him where he taught. However, the man was drunk and when called upon the next day for verification that he met Guy on the train at the time the murder took place elsewhere, he doesn’t remember Guy at all. Guy is under suspicion of the crime and will be followed by undercover officers for the remainder of the film as the psychotic Bruno increasingly impedes upon Guy’s private life and promises to ruin Guy if he doesn’t kill Bruno’s father.

We have here a classic Hitchcockian set-up with Guy as the Wrong Man (who also happens to be an ordinary person: another Hitchcockian trope), all evidence pointing to him as the murderer in a crime he didn’t commit, but is nevertheless ideologically guilty for as he would have committed it if he had a stronger will. The cultured villain appears as the upper-class, well-read, and eminently moral (though psychotic) Bruno. Bruno gains an item of Guy’s while on the train with him: Guy’s lighter, engraved From A to G (From Anne to Guy). Bruno also fits the trope of charming sociopath, which is connected to the concept of the cultured villain. This serves as a playing chip in Bruno’s leverage over Guy, but is also a MacGuffin that reappears throughout the film: first in Bruno’s lifting of the object, later in his dropping of the object at the crime scene and his return to grab it, and finally in his attempt to place it back at the place of the murder to incriminate Guy with hard evidence.

The Lighter MacGuffin functions to drive the plot forward as an item with power over circumstances, which incites desire in both Guy’s and the police department’s wish to acquire it within the right context (Guy’s context of owning it once again to prevent Bruno from incriminating him any further and the police’s context of finding it on ‘Magic Isle’ as a tool to incriminate Guy and call to a close the case). Also crucial to the definition of a MacGuffin is the innocuousness of the item and relative unimportance of its particular characteristics. The lighter could have been another existing object that linked the crime scene to Guy like a piece of identification in a wallet, or a piece of clothing belonging to Guy, for example.

In the novel, the parallel between Guy and Bruno as doubles, and of Bruno as Guy’s dark eternal opposite, is even stronger as Guy goes through on his end of the bargain. Hitchcock establishes them as doubles only through mutual guilt. Bruno has the guilt of killing Miriam, while Guy has a different guilt through his association with Bruno after the fact, their many back-alley dealings that make them, at least seemingly, accomplices, and Guy’s real desire to kill his wife. All of these things produce a guilt in Guy not associated with Christian morality (as is so often common in Hitch’s narratives), but more strongly with the Freudian psychoanalytic concept of transference of guilt that Guy gains through collaborating in the secret of how the murder was accomplished.

This secret is what draws the ordinary person qua wrong man into the domain of ideological collaboration with the cultured villain/charming sociopath, which illustrates the point of Highsmith’s original novel: that within each person lies the ability to become monstrous, to come to terms with the abyss that is the primal Ground of Being by accepting it. That anyone can become horrible through understanding the Real of traumatic experience always on the threshold, the Real of total freedom ceded us in the postmodern age through the death of god. The total freedom that at once opens up new vistas of action it calls upon moral creatures to recognize and respect. The domains of action today’s cultural conservatives believe each person too stupid and corrupt to properly negotiate. Except for themselves that is.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: The Chase]

Othello

(Check out some other Orson Welles essays: The Lady From Shanghai and Journey Into Fear)

It’s 1948 and Orson Welles is coming off of the bad critical and box office reception for his first film adaptation of The Bard in Macbeth. That film’s staging was eerie, mysterious, dripping in a mise-en-scene. The black backdrops and extreme chiaroscuro, the symbolism of objects and minimalism of sets and characters make it into something of a tour de force of expressionism premeditating Waiting for Godot’s stagings by more than five years. The film has since developed a strong critical appreciation and its revolutionary aspects from the artistic to the use of a Scottish brogue dialect and period-specific clothing (unlike the Elizabethan clothing oddly worn in the play’s traditional stagings, which bear little resemblance to the clothing of the highlands) are now championed pretty widely.

At the time, however, Welles figured he had to go about the production of his next Shakespeare adaptation in a different manner. And so, he did a complete about face. Othello‘s titular character (played by Welles himself, in blackface) uses no vaguely North African dialect and instead opts for the traditional British. He hired two of the Bard’s greatest living interpreters in Dublin’s Gate Theatre co-founders Michael MacLiammoir as Iago, and his partner the producer Hilton Edwards as Brabantio. Besides Desdemona who was played by Suzanne Cloutier (the third actress who played the part on the film and whose performance is the only one Welles didn’t destroy, though he did later overdub her voice with a different actress for the American cut of the film), all of the other principal actors were Italians.

Welles shot the film on locations in Italy (Venice, Milan, Rome, Viterbo, and Torcello) with an Italian Crew for the first few years of the film’s shoot (it took a notoriously long three years to make, all the while Welles moving from place to place to find funds to continue shooting). Later, he shot much of the film on location and in studios in Morocco (at Safi, Mazagan, and Mogador) with a large French crew. This allowed him to shoot in the country, which had great incentives for filmmakers, while using a very professional crew who would be more familiar with his methods. Unlike Macbeth, he rarely shot in studios for Othello, which makes the film a much brighter one, often employing available light from the sun.

Though when Welles did use sets, they were created by the legendary production designer Alexandre Trauner whose work spanned eight decades from 1929 to 1990. Trauner is known for work on sets for many another classic film like Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or in 1930, Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise in 1945, Jules Dassin’s Rififi in 1955, and Luc Besson’s Cinema du Look classic Subway in 1985. Trauner’s work on Othello is so good in fact that it is often difficult to differentiate real locations for sets, and any time I have attempted to do so, and then to check my guesses, I do worse than chance.

Whereas Macbeth lives and breathes in long takes and slow build-up of tragedy, Othello is frenetic, beginning with more than an average of 15 cuts per minute in the first hour (incidentally for young filmmakers, this is probably the fastest anyone can and should cut a film if one wants cogent material, smart audiences to stay in the theatre, and good critical reviews). The speed of the material makes the movie flow in a way much more congenial to the average moviegoer who might have found Macbeth too slow, too thoughtful, too poetic, too sustained a vision, and whatever other qualities your average viewer can’t bring themselves to appreciate about good films.

Welles’ one major thematic cut to The Bard’s material is much of the lines that exploit Othello’s racial quandary: the Moor of Venice being married to a white woman (Desdemona). He cuts many of the lines from the scripting that would later make Laurence Olivier so weak in his role, that could make a white actor in blackface appear even more unsympathetic, that could race-bait. Unlike Olivier, Welles also plays the role as any other Elizabethan role, without adding in touches of modern black culture (something Olivier attempted to do with the way he delivered his lines and the way he moved as a physical actor, which made him a laughing stock at worst and reprehensible at best). This allows his interpretation of the Moor to become universal, even more so than Shakespeare probably envisioned in the first place.

The film is truly one of the great film adaptations of Shakespeare, as are the other two Welles’ adaptations including Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. As always, Welles adapted the screenplay, produced, directed, acted in, and edited the film. In fact, this is one of the only Orson Welles’ films we have today that was in way compromised by a studio during the editing. One of the only films by Welles that therefore reflects his vision of the project. And what’s more, he created three different versions of the film including the Italian cut for its Rome release; the original English cut for Great Britain (which included Cloutier’s voice); and his final American cut that removes three minutes from the previous versions, removing his spoken opening title sequence and adding in different shots for the same scenes but leaving the film intact as nearly the same (and removing Cloutier’s voice and re-dubbing it with that of another, more forceful British actress).

All of the work, the three years of constant moving about from location to location, the constant cutting of the film, reshaping, and restructuring, finally paid off in 1952 when premiered (as one of many premieres of the film) at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. Welles, though an American emigre, using funds he gained by acting in British films, who filmed Othello mostly in Italy, using Italian or French camera crews, and a cast from Italy and Great Britain, ran the film under competition for the Palme d’or as a Moroccan production. Even though the first real Moroccan film would not be made until six years later: Mohammed Ousfour’s Le fils maudit. 

The festival was familiar to Welles as Carol Reed had won the Palme d’Or there in 1949 for The Third Man in which Welles starred as the titular character (this was only the third awarding of the top prize for the festival which began in 1939, stopped throughout the war, began again in 1946, and then stalled for another three years until 1949). In 1952, at the fifth awarding of a top prize for the Cannes Film Festival (again, there was no prize in 1950), Welles won the Palme d’Or (then known as the Grand Prix). This was an odd circumstance for Morocco, who had never actually created a film by this point, but won the top prize at the festival because of a technicality. The band at the festival, which is set to play the National Anthem of the winner of the top prize, did not know the Moroccan Anthem and neither did anyone at the festival. So they played some general, anthemy-sounding song instead and awarded Welles, and Morocco, the top prize. Morocco has not won the Palme d’Or since.

 

Cody Ward

Perceval le Gallois

Perceval le Gallois is a 1978 film based on one of the old Arthurian Knights tales from the middle ages. The text was originally a book by Chretien de Troyes, Perceval the Story of the Grail, which recounted the wacky adventures of a young Welshman who sees Knights for the first time and mistakes them for angels. He is so inspired by the event that he decides to go on a quest for the Kingdom of King Arthur so he can become one himself. The man is radically dull and screws up his code of chivalry on his first go by forcefully kissing the first maiden he meets and stealing her signet ring. To become a Knight he needs these experiences first apparently, but has not counted on pissing off the Knight who is actually assigned to her already.

As the young would-be Knight bumbles his way through the Kingdom and manages to use his skills as a woodsman to successfully defeat countless trained Knights in combat, he gains a reputation as the strongest around and once he arrives at King Arthur’s palace, he fulfills a prophecy by making a downtrodden young maiden offer up her smile for the first time in six or seven years. The prophecy claims that Perceval is the greatest of all Knights. He goes out and kills the other toughest Knight in the Kingdom, the Red Knight, and dons his armor. The rest of the story involves Perceval going from principality to principality defeating other Knights, winning the hearts of young maidens, and eventually coming to know the error of his warring ways, finding God once more, and giving up the lance for good.

Eric Rohmer, one of the Cahiers du Cinema collective of critics whose films ushered in the French New Wave in the fifties, directed this film. He took a novel approach to the staging and presentation of what is usually played as a grand epic spanning multiple sets and locations with a  high special effects budget. Instead, in this production, the set is spare: a large backlot with painted backdrops and minimalist, often somewhat surreal props that often evoke more than mirror their objects in real life, and are captured to sometimes beautiful effect by cinematographer Nestor Almendros. The music and sound effects are delivered by a cast of stage-hands dressed as maidens and jesters, as the main actors narrate and perform events, deliver dramatic dialogue stripped directly from Chretien’s original text, and often condense scenes through theatrical abbreviation. The effect is often silly, sometimes inspired, but always interesting and entertaining. A good example of the melding together of cinema, literature, and theatre in one medium.

The only really straining metaphors of the film are in two added sequences. The first, a sequence from Gawain the Green Knight wherein Gawain is found to be a traitor against the King and must fight his way back into prominence and respect. This seems like digression from Perceval’s plot that adds little to a story where Rohmer could have just added more quests for Perceval instead. The story slumps and looses focus because of these sequences and would otherwise be more focused.

The second sequence is a recreation of the trial and execution of Christ played out in a small circular room, again with an emphasis on minimalism. The scene is not in the original book, though Christianity holds a strong ethical place in its denouement. Having Perceval’s actor play Christ, however, muddles the film even more. Why is Perceval a Christ-like figure? What is this sequence all about? Do films have to be philosophically and narratively coherent or are we okay with them as sprawling recounts of multiple unconnected stories? Are they weaker for it when they are? The answers feel like no reason, nothing, the former, and yes. But who knows for sure? All I know is the addendum of this piece of Chretien storytelling adds little to the story except maybe in the minds of cretins. I may just be biased, but these added elements make an otherwise fun story, full of humor and action, into a pedantic work, and possibly worse, an academic didactic one.

 

Cody Ward

Miss Marple: Nemesis

(Check out my previous Refn essay on his 2008 film Bronson HERE)

In the early 2000s, British broadcasting company ITV was producing a series of feature-length made-for-TV films based loosely upon the Miss Marple novel series by acclaimed mystery writer Agatha Christie. Somehow, Nicolas Winding Refn signed onto the production of one of these films in 2007 for the third series of films, which began release in that year. His work on the third series’ final episode would not be seen for two years as the release schedule for the works was truncated into one every six months or so, and as such, Nemesis gained a release date of January 1st 2009. This makes the TV film fit his filmography later than Bronson although it was created prior to that film.

The production seems to have been a gambit and an opportunity for Refn. Although his last two Pusher films from 2004 and 2005 made enough money to potentially pay back Refn’s debts in full, he hid away some of the money he made in the hopes of self-financing a future film. Knowing Refn, this project most likely fell through and he needed to find a way to generate income and to continue paying back his debts. Miss Marple was this opportunity, but it served a second function for Refn as well. It gave him the connections in the U.K. that he needed to later pull together production financing for Bronson and permission to work in the country with British locations and British actors.

The film was based on one of Christie’s twelve Miss Marple or Marple-related novels, but diverts from the story in many ways. The plot and order of events as well as the murder itself and the manner of its execution differ from the source novel. The identities of characters and motives for actions are significantly different too. This Miss Marple series seems to be generally disliked by Marple purists, but the films work as films for those uninitiated into the world of Miss Marple. This film is no exception to that rule and I found it to be a strong, well-scripted, enthralling, though minor, mystery work. And with a post-WWII Britain with ex-Nazi airmen, scheming nuns, MI5, detectives, look-alikes, and man without a memory of his past all orchestrated and brought together from beyond the grave by one Jason Rafiel to find out who committed a murder some years ago, who could go away from the film anything but pleased?

This Miss Marple was played by the talented Geraldine McEwan. She was Miss Marple for the first three series of this production and retired after this episode. In 2008, she provided the voice for Miss Thripp in the Wallace and Gromit short ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death.’ In 2011, she would provide the voice of Haru in the English dub of Studio Ghibli’s Arriety. But Nemesis was her final role as a physical presence in any TV or Film medium and the series proved a strong ending to a career spanning more than half a century. To my mind, she is the face of Miss Marple until a new production with a different legendary actress comes along to displace her, but for a time she will remain that face in the cultural consciousness.

Though definitely a minor work within Refn’s oeuvre and an odd one, it shows Refn’s ability to shoot on a small budget and on time. The cinematography is by no means stylistic or atmospheric like previous films with Larry Smith (the cinematographer on Fear X and Bronson, who reprised his role on this film), nor gritty and reminiscent of the Dogme 95 movement like the work of Morten Soborg, but it shows a mastery of conventional film technique in the style of chamber drama, as well as a willingness on Refn’s part to adapt to different modes of work. By creating this TV film, Refn showed that he could deliver a commercial product and thereby cemented his career as a filmmaker for good. After all, if his personal vision films ever falter and he is again crushed by immense debts, he can always point to this gem as evidence of his ability and willingness to work for TV or even as a pick-up director on films and stories not of his own making.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Valhalla Rising]

Blade Runner 2048: Nowhere to Run

(If you missed my previous Blade Runner short film essays I’ve linked them here: 2022 and 2036)

To prepare audiences more fully for Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve asked anime-ka Shinichiro Watanabe and Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott to create a number of short films. The films serve as important, though not essential, pre-viewing for 2049 by disclosing some important events that occurred between the events of the first Blade Runner film in 2019 and the new installment in 2049.

2048: Nowhere to Run is the third installment of this short film series and explores the life of a renegade Nexus 8, Sapper Morton, who escaped from Kalantha alongside a group of replicants including Iggy (who makes an appearance in 2022) back in 2021. The short film begins with Sapper (Dave Bautista) experiencing a PTSD episode about his horrendous time back on Kalantha. He slowly come to, washes his face, and exits the public restroom, entering the back streets of Los Angeles in 2048. A group of young toughs eye him and try to provoke him into a fight, but he keeps his calm and patiently waits for them to move out of his way.

As he enters a sort of public marketplace square, he sees a young girl, Aila, and her mother. He hands the girl a book (a practice he has made a habit of every time he enters the town to peddle his wares in the market). This time the novel is Graham Greene’s magnum opus: The Power and The Glory. He explains that the text is “about an outlaw priest who’s trying to understand the meaning of being human.” She hopes the book isn’t sad, but he assures her it is a great book, and one of favorites. Partly because it mirrors his own life on the run from the LAPD and from human supremacy advocates who would both hunt him down and attempt to retire him if they found out about his continued existence and his identity.

Later, Sapper Morton enters the tent of the Sultan who gives Sapper a low-ball price for his artificial nematodes. He takes the money because it’s the best he can hope to get anywhere around there. For ten seconds, from 3:09 till 3:19, Adam Savage of Mythbusters and Tested  makes a cameo in the tent as a man selling his own wares to the Sultan. As Sapper exits the tent, he sees the young men from earlier attacking Aila and her mother and attempting to abduct them for human trafficking purposes. His instincts as a Nexus 8 powerhouse replicant, and his love for the two as a surrogate for family, spurs him on to kill the men one by one. But as he finishes his job and retreats, he drops some of his paperwork for the sale of his nematodes and a local scumbag picks them up, phones the LAPD, and puts them on his trail.

A year later, at the beginning of Blade Runner 2049, the LAPD will finally track him down and send Officer K (Ryan Gosling) to dispatch him.

In The Power and The Glory, Mexico’s new leadership openly discriminates against religion of all forms, but especially against the Catholic Church. All priests have either been killed, forced to renounce their faiths and marry, or go on the run. The main character of the novel is a priest who did the latter and has escaped the police and military for years. He and Sapper are hunted by the State for illicit and discriminatory reasons. Mexico thinks of the priest as a merely a polluter of the mind of Mexico’s people, while the LAPD and the rest of human society think of Sapper as a mere soulless reproduction of human beings (something his moral actions in saving the girl and we will find later, in hiding Deckard and Rachel’s child, will disprove: he does have a moral conscious, an identity, person-hood, and if it exists, a soul).

The priest is no saint. He is known as a whiskey priest who imbibes and stays drunk constantly. He has fathered a child whilst a Catholic father who is supposed to be chaste and a father to all people. He is a sinner and often a coward who searches his country for souls to save, baptisms to perform, and sermons to give to his people in his dark times. But in all his time, his many years wandering through the mountains and swamps and deserts, he has saved nary a soul and caused more trouble than he has avoided. Sapper only managed to leave Kalantha in the first place by causing much suffering and killing many other people in the process. He survives by keeping his head down, but occasionally has to defend himself or others with his Tyrell-endowed powers and strength. They are both sinners who have done less good than ill in their time, but they both continue moving on in the hopes that one day their pain and suffering may yield fruit.

For the whiskey priest, he finds salvation into the hands of the father in his last moments and dies a respectable death. He is memorialized as a saint and martyr of the Church even though he has done nothing consequential for the Church in all his days. His way of finding meaning in his life was to serve as a source of strength and meaning in the form of a martyr and saint for those persecuted Christians struggling in a time of intense persecution. Sapper Morton finds no spiritual meaning in his activities, but his actions in the years directly after his arrival on Earth and the help he was able to give to Deckard and Rachel and to their child, who may very well be the savior of the replicants in the future, is enough to give his life meaning in the face of the all the obstacles he’s had to contend with. And the ultimately purposeless nature of his existence.

Both figures are tragic because they both embrace a sort of futility academically, but actively seek to defy it and eke out their own spaces for leading meaningful lives. This is the task of a Sisyphus rolling the stone eternally up the hill only to have it come tumbling right back down. It is the task we all face at one time or another. The point is to find meaning in the struggle. And to keep pushing.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Theories on Replicants!]

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