Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 7, 2007


When it comes right down to it, 1971 was mired in chaos. The Beatles had disbanded, the Kennedys were either dead or hip deep in career cleansing scandal, and the civil rights movement had been usurped by a basic human need among the minority classes simply to stay alive. America took weaponry against itself, as armed youths killed their “educated” alter egos at Kent State while the “silent majority” propagandized a steadfast “love it or leave it” mentality for all to conform to. The anti-war revolution had long gone Madison Avenue and Hollywood, with rebels as well known as their targets of distrust and frustration. There was still a belief that power in the people via politics could cure the country of its present ills, even as more vital men were sent off to meet their end in the rice fields and jungles of Asia.


Years later, Tinseltown just loves to explore the extremes of both sides of the peace sign path. Artists like Oliver Stone have made entire careers out of milking the militant juices from both philosophies for all their cinematic gold. But they never seem to spend time in the middle, in the eye of this ideological storm, preferring to skirt around the outside. Only one work dared to describe the psychic shift circa 1971, to try and condense the wounded spirit of a befouled generation into words and stories. Many thought it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The fact that, 36 years later, it is championed as a work of rare insight and power speaks for the willingness for self-examination that existed in the early ‘70s.


So it’s not surprising that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reverberates as strongly as it does, even some three and a half decades down the hash pipe. In its stream of altered consciousness exploration of the US landscape it defines the turbulent moment when conservative society, backed by a paranoid President, stood its ground and decided to take back the nation from the creative and the crazy, one radical or hippie life at a time. It’s the action verb linking the Summer of Love to the My Lai massacre. Like the last remnants of an emotional oil spill washing up on the tired and poor shores of a nation under siege, it’s the socio-political hangover that resulted when the last of the Weathermen went home to crash on their laurels. It’s when drugs stopped being recreational and began requiring rehabilitation. But mostly it’s about loss. The loss of innocence and the replacing of optimism with instant gratification. The loss of idealism for the sake of conformity. And the loss of hope, the hope that, one day, those far too confrontational principles of peace, love, and understanding would somehow be accepted as valid.


One can spend a lifetime trying to decipher the visual and literary imagery used by author Hunter S. Thompson, the swipes at flower power and the resignation of a movement undermined by its own excesses, but, frankly, there is nothing unusual or secretive about his symbols. It is not by accident that the first person Duke and Gonzo meet on their road trip to Hell is one of the great unwashed, a member of the youth movement so lost in his own personal space that mere words undo him. For Thompson, this generation represents the new reluctant enemy. They are the targets of his growing cynicism, placing him in the uncomfortable position of having to side with authority, the one true bane of his tormented existence. Fear and Loathing is about spiritual shift as a continental divide, of a planet removed from its wild gesturing and personal exploration and repositioned back before the Age of Aquarius, to a time when men wore tight shirts and stiff collars and ladies piled their hair like pillows of protection from the harmful rays of rationality pouring off the educated and the elite. From its obvious ridicule of law enforcement to the gradual realization that the healing power of narcotics may, indeed, be a back alley placebo, Fear and Loathing is about the discovery of the bitter man behind the curtain, even as the Great Oz speaks of cabbages and kings.


In Terry Gilliam’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal work of gonzo journalism, we find the road map for the future, the ground rules for Watergate mixed into the no holds barred ‘I double dare you’ attitude of our new century. Tackling one of the holy trinity of unfilmable books, like William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (of which David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version only captures the merest indirect inkling of) and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (its state of paper and ink opiate almost impossible to capture), Gilliam opts for an unusual cinematic technique. He, in essence, fails to create a film. What he does instead is ply his camera like a time machine, placing the events of the novel in some manner of linear format and then shooting the surrealism out of what results. The main narrative thread is easy to comprehend - Raoul Duke, famed journalist, is sent by a magazine to cover the Mint 400, a popular motorcycle race that occurs every year in Las Vegas. He invites his best friend, civil rights attorney Dr. Gonzo, along for the adventure. What happens beyond this set-up has formed the basis of a hundred literary myths, and has sparked the imaginations of a million wannabe writers.


But for Gilliam, this is first and foremost a journey of the eye (including the third). Characterization is initially all visual: Duke’s cigarette holder, Gonzo’s slovenly gut, the suitcase full of drugs, the pair’s demon eyes behind dark shades and furrowed brows. Only as the movie progresses do we learn true inner details. We hear the voices, the choice of vocabulary, the vomiting of philosophy like the purging of bad mescaline. Gilliam’s filmmaking is at once completely without direction and at the same time more controlled than other projects he has dominated. He allows some scenes to meander wildly out of control, while others are focused to maximum emotional effect. So this is really not a film. It’s more like a fraud foisted upon a recreation. Call it a con artist junkie’s last vision of the Promised Land. Call it a docudream. But it’s hardly a big bucket of popcorn fodder.


Obviously, one of the biggest challenges faced by Gilliam with bringing Fear and Loathing to the screen is finding the right actors to populate Thompson’s larger than literary life personas. Like trying to cast Jesus or figuring out who would properly fill Ignatius J. Reilly’s sweaty sneakers, finding these uneasy riders, this angry Abbott and crazed Costello required a stroke of genius in combination with an equal onset of luck. Thankfully, the perfect cosmic casting occurred when Johnny Deep and “Oscar” winner Benicio Del Toro stepped in to essay the roles of Duke and Gonzo, respectively. Both were born to play the characters they literally inhabit, and yet both had to physically change themselves to take on the proper outer shell. Depp shaves his head for a perfect modern monk look while Del Toro piles on the pounds, De Niro style, to completely transform his lithe structure into the heft menace carried by Thompson friend Oscar Zeta Acosta.


Each actor uses his muse to infuse their depiction of drug use and abuse with wonderful, wired aplomb. Both turn broad, gross caricatures into real people and back again, creating and reshaping their personalities into that rarity in the pantheon of acting, the certifiable eccentric. Thanks to Depp, Thompson’s weird ways, the spastic mannerisms and his unbridled flash, become understandable manifestations of who he is. And in Del Toro, the famous Brown Buffalo finds a man capable of the passion, the rage, and the fire that caused this force of nature to burn so brightly that he eventually exploded, disappearing like a whisper off the ears of the planet. Both actors give amazing performances.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also filled with details of delirious brilliance: The ether walk into Bazooka Circus, all silent comedy slapstick; Depp’s descent into Adrenalchrome, madness complete with babbling incoherence and Thompson’s trademark banshee wail; the opening rampage down the endless Western highways of folklore; the pop art pretense of old Vegas. But probably the best moment and one of the greatest scenes that Gilliam has put on screen for that matter, is the now infamous “wave” speech, the cornerstone message of Thompson’s messy manuscript. Set to the near lullaby strains of the Youngblood’s “Let’s Get Together” (with its subtle guitar signature like the distant cry of an ambulance) and consisting of Depp reacting to his own voice-over, this one piece of writing sums up the entire aftermath, the comet flameout that occurred once Bobby Kennedy died and the ‘60s were officially declared a no-win situation. From the innocent vibrations of Woodstock to the pool of blood at Altamonte, the “wave speech” is that official final word, the coroner’s inquest into that stillborn promise of peace and love. And like an actual wave, the scene hits and then retreats, dragging the melancholy back out to sea. It’s strange to have a story’s emotional climax so early in the tale—there is more than half of the movie still to go. But just like the decade itself, Fear and Loathing mocks convention and shoots its wad way too fast. We’ve had the epiphany. It’s time to pay the ferryman his evil penance.


There are other great sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, times where the cinematic flash calms down and the wicked wit of the novel unravels front and center. Anyone wondering where the ridiculous war on drugs got its twisted dogma needs look no further than in the puffy faces and closed off necks of the participants at the anti-narcotic District Attorney’s convention. Part cautionary note, mostly caustic character assassination, Gilliam and Thompson get to make their points loud and clear: drugs may be bad, but just look at the kind of man who’s keeping ‘em that way. It’s a shame that this point has not fallen on more willing ears. Fear and Loathing has to be one of the most unsuccessful cult movies of all time. When it was first released, it was met with a universal yawn. Over the years it is constantly referred to as Gilliam’s one true bomb, a grand misstep for the once great director. Many have chalked its failure up to the lack of character one can “like” or “root” for. Others find its mixed messages about the ‘60s and its values old fashioned or blasphemy. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Thompson’s own words, most of the audience was looking “with the wrong kind of eyes.” Only those who had lived through it first hand responded to it right from the start. Others had become too jaded or brainwashed.


But the truth is that now is the true time of fear and loathing. After a decade of prosperity, of global openness and a new sense of community (even if it is online), we seen the nation, again, divided. On one side are the same good old forces at work. Now is the corrosion toward conformity, fostered by horrendous acts of homeland terrorism and a multi-colored rating system of said to exaggerate the sense of terror to new, immobilizing heights. We no longer worry about the domino effect. We are more concerned with the sealing properties of duct tape. On the other side are the easily deluded, the ones who believe that a hit single or a television spot circumvents money to actually purchase happiness. They live for and through the medium of popular culture, lining up to shame themselves for the sake of a sound bite. So the question becomes, where are the truly free? Where are the thinkers and the radicals and those questing for tranquility? Well, inside our newfound quasi-socialism, they are silent. Theirs is the opinion of the discontented, of the traitorous and ungrateful. Their beliefs aid and comfort the enemy and spit readily on our fighting men and women overseas. Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is more than an obituary to the summer of love. It’s the death knell to the power of individualism and thought and a warning for the sinister shape of things to come.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.


As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas ever delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, fresh from success in the short-film arena, this is art animated, a purposefully arcane cinematic vision made meaningful and important by the way in which this skilled filmmaker positions her lens.


While many will see Sweetie as the catalyst, the crazy deluded sister whose extreme case of angry arrested adolescence leads the rest of her kin towards all kinds of dire decisions, it is actually Kay who plays the mechanism for change more times than not. Always willing to challenge her parents, but never able to find the words to express her emotions, she is all outbursts and whining, pure pain pouring out of her horribly wounded heart. While she is clearly unlike her sibling in outward appearance, inward ability or perplexed personality, she is equally adept at making the familial world revolve around her. Sweetie simply acts out, making her demands as apparent as possible. When they are met, she is only semi-satisfied. She pushes for more, and when she doesn’t get it, tends to revert right back to her spoiled square one.


Kay, on the other hand, is skilled at the silent, suffering approach to approval. She wants everyone to acknowledge her sister’s interpersonal deficiencies and wears her many tiny triumphs as mental medals to prove her priggish superiority. To argue that one or the other is the only causational component is foolish. Both are on paths of stagnant self-destruction and it will take an act outside their control to create a break that will either free them or forever lock the family in a cycle of denial.


Something is being avoided here, and all arrows point to Father, Sweetie, and some manner of unnatural attraction. That Campion doesn’t come right out and scream “child abuse” or “incest” is one of Sweetie‘s more intriguing - and irritating - elements. We don’t like our issues to be open-ended, without clear-cut indicators of side, morality, and meaning. When Kay spies her sister giving “Daddy” a bath, it is an unsettling scene. The sexual aspect is also amplified by both characters’ approach to physicality. Kay is completely cut off from her boyfriend Louis. Sweetie will sleep with anyone—including her sister’s limp lover. So it’s not hard to accept that sometime in the easily-dismissed distant past, Sweetie was a victim of some kind of unhealthy relative relationship.


But maybe that’s not true. Perhaps her overt carnality is just a recent development, a way of dealing with a life overloaded with disappointment. After all, Sweetie lives in a perpetual dream of fame and privilege, a fantasy fostered almost exclusively by her dad. So it could be that her present state of mind creates the perception of childhood trauma, while the truth is actually more complicated and less scandalous than we apparently want it to be.


There are also obvious hints of mental illness with both sisters. Kay has developed such a hatred for trees (naturally, Sweetie and Dad share many a private moment in the family tree house) that she actually attacks the poor defenseless plants with a kind of insular insanity. Her sister, on the other hand, is a “Goth girl, interrupted” mess. Fashions forged out of broken bits of cloth and cut-up dresses, eyes smeared with dark circles of black, Sweetie suggests the kind of kid who has spent decades trying to escape who she is inside. We do get a chance to see her as a youngster, and the pleasantly perky ginger we witness is a shock.


It’s as if Campion is purposefully playing with our perception of the character to keep any and all possibilities about her past in play. Indeed, Sweetie is a film that loves the notion of acuity, of how the seemingly normal can be nutty and an inviolable vice versa. Tossing in obtuse sequences where unusual imagery is intercut into the narrative, and a use of angles that often suggest something slightly askew existing just out of frame, Campion’s compositions make us aware that the images are just as important as the dialogue being delivered and the performers providing the necessary emotional truth.


The cast here is truly amazing, doing something that few films and actors even attempt. Campion has purposefully created individuals that walk the fine line between empathy and ennui, likeability and loathing, and constantly causes them to cross back and forth between the two extremes. At first, we feel this is Kay’s story, and Karen Colston does a brilliant job of getting us on her side. Of course, the minute we arrive at some manner of understanding, Kay contorts and confronts our feelings for her. Similarly, Sweetie is a cruel comic contradiction who would be pitiable if she weren’t such a sensational slag. Geneviève Lemon, required to do most of her acting with her eyes and remarkable bulk, finds the sad soul inside this spoiled sow, and manages to make us care even as Sweetie continually makes us cringe.


As a battle of will between two wounded women, Campion sets up a kind of call and response - or better yet, cause and effect - style of storytelling. The minute her mad bitch of a sibling starts going off the deep end, Kay cranks up the hurt homebody routine. The result is the film’s real theme—that within each family, love and hate become part of a tainted tug of war where nobody wins and everybody loses.


This is best highlighted in the film’s three main subplots. The girls’ parents separate, and sides are instantly drawn. Mom ventures out into the wilderness, ending up a cook for a group of Outback cowboys. Dad initially seeks Kay for help, but we soon learn that he really needs Sweetie to feel calm and complete. Bob, Sweetie’s pick-up “producer” sex partner, also represents the reality of the character’s sense of self. Looking to the obvious junkie for confirmation and affection, she literally drains him of life until he is left, flat on his back and covered in coffee, in a local diner.


Kay’s live-in lover Louis is a little trickier. An admirer of transcendental meditation and spirituality, he original hooked up with his current paramour after learning their love was fated by a fortuneteller. But his eye is constantly wandering, from a fellow TM devotee who flaunts her tantric sex manual, to Sweetie herself, who practically molests him on a trip to the beach. It is clear that both gals are starved for love, needing any manner of recognition, good, bad, or indifferent to fuel their failing sense of self.


It all rushes to a head in the final scene, a sequence that becomes a kind of metaphysical showdown between Sweetie, her parents, her past, and her sister. Kay is also clearly in confrontation mode, making everything that’s happening about her, her decisions, and her desire for change. On both sides of the battle are Dad (staunchly status quo) and Mom (ready to involve the authorities for the first time in decades). When a real outsider is tossed in—in this case, a rascally young neighbor boy named Clayton—it crosses everyone’s wires, leading to judgments that otherwise would not be made, and results that no one could easily have expected.


The ending of Sweetie is indeed odd. It seems to suggest that only one person was responsible for the familial unrest, when we know very clearly that this is not true. As a matter of fact, it even goes so far as to argue that much of the destruction foisted onto the clan could have been avoided had certain “institutional” steps been taken beforehand. Nothing seems really settled either. One character even envisions their life the way it used to be, back before things got out of hand, back when things seemed simple and pure.


By placing us in these contradictory realities, Campion creates a truly unreal atmosphere, a cinematic sense that guarantees Sweetie turns out to be a true motion-picture masterpiece. Riffing on references that she was hung up on at the time (including a closing moment lifted directly out of the David Lynch oeuvre) and purposefully framing her scenes to throw both the actors and audience off guard, the look of this movie is simply amazing. Initially, no one is seen straight on. We view shoes, the side of someone’s face, the top of a person’s head. Then, slowly, people start to creep in towards the middle of the compositions. By the time we get to the end, when anarchy rules the lives of everyone involved, Campion keeps the action centered.


There are also times when blocking provides the necessary undercurrent to an otherwise ordinary scene. While Dad is crying, Mom, Kay and Louis step out onto a vast Australian highway, and the overwhelming vista, matched against Campion’s purposeful placement of her players (Mom up front, Kay off to one side, Louis far off in the background) suggests everything we need to know about whose making the decisions here.


It’s a stunning conceit, one that works much better than a viewer initially imagines. Instead of making everything cold and distant, it allows elements from outside the sequences, as well as information and emotions we’ve experienced previously, to float in and permeate the action. When Sweetie is wrestling with Clayton, we sense something unsettling. As the visual remains off in the distance, we suddenly recall the moment where Sweetie and her father infer some inappropriate contact and the aura of such abuse makes us instantly fear for what will happen next. Similarly, when Louis learns the truth about the tree he planted at the start of the couple’s relationship, the lack of any outward arguing allows us to fill in the blanks from the preceding discussions the pair have had.


In a sense, Sweetie is made up of nothing but the vaguest of recollections, without any real reason or outright rationale for all the tension and turmoil on hand. Sure, the main character is a harried handful, the kind of girl child that will end up dead, drugged up, or deposited in a home for the rest of her restless life. But that doesn’t mean that Sweetie deserves such a fate. She simply wants to share her purpose and pain with everyone. And they too have been more than happy to channel their inner emptiness into her…just like all families seem to do.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 20, 2007


Hero worship is an understandable human trait. After all, life provides us with so many burdens that to revere another who seems to have all the answers, or at least provides hope that there are indeed resolutions out there, gives us the necessary will to continue on with the fight. This is especially true in children. Lacking the experiences that mold and manage maturity, they are almost always lost in a fog of their own naiveté. Like the simpleton satellites they are at first, they tend to gravitate towards those who they feel can protect and guide them. Usually, said individual is a person with a demeanor of authority and reserve. They appear calm and prepared, ready to address any situation that the child feels could literally swallow them whole. As reliance turns into reverence, the preparation begins for the inevitable fall. Sometimes, the tumble is gradual, learned internally over time and interaction. In other circumstances, the plummet is predicated on a single incident or idea—a misunderstanding, a glimpsed lack of control, or some unexplainable deed that defies godliness. It’s in these moments where life delivers its most devastating lessons. It demands one apply some personal perspective, and it suggests that the carefree days of youth are about to end.


Though there is a lovers’ triangle at the center of the storyline, the relationship most important in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol appears initially to be between overworked butler Baines and dotty diplomat’s son Phile. It is hero worship meshed with just a small amount of parental guidance and guardianship. Baines, represented by British legend Ralph Richardson, and Phile, as found in newcomer Bobby Henrey, create a partnership important to understanding the entire unsettled dynamic of this superb suspense-laden thriller. Told almost exclusively from the vantage point of the child and given to moments of haunting beauty, the movie’s narrow focus and streamlined story make Idol an indelible entertainment. We enjoy learning the ins and outs of the French Embassy—the snotty cleaning crew, the haughty assistants to the Ambassador. The set designs are equally remarkable turning a typical multi-story mansion in the swankiest part of London into a labyrinthine maze of mysteries. From the moment we meet Phile, his head thrust between the slats of one of the home’s many elaborate stairwells, we understand immediately that this will be a film about perspective. What we see, what we know, and, more importantly, what we don’t witness and can’t understand will be the cornerstones of everything Reed the director is striving for. And it all is premised on the relationship between servant and master’s son.


Reed goes for a realistic approach in dealing with Phile. Many films cast their narrative around children, but then go on to make the mistake of having the kids be too intelligent or too in tune with the emotions surrounding a situation. Because his parents are so distant, because he has lived in a world surrounded by keepers and intermediaries, Phile has become lost and on his own. In his world, Phile finds solace in freedom, the connection to animals (including a pet snake MacGregor), and the closeness and comfort he senses in Baines. He doesn’t understand that this older man is suffering inside. He only realizes that his best pal’s wife, an insufferable shrew walking close along the borders of madness, hates almost everything he, Phile, stands for. To her, he’s a rotten spoiled brat who has been raised to be disrespectful, demanding, and devil-may-care. Some may argue that the most important adversarial relationship is the predicament between Mr. and Mrs. Baines, or better yet, Mrs. Baines and her husband’s lover Julie. In reality, it’s how the horrible harpy interacts with Phile that marks Idol‘s most important narrative pairing. He is the catalyst for all the confusion in the household, and she is the specter who constantly reminds Phile that adult things are happening throughout his innocent juvenile realm.


It’s the notion of innocent lost, of growing up and understanding the pressures of age that’s the central theme of The Fallen Idol. Even the title suggests the shrugging off of heroes, and the eventual loss of imaginary playmates. Certainly there is an undercurrent involving lies, truth, and cheating, but it too sets inside a grander statement about the end of childhood. There are many moments throughout Idol where Reed lets Phile fall, over and over again. He does so when he sees Julie and Baines in the teashop. It happens again when MacGregor goes “missing.” Another moment has Mrs. Baines sweet-talking the lad into divulging information, while still another has her swaying over his bed, wild-eyed with jealous rage, hoping to get answers to her suspicious questions. As a result, it’s the backwards connection between Phile and Mrs. Baines that makes up the mantle of this masterful movie. What happens between them, from a dinner-table battle of wills to a telling moment of physical abuse that impacts the remaining narrative and sets the eventual tragic gears in motion. It’s not any threat to him that causes Baines to act; it’s the long simmering showdown between his sinister spouse and the household’s only child that forces his more or less emasculated hand.


Ralph Richardson is outstanding here, especially when you consider the complicated role he is required to essay. Baines must be simultaneously alert, genial, alive, dead, disheartened, sad, angry, ineffectual, smitten, lost, and mildly menacing. He has to juggle the authority of the entire household, the constant nagging of his worthless wife, an unrequited love with a gal he cannot possess, and a boy who believes literally everything that comes from his mouth. There’s a wonderful moment when Richardson and Henrey are discussing a murder that Baines supposedly committed while in Africa. As the boy presses for details, living vicariously through his adult friend’s adventure tale, Richardson is resigned and preoccupied, unable to keep the fictional facts straight. Every misstep is met with a question, and Baines manages to repair any damage to his unreal reputation in Phile’s eyes. It illustrates their relationship perfectly—needy, circumstantially abandoned child and faux father figure who can’t quite live up to the status he’s created for himself. It’s a perfect tragic teaming—a boy constantly climbing and a man laying the flimsy foundation from which he will eventually descend. It’s how those events play out that becomes Idol‘s interesting dynamic, and Reed and Greene don’t disappoint.


Reed was definitely a director with an eye for spaces. He allowed his lens to languish over his elaborate sets and locations in order to give the viewer a proper sense of the area before letting his actors exist within it. When Mr. and Mrs. Baines have their stairway confrontation, we’ve been given so many views of the area that we sense how massive—and how dangerous—it really could be. Similarly, when Phile makes his late-night escape to avoid the confrontation between the adults, we’ve already traveled down the fearsome fire escape before. During the day, it looked like an exit to excitement. But in the darkness of a dead English night, it takes on a solid, sinister import. It’s a technique that Reed will employ throughout the rest of Phile’s journey. Shown only as a small shadow against the backdrop of deserted London streets, child actor Henrey is turned into an icon of youth afraid and unsure. When he ends up in a local police station, his tiny stature becomes a perfect point of reference. He gets lost in an oversized coat (and later, a doctor’s blanket) and seeks refuge in the bosom of a blousy prostitute. All the while, we see Phile vanishing into the reality of the world outside the estate, being absorbed by the truth that he never had to deal with—until now.


In the end, what we get is a startling suspense thriller with moments of great joy and harrowing sorrow. We get to witness a world completely foreign and obscure, yet still filled with the kind of kitchen sink intrigue we expect from much lower-class considerations. Reed complicates matters by making all his characters flawed, from Baines’s interpersonal ineptitude and loose temper to Julie’s desire to defend her man at any and all costs. Even Mrs. Baines is a battleaxe with a soul, though it seems vanquished by an internal pain that forces her to brutalize and blame. All of this gets processed through Phile’s unprepared eyes, and the results are disturbing and direct. Locked in his landscape of ascending/descending stairwells, magnificent balcony vistas of London’s old-world wisdom, dark foreboding hallways, and streets loaded with shadows too deep for any child to navigate, he looks up to Baines as his ballast. With a world full of individuals dismissive of such a pesky, precocious brat, Baines represents everything missing in his life—father, strength, honesty, and goodness. All of that is shattered one night when deception drives people unprepared for its consequences to acts both disturbing and defendable. Through the hero-worshiping eyes of a boy, it’s all an unwelcome wake-up call he is ill prepared to participate in. But he must. Now that his Idol has fallen, he has nothing left but himself.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007


It’s a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it’s the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue.


Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn’t invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples.


Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It’s a character study told with events, not words. It’s a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force.


As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru ‘50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it’s a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it’s also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn’t know it before.


This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren’t supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men’s lives.


The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.


Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon’s Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn’t have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one.


Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.


This doesn’t mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting “dirty” again and Vogel is back to the “filth” he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its “tunnel” like most other extensions of “manhood.” It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand’s alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source.


Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It’s as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.


All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret.


Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.


At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It’s the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It’s about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It’s a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begin to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other.


Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we’ve entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an “O,” which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007


Horror films, by their very nature, function as escape in the most primal of forms. They offer a chance for an audience to sit back, relax, and allow their instinctual sense of distress to overwhelm and startle them. As the dread grows thicker and more palpable, the body begins to shed its inhibitions and warrants. By the end of the saga, with the climax pushing the blood and adrenaline through the body at an alarming rate, the entire internal circuitry is alive! Then the lights go on and there is relief. There is catharsis, release, and a dispersion of pent-up emotions and feelings. It is a kind of therapy. It is a daredevil thrill ride. It is a throwback to the very essence of our humanity.


More times than not, the fright flick is a simple statement, a competition between killer and victim, between monster and mankind, for control of who lives and who dies. Occasionally, important social topics can be tossed into the ghouls and goblins. The Exorcist is more about the growing disconnect between single parents and terrifying teen angst than channeling a challenge by Satan. Hellraiser showcases the ultimate betrayal within a marriage—a wife seeking comfort in the bloody, zombified corpse of her husband’s brother. Even something as recent as 28 Days Later wants to warn us about the poisons within—the out-of-control military, animal experimentation, human rage—more than shocking us with the living dead dynamic.


Then there are horror films that work on our psychology, playing with the possibilities and concepts we’re comfortable with, only to twist and subvert them. Directors as diverse as David Lynch, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg have all fashioned fear out of the circumvention of normal human understanding, from the disgusting dissertation on parenthood known as Eraserhead to the doctors-as-doppelgangers delirium of Dead Ringers. Yet when it comes to being the king of cranial corruption, Georges Franju has no equal. In 1959—while American movies were focusing on monsters and atomic mutations—Franju was inventing the modern mindf*ck fright film. Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage in the native tongue) is one of the landmarks of horror for everything it does, and for all the things it avoids. With the grisly story of a surgeon obsessed with restoring his daughter’s disfigured face, one would expect a gruesome, blood-soaked saga of body snatching, evisceration, and sin. But Eyes Without a Face is a far more complicated and cogent film than that. It wants to discuss issues inherent in both science and the parent/child relationship, as well as focus on forging forceful fear factors.


On the most fundamental basis, Eyes Without a Face is Frankenstein without the monster. Or maybe, it’s more of an incidental look at the creation of a modern Prometheus in parenthood. It’s definitely a tale of science perverted and ego outsized. In the cold, clinical, but still highly compassionate personage of Dr. Génessier, Franju sets up the first of several strict juxtapositions, a directorial device utilized to create both tension and torture. Here is a man well known for his charitable work, and a clinic that has a remarkable success rate with its curative powers. But there is indeed much more to this measured man of science. There is the secret chateau, the foreboding home that hides his most hideous secrets. As he heals the sick, he lies to the police. As he prescribes sedatives and salves, he’s cutting up college girls in his hidden lair. On the outside, he has the smart, serene look of a man of learning. On the inside, he is a raging torrent of disappointment and deranged desire. Between the doctor and Louise, the serene servant who also commits the most heinous of crimes, we have two villains who possess none of the necessary nemesis elements of fright films past. Both Louise and Dr. Génessier give off the aura of human empathy and settled sanity. But when thrust into the painful passion of helping the mangled Christiane regain her face, this couple becomes a study in startling contrasts. Using friendship, familiarity, and force, they befriend and then butcher young women, performing sick acts of surgery for the sake of a single goal.


The centerpiece of Eyes Without a Face is the mid-movie operation sequence, a riveting and revolting slice of slaughter that must have sent the crowds scurrying in the early ‘60s. The step-by-step, slice-by-slice removal of a young woman’s face is violent and vicious enough to make Ed Gein and his cinematic counterpart, Leatherface, extremely happy. Though it’s realized in Franju’s black and white cinematography, it still has the ability to sicken and unsettle—especially when Génessier grabs that long metal prod and starts systematically loosening the flesh from the female’s basic bone structure. By the time we close in to see the skin mask removed in an agonizingly languid take, Franju has accomplished his goal.


A basic reading of the plot would suggest some manner of mean-spirited melodrama, a soggy story of a devoted dad trying everything humanly—and inhumanely—possible to help his child. But Franju wants you to understand just what such devotion means. Though we witness the drugging, the mortifying mutilation of dogs (only suggested, not actually shown), and the laser-sharp focus on his medical objectives, we don’t really understand just how hideous Dr. Génessier’s calling really is until we watch him tear off a human face. When we learn that this is one of several attempts to address his daughter’s disfigurement, the undercurrent of alarm is enhanced. This is a man who will stop at nothing and who will do anything to restore his child. We need to see just how outlandish and extreme his methods will become. Thanks to one of the most ghastly scenes in modern movie macabre, we get the disturbing idea.


Who Dr. Génessier is and what he stands for are all part of Franju’s overriding conceit for Eyes Without a Face. As the title more or less suggests, this is a film concerned with identity and the lack thereof. The entire narrative uses the theme of identification, of who people are and what they are made of, to craft a dissertation on the importance of such a point of personal and professional reference. Looking at all the aspects of the film—the doctor who appears to be a charitable godsend, but actually spends his nights in serial killer-like mayhem; the police who make a living out of deciphering the identity of washed-up corpses, only to try and connect them to specific crimes; the housekeeper who plays both benefactor and assassin—we see that Franju enjoys the double layer of meaning within his characters and circumstances.


Everyone in the film serves double, or even triple purposes. Louise is nurse, confidante and co-conspirator. The ex-fiancé Jacques is business partner (he works with Dr. Génessier), lost lover, and aid to the police. Perhaps in Christiane and her father we have the clearest examples of cross-interpersonal purposes. Dr. Génessier feels guilt as a father, healer, surgeon, specialist, and driver (he caused the accident that disfigured his child), and uses a persona of strict gravity to hide his inner contempt. Christiane is a monster, a maiden, and a victim. She is a vital human being and a shamed shadow of her former self. She’s a reminder of the good times of the past and a constant source of criminally inspired culpability to those she lives with. It is this battle between bickering and battling human personalities and personas that gives Eyes Without a Face a great deal of its uneasy psychological weight. We never know whom we’re going to meet when a particular character arrives onscreen. And this is one of the reasons why the film is so effective in its casual creepiness.


Visuals are also very important to Eyes Without a Face. Indeed, it can be argued that this film is more of a throwback to older, silent film ideas in which imagery told the tale more effectively than words. Franju wants to create specific icons, images that will stand out and resonate beyond their moment in the film. He knows they will taint issues and individuals later on. Once we’ve witnessed the hideous handiwork of the doctor, we begin to worry for all other female characters who show up in the film. When Christiane has a sole, soft-focus moment where her real, fractured face is revealed, her deteriorating mental state suddenly comes into crystal clarity. All of her oddities, the late night phone calls and spectral-like glides around the house, start to make sense. As a masked mirage for most of the film, Christiane’s camouflaged face, a delicate and pristine creation of porcelain doll plainness, leaves an incredible impression. As we see the blank beauty and manufactured polish, we start to wonder if this entire enterprise is not some mad delusion. When she is temporarily “cured” and given a new, flesh façade, Christiane is hauntingly similar to the mask she’s been wearing. She is less than human, a nearly flawless flower that her father is desperate to preserve.


The performance by Edith Scob, a combination of grace and ghoul, is one of the most amazing elements of Eyes Without a Face. Spending most of her screen time behind an expressionless plate, she must convey all her emotion through her eyes and her body movements. Lithe, limber, and very laconic, Christiane troubles her home like a pretty poltergeist; a sad, simple shape longing to be normal again. It’s these pictographic elements that make Eyes Without a Face so memorable, moving the movie beyond the basic scare tactics of horror films.


From the surgical set piece to the clever use of a montage of photographs to illustrate Christiane’s disintegrating post-operative face, Franju was ahead of his time with Eyes Without a Face, both as a storyteller and as a visionary. In 1959, most horror films were dealing with outrageous elements and even more illogical circumstances to sell their scares. No one, save for Hitchcock, was looking at horror from a serious, adult format. But Franju obviously understands how much power there is in treating his subject with deep and abiding respect. From a narrative standpoint, his film is a study in simple construction and plotting. We see a crime at the start of the story, and then it is connected to Génessier (although not how you think). Then we move through the entire murder/mutilation angle before the third act action draws its denouement.


Directorially, Franju never cheats the audience. Everything is out in the open in Eyes Without a Face, never thrust to the background or hinted at in suggestion. Surely the film has its secrets (the experiments with the dogs are only hinted at), and obviously not all the horror is played out immediately. But what Franju is attempting is to drag the fright film out of the realm of the supernatural and the bizarre and frame it within the everyday world of contemporary France. There is never a desire to blame all the badness on spirits or demons. Franju knows that man is the ultimate evil in the world, and it is via the hand of the human that all the wickedness and destruction occurs. It is easy to blame acts of debasement and immorality on unseen entities bloated with the power to pervert. It is another thing all together to see and champion said tendency toward sin in one’s fellow man. This is what Eyes Without a Face is illustrating. We may be able to act without impunity, or a “face,” but our souls (which our eyes are the windows into) will always know our betrayal.


It is this matter-of-fact, straightforward approach in combination with horribly misguided motivations that makes Eyes Without a Face one of the classics of contemporary horror. It is a building block, a stepping-stone between the Universal idiom of beasts and baddies and the modern notions of terror around every real-world corner. It lays the foundation for numerous innovations within the genre as it utilizes old dark house Gothic parameters to meet its needs. Though some may consider it tame by the Raimi / Romero/ Argento standards of blood and guts, its mixture of the beautiful with the baneful, the gorgeous with the grotesque, is more unsettling than any overblown gorefest.


Though Georges Franju was working within a well-known format in his native France (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the famous writing duo behind Diabolique and Vertigo, crafted the crime story here) he was also attempting to expand the movie macabre, moving it out of the unreal regions of life and existence and into the concrete jungle of the actual world we live in. From its moody, magnificent look to an ending that suggests both destruction and rebirth, Eyes Without a Face is a monumental achievement in the arena of psychological horror. It shocks as it soothes, simultaneously confronting and comforting us. It is that rarity from the early part of cinema’s history, and yet it resonates more readily with a present-day audience than perhaps it did with individuals in its time. After all, back in the late ‘50s, we were mostly unaware of the evil going on right under our noses. Today, we practically wallow in it. Eyes Without a Face is a fascinating, frightening experience.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.