Format: Cinema Director: Ryan Prows Writers: Ryan Prows, Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, Maxwell Michael Towson Cast: Nicki Micheaux, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Jon Oswald, Mark Burnham, Santana Dempsey
A highlight at this year’s Fantasia Festival, this fun, warm and brutal chronicle of LA’s underbelly comes to Horror Channel FrightFest on 28 August 2017.
The 2017 edition of the Fantasia Festival was rich in beautifully crafted, unusual gems, and Lowlife ranked high among them, deservedly drawing a warmly enthusiastic response from the Montreal crowd. Category-defying, genre-mixing and cliché-blasting, its intricate narrative follows the interconnected stories of a luchador, a pregnant drug addict, a motel owner with a past, an ex-con with an unfortunate facial tattoo, and a chicken shack organ-trafficker in the midst of LA. Fresh, funny, violent, sordid, unsentimental and heart-breaking, it tells about the brutality of life on the margins and redefines heroism with a light touch and a lot of soul.
The soundtrack to John Landis’s much-loved horror comedy inventively subverts the clichés of the genre.
John Landis’s 1981 classic horror film An American Werewolf in London was something of a pet project: the script was written by the director many years before but the studio thought it either too funny or too scary to green light. Following the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), Landis found himself with a carte blanche for his next project. Despite its odd comedy/horror mix An American Werewolf in London became yet another box-office smash. In 1981 it was a film everyone was talking about – particularly horror makeup man Rick Baker’s first-rate gore and the great man-to-wolf transformation scene. Landis and Baker would team up again in 1983 to zombify Michael Jackson in Thriller.
After all these years the inventiveness of the film remains striking. It is clearly in the horror genre and yet sidesteps cliché at every turn, and nowhere more memorably than with the soundtrack. There’s no scary music; instead we get mood music so subtle it is hardly noticeable and handful of pop songs with the word ‘moon’ in the title. All great songs and used with irony and humour.
The film opens with a shot of the moors, but not the foggy storm-battered moors of horror classics. These hills are pleasant and green and lit by a slowly setting sun. These shots are accompanied by the first of the film’s three moon songs, Bobby Vinton’s classy 1963 version of ‘Blue Moon’. It was recorded for his ‘blue’ concept album along with his hit records ‘Blue on Blue’ and of course ‘Blue Velvet’. This smooth, sweet, almost sugary confection stands as a paradigm of American pop music between rock’n’roll and the British invasion. With its lush production complete with subtle tasteful instrumentation and backing vocals whispering ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, this is perhaps the piece of music with the least tension ever to open a horror film.
There is a gap of an hour featuring a visit to a pub, a wolf attack and a few dream sequences before the next song accompanies the young lovers: the werewolf attack survivor and his nurse take a shower to Van Morrison’s 1970 ‘Moondance’. Although less obviously ironic than the other songs its light jazzy swing is certainly at odds with the typical wailing saxophone that usually enhanced such scenes in 1981. The third moon song follows shortly after. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s apocalyptic stomp ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (1969) accompanies our lycanthrope as he spends a weekday afternoon battling boredom (he even tries British daytime television), a strange restlessness and lack of appetite. It is a truly great song and a great stripped-down production with one of the best drum sounds ever recorded, and it is completely at odds with the scene. Boredom never seemed so much fun.
Two more versions of ‘Blue Moon’ follow. Sam Cooke’s unique soulful phrasing plays over the painful transformation scene. And after the heartbreaking ending, the end titles are accompanied by the famous ‘bom-di-di-bom’ of The Marcels’ upbeat doo-wop version. It is now the most famous version of the song written in the mid-30s by show-tune specialists Rodgers and Hart. The joyful ending seems so perfect for a film imbued with the love of making movies. Landis’s career went from strength to strength and many more box-office successes followed. Those subsequent films were tight and entertaining but his love of cinema was never again so obvious.
Following their well-received 2012 debut Resolution, co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have crafted a romantic monster tale in Spring, mixing elements of horror and science fiction to explore love and relationships. The story centres on Evan, a young American who runs away to Italy after a bereavement. In a beautiful seaside town, he meets the seductive, free-spirited Louise and falls helplessly in love. But he will soon come to realise that Louise is hiding a dark secret.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the London Film Festival in October 2014 where they discussed stem cells, new monsters and romantic inexperience.
Virginie Sélavy: Spring is part romance, part horror, part science fiction, and it’s very obvious that you made an effort to avoid genre clichés. Why was it important for you to have horror and science fiction elements in a romantic love story?
Justin Benson: I know this is going to sound like a cop-out answer but in the writing process we never discussed the genre it came in. At the very basic level there was the desire to make a monster movie but there’s something fun and rebellious in making a new monster. It’s so ingrained in writers and storytellers to use the same half-dozen or so monsters and mythologies that no one even attempts it. And as far as her mythology and the system by which her body works, the whole thing was trying to create a monster that has an emotional resonance like Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an exploration of sexual repression in Victorian society, or Frankenstein is about fear of science. And if you really think about it you can’t separate the monster component of our movie from the emotional component.
What is your monster about for you?
JB: It’s a little more surface level than metaphorical. She quite literally uses men to regenerate herself. She’s survived for 2,000 years by just sleeping with men and you don’t see that in cinema very often. She’s still a normal girl, but for self-preservation she’s willing to continuously sleep with people without emotional attachment. Thematically the movie is about the idea of rebirth, and that’s something we tried to photograph as well with all the insects and nature shots.
Aaron Moorhead: I think also every time she does that is a rejection of eternal love. And the stopping of the monster is the acceptance of eternal love, so accepting the complications and making sacrifices is what that represents, and the monster going away represents love as something more than just chemical.
Louise is an inexplicable, random, sometimes frightening creature governed by irrational forces. Was this also about women and their unpredictable nature with their strange bodily transformations?
JB: It was but that’s actually a low-hanging fruit in terms of representations or metaphors because every monster story is about that. The hope is that, as audience members who are not monsters, you highly identify with the situation because we’ve all been with someone where you wonder, ‘who is this person actually?’ and you also see yourself as a monster sometimes in relationships. And that’s something that’s been explored through countless films. I hope we did it as effectively as we can do it. However that’s a pretty well-tread path of symbolism.
You make great effort to anchor your story in the natural world and to give a scientific, rather than supernatural, explanation to your monster. Why was that important for you?
JB: For me it’s just that anything that is pure supernatural is less scary. Because there’s the idea that maybe something like Louise could actually exist in the world, without it being beyond the five senses, and that’s a terrifying idea. Our first movie plays with that a little, it’s a bit more metaphysical. In a lot of horror movies, there’s a point at which somebody set up the five rules of the monster, you can look at it, when you run it runs, things like that, and it’s completely arbitrary. In this case there’s just one singular idea and all the rules expand from that because it follows scientifically.
AM: The other interesting thing about it is that at any given time when a monster mythology is invented it’s over time that we start to accept it even though it doesn’t entirely make sense. For example at the time Frankenstein was written sewing a bunch of dead people’s body parts together and reviving it with electricity was almost plausible, today we don’t believe it. But now we know that stem cells basically provide you with immortality, so if one could metabolise stem cells it would follow that they would provide immortality. So if you’re going to develop a new monster it does make sense that you’re going to use something that makes sense from a modern perspective, whether it’s spiritual or scientific.
Justin, you said in the Q&A that you went to medical school.
JB: We made this a year before I went to medical school. I wouldn’t say it has a direct influence on my storytelling outside the fact that I was raised by parents who think very scientifically and I had scientific training. My mind works like that, I always want empirical evidence for things. But as far as my formal medical training goes, I read this article in Time magazine.
There is a strong connection between Louise and nature through all the insert shots of bugs. What was the thinking behind that?
JB: I think in many ways because she’s a freak of nature, she’s very singular, she’s got such a strange and powerful body, it would follow that she’s skipped a few steps of evolution. And so you might also see that if someone can control things outside of themselves like pheromones, or affect them in some way and connect with the world, that would follow from further evolution. It’s not quite so nailed down as that, it’s more like a mutation of some sort, but it seems to make sense that someone who has that kind of ability may also have the ability in very light ways to influence what else is happening around her.
There are a lot of aerial shots of the town and coast as well as close-ups on bugs and the monster’s animal body parts. It seems that you wanted to inscribe your story both in the large scale and the small scale of the world. Is that fair to say?
AM: We decided very early on when we were shooting this movie that, in addition to the small, personal cinema vérité stuff, there would always be these highly subjective shots, whether that be a camera panning off of them to something else the camera might find interesting, suggesting something like a presence or force, literally God’s eye view shots, anything we could do to visually communicate something bigger than them that’s possibly even outside their own belief systems. But not having them talk about it, always suggesting it photographically.
JB: One of the biggest ideas and biggest images of the movie is the comparison between the beautiful and the grotesque. And that’s constantly happening, with the bugs and all of that in beautiful Italy. But the idea is, if you’re making a horror movie that is set in an incredibly beautiful location – most of them take place in creaky old houses or a forest, places that are inherently scary – so if your location isn’t inherently scary how do you get that mood, how do you get the mood of something wrong? And so if we didn’t do that we just have a beautiful location with this other little thing happening, but nothing really feels wrong around it, and there is a sense of wrongness about the story. And that’s able to give us our more unsettling landscape without having to go down a familiar horror movie trail.
Why did you choose to film in Pompeii?
JB: We actually shot at a volcanic excavation site that was very similar to Pompeii but not exactly Pompeii because logistically we couldn’t do it. But the reason why it’s there in the story was that we wanted her to be at least 2,000 years old so she would have seen the transition between gods, which is something I’ve never quite seen in a character. Even in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles they tend to be about 500 years old, and when they speak of things like God and their place in the universe they speak about a very Judeo-Christian God. And what I find so interesting about Louise is that she’s literally seen gods change, and how she would view spirituality given that. As far as it being Pompeii, it was a historical reference point for that region that most audiences would just know and it wouldn’t need much explanation. On top of that, in her own mythology, because of the casts at Pompeii, the moment she would see the cast of her love has a lot of emotional impact. She can go there and stare at the exact moment of death of her parents. And that’s something not only creepy but with a lot of emotional impact. And also she’s had to live through lava, which would be a horrifying painful event that would probably, none of us want to die, but she would probably have an even greater aversion to it given her experiences.
The film is an exploration of love and romance, and it seems almost as if you were working things out for yourself in the characters’ dialogue. When you were asked about love and relationships in the Q&A you said that you didn’t know much about romance. Isn’t that a little disingenuous?
JB: No, it’s true. I would be worried if someone watched that movie and was like, oh I’m going to learn about love or romance from this. The only things I know about romance and love are literally from my friends. I don’t have any personal experience of being in love but I have lots of friends who are in relationships and I speak to them about relationships. Aaron has real relationships, I can talk to him about that. And that’s really where a lot of stuff in this story comes from. And on top of that, as far as women go, I know my mum well, I have some amazing female friends. So far they’ve expressed they like her character and that means a lot. No one has said ‘you’re such a sexist’ yet.
It feels like she’s a fantasy, not a real person. Do you feel you’re still working out what you think relationships are?
JB: I guess so. And in that way it is entirely fictional. I’m inventing an idea of something I don’t know anything about. But it’s cool that people identify with it and like it.
I believe you are now working on an Aleister Crowley film. What angle are you going to take on this?
JB: When you look at everything we’ve done, if you want to put some adjectives on it, it’s weird and mythic, quietly mythic. That is Aleister Crowley. He’s someone that people will immediately identify as being that guy who’s into the supernatural and the occult, but his idea of the supernatural and the occult is something so esoteric that there is no normal path to telling the Aleister Crowley story. You have to break a lot of rules to tell a story, and so you have to take new paths of storytelling and it has to be weird and it has to be mythic.
AM: And that honours the good parts of his memory. There’s plenty of bad parts so we don’t worship this guy in any way, we find him to be a very complicated and flawed and fascinating human being.
JB: And if someone were trying to simplify it into being about a demon they’d be incorrect. If you look at Aleister Crowley and you call him a Satanist, you’re incorrect. He’s not. He doesn’t believe in Satan. What he believes is very complicated. He’s not a great person but it connects with everything we’ve done very nicely.
AM: Right now we don’t have the desire to expand our scope into a full-on biopic, we will eventually, but right now we just want to keep telling a very small personal story about relationships, and this one is more about his relationship with his own ego. But there’s also a lot of people around him that he destroys, builds up and destroys again. So our story takes place in the pressure cooker of one week really early on in his life where he’s performing a ritual to purify himself. That’s the framework of it. What’s really happening is that he’s a man with a bunch of really good ideas but with absolutely no sense of moderation, and he makes these choices that lead him to become what history remembers as ‘the wickedest man in the world’. That’s our take on it, it’s a very small film with a really big idea and a gigantic character.
JB: If you want to simplify it he’s like Tyler Durden from Fight Club meets Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
Canadians are better educated, smarter, more socially conscious, modest, polite and quieter than our American brothers and sisters. This is fact. Alas, in the national pride department, Uncle Sam beats our insanely muted approach to flag-waving hands down. The exception to this rule is hockey. When Canucks play this greatest of all great games on an international sheet of ice, our pride-meter slides precariously close to the edge, rivalling even that of the Home of the Brave (though meekly, never besting it). I’m reminded of this rare equilibrium twixt our otherwise contrasting nations thanks to a pair of fine new pictures making their North American bows at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on the heels of their triumphant Cannes debuts in the spring.
Foxcatcher is released in UK cinemas on 9 January 2015 by Entertainment One. Red Army will be released on 19 June 2015 by Curzon Film World.
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014) ****
Red Army (Gabe Polsky, 2014) ***
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Gabe Polsky’s Red Army are sure to make a huge splash in Canada and the US, where they are being distributed by Mongrel Media and Sony Pictures Classics. Both will no doubt generate major Oscar-buzz here, which has almost become TIFF’s raison d’être, in addition to screening hundreds of movies and acting as an international press junket.
As a staunch denizen of the Dominion of Canada, what makes these two films interesting is how, as sports pictures, they help underline the differences between this vast northern Commonwealth colony and the good old US of A – especially how our respective propaganda machines relate to national pride.
In America, propaganda is everything.
In Canada, propaganda is, well, you know, it’s kind of okay, uh, you know, sort of, because it’s sometimes necessary, well, not necessary, or rather, yes, okay, it is indubitably, sort of vital, but not really, eh.
Foxcatcher, one of the most exciting American movies of the year, very strangely employs propagandistic elements within the narrative structure provided by screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, which, in turn, the director Bennett Miller superbly jockeys in his overall mise-en-scène. Astonishingly, the filmmakers manage to have their cake and eat it too. By offering a detailed examination of propaganda within the context of American history and society, as well as a mounting and ever-subtle critical eye upon it, Miller might continue to add accolades to his mantle in addition to the Best Director nod he copped at Cannes.
The maker of the taut and compelling baseball drama Moneyball (2011) and the well crafted, though somewhat overrated Capote (2005), dazzles us here with the true-life story of Olympic wrestling champions Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Though the shy, unassuming Mark is a gold medal winner in his own right, he’s been overshadowed by his dynamic, gift-of-the-gab-blessed sibling. This all changes when the beefy, brawny mat-brawler is summoned to the palatial estate of John du Pont (Steve Carell in a performance so astonishing I forgot it actually was, uh, Steve Carell until the closing credits), heir to the powerful American dynasty of the du Pont family (who amassed their fortune mainly through the manufacturing of arms for America’s war machine). John offers his unqualified financial sponsorship to Mark, a palatial guesthouse to live in and a state-of-the-art training facility on the grounds of his home. The only catch is that du Pont will be the coach. He knows nothing about coaching, though, and hires brother Dave to be his assistant (and real) coach.
The film charts the friendship between the working class stock of Mark and the privilege of John du Pont, the brothers’ envy-and-love-fused bond, John’s desire to legitimise himself in the eyes of his horsewoman mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and, of course, the endlessly fascinating, meticulous, pain-steeped training and various qualifying competitions leading to the Olympics.
Optics is the ultimate tool-in-trade of blue bloods, and here is where the screenplay and Miller’s unerring directorial eye create a layer that permeates both the narrative and visuals. Even at a low-point early on, Mark keeps the faith in his poverty and loneliness by buttressing himself with the notion that he and those who are both around him and who will follow him must continue to persevere for the sake of America.
Granted, flags are preposterously ubiquitous in America, but one almost senses that those stars and stripes have been carefully included in the backdrop and foreground of the film. One breathtaking moment includes a travelling car interior point-of-view of a huge flag unfurling in the wind as Mark drives to the du Ponts’ Foxcatcher Farms estate.
Certainly, John himself is virtually pathological in his patriotism for America, strolling through the leafy Walden-Pond-like acreage of his estate, guiding Mark to points of historical interest from the American Revolution and spouting the most fervent patriotic rhetoric within the context of virtually everything, but especially within the contexts of both war and (naturally) sports.
The film takes great pains to illustrate John’s attention to details that will accentuate his own accomplishments whether merited or, in the case of his coaching, decidedly not. He goes so far as to hire a film crew to document his work as a coach, and we’re afforded numerous moments where interviewees are cajoled into extolling his virtues, and where he delivers training and words of wisdom his team are already well versed in, which manage to take on mythic proportions through the lens of the cameras.
Brilliantly and with great subtlety, the film’s sense of optics and propaganda amongst the nobility feels infused to a point where non-Americans and certainly discriminating American audiences will sense that Foxcatcher is itself propaganda. As the tale progresses and John du Pont’s inbred eccentricities give way to his becoming slowly and dangerously unhinged, so too does the film shift gears into critical territory. The perception of the American Dream sours and leads to a sad, shocking and downright tragic film about delusions of grandeur transforming into psychopathic proportions – not unlike America itself.
Gabe Polsky’s feature length documentary Red Army is as much about the propaganda machine (of Cold War Russia) as it is pure propaganda unto itself, by placing undue emphasis upon the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union on the blood-spattered battleground of ice hockey competition. Polsky has fashioned a downright spellbinding history of the Red Army hockey team, which eventually became a near-juggernaut of Soviet skill and superiority in the world.
In spite of this, many Canadians will call the film a total crock-and-bull story. While a Maple Leaf perspective might provide an eye more sensitive to Miller’s exploration of the propagandistic gymnastics of American blue blood powerbrokers, there is bound to be more than just a little crying foul over Polsky’s film.
I perhaps have the bias of growing up intimately within the universe of world competition hockey. My own father, Julian Klymkiw, played goal for Canada’s national team in the 1960s, a team that was managed by Chas Maddin (filmmaker Guy Maddin’s father). Guy and I eventually became the respective director-producer team behind Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful. Maddin went on to immortalise a ‘non-professional’ team from the wintry Canadian prairies in the Jody Shapiro-produced My Winnipeg. It even featured a beefy lookalike of yours-truly wearing a uniform emblazoned with the name ‘Julian Klymberger’ (the surname being one of my own nicknames in years past). To say we were both well aware of the true rivalry in international hockey would be an understatement.
But one didn’t need to actually grow up in hockey families intimately involved with various Team Canada hockey leagues to realise that the United States was a blip on the Soviet rivalry-radar. The only famous match-up between the Soviets and America happened during the 1980 Olympics, when a team of veritable untested ‘kids’ hammered the Soviets (immortalised as the 2004 Walt Disney Studios feature film Miracle starring Kurt Russell).
Polsky’s film uses this match as the film’s primary structural tent pole, and completely ignores the historic 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series, which has gone down in most histories (save, perhaps, for America’s) as the greatest display of hockey war of all time. His film also ignores, though pays passing lip service, to the fact that the real rivalry throughout the 1970s and 1980s had virtually nothing to do with America and everything to do with Canada and Russia.
I know this all too well.
My own father eventually became the Carling O’Keefe Breweries marketing guru who brokered huge swaths of promotional sponsorship to Team Canada over 15-or-so years and, in fact, worked closely with hockey agent/manager/promoter and Team Canada’s mastermind Alan Eagleson. Dad not only spoke a variety of Slavic languages fluently, but his decades as an amateur and pro hockey player all contributed to making him an invaluable ally to both administrators and players of Team Canada. To the latter, famed Canadian sports reporter Hal Sigurdson reported, ‘Big Julie [Klymkiw] often rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty behind the Canadian bench.’
I’m not, by the way, arguing the absence of my Dad in this film – he did his thing, promoting beer to promote hockey and hockey to promote beer, which allowed him to travel the world and be with all the hockey players he loved – but what I’m shocked about is how Red Army can ignore my Dad’s old pal and colleague. The film includes ONE – count ’em – ONE off-camera sound bite from Alan Eagleson.
Polsky appears to have made no effort to even interview the man himself or include the reams of historic interview footage of Eagleson that fills a multitude of archives to over-flowing. Eagleson, for all the scandals that eventually brought him down, including imprisonment for fraud and embezzlement convictions, was the game’s most important individual on the North American side to make Soviet match-ups in the Western world a reality, and to allow professional North American players to go head-to-head with the Soviets. (Though Eagleson went down in flames, my Dad always remarked straight-facedly, ‘The “Eagle” never screwed me.’)
How, then, can a documentary about Soviet hockey so wilfully mute this supremely important Canadian angle to the tale? Where are the interviews (new or archival) with such hockey superstars as Gordie Howe (including sons Mark and Marty), Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Marc Tardif and all the others who battled the Soviets on-ice? Why are there only mere blips of Wayne (‘The Great One’) Gretzky, most notably a clip in which he sadly refers to the Soviets’ unstoppable qualities? Why are there not more pointed interview bites with the former Soviet players discussing the strength of Canadian players? It’s not like archival footage of this doesn’t exist.
There’s only one reason for any of these errors of omission: all the aforementioned personages and angles are Canadian. Ignoring the World Hockey Association’s (WHA) bouts with the USSR is ludicrous enough, but by focusing on the 1980 Olympic tourney and placing emphasis on the National Hockey League (NHL), the latter of which is optically seen as a solely AMERICAN interest, Red Army is clearly not the definitive documentary about the Soviet players that its director and, most probably American fans and pundits, assume it is.
Even if one were to argue that the story Polsky was interested in telling didn’t allow for angling Canadian involvement more vigorously, ‘one’ would be wrong. The story of Soviet hockey supremacy has everything to do with Canada – a country that provided their only consistent and serious adversary, a country that embraced hockey as intensely as the USSR and a country, by virtue of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s official policy of Canadian multiculturalism, that reflected the vast number of Canuck players who had Eastern European blood and culture coursing through them.
As a side note to this, it’s also strange how Polsky, the son of Soviet Ukrainian immigrants, ignores the fact that a huge majority of great Soviet players were ethnically Ukrainian. I vividly remember meeting so many of those legends as a kid and listening to them talk with my Dad about a day when maybe, just maybe, Ukraine would have its independence and display Ukrainian hockey superiority over the Russians, never mind the rest of the world. (Given the current struggles between Russia and Ukraine, this might have made for a very interesting political cherry-on-the-sundae.)
Ultimately, Red Army is American propaganda, or at the very least, is deeply imbued with American propagandistic elements. Given that it’s about Soviet hockey players, I find this strangely and almost hilariously ironic, which in and of itself, gives the movie big points.
All this kvetching aside, Red Army is still a good film. Focusing on the historic and political backdrop of Joseph Stalin and those leaders who followed him, all of who built up one of the greatest, if not the greatest series of hockey teams in the world, this is still a supremely entertaining movie. Polsky’s pacing, sense of character and storytelling is slick and electric. The subjects he does focus upon, the greatest line of Soviet players in hockey history, all deliver solid bedrock for a perspective many hockey fans (and even non-hockey fans) know nothing or little about.
Polsky even interviews a former KGB agent who accompanied the Soviet players to North America in order to guard against defection to the West. Here again, though, I’ll kvetch about a funny Canadian perspective. Dad not only played hockey, not only was he a marketing guy, but he even squeezed in a decade of being a damn good cop in Winnipeg, and when Team Canada went to Russia, Dad would go from hotel room to hotel room, find bugs (not the plentiful cockroaches, either) and rip the KGB surveillance devices out of their hiding places for himself, his colleagues, players and administrators from the West.
I’ll also admit to enjoying the interviews with the likes of NHL coach Scotty Bowman and Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak; however, the most compelling subject in Polsky’s film is the Soviet defenceman Slava Fetisov, who movingly recounts the early days of his hockey career, his friendship and brotherhood with the other players and his leading role in encouraging Soviet players to defect for the big money of pro hockey in North America. It’s also alternately joyous and heartbreaking to see the juxtaposition between the balletic Soviet styles of play with that of the violent, brutal North American approach.
Contrast is, of course, an important element of any storytelling, but in a visual medium like film, it’s especially vital. It’s what provides the necessary conflict. With Red Army, however, the conflict is extremely selective. It is, after all, an American movie, and as both this film and Foxcatcher prove, if Americans do anything really well, it’s propaganda. Us Canucks here in the colonies can only stew in our green-with-envy pot of inferiority. We know we’re the best, but we have no idea how to tell this to the rest of the world, and least of all, to ourselves.
Kudos to Polsky and America are unreservedly owed. They show us all how it’s done.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon Cinema’.
Bill Morrison creates stunning works of cinema from forgotten fragments of footage. His debut feature, Decasia (2002), a beautiful composition of decaying nitrate celluloid, was the first film of the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, although UK audiences might know him best for The Miners’ Hymns(2010), his majestic, poetic rendering of lost coal mining communities in North East England.
Eleanor McKeown spoke to the American filmmaker ahead of the UK premiere of his latest masterwork, The Great Flood, at Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival in March 2014.
Bill Morrison: Selected Films 1996-2014 is released in the UK on 4 May 2015 by the BFI. The 3-disc Blu-ray box set includes The Great Flood, Decasia, Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 and many more.
Eleanor McKeown: How did you find the material for The Great Flood and how did the project come about?
Bill Morrison: I had been looking for a longer project to work on with Bill Frisell. We’d done a couple of shorts before – The Film of Her and The Mesmerist – where I used pre-recorded tracks of his. We were looking for a project where we would start from the ground up; he would write new music and I would find new footage to make a new film. I had been working on looser, more metaphorical treatment of flood footage and was looking for any old footage of flood-inundated houses for a project called Shelter (this was back in 2005), and I kept coming across footage from 1926 and 1927. It wasn’t until some time later that I was at a dinner party where they were discussing a book by John M. Barry called Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed American Culture, as it related to Katrina and the problems with that storm and the flood in New Orleans. I read that book. Knowing that there was a lot of footage out there from that era and that Bill wanted to work on a project with me, and that there were musical ramifications from people moving out of the area into the newer cities like Chicago, Cleveland and New York, it all kind of conspired and I realised that this could be a long-form project.
Once we had decided that we wanted to go forward with this project, Bill approached his management team – that’s Phyllis Oyama and Lee Townsend at Songtone – and they were able to assemble a list of performing venues that would co-commission the project. It was not the regular route most filmmakers take to finance a film, but it really came about as part of the multimedia side of the live performance. There were a number of venues that contributed more or less money to the thing, and quite a few would premiere the piece in that region.
Was there a difference between how The Great Flood was originally performed live and how it currently appears in its finished version? With The Miners’ Hymns, your last UK film release, I understand that the film was shown on a double screen when it premiered, with live music, at Durham Cathedral.
Both films were much looser when they were originally performed live, before we had a definitive master recording, which we re-cut to. With The Great Flood, it was a very unique set of circumstances, where I was on tour with Bill in the Mississippi River Delta in the spring of 2011. We had booked a tour just to give Bill and his bandmates a chance to familiarise themselves with the material and to work on it together through rehearsals and performances, on sort of a mobile artist’s residency, if you will. We had absolutely no indication, of course, that the tour would be during another major flood of the Mississippi River. Indeed, the flood levels that spring were as high as they had been since 1927, so it became a very real sort of history lesson on what it feels like to be in a community not knowing whether the levees are going to hold or not.
It was through recording all those soundchecks, and rehearsals and performances that I was able to structure a sort of narrative and emotional arc of how I thought the film would sound. That tour became a tool, both for me to start forming a rough cut of the film, and for Bill to write more music or re-write music that was recorded. It was also just a chance to talk to him about things that I was really enamoured with on his previous records, and how I saw the opportunity for some of those same dynamics to work: the idea of taking a theme and expanding on it. He was really receptive to that collaboration, really more so than any other composer-collaborator I’ve worked with.
How was it different to working with other composers in the past? Was there more improvisation?
I work a lot with classical composers and, once they’ve written the score, it’s really in the hands of the conductor and orchestra to perform it the way the composer wrote it. We arrive at a master recording that way. With Bill, it’s almost exactly the opposite. He doesn’t want to repeat himself two performances in a row. In fact, if it’s something’s good, he tries to avoid it the second time, and if it’s bad, of course, he’s going to avoid it the second time! It’s really a completely different way of approaching performance. The music grew from the spring tour but, after it premiered that fall, we used a recording from the premiere to re-edit the film. Then a few months later, we had a better recording that we made at Duke and that became the basis for the film, and the edit that was used during much of the film’s performance life in 2012. It wasn’t until about a year ago, in March of 2013, that the band did a performance in Seattle that we felt very strongly could be the definitive soundtrack of the film. The film, as released in 2014, was entirely re-cut to this soundtrack to support every note and every chord change. It is cut to the beat in a way that would be impossible to do in a live situation, and that was the same with The Miners’ Hymns too. We started out with a very loose edit and then, when we had a final recording, we re-cut to it, sometimes as many as three or four different times.
Thinking about the narrative arc of the film, The Great Flood is divided into chapters. How did you make decisions about these and, in particular, the segment that uses a montage of the 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalogue and the change of pace in this sequence?
Bill was really adamant that we include these up-tempo musical numbers: music that I associate with Thelonious Monk or a bebop tempo. I’m really enamoured with his dirges and ballads, but he was adamant that those don’t work unless you have something that also cuts them and changes the pace and the mood. He’s a real master at constructing a set – and this was after all a set – so including that type of mood was really Bill’s influence. It was something that initially I was resistant to, but I came to see how he was right.
The Sears Roebuck catalogue was my idea. As you can see from the start of that chapter, it’s listed with a circulation of 75 million, so you can imagine how prevalent this book was in just about every house. It would be like the internet is for us today. It was sort of the portal to all the stuff that’s out there. I’ve been told that some houses had only two books: The Bible and the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. There’re also stories about children making up fantasy stories based on the characters in that book. It was a source of amusement but also a source of dreaming. This is all the stuff you could own, if you had a better life. Then, in the context of the film, it’s also all the stuff that’s getting destroyed by the flood and getting thrown away –what you grab onto. I was able to find a reprint of the 1927 catalogue, which is really upheld as an emblem of the Roaring Twenties. It was financially a very fat time in this country, before The Great Depression, and so this book is an artefact of everything we had and everything we could own. Because the layout page-to-page is very similar, it lent itself to this fast de facto animation. I simply scanned every page and then played with it in edit until it kind of moved. It was also a different way of treating up-tempo material rather than relying on fast action or fast editing.
This up-tempo music reoccurs at other points in the film, such as the segment showing footage of politicians visiting the flood sites.
Yes, also in the dynamiting Poydras chapter. It’s an ironic use of the music, because of course the chapter is showing large class discrepancies, treated as business as usual, and I think that the music communicates that.
Out of all the footage you were working with, you chose a woman dancing to live music in Chicago as the last shot of the film. How did you decide on this final image?
That had always been the premise of the film. The water came down the river and the people moved up it – to the north – and, in so doing, brought music and a way of life and a culture to northern American cities that then went global and really affected popular music and popular culture in the latter half of the century. That shot said so much. It’s obviously an old shot, it’s over 50, almost 60, years old. You can see a woman in the back carrying a large poster of John Kennedy, so one can assume that it’s either an election party or an inauguration party. It’s something that would place it in November 1960 or January 1961. My guess is November 1960. It comes from a film that was released in 1964 by Mike Shea, called And This Is Free, which is a beautiful depiction of Maxwell Street in Chicago, a flourishing musical area and commercial area, which no longer exists in the way it did back then, of course. For me, coming from the South Side of Chicago, I always thought of this film as ending there. It’s as much about me trying to understand where I’m from, as how my neighbourhood became that way and the significance of Chicago as a conduit to the rest of the world. We came across that shot and it encompassed so much. It was at once modern, as well as being ancient. It was very beautiful. It showed passion and great intimacy. There was something very real about it; something where the people were oblivious of the use of the camera, or seemingly so.
And after all the work and really demeaning and unpleasant situations that you’ve seen people in throughout the film – and really you haven’t seen that many women, it’s mostly been a lot of men – to see this woman dancing was so emblematic of survival and of strength. That story goes on. This is not just an ending but the river continues.
Her expression is an interesting one, which provokes a lot of different ideas. She seems to convey so much in that expression.
Yes, there’s a lot of resolve to her. She’s very serious about her dance and she’s extraordinarily beautiful. That’s what I wanted the film to be.
It certainly was. What are your plans for The Great Flood and what projects are you currently working on?
The Great Flood is being distributed in North America by Icarus Films and they’re doing a phenomenal job with it. They oversaw a successful opening here in New York and also in Los Angeles, and they are now taking it to independent theatres throughout the United States and Canada. There’s also going to be a DVD release in May, again through Icarus Films. We don’t have an international distributor yet, and I am interested in finding a UK distributor.
The Great Flood is released in the US on DVD (R1) and VOD on 20 May 2014.
In terms of my upcoming projects, I’m working on a new long-form doc about an archive that was found in Dawson City in the Yukon territory in the late 1970s, after having been buried in a swimming pool for 50 years. And I just finished a film on World War One with a score by a Serbian composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, which will be performed by The Kronos Quartet. That will premiere in Berkeley, California, and make its international premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. With this film, I worked with the Library of Congress to find footage that other people aren’t able to access on the war. Through soaking and restoration, we were unspooling rolls of film that hadn’t been seen in decades. We’re very much looking forward to the reaction to this film.
Read about Bill Morrison’s Decasia in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology.
Cast: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
When considering Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 film adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear (first rendered for the big screen in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot), I think it’s worth discussing what I did one month prior to laying my eyes on it.
On May 25 of that year, history was about to be made. Friend and colleague Sandi Krawchenko (KY58-AM radio news reporter) and I, the Winnipeg radio station’s precocious 18-year-old movie critic (still on the tail end of high school), were ushered past the hugest line-up for any movie I’d ever seen in my life by the house manager of the Grant Park Cinema. This grand former National General Cinerama hardtop still had its humungous curved screen, which would prove ideal to view the movie we were about to see.
Sandi would be doing a news item and I’d be providing a review. This was big news, after all. Legendary Variety scribe Art Murphy in his box-office-slanted industry review uttered sage words he’d never before slammed onto the page via an Underwood typewriter. Referring to the earning potential of this new movie, he predicted, ‘The sky’s the limit.’
And so it was that the movies would change – forever.
Oddly, I didn’t much care for Star Wars. About an hour into the movie, it started to bore me silly. God knows I loved science fiction and had seen all the Buck Rogers serials from the 40s, every notable SF picture (the good, the bad and the ugly) from the 50s and numerous dystopian masterworks from the 60s and 70s, but for me, it seemed like I was watching a dull, poorly plotted and far too insanely paced version of everything I’d seen and loved. For me, the only saving graces at the time were the indisputably astounding SFX and Harrison Ford.
That was it. I was pretty much infused with an overwhelming feeling of, ‘What’s the big deal?’ (Over the decades since, I’ve attempted to see the movie with fresh eyes, but it’s never really improved for me.) That was an incredibly depressing summer for a precocious movie lover. The same week Star Wars was breaking records, Smokey and the Bandit opened, and its returns, though not sky’s the limit, were definitely through the roof.
The month leading up to my first helping of Sorcerer was a litany of dull, check-your-brain-at-the-door blockbusters and sadly, this kept up for pretty much the rest of my life, though it was at the most egregious levels throughout the 1980s.
* * *
Finally, Sorcerer happened. One month after the crashing disappointment I experienced with Star Wars, I was happy again. Though I’d already seen Clouzot’s Wages of Fear two years earlier in repertory, I somehow had no idea that Friedkin’s film was a remake. All I knew was that it was the latest Friedkin and it had a really cool poster and ad slicks.
The film opens with four slam-bang stories, which each introduce the characters. Never did I have an idea where Sorcerer was going to go during the opening 20-or-so minutes. Even at that early age I preferred being surprised and loathed telegraphing in my movie experiences, and/or even worse, structural tent posts that pretty much told me what I was about to see and where it was going – both sins committed by the boring Star Wars.
During that virginal plunge, as on subsequent sloppy seconds, thirds and fourths, etc. and even now, in the brand new digital restoration overseen by Friedkin, Sorcerer was always and still remains a movie that repeatedly clubs you with a two-by-four across the teeth.
Each opening tale pulsates, as the entire film does, with Tangerine Dream’s heavy electronic score. Friedkin whizzes us all over the world – from Jerusalem (featuring Amidou as a Palestinian terrorist who sets off a deadly bomb), New Mexico (wherein Francisco Rabal presides over a deadly hit), Paris (charting a bank scandal that leads to the flight of bank president Bruno Cremer) and finally, New Jersey (with Roy Scheider as the getaway car driver in an armed robbery gone very wrong).
At this point, during my first helping of the movie, I was still blissfully unaware of Sorcerer’s connection to The Wages of Fear. What I recognized, from so many 70s movies I’d already seen, was that I was watching a hard-driving crime picture full of the kind of existential male angst that tantalized me even as a kid.
I was in Heaven.
Once the movie collects the four men in the hellhole one-mule-town in the middle of Nowheresville, South America, and we follow their squalid, desperate lives in hiding, I do recall that Sorcerer was starting to feel awfully familiar. Once it’s established that the American oil mine has exploded nearby, I realized I was watching a remake. By this point, it mattered not. I was hooked.
From here, Friedkin stays close to the Clouzot. The four desperate men are hired to drive two trucks, one of the vehicles christened with the name ‘Sorcerer’ (no need to spoil how and why for those who’ve not yet partaken), and transport dangerous cartons of nitro across 200 miles of the most rugged territory imaginable. The goal is to get the deadly explosive to the burning rig to blow it out.
Where Friedkin departs from the French Master is in the amount of money he has to play with. Picture, sound and production design are out of this world and in sharp contrast to Clouzot’s, which is a first rate reproduction of South America in France, no less, but sans the tropical jungles and sheer magnitude of the mountains Friedkin gets to play with. Clouzot himself spared no time and expense and indeed, like Friedkin, went over budget. Mind you, not to the tune of over $20million in 1977 dollars.
The drive through the jungles with narrow unkempt roads and breakneck cliff sides is scary as hell. Somehow, Clouzot’s is nail-bitingly suspenseful, to be sure, but Friedkin pushes the envelope with everything his talent, and, frankly, budget can buy. He’s made an existential action picture, but it’s so deliciously over the top that biting our nails is a mere appetizer to the jolts he gives us to inspire the expulsion of heavier loads from within our bowels.
Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green add in a brief, tense and violent confrontation with bandits and don’t explore the tale’s homoerotic angle (which Friedkin needed, no doubt, to save up for Cruising), but it’s basically the same story. The big difference is that Clouzot puts more energy into the characters, treating us to lengthy dialogue scenes and a faith-based Catholic subtext, whereas Friedkin gives us the simple American brushstrokes of what each of the men represents and allows action – not just the manly derring-do, but the physical manner in which the characters conduct themselves – to provide a wholly unique approach to character.
The final haunting ride to the mine stuns us in both versions, but Friedkin places a great deal of emphasis upon a series of horrific optical effects involving double and triple exposures and a variety of colour effects, which again, plunge us closer to horror rather than suspense.
I find it especially interesting that Friedkin employs certain stylistic flourishes one would more likely find in a scary movie, and after seeing the film several times, it makes perfect sense for his terse, stripped-down approach to be juxtaposed with dollops of shock galore. He carves out much of the overt subtext, which Clouzot so expertly weaves into his adaptation, and replaces it with pure visceral terror.
What could be more infused with dread than a suicide run? What could be more terrifying than driving over impossible terrain with nitro in your truck? What could possibly be more downright frightening than the sight of a swinging rope bridge with rotting planks in a torrential downpour with rushing rapids and rocks just below?
When one thinks back on The Exorcist, some of the most chilling aspects of the film are in its first half when Linda Blair’s Regan is being poked, prodded and near-tortured during the endless series of medical tests under the glare of fluorescent hospital lights. These sequences and Friedkin’s approach to Sorcerer are perfectly in keeping with a Val Lewton-esque approach to horror – the things that really scare us are the unknown; the things we are chilled by are the everyday elements within our environment that become aberrations of what we expect. One needs only to listen to Friedkin’s superb analysis of The Leopard Man on the DVD commentary track of Warner Home Video’s legendary box set, The Val Lewton Collection, to find corroboration of this influence (in addition to Friedkin’s early beginnings in news, public affairs and documentary).
Sorcerer, as it turned out, was a complete and utter disaster at the box office during that summer of 1977. Even the critical response ranged from damning at worst, to non-committal at best. I recall sitting in a huge 1000-seat cinema on an opening day showing that had no more than a handful of psychopaths in the audience. Adjusted for inflation, Sorcerer remains, in today’s dollars, a $200-million picture with a gross box office of about half that amount.
Even if it had been released in the pre-Jaws exhibition-distribution environment, which opened the floodgates for the likes of Star Wars to come close to destroying the movies as we knew them, one doubts it would have made that much more coin. However, it might have been enough so that eventual ancillaries would have been more properly exploited to move Sorcerer closer and quicker to a figure far less in the red, if not in a slight black.
The film’s life in home video was spotty during the Beta/VHS era, and once DVD came along, Universal Pictures (one of two studios, the other being Paramount, that were needed to finance it) released an insulting, cropped standard frame version that looked like it had been mastered in a one-light colour timing from a one-inch master used for VHS.
Now, the wrongs might become right again. Friedkin has been able to supervise the 4K digital transfer and restoration to digital Blu-Ray from the original elements. Luckily, for some, a limited theatrical release of Sorcerer awaits us prior to its late-April Blu-ray release in North America.
Sorcerer is released on Blu-ray (R A/1) by Warner Home Video on 22 April 2014. The disc comes only in special packaging with a book and no other added value items.
Here in the Dominion of Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be screening Sorcerer theatrically on 12, 15 and 18 April 2014 as a TIFF Cinematheque Special Screening. This is part of a grand spring series that includes a new 35mm restoration of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, new 35mm prints of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Nagisa Ôshima’s Boy, Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a new digital restoration of the 248 minute ‘roadshow’ version of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, new 4K digital restorations of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House/Hausu, John Sturges’s The Great Escape, Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, and 35mm Archival prints of Humberto Solas’s Lucia and most excitingly, H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear.
As part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season, veteran film director and producer Roger Corman visited London in October 2013 to introduce a screening of his film The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Alex Fitch interviewed the filmmaker about his career from the 1950s to the present day, and continuing on from the first part of the interview, which looked at his work on Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and remixing Russian sci-fi films, here they discuss Corman’s work as a producer and pioneer of new technology.
Read the first part of Alex Fitch’s interview with Roger Corman here.
Alex Fitch: As a producer you’ve garnered a great reputation for finding young talent – directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Hill, Francis Ford Coppola and Joe Dante. Where do you think that instinct came from?
Roger Corman: It came from a specific reason. When I was making low-budget films, I could go for directors, cameramen, art directors, actors, and so forth, who would be all right for the task. Veterans of the industry had a certain level of expertise, but as a young man around Hollywood, I knew some of the brighter young people, and I thought it was better to gamble on somebody I knew and thought had potential, on the basis that even if he or she had less experience – or sometimes no experience – there was a talent there which would get me a better moving picture.
But it does almost seem like you had a bit of a preternatural instinct at finding good talent you could nurture. Were there dozens of people you turned down for every director that you did choose for a project?
More than dozens!
You’ve worked in various genres – science fiction, horror, Westerns. Do you think that in each decade you’ve worked in the business, different genres have reflected different themes of the times?
To a certain extent. I think they reflected my concerns as I’ve moved through time and through my life, and also what was happening at each particular time. For instance, in the 1960s, I moved from the classical Gothic horror films of the Edgar Allan Poe series to things like The Wild Angels (1966) and other Hell’s Angels and biker movies, then on to The Trip (1967) and LSD-inspired movies. They were subjects I was interested in, but they were about what was happening in culture at that time.
Watch the original trailer for The Trip:
Working with people like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, you encouraged them not only to be actors, but also to work behind the camera. Did that go back to your days of having worked on set, and to the idea that to have a proper understanding of film, you need to try out more than one role?
Yes, I like to have everyone working in multiple capacities wherever possible.
Have they given you feedback on how that’s helped their careers?
Jack told me a very interesting story when he was doing The Shining (1980). When he was working with me, people said that I always printed the first take – I didn’t, generally I would use the second, third or maybe fourth take – and he said he did one scene with Stanley Kubrick, where it was over a hundred takes! He’s a good guy: he stood there until his 120th take or something like that, and finally Kubrick said: ’Print’ and that was it. Jack told me that he went up to Stanley and said: ‘I’m with you all the way, but I have to tell you, I generally peak around the 70th or 80th take!’
As the 1970s progressed, you became more of a producer than a director, and helped start the careers of the directors I mentioned. Did you feel like a proud parent as they went off to do other projects for other studios?
I was very pleased, particularly with Joe Dante and Peter Bogdanovich, and with Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron… I always forget to mention somebody, and very often get a call from some Academy Award winner who says: ‘Hey, you forgot me!’
It’s interesting that a lot of those directors have gone on to make movies that cost $100 million and more. I wonder if there’s advice that you might give to directors starting out in the industry, that, actually, if you start off with low budgets – because you know how to efficiently spend money at that level – it prepares you better for the mega-budget films later on?
Yes, and I talked to James Cameron about that after Titanic (1997)… I thought the special effects were great and I said to Jim: ‘How did you do it?’ He said: ‘I just did what I always did for you, I just had more money!’
By the end of the 1970s, you’d become – to use an uncomfortable word – a ‘brand’, with your name above the film title. Did you feel that as people got to know the kind of work you were making, you were under more pressure to deliver films that were beyond their expectations?
I’ve always felt that. I’ve always felt that I should give the audience more than they expect when they come to see a film. Generally that’s happened. Occasionally, it’s not happened.
One aspect of your career that perhaps you’re not that well known for is that you also became a distributor of foreign language films in America, presenting films that perhaps local audiences would have never seen if you hadn’t shown an interest in them. Did you get much in the way of thanks from the industry for doing that?
I don’t know if I got thanks, but I got recognition. What I felt was that I’d built my company New World Pictures into what was really the strongest independent distribution company in the 1970s, and I simply wanted to distribute the films of these auteurs. They were being distributed in two ways: very often by small companies that were little more than aficionados, and didn’t really have distribution strength to book the films the way they should be; or they were distributed by major studios who were great distributors, but for a certain type of film, they didn’t quite understand how these films should be distributed. I felt we were in between. We were small enough to give these films individual attention, but strong enough to book them into the right theatres in the right terms, and I simply wanted to distribute these filmmakers’ work. I wasn’t a charity, I wasn’t going to have nothing out of them, but I wasn’t expecting a big profit. I tried to break even or make a couple of dollars, so we ended up with Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Kurosawa, and the list goes on!
I guess to a certain extent, as you were saying, that meant presenting their films in a certain way because the American audience of the time didn’t know what to expect from international filmmaking.
Well, our general pattern was this: we would open the film in New York and Los Angeles, and get reviews from critics in those two cities. Based on the grosses from there, we would book the films around the country. We had a very interesting way of doing that: we went to a lot of college towns and if we opened, say, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) in somewhere like Detroit, we would then open in Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan, because we found that way we made very big grosses. It became a little more complicated if we opened a film in San Francisco, we’d simultaneously open in Berkeley – home of the University of California – and Palo Alto, where you find Stanford.
Your final film as director was Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and I think it’s a really underrated gem. It’s a film that partially adapts Mary Shelley’s original novel and adds time travel to it. Suitably, one of the themes of the original book is the juxtaposition of old technology and new technology, and Frankenstein Unbound takes that to a different science-fictional level. Was that something you were considering when you made the film?
Those themes were definitely in my mind. What had happened was that Universal Pictures had done some market research and came up with the decision, result or whatever, that the idea of ‘Roger Corman’s Frankenstein’ would be successful, and they asked me if I wanted to make it! I said: ‘No, it’s going to be just another Frankenstein film, and there have been 50 or more of them. It’ll just be the 52nd…’ but they kept coming back to me every six months and kept offering me more and more money!
Finally I thought: if I can just find a new way to do Frankenstein, then I’ll make it. Brian Aldiss – a very good British science fiction author – had written a novel called Frankenstein Unbound, in which a statesman from the 21st century travels back in time and meets Doctor Frankenstein. I thought it was a great idea, but I changed the lead character to a scientist, because I wanted to do exactly what you said, I wanted a scientist of the future with knowledge of all future technology, to go back 200 years or so and meet a scientist at the beginning of modern science. I thought the juxtaposition would be interesting.
Watch the original trailer for Frankenstein Unbound:
But you didn’t film Aldiss’s sequel novel Dracula Unbound. Was it too difficult a book to adapt or did you want go in a different direction?
I just wasn’t quite that delighted with the film I’d made – some of the circumstances were beyond my control – I think I did a fairly decent job, but I felt the years piling up. It was easier, going back to being a producer.
Were you never tempted to direct again as the years progressed?
I’ve thought about it occasionally, but what would I do? There are two things I’d do: I would find a subject that was special to me that I definitely wanted to make, or I might just take the next script that comes off our assembly line and just shoot it as one of those types of films. Somehow I just didn’t get round to doing it.
In recent years you’ve been dealing with new technology. It may be smaller and faster, but there are all the little things like digitizing, adapting to different file formats and so on, to keep the machines happy. It’s not quite as simple as just turning a 35mm camera on…
I’d assumed it was. I felt I’d learned just about as much as you could with 35mm film without becoming a cameraman; digital came in and I only understand a part of it because every 90 days a new camera comes out or there’s a new technique, and it turns out that it’s far more difficult than I thought it was to shoot with. We have a technician on the set at all times doing I have no idea what, but he’s sitting with the cameraman. Then he goes through various stages of the work before you can cut with this stuff. So, I’d assumed this was immediately going to be faster and cheaper… It’s a little faster to shoot, but you lose time and money in the transferring back and forth.
You’ve also been encouraging directors to make what are called ‘micro-budget films’, an example of which was Alex Cox’s Searchers 2.0 (2007). Was that because new technology opened doors to even lower-budget movies than shooting on film, even with the problems you mentioned?
Yes. The idea actually originated with Jon Davison, who started his career with me, first as the head of our advertising department, then as a producer. He went on to produce Robocop (1987) and some giant-sized science fiction films. He’s younger than I am, but semi-retired and he came up with the idea of doing the film and doing it with Alex. The idea seemed to me a very good and interesting one and it wasn’t going to cost that much money, so we did it simply as an experiment. I thought the picture turned out well, I thought Alex and Jon did a very good job.
Watch the original trailer for Searchers 2.0:
You have a cameo in the film as a sort of parody of yourself. Whose idea was that?
It was Jon’s (laughs). You’re the first person to ask me about Searchers 2.0! The film did all right, but we expected more. It was such an unusual film, and it was such a hip idea. At the end we went up to Monument Valley, where John Ford shot many of his Westerns, and had the classic gun fight between the two guys, which I thought was great fun.
Frankenstein Unbound and Searchers 2.0 are available to import to the UK on Region 1 DVD.
I suppose that’s almost an inevitability when you’re working with a director like Alex Cox, who often has references to other movies in his films. It must have been so tempting for him.
It was his idea, originally, and again I thought: ‘This is a really unusual and good idea.’ Like I said, the film did all right, but you never know how things will turn out financially…
We’ve spoken about how you nurtured young talent on the set, and a few years ago, you brought out your autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. I was wondering if any young filmmakers come up to you and say that the book inspired them to work in the industry?
A surprising number have, and they’re not all Americans! I go fairly often to foreign film festivals and people come up to me out of the blue. A director in Odessa, at the Ukrainian film festival last year, said he’d read the book.
Do they say what skills it’s helped give them?
They’re never specific, just in general that it’s helped!
Another example of your use of new technology was Joe Dante’s mini-series Splatter (2009), which you produced. Having watched an episode, the audience could vote on how the story should progress, so for a three-part series, you had to shoot about twelve different variants. Was making cinema interactive something you’d been thinking of previously?
I’d been thinking about it, but the idea came from Netflix. They called me and said ‘Here’s what we’d like to do: three 10-to-15-minute segments of a horror story in which somebody is killed in the first segment and the audience votes on who they want to kill in the second. The second segment must be written, made, edited, and on the air one week later. Then the audience will vote again!’ I took the idea just because I thought it would be fun, that this is something new and an incredible challenge to do everything not in seven days but six, as we had to wait a day for the votes to come in on who was going to be killed. I called Joe and said: ‘This is going to be back to where we all started! Are you interested?’ And he said ‘Yes’ on the same basis that I did. He said: ‘It’ll be a challenge and it’ll be fun.’
It was actually my wife who came up with the solution. She said: ‘What we could really do is shoot the death of everybody in advance and then shoot connecting scenes’, so we’re still doing what the audience says. If they want character A killed in the second episode, we’ll give them that, but everything, including the multiple lines that lead to it, are already shot, and all we have to do is cut it all together to create the death of whoever everyone votes for. That was what enabled us to do the thing on a reasonable budget.
Watch the teaser trailer for the final episode of Splatter:
Do you think working at that speed helps to keep the filmmaking process fresh, because you’re not planning shots endlessly, and you’re working on instinct to a certain extent?
You’re doing both, because generally I do a lot of preproduction, but then during the filming I’m working partially on instinct as you never shoot the picture exactly the way you planned it. If something doesn’t work out or you get a better idea, at least you’re starting from that framework, but improvising as you go along. Maybe that keeps you fresh and it suits my personality – it’s attractive to be somewhere between a sprinter and a long distance runner…
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie
By Chris Nashawaty Abrams
X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film
By John Hamilton Hemlock Books
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2
By John Berra Ed. Intellect
Christmas came early for me this year. I received a copy of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses, which is one of those fantastic coffee-table books that can only be described as ‘lush’. The book is not only beautifully and lovingly put together, but is one of the best and most pleasurable overviews of the formidable Roger Corman’s film career in print. The last few years, especially since Hollywood finally deigned to give Corman an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, have seen his critical star rise and rise. But film fans already realised long before academics did that Roger Corman is a figure of brilliance and wonder in the firmament of American cinema. Without his initial support and chance-taking on novice directors and actors – and the skinflint budgets of Arkoff & Nicholson of American International Pictures (A.I.P) – we may never have had the future pleasure of the company of Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Monte Hellman, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Haskell Wexler, Jonathon Demme and dozens of other directors, writers and actors from the ‘Corman School’. There are substantial interviews and commentaries from these directors, who uniformly speak in praiseworthy, sardonic and anecdotally apt terms of their mentor. When first-timer Ron Howard complained – as many directors had before and after – about the impossible shooting schedule, the small crew and the desperate need for a bit of cash for some extras to shoot a crowd scene, Howard recounts that Corman put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to get you more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’
Abrams have produced a book that is a cornucopia of visuals – poster art, stills and on-set photographs – and unusual for most coffee-table books, includes many pages of informative observation. I am a bit smitten with Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses and consider it my book of the year in the category of film-publishing delectables. Stephen King has called it ‘Fantastic – a treasure trove’ and who am I to disagree? On an interesting note, it has recently been announced that ‘ex-student’ Joe Dante is to make a biopic about Roger Corman, who is now in his mid-80s, and the great man is going to take a cameo role.
In my last column I waxed lyrical about the book Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. And now with the publication of X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film comes a volume that can stand proudly beside it as another informed enthusiast, and inveterate viewer, of films from the ‘wrong side’ of the British cinema-tracks takes us on a journey there. This time the book concerns the other world (and other-worldly) domain of lesser known and barely remembered British horror films. And these films are not ‘independent’ in the American indie sense, but independent in terms of vision (very blurry in the case of some), finance, studio backing and producers. John Hamilton has obviously done his homework here – not in theoretical but in historic and cultural terms – with lively notes on each film’s anatomy, plot and reception. At the end of each entry is a clever segue into the next, which serves as a great aid to continuity and chronology. Not to be missed for fans of the genre or those interested in films that critics like C.A. Lejeune of The Observer and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times denigrated and dismissed from their imagined ‘quality British cinema’ agenda. But now the cinematic undead rise from their celluloid tombs, and are being heard because John Hamilton has given them voice. Recommended.
The Intellect imprint continues to push out its titles thick and fast, with recent additions to two of its ongoing series, World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema. The former focusses on the role of particular international cities and their place visually, culturally and sometimes psychogeographically within the cinematic forum, while the latter concentrates on national cinemas and has provided a much-needed publishing niche for overviews of both well and less well-known world cinemas. Latin America and Turkey are two such recent additions to the series, while American Independent 2 bucks the thematic trend somewhat by focussing on American indie cinema (a typology of production type) rather than following the usual strict, national cinema format.
For more information on all recent additions to Intellect’s World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema series visit the Intellect website.
Of course, the whole issue of ‘independent’, given the continuing practice of corporate Hollywood taking control of many ‘independent’ films in terms of distribution (and finance), is a convoluted one, as editor John Berra touches upon in his introductory overview. I have come to trust Berra’s opinions and observations (he is a recurring name at Intellect as editor and contributor) and this particular title is insightful and will prove to be referentially useful for students of film. Just as Turkey and Latin America will likewise prove to be as introductory texts to various national cinemas which we often do not hear enough about. The series usually starts off with an essay on the ‘film of the year’, which seems a curious strategy, given that by the time the book is published it is already dated, because the film festival circuit has usually already presented the one of the following year. Far better, I feel, to subsume the key film within the body of the text and not chance perceived obsolescence. As for the series on film locations, I suggest that any cinephile or traveller who wants to get a handle on their chosen destination in terms of the cinematic – and hence cultural, social, historical and political – background gets hold of a copy about the place in question before leaving home. This could well change your whole itinerary.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
In keeping with the above theme of Roger Corman and A.I.P, this edition of Cine Lit’s object of note is the enjoyable romp that is the memoir of Samuel Arkoff, who along with lawyer James Nicholson founded A.I.P., the company that launched – well, sustained! – a thousand drive-in screens across North America. While bunking off for an afternoon from the Toronto Film Festival to haunt the second-hand bookstores, I found a hardcover copy of the memoir, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants (Birch Lane Press, 1992), for the very reasonable price of $4.99. This tongue-in-cheek look back at Arkoff’s misadventures in the ‘picture business’ (the subtitle is The Man Who Brought You I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF & MUSCLE BEACH PARTY ) is an important historical document of the period, as well as an insightful look at ‘the business’. Arkoff was one of the last cigar-chompin’ independent showmen whose verve, swagger and chutzpah drove him to produce over 375 films, about which he writes: ‘AIP’s pictures have always just taken audiences out of their everyday world and transported them somewhere else. Today’s movies use their big budgets as selling points and they still don’t hit an audience half as hard as ours always have.’ Those who got their first chance with A.I.P collectively gave us such gems as: The Wild Angels, How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, Bloody Mama, House of Usher, The Thing With Two Heads, Blacula, Cannibal Girls, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Trip and the unforgettable The Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy. ‘Nuff said… SAVE THIS BOOK. JE
Screening as part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season. For more information visit the BFI website
Dates: 26 November 2013 (The Pit and the Pendulum), 27 November 2013 (The Masque of the Red Death)
Venue: BFI Southbank
As part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season, veteran film director and producer Roger Corman visited London in October 2013 to introduce a screening of his film The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The season also includes Corman’s lurid and unforgettable film The Masque of the Red Death (1964), the penultimate movie in his sequence of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.
In the first part of his interview with Roger Corman, Alex Fitch talks to the legendary director and producer about his early career, the differences between shooting in monochrome and colour, and his art of remixing other people’s movies.
Alex Fitch: You produced your first film at the age of 28 and directed your first film a year later. In terms of the start of your career, you trained as an industrial engineer before having a moment of clarity and realising that you’d made a terrible mistake. You worked as a mail boy at Twentieth Century Fox, then a script reader. Working at the fringes of the film industry at that point, was it a challenge to work your way up the ladder?
Roger Corman: It was very hard. At that time there were very few independents – there were some but not very many – almost everything was done within studios. The studios were 100% unionised, and you couldn’t get in to the union without all kinds of things happening. The only position in the studio that was not unionised was the messengers.
I suppose it’s quite similar today, that you get loads of people breaking into the British film industry by working as runners to get their foot in the door.
The genres that you mainly worked in during the 1950s were Westerns, Horror, Gangster movies. Were they genres you were already interested in as a cinemagoer, or did you see a gap in the market?
A combination of both. Then, and to this day, the films I make are partially things I’m interested in, and partially things I believe will work in the market place. It’s the old statement: motion pictures are part art and part business.
You’ve gone back and forth between being a producer and being a director. Are they both roles you love equally?
I liked it best when I was producer and director, because as a producer/director, you truly are this overused word ‘auteur’; you are responsible specifically for what is going on. When I was a director only, I chafed a little bit at some of things suggested or sometimes ordered by the producer. When I’m a producer only, I’m sometimes amazed at some of the choices the directors make.
How hands on are you as a producer? Do you generally – when you’ve chosen someone – trust in their vision, or occasionally do you have to give them a prod?
As a producer I’m probably less hands on than just about any other producer I know; that is, I’m less hands on during the shooting. I’m very much there during preproduction and postproduction. The pictures are almost always ideas I’ve come up with: I’ll write a three-to-five page treatment, then hire a writer to do the screenplay, then bring in the director. Generally, I’ll bring in the director before the final draft of the screenplay, so that he gets his input into the screenplay, so it’s something he understands and can work with. Then I’ll collaborate or work with the director a great deal before shooting, particularly on the themes, how he plans to shoot, what his emphases are, what his interpretations of the characters are. So, I’m really there, all through preproduction, but once production starts, I just totally step away. I know some producers who are sitting there all day long, every day during shooting. To me there’s nothing duller than sitting on the set watching somebody else direct the picture. I’ll be there the first morning, and – if it’s all going well – by noon, I’ve left the set and probably will never come back.
Also, I suppose it’s unnerving for the director if the producer is always looking over their shoulder…
…and particularly, the first pictures on which I was a producer only, I found that the crews were coming to me, asking me questions that they should have been asking the director, and that was one of my reasons for stepping away. I know that having been a director, the director wants to be in charge, and should be, on the set.
Conversely, with the very first films you worked on in the 1950s, you were sitting in on the sets, to learn the craft by watching other people?
Yes. The first two films I produced, I was on the set every day. On the first film I was partially a grip, and I was the only producer/truck driver! I drove the truck as well… We shot the picture in a week. I would drive to the location, unload as much of the equipment as I could by myself, before the crew arrived, in order to save the amount of time they had to spend, and I’d be there all day. At the end of the day, the grips would load the heavy equipment onto the truck, everybody would leave, I would load the rest of the equipment and drive home, and repeat it the next day.
…and I suppose when you’re making low-budget movies, it garners you respect if you’re one of the gang…
They knew that I was working as hard, or harder than they were!
A series of films that you worked on, possibly your most renowned period of work, were the Technicolor Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1960s. Having worked on low budget black and white films in the 1950s, moving to colour must have created all sorts of new challenges – not as prevalent in monochrome – set dressing, lighting, costume design and so on. How did you find that experience? Was it at all terrifying or did you find it a natural progression?
It was a natural progression. There was very little change in the way I worked. I used the camera a little bit differently, and after talking to the cameraman, I was lighting a little bit differently. Danny Haller – a great friend of mine – was our art director, and he and I would discuss the sets. We worked with different colour schemes and patterns on the sets.
Watch the trailer for The Pit and the Pendulum:
You probably brought Poe to an entirely new audience. Did you feel at that time that he was a writer being under represented in the cinema?
Yes, I felt that Poe was under represented and was really not getting the attention he deserved in the American canon. He was thought of as an interesting writer, but not really one of the great writers, and I always felt he was one of the greats.
Presumably he still had a good reputation, so did that make it easier to choose him as the subject of your first colour movies?
Actually my first colour movie was a Western, but after that, with my next colour films, I chose Poe because I wanted to do an Edgar Allan Poe picture. I’d been making these ten-day, black-and-white films, two of them would go together as a double bill, and I convinced American International Pictures that they should let me go shoot for three weeks and make a picture in colour, and that was The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).
Towards the end of your Poe cycle, you had a young Nicholas Roeg as your cinematographer, shooting The Masque of the Red Death (1964). What was he like?
He was one of the best cinematographers I ever worked with. He was very inventive and his use of colour… We had discussed it before shooting started, and he went beyond what I anticipated. I thought the film was beautifully shot.
Watch the trailer for The Masque of the Red Death:
At the same time you were making those Poe films, you helped young directors remix various Russian sci-fi films that you’d bought the rights to. The art of remixing foreign films already existed, started with films like Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), Invasion of the Animal People (1959), and later in the 60s, Woody Allen would do What’s up, Tiger Lily? (1966), but it felt that you were almost nurturing a new art form.
Well, it was a new form, I’m not certain it was a new art form! What I was doing with the Russian science fiction films… I’d seen one of them and American science fiction films were very popular – I made a number of them myself – but we were making them on very low budgets and I’d seen this Russian film, which was clearly made on a big budget, a giant budget. It had wonderful sets and wonderful special effects, far superior to what we were doing. They only problem was the anti-American propaganda, so I wasn’t so much recutting the films as such, I was removing the anti-American sentiment. That was Francis Ford Coppola’s first job – cutting the propaganda out of Russian science fiction films.
It was pretty wild. I remember I went to Moscow to buy those films and they had incredible anti-American propaganda in them. We of course had anti-Russian propaganda, but our propaganda was one tenth of theirs. Theirs was really outrageous, and I said to this guy in Moscow: ‘You know I’m going to have to cut this anti-American feeling, I’m going have to cut it all out.’ He laughed and said: ’I know that!’
By the time you got to Queen of Blood (1966), Curtis Harrington used about three different Russian films, so it really does feel like a remix of found footage.
At that time, it was our found footage! The only time I really did that was on these science fiction films.
Although, a film you produced in the late 1970s – Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) – you did reuse that later on in your career, with bits of special effects here and there, and I believe the score reappeared in a number of your films. Was it a project you were so proud of, you thought: ‘Let’s keep getting it out there?’
I was proud of it and also there was an economic factor. It was one of James Horner’s first scores, a brilliant score and really better than what I was getting from other composers. So, it just seemed illogical not to use his score again. We always used it in science fiction films. With the special effects, I was reusing primarily space ships that were designed by James Cameron. His first time in Hollywood was designing those model spaceships.
Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration)
Based on the novel Heart of Darkness by: Joseph Conrad
Cast: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Frederick Forrest, Albert Hall
Apocalypse Now is a modernist novel made film in more ways than one. The opening montage is a palimpsest of a Dante-esque, napalm fuelled hell, with Martin Sheen’s blank Hindu stare inverted and staring back; all to the sound of The Doors basically announcing ‘in the end is my beginning’ to quote T. S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’. It won’t be the last quotation.
From the mission-inciting Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) quoting Lincoln to Dennis Hopper’s veritable golden treasury of verse (Kipling and Eliot again), Francis Ford Coppola litters his film with literary associations like an anxious host leaving books scattered artfully around an apartment before a dinner party. In fact, the camera drifts over Kurtz’s bedside reading – From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. Both books were vital to the writing of ‘The Wasteland’, almost as if Kurtz is Eliot and ‘The Wasteland’ the poem he is writing around himself, shoring up his fragments. He reads a stanza of Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, tactfully neglecting the Conrad quotation at the front of the poem which reads ‘Mistuh Kurtz, he dead’. In searching him out, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) will basically read himself up the river, as he pours over the files and narrates with the jaded literary tone of Michael Herr’s tersely perfect Marlovian (though Chandler, more than Conrad) wit.
The film is based on the key modernist text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Coppola reiterates in every audio commentary and documentary (see Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991) that he took the book to the shoot instead of the script; that he read Brando the book from cover to cover as a way of getting him into the role; that he increasingly saw the book as his inspiration rather than the more straightforward war movie screenwriter John Milius had envisioned. (Ironically, Conrad also began writing basic adventure yarns, before making a move for something altogether more ambitious with this enigmatic novella.) Coppola was also aligning himself with Orson Welles, who had famously failed to adapt Conrad’s book for his debut film, the first of what was to become a string of tantalisingly failed projects. What’s more, his self-aggrandising myth valorises the confusion and chaos of the production as part of his process: every film Coppola makes somehow takes on the modus operandi of its subject and so Apocalypse Now becomes Heart of Darkness, becomes Vietnam.
Putting the rumbling of the gigantic production to one side, the film is actually a remarkably tight and accomplished piece of work – especially when compared to the flabby, dissipated and unnecessary Redux released in 2001. After the hallucinatory, drunken visions of the opening, the film takes a brisk cold shower, lays on some riveting exposition and gets on the boat – and of course the boat, called the Erebus (not Marlow’s more prosaic Nelly), like the Orca in Jaws and the Pequod in Moby Dick is a symbol/cross-section of male America. On board, we have the relaxed, spaced out and utterly untrustworthy Lance (Sam Bottoms), the jumpy New Orlean Chef (Frederick Forrest), the black youngster Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Chief Philips (Albert Hall), the father figure and conscience. Sheen’s Willard, on the other hand, is basically ‘American involvement in Vietnam’ embodied. He’s the reason they’re all where they are: he’s the one who refuses to turn back and he remains ambivalent to the purpose of his mission, unsure of whether he will fulfil it or not but morbidly, cynically fascinated by the journey. In this, he resembles Kinski’s Aguirre on Xanax, viciously unconcerned about the damage he is causing, casually murdering a wounded unarmed woman merely to speed up his mission. His wistful unperturbed gaze at the horrors and the self-satisfied rightness of his narration – ‘charging someone with murder here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’ – makes him the cool appraising judgement that Brando’s Kurtz is so neurotically afraid of. Willard has found the total freedom that comes with obeying orders (especially orders that don’t officially exist) and he has come to murder the more agonised freedom of Kurtz’s, making it up as he goes along. ‘You disapprove of my methods?’ Kurtz asks when they meet. ‘I don’t see any method at all,’ Willard waspishly responds.
Despite ‘the horror, the horror’ of Kurtz’s mad excess, Apocalypse Now is an unrelentingly beautiful film. Following David Lean’s lead in the famous poppy field scene in Doctor Zhivago, Coppola realises that war can be both brutal and gorgeous. The Ride of the Valkyries is justifiably regarded as one of the best sequences American cinema has produced, but Chef’s search for mangos and Lance’s LSD inspired wandering with Willard in search of a commanding officer are just as dazzlingly filmed. When Lance disposes of the chief’s body, the corpse almost dissolves in the molten and golden light of the river. The darkness is aesthetically luxuriated in as Brando’s wonderful pate dips in and out of it like warm water. And Kurtz himself is a knowingly theatrical presence, whose set decoration is too avant-garde for the authorities, but who at least has the opportunity to script and direct his own leaving of the scene.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews