Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tackling the Twelve: The War Lord

The release on UK DVD last week of The War Lord (Franklin Schaffner, 1965) finally gave me the opportunity to see another in my list of Twelve.
Schaeffner's film comes from the last wave of Hollywood Epics in the mid-60s, before New Hollywood emerged and cinema began to reflect the culture of the decade. It follows Chrysagon (Charlton Heston), a Norman Knight who is charged with taking over a Castle in the marshlands of Normandy to serve the interests of his master, an unseen Duke. The area around the Tower is frequently attacked by Frisian raiders who arrive Viking-style from the sea. The leader of these Frisians was responsible for the death of Chrysagon's father, also a legendarily heroic Knight. As well as this, Chrysagon has to contend with the malign influence of his devious, sarcastic, jealous brother Draco (Guy Stockwell) and maintain good relations with the Druidic, pagan locals, who have their own agenda.

The War Lord is the first film where Schaffner displayed a talent for handling an Epic scale in his work. Afterwards, he would go on to direct some massively scaled films - Patton (1970), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Lionheart (1987) spring to mind - but the feel of Epic storytelling, a certain grandeur in his staging and shooting style, is evident even in "smaller" films, like Planet of the Apes (1968) and Papillon (1973). As this list indicates, in his time Schaffner was a major commercial director who made Big, Serious, Important, somewhat stodgy films. But he always had a good eye and confidently handled his large canvas storytelling. In the mid-60s when he made The War Lord, he was coming off the success of the political drama The Best Man (1964), which had been based on Gore Vidal's play. So it must have seemed a good fit to entrust him with another theatrical adaptation - The War Lord is based on Leslie Stevens' The Lovers. As it happens, the theatrical origins of the film lend it a schizophrenic quality: it is full of intense scenes of dialogue bearing much of the thematic load, mostly set within the Tower where all of the films big male egos bump up against one another. But it is also a battle Epic, and the last reel is focused almost entirely upon the siege of the tower by the Frisians, while there is a big set-piece battle inside the film's first fifteen minutes. Schaffner is great at action and these scenes are muscular, coherent and exciting.

The more theatrical elements are weaker, though they are fascinating. The story is concerned with religion and politics - oddly contemporary territory - as the Christian Normans find themselves flummoxed by and disdainful of the "pagan" locals, who follow Druids and seem to live by vaguely New Age principles involving worship of nature. The actual plot complicates this, as Heston's Chrystagon is exhausted by his years of War and a little sickened by what he has seen of the World to the extent that he seems unmoved by either religion. He then falls in love with a local girl, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth) and his consequent meddling in local affairs leads inevitably to trouble.

Heston, so good in the action scenes, is probably the film's big weak point. The theatrical nature of much of the film doesn't suit him, however. In his other big Epics, Anthony Mann's magnificent El Cid (1961) and Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959), the drama is heightened and more operatic, his character outsized, his speeches better suited to his hammy, somewhat fevered delivery. Here, everything is decidedly more intimate and more of an attempt is made at emotional realism. He doesn't have the skill as an actor to express Chrystagon's inner conflict, which should be the crux of the films emotional scheme. He grimaces and sweats and frowns, but he is inescapably wooden and seems as far from real emotion as anyone in the film. He is best in the early scenes where Chrystagon is tired and grumpy, something Schaffner seems to have picked up on, for he again utilizes that (arrogant, superior) Heston in Planet of the Apes, particularly in the long early monologue Heston has onboard the ship.

One of the most troubling aspects of his performance is his inability to express desire. The film is concerned, at least partly, with sex. Chrysagon is sexually frustrated - he admits it has been too long since he "embraced" a woman - after years of warfare, and he instantly wants Bronwyn when he first encounters her naked in a river. But he is awkward and clumsy with her, especially when she reveals her virginity to him. The problem is that when Heston gazes at her, he just looks angry. The suggestion may be that he is contemplating rape - his men certainly expect him to take what he needs from the girl, with or without her consent - but for me, it looks like Heston is simply incapable of the nuance required to show how he really feels. He glares huffily at her and she looks frankly terrified. Forsyth is beautiful but her character is barely existent, and when the pair do fall in love, it seems sudden and unconvincing. There is the possibility that she responds to the odd vulnerability in Chrysagon, and she also seems slightly discomfited by the expectations her Druidic tribe place upon her, but the film does not do enough to make a certainty of either of these possibilities.

So what does work? Well, with Russell Metty photography and music by Jerome Moross, the film always looks and sounds classy. The supporting cast is correspondingly strong; particularly Richard Boone putting that steel bear-trap face to great use as Bors, Chrysagon's brooding second, and Guy Stockwell as the Iago-like Draco. And the sidelines of the story are filled with interesting, colourful detail; from the pagan Wedding ceremony to the dwarf in Chrysagon's party who drags a captured Frisian child around with him on a rope. But it was unmistakeably shot in California and the stagey, overlit scenes in the Tower are perhaps even more claustrophobic than intended.
All of which makes it a slight disappointment for me. For Schaffner, the only way was up.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

2000-10 In Westerns - The Missing

Every single time a new Western gets released, I read a review or profile piece somewhere which contains this statement: The Western is Dead.
Well, to massively oversimplify, and speaking relatively and in purely commercial terms, this may be true. In the 1930s and 40s, the Western genre was Hollywood's staple diet, as the studios churned out a relentless stream of cheap and cheerful programmers, B-features and serials. By the 1950s, the industry had changed and Westerns were less popular. They had also gone more mainstream and attracted big budgets, big directors and big stars. Back then, a lot of Westerns still got made by Hollywood. This continued into the 1960s, when the revisionism of many of the Italian Westerns reinvigorated the genre. They also came close to burying it, them and the cultural change which gripped the Western world in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. Who could buy the old black hat white hat conflicts of the Classical Western in a world of napalm and riot police killing students in campus protests? The Western survived by becoming even more revisionist and cynical. There was also the ubiquity of the genre in Western (more specifically American) culture throughout the 50s and 60s. Not just in cinema but on television, in Dime novels, in comic books - this was a played out genre, it seemed. By the end of the 1970s, the genre had become marginalised. One - or perhaps two - Hollywood Westerns were made a year, and they generally had little commercial impact unless they were made by and starring Clint Eastwood. This state of affairs has continued, more or less, to the present day, with the occasional nostalgic Western enjoying some success (Silverado or Tombstone, for instance), and the odd success for a romp in Western clothing (Maverick) or a stately, serious, Oscar-bait Western (Dances With Wolves). But Westerns, by and large, are no longer a major commercial genre.

But this is a genre which will not die. It is too rich, too flexible, too classically pleasurable. Any kind of story you want to tell, you can tell it as a Western. And Westerns are made for cinema - those landscapes, the spectacle, the simple drama of the conflicts and themes. The 00s were, against the odds, a great decade for Westerns. I say this without even considering the many sub-genres that thrived during the decade: the Modern Western (Brokeback Mountain, No Country For Old Men, even There Will Be Blood), the Asian Western (good, bad & Weird, django sugiaki) and the Tarantino Western-appropriation (Kill Bill I & II, Inglourious Basterds). No, the Western itself, about the American frontier and law and order, filled with unmistakable iconography - it too enjoyed a marvellous decade.
And so, the first of a series, hopefully:

The Missing
Ron Howard's best film (by far) is sort of a sidelong remake of The Searchers. Sometimes it feels like all movies are remakes of The Searchers. The premise of John Ford's adaptation of Alan LeMay's novel has acquired enough mythic weight - through repetition, perhaps, or just through the power of its purity and simplicity to have transformed into something of a generic staple - a base-myth, not unlike the gunfighter-cleans-up-town plot familiar from Shane and a hundred other films. The Movie Brat generation of the New American cinema of the 1970s certainly churned out multiple takes on the material, including Star Wars, Hardcore, and Taxi Driver. All of these films focus on a man in search of a young woman who he needs to rescue and/or redeem. Scorsese makes the reference most obvious by naming Harvey Keitel's villainous pimp "Scar" and giving him the long hair of an Indian Brave, but Lucas, too, steals some images and emotions outright from Ford. The most obvious is the scene where Luke Skywalker returns to his Tattooine farm to discover it raided and destroyed by Imperial Forces. Lucas returned to The Searchers with the Tattooine sequences of Attack of the Clones, where even the framing is taken directly from Ford.

Howard's film is a more literal remake, its plot following the fortunes of a Frontier widow who returns to her farm one day to find it raided by a band of Indians, who have abducted her teenage daughter and tortured and murdered her farmhand lover. She sets off in pursuit, joined by her recently arrived prodigal Father, who appears to have gone native as an Indian himself.
Thomas Eidson's source novel is a taut b-western written with a more modern sensibility and voice, which means it ascribes motivations, gestures towards themes and its prose aims at some poetic lyricism. But the characterisation and iconography are firmly rooted in the classic Western of the 40s and 50s.

Howard's adaptation of the novel is dark - so dark its hard to believe that Howard directed it - startlingly violent and features a strong, classy cast headed by Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones. Jones in particular is fabulous, and he was born to act in Westerns, seeming as at home in that world as any actor since Walter Brennan. He has something weathered and elemental about him, and that Texan presence seems to suit these landscapes. As does the air of melancholy he lends to his character, a man bowed by regret and struggling to make amends. The plot chiefly concerns the long pursuit of father and daughter of the missing girl and climaxes in the battle to reclaim and keep her. This allows Howard to give us a short tour of the West, and so we get to see Val Kilmer in a brief, somewhat distracting cameo as a Cavalry Officer, among other notable sights.

Like Eidson's book, The Missing is essentially a classical pulp piece, here a b-movie with the production values and gloss of a big modern studio picture, bearing the obvious influence of the revisionist Westerns of the last two decades. This means that while it sometimes feels a little slight, its a sensually pleasurable watch, due in part to Salvatore Totino's beautiful phtography. Some of its other virtues are a vivid portrayl of the frontier world it portrays, tough action sequences and an emotionally effecting character relationship at its centre. Howard, ever the competent craftsman, makes it as gripping as a modern thriller, and its pacing is never as deliberate as was once mandatory in the Western genre. What it brings to the genre are the strong female lead - Blanchett plays her heroine as a tough, calloused woman who hides her femininity from the tough world she exists in. It was made some years after the brief wave of Female Westerns which included the likes of Bad Girls, The Quick & the Dead and The Ballad of Little Jo, and it benefits from the distance. Here the feminist reading of the genre has been internalised and is significantly less didactic than in some of those films.

Another element which has developed during the revisionist era is the treatment of Indian Mysticism. While its often celebrated for its more New Age, Humanist qualities - this tendency unsurprisingly originating in the psychedelic era of the late 60s - here it is unequivocally a black magic. The villain is an Indian Witch Doctor with a Jonah Hex-style facial disfigurement and a way with powder, potion and rattlesnake, played by Eric Schweig (Uncas from Mann's The Last of the Mohicans). He is a great Western bad guy - terrifying, mysterious, unpredictable. He is also perhaps the most arresting and unusual part of Howard's film, which is a good if never spectacular modern Western. Its failure - both commercial and critical - was disappointing if unsurprising. It is a rare Western that makes a splash at the Box Office in today's cinematic climate, and The Missing is not such a film.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Credit Where Its Due

Watching a new Cop show is always a risk for the viewer. Such well-trodden ground, so many gimmicky angles, such a weight of cliche bearing down. Are you going to get something revelatory and transcendent like The Wire, or a slight twist on a familiar formula, like the many CSI-inspired shows of the last decade (Bones, Numbers, Lie to Me, The Mentalist etc)?
When CSI premiered, nobody could have possibly predicted the impact it would have, though in retrospect its simplicity and the appeal of its formula seem obvious: a slick Bruckheimer gloss applied to an almost Holmesian procedural. The (generally imaginative) crimes and the style are the franchise's real stars.

Its success has meant that the majority of Cop shows that survive their first Season are in some way echoing it. The influence of more idiosyncratic and difficult shows like The Wire and The Shield is much harder to detect, perhaps because they are both so distinctive and accomplished. Quirkier and edgier treatments of the old genre tend to falter. The Unusuals, creator Noah Hawley's 2009 comedy-drama about the mordant wit of some New York Homicide detectives, was an interesting take, distinguished by some great writing and a fine cast including Jeremy Renner, Adam Goldberg and Amber Tamblyn. Of course ABC cancelled it after a single underwatched Season.

In this environment, a show like Southland seems resolutely old-fashioned, the kind of traditional product of the genre that the combination of CSI and The Wire seemed to have killed off sometime in the last decade. A multi character ensemble drama, following the experiences of several different police officers through different cases (which sometimes link up but often do not), Southland was created by Ann Biderman, a writer on Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue, perhaps the last such old-school Cop drama to achieve true popular success. It recalls lots of other shows from down the years - Hill Street Blues, most obviously, but also the exceptional Homicide: Life on the Street and the more recent Third Watch and BoomTown.
Southland spreads its gaze across a relatively wide range of Cops, following two patrolmen as they cruise the streets of LA, but also focusing on several detectives in the same department. We get glimpses of their personal lives as they deal with various cases. One has a troubled relationship with his young wife, another struggles with a rebellious teenage daughter, yet another cares alone for her aging mother and tries to deal with her own loneliness. Then there is the rookie beat cop - a Beverly Hills Lawyer's son who the others see as a tourist.

So far, so cliche, and Southland certainly does nothing that hasn't been seen before. Its strength lies in in the general high standard of its writing, performances and direction, and the fact that these days its old-fashioned ensemble storytelling seems almost radical. It is never really slick, trusting instead in the virtues that made Hill Street Blues so popular decades ago. If this makes it occasionally hamfistedly predictable, mawkish and derivative, it also works. These storylines feel authentic, and these cops are cynical and bowed by their job in a way that feels real but not utterly stereotypical. The criminal cases flit across the screen in a few scenes, their brevity - there are murders and abandoned children alongside petty drug use and traffic offenses - a sort of indictment of how the prolonged success of this genre has jaded generations of TV viewers. Only fiendishly complex crimes move us now.

The most impressive element of Southland, however, is its opening credit sequence, which is interesting both on its own terms and for its place in the evolution of the genre and, indeed, of the credit sequence. Realist cop dramas once featured credit sequences structured around their casts. Hill Street Blues is a classic example. It intersperses establishing shots of patrol cars in grim, wintry city streets with clips of characters and credits over headshots of the principals. It has an arresting opening - a garage door swings upwards and open and a police car appears under the first few bars of Mike Post's lovely, melancholy theme. This was perhaps the chief innovation of this particular sequence - it introduced melancholy, an ache and introspection into what had previously been a rather bombastic area. Hill Street Blues was many things as a television drama, but it always held that throb of pain, its characters troubled, its subject matter dark. That credit sequence acknowledge this and perhaps readied the viewer for it.

Miami Vice was far from a realist show. It was heightened in almost every respect - ultraviolent, decadent in its glamour, always cool, probably the single most stylish show ever seen on television to that point. In the world of 1980s TV, every episode of Miami Vice looked and played more like a movie than a television show. As such, its credits were unlike those of any other programme. It almost denied the importance of its cast, its narrative and genre. Instead these credits play out like an advert for Miami tourism. This sequence is all about place and atmosphere - a stream of shots of beautiful locations and local colour, such as girls in bikinis, flamingos flocking, pelota, sports cars, modernist architecture, speedboats. As a young boy when the show was at its peak, I loved the credits sequence as much as I loved the show itself. It seemed impossibly exciting. Jan Hammer's great theme was a big part of that. It was cool and modern, just like Miami seemed to be, is what those credits said, just like this show was.

Miami Vice changed TV and especially Cop shows. You can draw a link from it straight to CSI. Another highly influential show was NYPD Blue, which seemed stylistically radical when it premiered in 1993. All those handheld cameras, shaking and juddering around, characters falling out of frame, focus suddenly shifting - it was brand new on television, and it breathed new life into the genre. The credit sequence is influenced by Miami Vice - it wants to suggest the clamour of New York City, the mad rush and tumult of it, and so the first thirty seconds are a furious fast-cut montage of street scenes with abrupt focus pulls, cars and people flitting rapidly through the foreground, the cast interspersed through it as if they too have been caught on camera documentary-style. Then it softens - a muted keyboard replaces the thunderous drums of the first section, and we get a pretty standard selection of credits shots with the cast listed over clips. This lack of focus on the cast would allow it to turnover regularly over the next decade. The drum tattoo returns for the last ten seconds or so, to remind us that this show is different, its urban, its New York.

Homicide: Life on the Street premiered at around the same time as NYPD Blue to much less success, which is a shame, because it was much better. But it was also artier, a dry, witty, blackly funny - though sometimes caustically angry and serious - take on the genre. Its credit sequence, put together by Mark Pellington with music by Lynn F Kowal, is correspondingly arty - all tone, mood and place. The shots of Baltimore are all canted and elliptical, the camera moving in odd directions. The entire sequence is monochrome, the stark black and white of how the Homicide detectives saw their jobs - there are no grey areas with murder. The music never seems to really get started - there are ghosts of melody floating in it, odd ambient sounds. We see the cast, their faces lit in patches in a darkened room. Their names flash at us over shots of pinwheeling lights, a seeming nocturnal cityscape moving this way and that, in the last passage.

Homicide gave birth to The Wire, in a sense. The credits for The First Season of the Wire set out the shows stall instantly - Baltimore, ambiguity, surveillance. By now, credits served as a shorthand for viewers. You could tell how classy and intelligent a show was by the state of its credits. The Wire - muted, subtle and bluesy - was unmistakably something new, for all its formulaic elements.

The credits from the original CSI resembled nothing so much as a trailer. "Who Are You" by the Who plays over the top, as a bombastic series of images is thrown at the screen, colour filters prominent, everybody looking constantly annoyed. CSI is too impressively robotic to allow for anything as a soft as melancholy and so these credits are instead sleek and fast-moving, slick and brutally paced.

Southland seems to have taken its model for credits not from another TV show (though there are echoes of Law & Order here) but from a film - James Gray's 2007 We Own the Night. Gray's film opened with credits formed entirely from vintage police and crime scene photos by the likes of the legendary Weegee, and built up a strange power as its images played out, backed by a Jackie Gleason instrumental. The Southland sequence has learned this lesson brilliantly, taking an excerpt from "Cançao do Mar" by Dulce Pontes and covering it with powerful shots of LA police over the last century or so. it seems more stately and serious than the show itself, and it possesses a rare quality in TV credit sequences these days; beauty.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Vintage Trailer of the Week 49

When I heard about Dennis Hopper's recent death, my first thought wasn't of Easy Rider or Blue Velvet, the obvious and most-mentioned references which dominated the many obituaries in the media.
Instead I thought first of his great scene with Christopher Walken in True Romance. And then, I thought of Out of the Blue (1980), his third film as director, and one of the great lost films of the 80s. Starring the eerily brilliant Linda Manz from Malick's Days of Heaven alongside Hopper, featuring Neil Young songs, its grim and moving and often hard to watch. But definitely worthwhile.