Sunday, 21 December 2014

Battle of the Five Hours

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is apparently the shortest of Peter Jackson's Hobbit series, but had you told me it was twice as long as any of the Lord of the Rings films I might well have believed you. The Battle of the Five Armies is, above all, an earnest plea for the importance of structure. It's a film that - after a prologue that feels tacked on from the preceding film - is just an enormous slog, without notable turns, shifts, pauses or high points.  It's noisy and epic in its ambitions, while at the same time being utterly inert and tedious.

I should say first, perhaps, that I haven't seen either of the two preceding films. (The release of An Unexpected Journey inspired me to re-read the book, at least.) But if watching the first two installments is necessary to enjoy Battle of the Five Armies, that hardly improves things: Each film in a trilogy, you'd hope, should have a satisfying arc of its own and be enjoyable watched in isolation, especially since they're being released a year apart. This is something, incidentally, that Jackson's own Lord of the Rings trilogy achieves in adapting a single novel that was split into three volumes at the insistence of Tolkien's publisher, even if the writers have to strain mightily to make it happen (especially in The Two Towers, where as a consequence the seams are most obvious). For The Hobbit, Jackson didn't even try.

The plot, what there is of it: The company of dwarves having finally reached the Lonely Mountain, their 'burglar', hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), steals the Arkenstone from Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch). Angered, Smaug flies off to Lake-town and burns it to the ground, but is slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) in the process. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), suddenly freed from the headache of how to get rid of Smaug, refounds the dwarven kingdom of Erebor and, increasingly overcome by the allure of gold, has his followers fortify the entrance before others stake a claim. As indeed they do: Bard arrives with the people of Lake-town to demand the share of the treasure Thorin promised, to help rebuild the town; he is soon joined by the army of King Thranduil of the wood-elves (Lee Pace), who is incensed at Thorin deceiving and escaping him. Thorin's pig-headed refusal to negotiate is backed up when his cousin Dáin Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) arrives with an army of dwarves. Before the sides come to blows, however, a horde of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) shows up and much mayhem ensues.

There's also a subplot involving Gandalf and some characters you may remember from the Rings films fighting the necromancer in Dol Guldur, but that takes up all of five minutes.

The Battle of the Five Armies is pretty to look at, no doubt: the wintry surrounds of the Lonely Mountain are a triumph of landscape photography, set design and cinematography. Set in cold northern wastes the Rings films never touched on, The Battle of the Five Armies serves up new, interesting environs. And there are some genuine thrills there, too: Dáin's dwarven phalanx in action is a sight to see, even if the Warhammer-esque blockiness of the dwarf design, which I've never been a fan of, still spoils the view somewhat.

On the downside there are the terrible CGI-enhanced baddies. The Rings films, for all the criticism rightly levelled at them, were heaven for fans of practical effects. The design of the orcs, using masks, prosthetics and make-up, gave the creatures a gross physicality that lined up with the spittle, body odour and vile dietary habits that defined them as fictional versions of the working-class people of Tolkien's patrician nightmares. CGI allows the creation of wonders that old-school effects have never been able to achieve, but the trade-off is still often a lack of heft and weight.

There is no reality and thus no threat to these orcs, snarl as they might. Compare the magnificant fight between Aragorn and Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to Thorin's endless, mind-numbingly boring battle against Azog in this one, and despair. (A similar scene, in which Legolas leaps along a collapsing walkway like Super Mario, caused peals of laughter to ring around the auditorium.) With the Hobbit films (let's just boldly assume this problem affects the previous two films as well), Jackson has gone full-on Phantom Menace.

The film is hopelessly dragged down is its sheer length, forced by the mercenary decision to turn The Hobbit not into one, nor two, but three feature-length films. Reverse that decision, and this entire film could be wrapped up in the 45 minutes the material merits; the enormous structural problem would disappear; the fact that the nominal protagonist has nothing to do would be much less noticeable. Lengthy, pointless scenes involving cowardly Alfrid (Ryan Gage), in which jokes about such humorous subjects as men wearing women's clothes are expected to provide comic relief, could be cut, as could a bizarre psychedelic sequence involving Thorin among Smaug's gold that shows us  Jackson using the freedom granted by a near-total absence of plot to baffling effect.

But the film's length isn't its only problem: indeed some fairly important aspects of the book are passed over in downright indecent haste (the arrival of Beorn and the eagles), while threads are left dangling in other places (we're left to assume, for example, that Dáin and the elves defeated the orc army after its leaders are killed elsewhere, but the film doesn't see the need to spell out the outcome of the  titular battle). There's the film's uninspiring visual language too: where Rings had stunning images, even if they were often an homage to greater works, The Battle of the Five Armies offers little to look at, as if Jackson was overcompensating for his tendency to gawk at his sets.

Anyway, I'm glad this new trilogy is over, and sort of pleased Jackson doesn't have the rights to any more of Tolkien's works.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Retracing the wounds of the martyrs

For an Italian horror film released in 1976, Pupi Avati's The House with Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono) is a little weird. Old-fashioned, in a sense: in the second half of the seventies, the giallo was in decline, wandering into the dustbin of obsolescence just like the Gothic horror genre it had replaced. The trend towards outré gory exploitation was already clear, even if most of the zombie and cannibal films that would exemplify this tendency hadn't been released yet.

In comes The House with Laughing Windows, and it's at once a throwback to chaster times - no series of elaborate murders here - and a weirdly experimental thing: a post-giallo, perhaps, both chronologically and thematically. It's a coincidence - Avati could hardly know that the time he finally moved from his earlier Gothic horror-comedies to the giallo would be an age of transition - but it's an interesting one. It's an exercise in deconstruction: Avati explores the spaces between the traditional beats of the giallo and discovers new loci of terror.

The film is set in a small marshland town in Emilia-Romagna. Struggling artist Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) has been commissioned by the diminutive mayor, Solmi (Bob Tonnelli), to restore a fresco of St Sebastian by an infamously morbid, long-dead artist that's recently been discovered at the parish church. Stefano also rents a room at the villa of a bed-ridden old woman, Laura (Pina Borione), begins a relationship with a young teacher, Francesca (Francesca Marciano), and is increasingly freaked out by the painting and the town's many strange residents.

That's really it. There's a death early in the film, but where in most gialli that would trigger Stefano's investigation  (with the requisite crucial bit of detail buried in his memory), it mostly sets off an hour of thickening atmosphere here. It's a broody mood piece, largely free of outrageous murders and, to the shock of every giallo aficionado, entirely bereft of trenchcoat-wearing black-gloved killers. Instead of progressive plot movement, we get foreboding galore and a sudden rush towards a final twist that doesn't win any sense-making competitions.

Not that The House with Laughing Windows is tastefully free of violence. The film opens with the dead artist Legnani's insane, bloodthirsty ramblings playing over footage of a murder, and the ending is in a similar vein. For all that the giallo is violent, it tends not to reduce the human body to meat to the extent that The House with Laughing Windows does in crucial sequences; despite being extraordinarily invested in Italian particularity in every other respect, here the film feels like the horror films coming out of the United States at the same time, or indeed the cannibal film that was about to consume the Italian horror industry. What I'm saying, I guess, is that Avati's uncredited work on the screenplay of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) doesn't seem entirely out of character.

The film boasts a strong cast, beginning with a compelling central performance by Capolicchio. A classic giallo protagonist in the sense of being an outsider having to navigate an alien place and community, Capolicchio nevertheless remains opaque himself instead of being an easy audience stand-in. And this is the right choice: by only allowing us a loose and tentative anchor, Avati increases the sense of unease. Marciano is similarly great; but if I had to nominate a best-in-show it would be Borione's wonderful, unsettling weirdness.

The connection between sexual transgression and murderous violence is well-established in the giallo, even if it never became codified into the rigid sex-equals-death moralism of the slasher film. Avati takes those lingering shots of lacerated flesh and pushes them further, into a film that connects, spoiler, wickedness to gender-bending. Its sexual politics is now more obviously problematic, but hasn't lost all the potency it held in the seventies. And that goes for The House with Laughing Windows as a whole: in deviating from the conventional structure of the giallo, it's perhaps the most chilling film in the genre this side of Bava or Argento.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Why'd it have to be snakes?

Some things I enjoy now were acquired tastes. Horror, for example, I mostly disliked throughout my formative years. But I've loved globe-trotting adventures since I was little. I grew up reading Verne, Stevenson, May and Haggard, even though I didn't realise the horrid colonial subtext at the time. So when I first watched the Indiana Jones films - late: around the time the retroactively reviled Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out - I enjoyed them tremendously.

So I was pretty delighted when the local semi-arthouse cinema did a one-off screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The first of the Lucas-Spielberg films involving Harrison Ford's adventurer archaeologist had been the one I enjoyed least (except for that belated fourth film, which nobody seems to count): I knew it was good, but the earlier incarnation of the franchise couldn't quite match the finely honed machine of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). So I watched it again, had an enormous amount of fun and left with a furrowed brow over all the problematic stuff in it.

Set in 1936, the film opens as Dr Henry 'Indiana' Jones (Harrison Ford) is exploring an ancient site somewhere in South America. Improvising his way around wicked traps, Indy manages to snag a golden idol despite the treachery of a local hired hand (Alfred Molina). He promptly finds himself relieved of his prize by his rival, the ruthless French archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), barely escaping with his life. Back in the States, Indy is given a new mission by the secret service. It seems that the Nazis are digging in Egypt, having tasked Belloq with finding the Ark of the Covenant. To reveal its exact location, though, they need the Staff of Ra, which is in the possession of Indy's old patron Abner Ravenwood, last known location...

... Nepal, where after Abner's death his daughter Marion (Karen Allen) keeps the headpiece of the staff. The problem: Marion is none too keen on Indy after he broke her heart ten years previously. Fighting for their lives against goons led by giggling Nazi sadist Major Toht (Ronald Lacey), though, does something to repair the lost trust, and the pair make it to Egypt with the staff. There, they link up with local digger Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) to infiltrate the Nazi excavation, and hopefully locate the Ark before the Führer's men do.

What struck me as a tiresome flaw during a recent viewing of Star Trek Into Darkness is a virtue here: Raiders of the Lost Ark is gloriously propulsive, barely letting up from start to finish. Even exposition tends to be loaded with background action: take the dinner at Sallah's, where Spielberg and Lucas throw poisoned dates into an already fun dialogue scene. After the US-bound table-setting the film does not slow down until the dénouement, although Lawrence Kasdan - he of The Empire Strikes Back - is a smart enough writer that by the time the relentless action scenes finally get a little wearying, he switches to a lower gear so that the film's climax is heavy on tension but light on fisticuffs.

The film's idea of appropriate race relations.

The cast is uniformly great. Harrison's perpetually exasperated adventurer archaeologist is of course iconic, played here perhaps with a little more meanness than in subsequent offerings; Denholm Elliott's Marcus Brody is such a delight that it's no surprise Last Crusade expanded his role. I must admit I have a massive fictional-character crush on Allen's Marion, and I hope my judgment is not too terribly clouded by that, but: what a fantastic character! When introduced, at least: Marion drinking a local under the table, then holding her own in a battle against Toht's henchmen is pretty awesome. Unfortunately, Kasdan's screenplay proceeds to defang her. Being put into dresses, in fact, becomes a plot point, and she's an increasingly distressed damsel relying on Indy for rescue and basic common sense.

That's the real problem with Raiders of the Lost Ark: based on 1930s adventure serials, the film somehow sees fit to just bring in all the racism and misogyny of that period instead of challenging it. Marion's demotion is the least of it, alas. The film's racism is ugly and pervasive. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom takes a lot of flak for racism, and deservedly so; but its predecessor is no better by any real yardstick. Its non-white people, to be sure, are not crazed murdering cultists: they are mostly childlike innocents requiring the kind guidance of the white man. A narrative in which white people are masters and Egyptians mere labourers is never seriously challenged (see the image above). Worse, the ambiguous South Americans are treacherous, lazy and cowardly and, in the case of the indigenous warriors Belloq has allied himself with, primitive and superstitious. It's totally unnecessary and leaves a terrible aftertaste.

Despite that, too, being mostly associated with its immediate successor, Raiders is pretty brutal, featuring multiple unpleasant deaths, mostly bloodless though they may be (and in one infamous scene involving a Nazi bare-knuckle boxer and an aeroplane propeller, it's decidedly not bloodless). There's violence against animals as well, including a whole mess of snakes being doused with petrol and set on fire, and an unfortunate monkey. It's better than an Italian cannibal film inasmuch as it's not real, I suppose, but far from pleasant or called for. Like Tintin in the Congo, Raiders presents the killing of animals is harmless entertainment, and the thought that it might be something else never crosses the film's mind.

If that doesn't sour your appreciation, though, Raiders of the Lost Ark is overflowing with joys. Norman Reynolds's production design is just wonderful: the Ark marries an ancient feel with art-déco chic in just the right way, while the South American temple is a laundry list of wonderfully executed tropes. (Who doesn't love ancient traps?) More than anything, it shows what the people involved were best at: Spielberg, at being the greatest blockbuster director of his generation; Kasdan, at marrying drama and action-comedy; and Lucas, at taking a step back and using his genius for production without directing himself, a lesson he sadly did not heed in later years (see also: Jackson, Peter).

It's such a delightful film that its less savoury aspects are a whole lot easier to overlook than they might be. With the double-whammy of Empire and Raiders, Kasdan clearly had a winning streak in the first half of the eighties (even Return of the Jedi, weighed down by merchandise-friendly teddy bears and material rehashed from Star Wars, is ultimately well-written, devastatingly so in some scenes). Raiders of the Lost Ark is tremendously good fun: populist but not stupid, hilarious without being tasteless, and action-packed without directing that violence at the audience in the manner of twenty-first-century action films.

Friday, 28 June 2013

All the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood

There's probably no better testament to the iconic status of Thunder Road (1958) than the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. Not because 'Thunder Road' and Thunder Road have anything to do with each other: one's a proto-carsploitation thriller about moonshiners, the other a lament of lost youth tied to 'one last chance to make it real'. What matters is that Springsteen saw the poster to Thunder Road when the film was making the rounds on the drive-in and grindhouse scene, and was so inspired that he wrote a signature song without even watching the whole thing.

The other bit of trivia I'll pretend to know about before watching Thunder Road: Robert Mitchum wanted Elvis Presley to play the role of his character's younger brother. 'Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch,' Ian Johnston drily notes of their meeting. Nothing came of it, since Elvis's notorious manager demanded a sum of money that would have exceeded the film's entire budget. And thus did the world come to enjoy the spectacle of Mitchum's son pretending to be his brother.

World War II veteran Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) has returned to the East Tennessee holler where he grew up. There, he is the best driver in the dangerous business of evading the FBI while running moonshine from the mountains to Memphis. A gangster from the city, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), attempts to muscle in and bring the moonshiners, including Luke's father (Trevor Bardette), under his thumb. After he refuses to be swayed by Kogan's offers, Luke is in increasing danger, while also trying to keep his mechanic younger brother Robin (James Mitchum) from joining in his life of crime.

Mitchum's assured movie star performance helps sell all this, and the film works hard to make him the epitome of cool. It works, in a very fifties way: Mitchum strikes matches on the soles of his boots, wears leather jackets, and humiliates his enemies by repeatedly crushing their hats. There are not one but two women madly in love with him, femme fatale singer Francie Wymore (Keely Smith) and wholesome girl next door Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight). But since dialogue bluntly establishes Roxanna is all of eighteen years old, her unrequited longing also points to a central problem: Mitchum was plainly about a decade too old for the role, and casting his son as Luke's fool brother makes it worse.

On the plus side, though, Thunder Road is jolly entertaining. The story of working-class underdogs facing down a wealthy bully is hardly original, although the fact that all parties involved are criminals gives it an edge. The younger Mitchum's performance is no great shakes, and that causes undeniable problems in the film's last act; but his father's swagger holds it all together. What really makes the film click, though, is the action. Largely eschewing the rear projection that still dominated driving scenes in the fifties, Thunder Road has some outstanding car chase scenes that prefigure the carsploitation mania of the seventies, complete with terrific stunt driving and excellent fluid camera work from director Arthur Ripley.

It's a perfectly good low-key crime thriller, and it's no wonder it became a staple of grindhouses in later decades. Its outsized legacy elevates Thunder Road to a status it doesn't necessarily earn. Without this film, it's hard to imagine about half the oeuvre of the Drive-By Truckers, or the current deluge of country-rock bands with 'whiskey' or 'still' in their name. Mitchum's obsession with the project may not have paid off financially or critically, at least not in the short run. But it proved, in case that needed proving, the enduring appeal of cool.
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

And there was no longer any sea

Watching Fast & Furious 6 with friends a couple of nights ago inspired me to write up an earlier Paul Walker film that offers similarly base pleasures. Really, all Into the Blue (2005) ever seeks to accomplish is in that damnable poster: people in skimpy swimwear, with maybe a plot in there somewhere if you're the kind of snob who likes that sort of thing. By that extremely modest standard I suppose Into the Blue succeeds, inasmuch as it stars Jessica Alba and Paul Walker, both of whom are attractive and don't wear a lot of clothes. Congratulations.

But Into the Blue was hardly conceived as an experimental documentary on people displaying skin within the constraints of the PG-13 rating, a Koyaanisqatsi of late capitalist standards of beauty. That's where not-very-prolific screenwriter Matt Johnson came in, churning out a script in a couple of hours while doing something else (or so I assume). Considering Into the Blue was a sizeable flop (it made $18.8 million domestically on a budget of $50 million), that didn't really pay off.

This blog has something of a tradition of outlining a film's plot, and I'll stick with that even when the story is a wispy, ethereal thing. Anyway: we're in the Bahamas, where Jared (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend Sam (Jessica Alba) go scuba-diving with Jared's visiting friend Bryce (Scott Caan), a lawyer with a heart of gold buried beneath many, many levels of jerkishness, and Bryce's girlfriend Amanda (Ashley Scott). As luck would have it, during the very same trip they discover both the Zephyr, a treasure-laden ship that's been at the bottom of the sea since 1861, and a plane chock full of cocaine.

That causes something of a dilemma: if our heroes report the massive amount of drugs, the DEA (who apparently have jurisdiction in the Bahamas, if Into the Blue's grasp of police work is any better than its understanding of history) will discover the wreck too, thus depriving Walker & Co. of their stab at treasure. Lacking the funds to mount a proper operation, however, they have to make do with bringing the wreck up piece by piece - despite Bryce's idea of making money by selling some of the cocaine. Meanwhile, they're starting to arouse the suspicions of Reyes (James Frain), the drug lord who owns the plane, as well as Bates (Josh Brolin), an unscrupulous treasure hunter.

Built on the astonishing contrivance of a shipwreck and an aeroplane full of drugs being found in the exact same spot, Into the Blue mostly refuses to embrace the utter ridiculousness of its concept and sort of just shuffles along, occasionally throwing a half-hearted twist at the wall in the hope that something will stick, and then ends. The script is curiously uninterested in itself, alternately being obvious and not explaining what's going on. (One character's loyalties change without any explanation whatsoever, unless I fell asleep at an inopportune moment.) The intellectual laziness of conflating centuries of Caribbean history, of course, is something of a given in this genre.

Both leads are, I suppose, better known for their looks than their acting ability, but even so Alba is distinctly better than the totally blank Walker, and more than once her despair is palpable. 'I believe in you more than in the prospect of any treasure,' the script makes her say; she tries mightily to sell that line and does not go gentle into that good night. Opposite her Walker frowns slightly, trying to remember what human emotions are and which of them he's supposed to be mimicking. So much for the leads, but there is real joy to be found in the supporting cast. Caan's smarmy frenemy is pretty good, but the standout is Brolin, then stuck in his wilderness years and committing fully to a gloriously unhinged performance that threatens to elevate Into the Blue to the level of genuine entertainment more than once.

What's worst is that the film looks terrible: its underwater world is an entirely flat sandy seabed, and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and director John Stockwell conspire to shoot it like a modest documentary. For all its $50 million budget, the diving scenes look about as good as if they'd just dunked the actors' heads into a paddling pool. (Perhaps all the cocaine is genuine - it would explain where the money went.) In terms of the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship that's the real glory of many a B-movie, Into the Blue is a massive disappointment. Even Jessica Alba at the peak of her pin-up days can't restore any joy to a film that looks and feels like a direct-to-video sequel that somehow found its way into cinemas.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

My castle is in the hills above the village

After Dracula made boatloads of cash in 1958, a sequel was a foregone conclusion. Initially, it was to be strictly formula. Both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were approached to reprise their roles, but Lee declined, and the screenwriting team (Jimmy Sangster of Dracula, helped out by Peter Bryan, Edward Percy and producer Anthony Hinds) had to cobble together a new script. The result, released in 1960, is a thoroughly good Gothic horror film, but boy, do the seams ever show.

Some of that, of course, is just a marketing ploy: naming a film The Brides of Dracula (with the poster advertising 'the most evil, blood-lusting Dracula of all!', no less) when the prologue immediately explains that Dracula is (still) dead is at least a tiny bit cynical. Sexing up the property by using a premise designed to have lithe young women wander around in nightgowns is as shameless, but it's not like vampire fiction was ever particularly wholesome.

A young schoolteacher, Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), is on her way to a new job at a girls' boarding school in Transylvania when, through shenanigans inexplicable and foreboding, her coach driver abandons her. She accepts the offer of a seemingly lonely aristocrat, Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), to spend the night at her château. (Note to self: refuse any invitation that begins with, "My castle is in the hills above the village...")

At Château Meinster, Marianne discovers that the baroness is not quite alone: she keeps her son (David Peel) chained up in one part of the castle, ostensibly because he is mad. During the night, though, Marianne frees the baron after he tells her his mother has locked him away to keep his land and titles for herself. To nobody's surprise, this is a terrible idea. Although Marianne does not understand it yet, the younger Meinster is in fact a vampire, kept confined for years and fed a steady diet of young women by his mother, who could bear neither to let him loose nor to dispatch him. Now that he is loose, he quickly takes off with the aid of his nanny, Greta (Freda Jackson).

The following day, Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) finds a traumatised but otherwise unhurt Marianne in the woods. He asks her detailed questions about her experience, but fails to tell her what's going on. After dropping Marianne off at the girls' school, Van Helsing investigates the Château Meinster. There he encounters the baroness, who has been turned into a vampire by her son against her will. Van Helsing stakes her in her sleep, but finds the young baron's coffin missing. That the threat isn't over becomes obvious when a young girl in the village nearby dies from a neck bite. And soon, Marianne is engaged to be married...

The plot of The Brides of Dracula starts strong, but descends into a frustrating muddle by the second act before hurtling towards an outright nonsensical conclusion. If Van Helsing had told anybody except the village priest (Fred Johnson) about the vampiric goings-on lives might have been saved, but I'd forgive that contrivance if  The Brides of Dracula didn't also feel like two separate stories stitched together: one about a lonely mother who keeps her vampire son locked up, the second about a hypnotic vampire who draws young women into his coven. Most frustrating are the half-developed characters. Freda Jackson (from Nottingham! fist bump) turns in an outstanding performance as Greta, whose sour-faced demeanour hides a fanatical devotion to Baron Meinster. She's rewarded with a terrific soliloquy early on; thereafter, the script decides she'll be a cackling goon, and she is eventually killed off in a decidedly underwhelming fashion.

Jackson is splendid, but she's far from a lone standout. Hunt's Baroness Meinster is as impressive, all austere aristocratic dignity covering desperate love for and fear of her monstrous son. Cushing turns in another excellent performance, settling into the role and beginning to hone his characterisation of Abraham Van Helsing, battling the forces of evil with science! Yvonne Monlaur, drop-dead gorgeous in a very sixties way and working an adorable French accent, hits all the right notes; it may not be a performance for the ages, but it's enough to regret Monlaur retired from acting only a few years later. The problem, really, is the villain: Peel is good as a brash young baron but never develops a take on monstrous bloodsucking, and he absolutely lacks the astonishing physical presence of Christopher Lee. Where Dracula was a terrifying battle against evil, its sequel just has me rooting for Cushing to beat up a blue-blooded punk.

The lack of a compelling villain means The Brides of Dracula is ultimately a notch below its predecessor, but in other ways it surpasses that film. Take the production design. Where Bernard Robinson's work in Dracula was a little musty he goes gloriously over the top here, sticking dragons and gargoyles all over the already impressive Neo-Gothic architecture of Oakley Court; and since in Gothic horror 'crazier' almost always means 'better', this is a very good choice indeed. There's more action too, awkward in places though it is; and we get the most rocking Peter Cushing moment yet, in which he neutralises the effect of a vampire bite by cauterising his own neck wound.

Despite being a bigger, sexier and more action-packed sequel The Brides of Dracula also makes some significant adjustments to the series mythology: shapeshifting, explicitly ruled out in the 1958 film, enters the series here, with a not-terrible giant bat effect. Vampires now need human servants to watch over them during the day (they learnt from what befell Dracula's original bride, I presume). Elsewhere, what was hinted at in Dracula is more fully developed, first and foremost the notion of vampirism as 'the cult of the undead', 'a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions and their struggle against Christianity'.

Certainly, Baron Meinster's coven has the character of an extremely patriarchal religious community, and in portraying it as supernaturally wicked The Brides of Dracula inadvertently ends up critiquing patriarchy even while exploiting it to pander to the audience. It's a good film, is what I'm saying in a roundabout way: it doesn't blow the roof off the horror film, but it's a very fine example of the developing Hammer template.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Horror... from beyond the grave!

Faced with the mythic stature of Hammer Film Productions in British pop culture, it's amusing to consider how little the company's rise had to do with stodgy English reserve. Hammer's first real horror film, 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment, was so named to cash in on the X certificate, and that was a sign of things to come: for the next two decades Hammer churned out lurid low-budget films that aimed to titillate as well as terrify. The closest analogue is the Italian film industry of the same period, which has a similar track record of sleazy horror films made quickly using the same actors again and again, to tremendous profits.

But where the Italian horror industry - at least in retrospect - was centred on directors, Hammer Horror is most firmly associated with its stars: and no stars more famous than Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, first working together in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein (as Victor Frankenstein and the creature, respectively) and teamed up again in the following year's Dracula, because that's how Hammer did things.

That intro may not sound like Dracula is a great work of art, but it is: as a B-movie and as a film qua films it runs laps around the tedious and overpraised Lugosi film, which it absolutely refuses to be shackled by. As such, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay adapts Bram Stoker even more freely than the reworked-for-the-stage approach behind the 1931 film, into something that shares some names with Stoker's novel but little in the way of locale or plot.

Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at the castle of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) in Transylvania. Ostensibly tasked with reorganising the count's library, Harker is on a secret mission to destroy the vampires. He succeeds in staking Dracula's bride (Valerie Gaunt) but is overpowered and turned by the count. Anxious about the fate of his confederate, Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) just walks into Castle Dracula during the daytime (in this film, everybody hangs out at Castle Dracula like it's a popular stop for a picnic during a Sunday afternoon stroll) and dispatches the newly vampiric Harker, but finds Dracula himself gone.

Meanwhile in Germany (or, you know, somewhere: see below), Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) worry about the worsening health of Arthur's sister Lucy (Carol Marsh). The well-meaning but inept Doctor Seward (Charles Lloyd Pack) is unable to determine the cause of her ailment. Van Helsing arrives to tell the family of the death of Lucy's fiancé Jonathan Harker, but stays to look after Lucy. When his cryptic instructions are ignored, Lucy dies and is buried, but it isn't long before the revenant begins preying on her niece Tania (Janina Faye).

Having been told what's going on, Arthur joins Van Helsing in hunting Lucy down, but rejects the professor's suggestion of using his sister to find Dracula. (Arthur's conflict - let his sister's wretched undeath go on and endanger others in the hope of catching Dracula, or put her to rest at once? - is played to the hilt; it's a terrific plot element invented wholecloth by Sangster.) Instead, Lucy is staked. But it isn't long before the count has selected his next victim - Mina - and Arthur and Van Helsing are engaged in a desperate race against time to track down the count and take him out once and for all.

That's quite a lot of changes: some characters disappear (poor Quincey Morris, forever cut out until Francis Ford Coppola had a heart in Bram Stoker's Dracula). Others are changed radically and relationships restructured (Seward as a GP, Harker as a vampire hunter, Arthur Holmwood as Mina's husband rather than Lucy's fiancé). The geography of the film is likewise different; none of it takes place in England, but where it is set is not quite clear. Given all the border business the Holmwoods presumably live somewhere in southern Germany; but it's best to assume that the whole story takes place somewhere in the composite Europe of the British imagination, a land full of medieval castles and superstitious peasants. Certainly, considering all the locals speak in clipped British stage accents despite being (a) peasants and (b) German, it's not easy to pin down.

Cushing, too, doesn't bother pretending to be Dutch. But it's a great performance: driven and professional, he is far more scientist than crazed medicine man. And if his talk of biology (it's an exposition-heavy film, with Cushing's scenes doing the heavy lifting of explaining the series mythology) weren't enough, there's hardly a clearer indication of Van Helsing as the champion of scientific modernism than the fact that the film assigns him Dr Seward's phonograph. Carol Marsh's Lucy is another very good performance, but Lee of course is the standout, despite the fact that he doesn't even appear very much. But director Terence Fisher makes his scenes count. From an iconic gallery entrance quoted by George Lucas in Revenge of the Sith to a latex-heavy disintegration scene, he's an all-round terrific villain: a real monster only incidentally inhabiting a human body, instead of Lugosi's aristocratic twit.

Dracula isn't perfect. The relatively grounded production design can't keep up with the terrific matte paintings and surreal castle interior of the 1931 film: all things considered, the film looks a little bit too much like a 1950s postcard of rustic holidays on the continent. If those holidays occasionally ended in a bloodbath, that is: Dracula thoroughly earns its notoriety with fairly gut-churning violence. Ultimately, what Fisher does with the limited resources at his disposal is impressive. Fifties horror films, let's be honest, tend not to be all that scary to us enlightened moderns. But the combination of Lee's animal menace, Fisher's fantastic horror direction and James Bernard's awe-inspiring score turns Dracula into a genuinely terrifying experience.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

To serve and give his life as a ransom for many

By 1964 the historical epic was on its way out. In the United States Cleopatra, doomed by its stupendous cost and the scandal surrounding its leads, had hastened the demise of the genre. In Italy pepla could always be cheaply made, but audiences were beginning to desert sword-and-sandal adventures in favour of the new kids on the block, the giallo and the spaghetti western. With the ancient epic as a whole went the colossal Bible adaptations of the fifties and early sixties, like The Ten Commandments (1956) and King of Kings (1961).

Curiously, though, the dying years of the biblical epic were in fact well suited to serious public explorations of religion. The papacy of John XXIII, culminating in the Second Vatican Council, marked an opening of the Catholic Church towards the world, a qualified departure from its previous defensive stance vis-à-vis modernity and possibly an ecclesiological revolution. As part of that, the Church became more willing to engage art produced by non-Catholics.

The non-Catholic that interests us here is Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian novelist, director, poet, intellectual and pretty much every other cultural profession under the sun. An open atheist and communist, Pasolini was also followed by (well-founded) rumours of homosexuality in the tabloid press. He was, in short, precisely the sort of person the Syllabus of Errors of a more combative papacy was directed against. And yet Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) - dedicated to the memory of John XXIII - is a stunning success, a far more interesting religious work than the often musty epics Hollywood had churned out. Armed with an unimpressive budget, Pasolini succeeds in making the most ubiquitous story in Western culture strange again.

He does this, first, by adapting only the Gospel of Matthew, shunning the usual approach of harmonising the gospels or filling in gaps in one with bits from the other. That approach often leads to ridiculousness in adaptation (witness talkative crucified Jesus in The Passion of the Christ) as well as cognitive dissonance, since we're taught not to realise that Matthew and Luke tell different and incompatible nativity stories. By sticking solely to Matthew, the film does not feature the birth of John the Baptist, the census and journey to Bethlehem (like Matthew's gospel, Pasolini implies Joseph and Mary are from Bethlehem), the birth of Jesus in a stable, the shepherds - and that's the nativity alone; later, we're not given the 'I am' statements, the woman caught in adultery, the wedding at Cana, Jesus and Zacchaeus, the parable of the Good Samaritan, doubting Thomas, and so on. By missing all these familiar elements, the narrative feels startling and strange; we see its shape, but it is not the shape of the gospel we think we know.

Instead, Pasolini - faithful to Matthew, I think - presents the story mostly as an escalating conflict between Jesus and the Jewish civil and religious authorities. He emphasises Herod's massacre of the innocent at Bethlehem, repeatedly stressing the violence of the authorities. We see Jesus react tearfully to the murder of John the Baptist, but determined to continue his mission. Under pressure in Jerusalem, he retreats into the company of the Twelve, with whom he eats a final supper at a safe house before being betrayed, arrested and executed, and rising again on Sunday.

At the heart of Pasolini's gospel story is Jesus (and, before him, John the Baptist) challenging the institutions and representatives of Israel to accept him as Messiah. Rejected, he begins forming an alternative Israel consisting of the poor, the disreputable and the sick - an upside-down kingdom that pointedly confronts the authorities. The victory of established Israel - capturing, convicting and executing Jesus - proves an illusion, as he rises and commissions his followers to extend his kingdom to the whole earth. Because the old Israel rejected Jesus, it has now been rejected by God.

That storyline, of course, is why Matthew's gospel is often accused of antisemitism - a charge that seems basically accurate, although anti-Jewish rhetoric from a precarious first-century Messianic sect is undoubtedly different from the modern-day scourge. Pasolini avoids that problem by de-contextualising Matthew's Jesus-against-the-Jews story through the deliberate use of anachronism. Herod's soldiers are dressed like medieval warriors and Spanish conquistadors, and the film uses the Romanesque and Gothic churches of Basilicata and Apulia for sets. The soundtrack features well-known pieces of religious music from Händel to Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night". By mixing symbols from two thousand years of Christian history, Pasolini's film is at once about first-century Palestine and the hope of a whole crushed humanity in Jesus. First-century events are thus imbued with an eschatological dimension.

At the same time, Pasolini undercuts folk orthodoxy at several points. Salome, whose dance before Herod II leads to the execution of John the Baptist, is portrayed as a nervous teenage girl under the thrall of her mother, not the lascivious temptress of tradition. Jesus, meanwhile, is not the serenely smiling figure of religious art; Spanish student Enrique Irazoqui portrays him as angry, driven, and ultimately inscrutable. The other actors, local amateurs all, predictably give flat, affectless performances - which, given Pasolini's copious use of the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, is as it should be.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is not the plain Marxist allegory Pasolini was expected to produce. Pasolini's Jesus is, instead, the Christ of liberation theology: in his ministry God's kingdom - inaugurated by his death at empire's hands - and the embrace of the oppressed are inextricably bound up. The audience, though, is not put in a comfortable position of solidarity. Pasolini films the trial of Jesus over the shoulders of the jeering crowd, implicating the viewer in the rejection of Jesus. His Jesus is not reducible to a single lesson or pat truth. The suffering of mankind bound up in him, he remains mysterious - but endlessly fascinating.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Family business

Whatever his loftier ambitions (and they are many), Walter Hill has always excelled as a nuts-and-bolts craftsman, using the often limited resources at his disposal to create finely honed genre pieces. Hill's real masterpiece in that mode may be 1981's Southern Comfort, but The Long Riders, released the previous year, is also a force worth reckoning with. A flawed force, to be sure, and occasionally a frustrating one; but its joys are substantial enough.

The film's fame rests mostly on a gimmick. Hill cast four actual sets of brothers for the film's clans: James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James; David, Keith and and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim and Bob Younger; Randy and a ridiculously young, barely recognisable Dennis Quaid as Clell and Ed Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Charlie and Bob Ford. It pays off, in expected as well as unexpected ways.

Our setting is Missouri 'after the Civil War': The Long Riders does not use dates, giving the impression that the action is far more compressed than the ten or so years the film's events took in real life. The James-Younger gang, composed of former Confederate bushwhackers, rob banks and trains, and while they're good at it there's tension too. During the film's opening robbery, Ed Miller needlessly shoots a cashier, leading to his expulsion from the gang. The outlaws pursue their own aims - Cole Younger's abusive infatuation with Belle Starr (Pamela Reed), Jesse's marriage to Zee (Savannah Smith) - while they are increasingly hunted by Pinkerton agents. Eventually, they embark on an ambitious bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.

The film does, in all honesty, take a while to get going: the first half-hour is mostly dedicated to exposition and talky plot developments, and it isn't until the Pinkertons arrive at the James farm that The Long Riders snaps out of its stupor. That scene - in which Mrs. Samuel, the James boys' mother, laments the injustice of upstanding citizens being harassed by Yankee hirelings - is played to the hilt by Fran Ryan, and it's followed almost immediately by brilliantly staged confrontations between gang members and Pinkerton agents in which innocent bystanders, including the Youngers' cousin John (Kevin Brophy) and Jesse James's younger brother Archie (R.B. Thrift) are killed. Thereafter, the film keeps our interest, but half an hour of tedium is a hell of a long stretch in a hundred-minute feature.

The climactic Northfield sequence is an homage to the robbery and shootout that opens The Wild Bunch (1969) - I'd call it a rip-off, except that Hill makes no attempt to hide the influence of Sam Peckinpah. The copious use of slow-motion means it's a little overbaked in places and the sequence is probably too long. But all in all, the bloody realism is tremendously effective, and some parts are genuinely breathtaking: a gang member is shot off his horse but dragged along in slow motion because his foot is caught in the stirrup, while Cole Younger is shot almost a dozen times and still carries on (historically accurate, that).

If The Long Riders is a post-Wild Bunch western in almost all respects, the casting stands out. By and large, it does not seem forced at all, but brings a lot of benefits. Physically, only the Guests resemble each other very much at all, while the Keaches, Carradines and Quaids might as well be unrelated. But their real-life kinship gives them an easy rapport, especially in the case of James and Stacy Keach, who believably convey brothers who've been through a lot together. (An aside: I wondered where I'd seen Stacy Keach before, realised it was The Mountain of the Cannibal God, and hung my head in shame.) The result is a slew of fantastic performances from everyone involved - not least James Keach, who portrays Jesse James as an almost shy man masquerading as a cold sociopath, without the sadism-as-control that Brad Pitt brought to the role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

And yet. The post-Northfield epilogue abbreviated to the point of being unintelligible, a six-year time skip swept under the rug as we practically fast-forward through Jesse's assassination by the Ford brothers. I'd make some bold claim that the telegrammic compression is deliberate, but I doubt it: it smacks of editorial interference, all the less understandable in a film that is hardly long. Hill's insistence on the laconic works against him here, as it does in his cursory treatment of the Civil War. Cole's statement that 'I spent four years in the army. Eleven trying to get out of it' is an excellent nugget of writing, but it only hints at the Confederate-Unionist divide that tore Missouri apart both during and after the war.

As a staunch partisan of T.J. Stiles's Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War I may be biased on this point, of course. To my mind, the social context of Reconstruction and the failed reintegration of bushwhackers into peacetime society is at least as important as the ties of kinship that Hill stresses. His framing places a lot of emphasis on Keith Carradine's Jim, and it pays off: Carradine handled himself well enough to recommend himself for Southern Comfort the following year. But I can't help feeling that in going for concision rather than epic scope, The Long Riders misses its chance at greatness.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A taste of evil

Yes, it's lazy to just plunder a film's tagline for my title. You expect better: you expect execrable puns. But exploitation films often boast terrific marketing. Much like I could never hope to better a giallo title, I'll never match the tagline of a Russ Meyer film. Best, I think, to admit that and bow to the anonymous genius who came up with that gem.

Not that 1965's Mudhoney actually lives up to that wonderfully Puritan slogan. Instead, it's pretty positive towards romance and sex, which it treats with an almost reverent tenderness. Well, excepting the vivacious denizens of the whorehouse next door who occasionally wander through the frame. But that's neither here nor there, and how did I get wrapped up in meandering sentences in just two paragraphs?

Anyway, it's a fact that while I'd never run out of online resources on Russ Meyer's most famous work, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Mudhoney is less well known, and discussions of the film are mostly found in academic literature and the director's fervent but not exactly large fandom. Which is my excuse as to why I've seen the film but am not exactly flush with production details or historical observations.

Such as, for example, whether the film was actually shot where it's set, that being Missouri: it sure looks like an egregious case of California Doubling, but what do I know? Anyway, it's the Depression era (God's word declared it would be so!) and Calif McKinney (John Furlong) is walking through rural Missouri in search of work. He meets Maggie Marie (Princess Livingston) and her buxom daughters, deaf-mute Eula (Rena Horten) and lascivious Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland), who inform him that the folks at the nearby Wade farm are looking for a farmhand. Calif is almost immediately hired by old Lute Wade (Stuart Lancaster) and his niece Hannah (Antoinette Cristiani), but is continually menaced by Hannah's husband, Sidney Brenshaw (Hal Hopper), who is prone to alcoholic rages.

The perpetually broke Sidney is looking forward his father-in-law's death, since Hannah will inherit the old man's farm and money. But his plans are complicated as romance blossoms between Hannah and Calif, who is now seeking to protect her against Sidney's frequent violence. When Lute changes his will to make Calif his sole heir, Sidney feigns religious conversion and teams up with local fire-and-brimstone preacher Brother Hansen (Frank Bolger). Together, the violent alcoholic and the good reverend 'investigate' Hannah's alleged adultery with a view to organising a lynch mob.

Plotwise, Mudhoney is uncommonly down to earth for the Myers oeuvre, yet oddly disjointed. Maggie Marie's Brothel of Exposition is hermetically sealed from the rest of the film, except for two important functions: it's where Mudhoney's men go to canoodle with nubile young plot details, while Eula and Clara Belle provide the film's titillation. Apart from that, it's a freakish mash-up of Frankenstein and Of Mice and Men, if either of those works featured more large-breasted women with an aversion to clothing.

I realise I've made the film sound bad, so let me clarify: Mudhoney is an absolute blast, the most purely entertaining picture I've seen in months. Lancaster, Bolger and Hopper all give brilliant over-the-top performances, but Hopper shines most brightly. Despite being the villain, he is far and away the most complex character and focus of the film, especially compared to the bland Calif. As a character drama about greed, hypocrisy and authoritarianism, Mudhoney is almost as successful as it is as high camp.

And heck, there's a whole lot of message here. Meyer critiques rape within marriage at a time when that was legal and still sometimes seen as normal, and treats a romance that is adultery on paper with a dignity and respect one wouldn't expect of the 'king of the nudies'. Then there's the film's status as a left-wing attack on the intolerance bred by destitution in the Depression-era Midwest, and a criminal justice system that breaks a man's spirit in prison for accidentally killing a scab.

Stylistically, Mudhoney has a whole lot going for it. The most iconic sequence is the opening, where Meyer's camera does not show us anyone's face, but conveys the action by focusing on people's boots - snazzy boots at that, but let's not get into my mad lust for Mudhoney's footwear. It's a film of exaggerated angles, plenty of face close-ups, and some cartoonish anatomy; in the first two respects at least, Meyer is far more Italian than American. In the Italian genre cinema of 1965, he could likely have enjoyed a healthy career, but he continued labouring in grindhouse obscurity until he struck gold a few years later. And we'll get to that.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Andalusia, Arizona

The spaghetti western exploded onto the American market in 1967, when Sergio Leone's Dollars films were released stateside in quick succession. But even before that, the genre had acquired a reputation for reinvigorating careers. When Clint Eastwood advised his friend Burt Reynolds to take the lead in a new Italian project, Reynolds - then fresh off a three-year stint on Gunsmoke and keen to make his transition to the big screen - said yes.

Unfortunately for the actor, Navajo Joe (1966) was produced by legendary B-movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis in his first foray into the western genre. By the time Reynolds realised that the film was to be directed by Sergio Corbucci, not Leone as he had been led to believe, he could no longer back out of his contract. So Reynolds had to grit his teeth and bear his season of indentured servitude on location in Almería before fleeing back to the States.

Released to the withering reviews American critics enjoyed lavishing on Italian genre films in the sixties, Navajo Joe has never quite been rehabilitated in the way of Corbucci's other pictures. Reynolds regularly refers to the production as his worst experience in the business: true, no doubt, although the feelings of the star of such latter-day masterpieces as In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale shouldn't be mistaken for critical judgment. Because Navajo Joe isn't just decent: it's a damn great spaghetti western, and far from Corbucci's least.

A band of peaceful Navajos (who live in tepees in the film's imagination) are massacred and scalped by bounty hunters led by Duncan (Aldo Sambrell). Pursued by a lone Indian warrior (Burt Reynolds), the killers make it to the nearest town, where they are informed that the state will no longer sanction their murder of Navajos. (This does not work out for the local sheriff, who is shot by Duncan in cold blood.) An alternative source of income opens up for the bandits, however, when Dr Chester Lynne (Pierre Cressoy) hires them to intercept a train carrying the sum of a million dollars to the small town of Esperanza.

The robbery goes to plan at first, but the Navajo warrior manages to steal the train Duncan's men have secured from under their noses and take it to Esperanza, whose citizens he offers his help in fending off Duncan. The townsfolk, however, prefer to trust in sending the secretly treacherous Dr Lynne for help. Joe sticks around, meanwhile, for revenge and to help Estella (Nicoletta Machiavelli), Mrs Lynne's half-indigenous servant.

Pace some critics, the plot seems rather good to me: straightforward but with clear stakes, and kicked off with the effective trope of a man seeking revenge for the murder of his family. The problem, really, is the characters. Machiavelli's Estella is awfully underdeveloped, and her importance to the plot seems to fluctuate wildly from scene to scene. Worse, Sambrell's Duncan has little in the way of clear motivation. He hates both Indians and white people because as a 'half-breed' he was ostracised by both - well and good; but that motive only appears here and there, and for much of the film he behaves villainously because it's expected of him. We don't come to spaghetti westerns for characters with a compelling inner life, but a little more wouldn't hurt.

That would matter less if Reynolds's performance was better. A gruelling shoot can translate into compelling cinema - see Apocalypse Now, or every Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski collaboration - but here Reynolds's misery just shows in every scene. And the wisdom of casting him as a Native American could certainly be questioned, part-Cherokee or no: at a time when blackface had thankfully been consigned to the past, a white person with copious fake tan and an awkward wig was still thought a good enough approximation of a Native American. (Case in point: the even more Aryan Machiavelli.) Of course, given structural racism in the industry there weren't exactly many high-profile indigenous actors, but someone had to break that vicious cycle.

At the level of script and acting, then, Navajo Joe is certainly not above reproach. But hell, Corbucci's direction is another thing entirely. Full of terrific compositions and stark angles, Navajo Joe is even more aggressively stylised than Django, achieving a rough-hewn poetry that was not surpassed until Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West two years later (and which, arguably, Corbucci himself never achieved again). Occasionally the flourishes threaten to tip the film into ridiculousness, but all in all Corbucci manages the balance.

Even inventive direction can't stop the film from sagging a little in its third act, but for most of its running time Navajo Joe is basically perfect by spaghetti western criteria: amazing visuals, taciturn badasses, and nihilistic violence. Oh, right: this film is brutal by the standards of the sixties. Corbucci just about has the decorum to turn away during the scalpings, but the gruesome trophies themselves are waved about gleefully, and bleached skulls make frequent appearances. It may be a coincidence that Ruggero Deodato, whose infamous Cannibal Holocaust (1980) reduced the human body to bloody pieces, worked as Corbucci's assistant director on this film; but it certainly feels as if there should be a connection.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The old songs that you taught me

While living in New York City in the early seventies, fine art student turned filmmaker James Szalapski had a roommate called 'Skinny' Dennis Sanchez, a bass player. When Sanchez went to Nashville to visit Guy Clark, a Texan songwriter and luthier who had returned to the South after being disillusioned by Los Angeles, he was enthralled by the circle of musicians who gathered regularly at Clark's house. Sanchez' stories intrigued Szalapski, who was then looking for his next project.

With thirty-five thousand dollars from a single sponsor, Szalapski assembled a small crew and followed Clark and the singer-songwriters he met through him from Nashville to Austin, Texas during 1975 and early 1976. The resulting film - expanded from a planned hour-long television documentary - made the rounds at festivals, but due to bad luck and limited commercial appeal it was not released theatrically until 1981. By that time the original title, New Country, had been discarded in favour of the more poetic Heartworn Highways.

Using loose association rather than a single narrative thread, the film presents a number of singer-songwriters and others across Tennessee and Texas. We're shown the painstaking precision work of recording Larry Jon Wilson's 'Ohoopee River Bottomland'. Townes Van Zandt shows the camera crew around his dilapidated trailer in Austin. David Allan Coe drives to a concert at the Tennessee State Prison. Guy Clark repairs guitars, and at his house a group including Steve Young, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle (the latter two only in their twenties) hang out, drink and share songs.

Heartworn Highways exists for the music, and Szalapski gives the performances plenty of room to breathe. Guy Clark opens the film with a stunning rendition of 'L.A. Freeway' (Clark is more self-critical: 'A little loose,' he complains), and David Allan Coe provides its emotional heart with 'I Still Sing the Old Songs', an elegy that caused me to properly admire Coe's songwriting for the first time ('I still sing the old song that you taught me/And I still pray to Jesus now and then/And just like you I wish that he would save me/To see the day the South will rise again'). Then there's Steve Young's heartbreaking 'Alabama Highway', which accompanies Coe's drive through the Southern rain.

Those songs centre the film on Szalapski's fascination with a group of Southern songwriters who had travelled north or to California but found themselves drifting back home, drawn by something they couldn't leave behind. Not necessarily something positive, mind you: these songs are full of misery, poverty and longing for escape, more haunting evocations of Southern life than the celebration found in mainstream country. Szalapski's camera lingers on the ephemera of Tennessee roads: car transporters, overturned meat transports, and cars stuck in traffic. These men are rooted yet itinerant, rambling between states and - in Townes Van Zandt's case - occasionally actually homeless, searching for a Dixieland that keeps slipping through their fingers.

The lengthy sequence at Townes Van Zandt's place in Austin both reinforces and undermines that narrative. According to Steve Earle, the Nashville singer-songwriters deliberately sent Szalapski to Austin in the expectation that Van Zandt would clown around instead of providing footage of the world's greatest songwriter at work. And in a sense that's just what Townes does, introducing his girlfriend and his dog and leading the crew on a pointless but highly entertaining tour around the run-down property. (Because the film doesn't use narration, there's no-one to point out Townes was the son of an oil baron, not the hillbilly he pretends to be here.)

But instead of being a waste of time, the Austin scenes introduce us to Townes's neighbour, seventy-nine-year-old 'Uncle' Seymour Washington, a former blacksmith who explains his approach to horses (being gentle and friendly) and whiskey (God meant for us to enjoy it, but drink in moderation). In a film intended for a privileged white audience, it's virtually impossible for people of colour to be portrayed as just human beings rather than Magical Negroes dispensing homespun wisdom. Such qualms sour these scenes a bit, but they can't overwhelm the easy chemistry between Washington and Van Zandt. Their banter leads into the best performance in the film, Townes Van Zandt's sublime rendition of 'Waitin' Around to Die'.

Like 'Waitin' Around to Die', the prevailing mood in Heartworn Highways is elegiac. The boot-stomping rebellion associated with a term like 'outlaw country' isn't entirely absent: witness Coe's foul-mouthed tirades in front of prison inmates while wearing an awful rhinestone suit that screams 1975! like little else on display here. But all in all it's a subdued, unassuming documentary, quiet to the point of being boring at times. It requires patience and more than a little passion for this style of music. (I have the latter, at least.)

As the junior generation to the more established outlaw stars of the day (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, etc.), most of these musicians never made it out of the country music underground. The exceptions - Townes Van Zandt, whose 'highly authentic ghost' now belongs to everyone, and Steve Earle, popular with a far larger roots rock crowd - transcended rather than abandoned their origin. In hindsight, Heartworn Highways presents not the outlaw movement per se, much less the birth of Americana, but the gnarled roots of today's Texas country scene. It is, in any case, a surprisingly meditative look at a musical subculture whose critique of Nashville is as valid now as it was forty years ago.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Cardboard Appalachia

As an art form the miniseries is arguably well past its prime, at least in the United States (it's alive and well in Britain, as shown by innumerable BBC costume dramas). The gold standard for the American miniseries, to my mind at least, is North and South (1985), which despite thick layers of cheese had star power and soapy drama enough to satisfy. Last year's Hatfields & McCoys aims for similar territory, but it's hamstrung by its own incuriosity and excessive reverence.

During the American Civil War 'Devil' Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) fight for the Confederacy together, but a rift develops between the men when Hatfield, recognising the futility of the fight, deserts and returns to West Virginia. He increases his wealth by buying up and logging woodland, while McCoy returns to Kentucky a broken man after years in captivity. His resentment increases when Harmon McCoy (Chad Hugghins) is found murdered, with 'Devil' Anse's uncle Jim Vance (Tom Berenger) the prime suspect.

The hostility between the families worsens when Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr) falls in love with Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher). Roseanna is thrown out by Randall, and 'Devil' Anse reluctantly allows her to stay with the Hatfields but will not allow Johnse to marry her. Johnse chooses loyalty to his family over the pregnant Roseanna, who is sent away to live with an elderly relative. Shortly after, three of McCoy's sons murder Ellison Hatfield (Damian O'Hare), and are in turn captured and executed by the Hatfields. The bloodiest phase of the feud begins when McCoy and his lawyer kinsman Perry Cline (Ronan Vibert) hire ex-Pinkerton bounty hunter 'Bad' Frank Phillips (Andrew Howard) to lead a posse into West Virginia and hunt down the Hatfields, who have withdrawn into the mountains.

Hatfields & McCoys boasts glorious production design: the costumes alone are worth the price of admission. It's generally well directed by Costner's longstanding collaborator Kevin Reynolds, with the noticeable exception of the fairly embarrassing Battle of Grapevine in the final episode. The editing is fluid, but Arthur Reinhart's cinematography - pointlessly pretty where the film should get right down in the mud with its protagonists - lets the project down a bit. Still, that would add up to a pass. It's the writing that really undermines the whole affair.

This is how producer Leslie Greif describes the theme of the miniseries: 'I felt that the story was bigger than just the Hatfield and McCoys. It talked about the tragic cycle of violence that's been throughout all of man's history, whether it's feuding with your neighbo[u]rs over the height of trees or the Crips and the Bloods or the PLO or the IRA or just a bully where both people are picking sides.' That's the problem: for the sake of 'all of man's history', Greif ignores the specificity that would have given her story shape. All that time and money could have been used to chronicle the feud before a backdrop of identity, honour and social change in late-nineteenth-century Appalachia. Instead, Hatfields & McCoys dispenses with a sense of place, giving us cardboard cutouts, a cliché-storm plot and unending tedium in front of a vast nothingness.

It's all stock characters wandering about, occasionally shooting each other. 'Greetings, fellow symbol of the human condition! I am angry. I am sad,' they might as well say in the worst Hollywood Southern writers Ted Mann and Ronald Parker can muster. Female characters fall into a Madonna-whore pattern so rigid it would have been considered unseemly in the silent film days. (Roseanna is good and pure, while her cousin Nancy is sexually rapacious and wicked. And so it goes.) Johnse Hatfield obeys his father without fail, then whinges about the injury done to his precious conscience: I sure do hate him, but I the script doesn't indicate whether I'm supposed to. The closest Hatfields & McCoys has to narrative arcs is that the 'good' patriarch - the austere, puritanical Randall McCoy - becomes an embittered alcoholic, while his mercenary counterpart is eventually redeemed.

All of that sinks the miniseries and most actors sink with it, delivering wooden, one-note performances. But there are exceptions, and the series' Emmy wins are right on the money. Tom Berenger, a grossly underrated character actor, is an absolute delight: impious and deadly yet jovial, his Jim Vance is a mesmerising old-school badass. Ronan Vibert is amazingly smarmy, while Andrew Howard's hammy villainy is almost infinitely enjoyable. It's Costner, though, that surprised me the most. The man's made a career of a certain brand of amiable dullness, but here he does great work as a cold and calculating man who nevertheless loves his family enough to know when the time has come to end the feud. They're worth watching, those guys. I just wish they weren't stuck in such a rote, joyless exercise.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Mark Driscoll tells some lies about science, and they're not even entertaining lies

Idly clicking through YouTube links last night, I happened upon this marvellous sermon by Mark Driscoll. It's part of the Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe series, the Mars Hill equivalent of an Alpha Course or Christianity Explored in the UK. I expected to disagree with Driscoll. What I didn't see coming, though, was his casual use of gross distortions and unequivocally false statements - what seemed, frankly, like barefaced lies.

Criticising Driscoll, of course, is shooting fish in a barrel. I'm more interested in the ways some of these arguments permeate evangelical culture in general, even outside the creationist minority. I've never been taught creationism, but the ideas of people like William Paley (he of the watchmaker analogy) and superficially more respectable varieties of creationism like the intelligent design of Michael Behe and William Dembski float around the subculture and inform the views of non-creationist evangelicals. Behind that is a desire to render the theory of evolution friendlier to an evangelical understanding of the Bible.

Driscoll, for example, says that it's acceptable for Christians to disagree on the subject of creation and evolution. He believes in a form of old-earth creationism in which God made the earth billions of years ago, but created human beings in six literal days about ten thousand years before the present. To argue for that perspective, Driscoll isn't entirely honest. Here are just some of the lyin' highlights of the 59-minute talk - by no means all, since like Driscoll himself I'm not keen on prattling on for twenty-five hours. Nor am I likely to notice all as a non-scientist; this was just the stuff I as an interested layman immediately picked up on:

23:49-26:00 Driscoll argues that while the earth may be old, human life on it is young. Homo sapiens, he says, is defined by agriculture and living in villages. Conflating the Neolithic Revolution (when humans who had previously been hunter-gatherers began to farm) and the rise of  Homo sapiens allows him to claim that science and his reading of the Bible agree: humankind is about 10,000 years old. This, of course, is desperately false. In reality anatomically modern humans appear in the fossil record as early as 195,000 years ago. Other species in the genus Homo go back further still, to a total of 2.3-2.4 million years before present. What does Driscoll propose to do with those guys - reclassify them as apes, as old-school creationists do, or perhaps as slightly weird-looking people? Either way, pretending they don't exist won't wash.

28:31-29:13 Driscoll cites the full title of Darwin's seminal book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That 'races' bit, he says, refers to Darwin's belief that 'whites had out-evolved blacks and were superior'. And he gives a little smirk. Two points, then:

(a) The full text of the first edition is of course online. And hey, turns out that as you would expect in nineteenth-century usage, by 'race' Darwin means a variety within a species, not exclusively or even primarily human races in the sense of scientific racism. ('How many of those birds and insects in North America and Europe, which differ very slightly from each other, have been ranked by one eminent naturalist as undoubted species, and by another as varieties, or, as they are often called, as geographical races!... Several most experienced ornithologists consider our British red grouse as only a strongly-marked race of a Norwegian species, whereas the greater number rank it as an undoubted species peculiar to Great Britain.')

(b) The notion of 'whites... out-evolv[ing] blacks' simply makes no sense in a Darwinian framework. Evolution is not a teleological progression, as if an individual dutifully crossed evolutionary stages off a checklist on its way out of the primordial soup. You can't be 'more' or 'less' evolved in the abstract, only better or worse adapted to a particular environment - and that, too is a product of random mutation that may, if an individual is lucky, result in an improved chance of doing well in the environment. At times, mutations that render an individual bigger, more intelligent or faster may be advantageous; at other times - cold environments where there is little sustenance, say - being smaller, less intelligent and slower may prove favourable. Yes, we all enjoyed that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but evolution does not work that way.

29:50-30:09 Christians, Driscoll says, reject not science but naturalism. The distinction relies on conflating philosophical naturalism (which declares there are no supernatural causes) and methodological naturalism (which ignores supernatural causes in the pursuit of science, because they are untestable). Christians can agree with the latter but generally not the former.

30:28-39:10 Driscoll identifies ten problems with 'atheistic evolution' (i.e. an account of the history of the universe that does not posit a supernatural creator). The scientific points are various kinds of hogwash, and I'll skip most of them as I don't want to be here forever.

33:52-34:28 This, though, I'll pick on. It's the standard creationist claim that there are no transitional forms in the fossil record. It just isn't true. Creationists, of course, will move the goalposts whenever a transitional fossil is discovered and set up ever more stringent criteria.

34:35-36:13 'Atheistic evolution assumes that the earth is eternal', so evolution contradicts the Big Bang. I don't even know what to do with that. Evolutionary biologists, atheist or otherwise, do not assume that the earth is eternal (scientists agree it is roughly 4.5 billion years old, and that life on earth originated about 3.7 billion years ago), and I have no idea where Driscoll got this claim from. It's simply bizarre.

42:20-48:42 Here Driscoll lays out the dangerous alternative to biblical creation: pagan 'one-ism', the belief that everything is ultimately of one substance. This he blames explicitly for the LGBTQ movement, which he argues is about creating one gender rather than respecting distinctions inherent in creation. Driscoll has something of an obsession with pagan nature-worship, which he has previously detected in Avatar. As someone who's done postgraduate work on the medieval Christian theology of paganism, this is quite fascinating to me, but it doesn't make Driscoll's thoughts any less nonsensical. In queer theory the dissolution of the gender binary leads not to a single unified gender but to n genders. Similarly, I barely understand Driscoll's point about 'one religion', which I don't see anyone particularly striving for: isn't the trend, rather, away from Christian hegemony towards pluralism?

All in all, that's quite a lot of blatantly false statements from a man who, as a successful pastor, church planter and author, is clearly not stupid. Are we to assume Driscoll is simply lazy or ignorant, or is he lying? If these are good old-fashioned lies, they're feeble examples of the form. A visit to Wikipedia will disabuse anyone of most of Driscoll's notions. I'm not a scientist, but I've known several of the facts Driscoll gets wrong since I was about ten years old. How can he hope to convince adults?

But perhaps Driscoll isn't trying to tell carefully crafted lies. Early in the sermon, Driscoll 'explains' the fact that we have a two-day weekend instead of the Old Testament's single day of rest: '[W]hen it came to our nation's founding, they couldn't decide between the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday and the Christian Sabbath of Sunday..., so they gave you both.' I don't know if this myth is popular in the United States, but it's plainly untrue given union struggles for a shorter work week well into the twentieth century.

Why, then, does Driscoll get it wrong? Why does he speak ex cathedra on something he is plainly ignorant of, a mere footnote to his argument? Unless Driscoll enjoys deception, a lie is quite useless here. More likely he simply doesn't care, and opts not to do his research. Whether he's right on this point or not doesn't matter to him, or at least it matters far less than affecting an air of authority and bluffing his way through. He prefers making stuff up to the bother of reading up. And that seems to be the case for much of the sermon.

Driscoll fits Harry Frankfurt's definition of a bullshitter: 'He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.' Driscoll casually says things he knows are probably not true because he sees the big picture: exuding confidence, knowledge and love for 'biblical truth' to sell a form of Christianity constructed specifically against other faiths and liberation movements. Research isn't really necessary, and facts can be hammered into shape or simply made up to fit that goal.

There is of course a particular irony to this. Driscoll is one of those evangelicals who forever insist on objective standards and denounce the 'undermining' of truth by a legion of foes (relativism, postmodernism, modernism, 'atheistic evolution', inclusivism, etc.). But here we see that Driscoll is not even doing the truth the courtesy of lying, which would at least be making an effort. He's just ignoring it, content with poorly researched, logically flawed, often flat-out false claims. What does it matter, right?

Driscoll's embrace of bullshit, then, shows that far from standing against the collapse of metanarratives he is actually profoundly influenced by it. As is evangelical culture as a whole: 'One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity' (Frankfurt, emphasis in original). Sincerity as the next best thing to being right, the defence of one's views with appeals not to evidence but to the strength of one's belief: that helps explain a plethora of counterfactual narratives peddled by evangelicals. So Driscoll's fabrications are at least useful in understanding something of the subculture. But we don't need to let people like him claim they're 'standing up for truth'.