Noir Before More

THE FOLLOWING FILMS ARE BOTH AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX INSTANT

 

Killer’s Kiss (1955)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (United Artists)

Soon after his rarely seen, ambiguous war drama Fear and Desire (a debut that the meticulous director was apparently less than proud of), former Look magazine photographer Stanley Kubrick co-wrote, directed, photographed, and edited this fine piece of noir, prior to jump-starting his career with The Killing only a year later, a film of similar title and genre, but one that was received with considerably more acclaim.

Killer’s Kiss, featuring rather conventional story elements and dialogue, stars Jamie Smith as a welterweight boxer in New York, one who quickly falls in love with a dancer played by Irene Kane, and must soon confront her shady boss and ex-lover, played by Frank Silvera. Smith and Kane often have trouble with convincingly delivering their lines, a problem when it is essential for the audience to “believe” their relationship. However, Silvera does breathe life into a compelling villain, a man with dangerous capabilities, but whose cowardice cannot save him from an inevitable fate.

Kubrick was reportedly distraught with the film’s studio-imposed, happy ending. He had good reason to be. Not only was Killer’s Kiss funded almost entirely by a loan from one of Kubrick’s relatives, but there is so much directorial promise here; the film struggles to break out of predictable noir territory, loose ends failing to tie up in a way that does this ambition any favors.

The narrative, consisting of a quite entertaining series of flashbacks, is sufficient enough. But what truly shows Kubrick’s potential is his extraordinary cinematography, placing the camera from interesting vantage points and manipulating it based on point-of-view. Each shot is precisely composed, a favorite scene of mine being that in our hero’s apartment, in which we ponder his expression as he looks into the neighboring window of Kane’s character, and are able to glimpse his view through the mirror situated behind him. And my God, what a superbly edited boxing sequence!

Kubrick’s low-key lighting throughout both the shady and pompous districts of Manhattan is also a standout, as are various set-pieces, including a climax that takes place in a warehouse of manikins. It should be clear to anyone seeing Killer’s Kiss that Kubrick was a great director in the making, his authoritative control not quite making this project into something special. It is, however, worth seeing. His will-power and skills behind the camera are apparent. And within a decade, the style and substance of Kubrick’s singular craftsmanship would ferment with unprecedented impact. Killer’s Kiss is where it began, a hint of the man who would become a true American artist.

 

Following (1998)     ★★★★

Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan (Zeitgeist Films)

Christopher Nolan, whose July 20 release of The Dark Knight Rises we are all excitedly awaiting, ain’t no Kubrick, but in his premier film, Following, one of today’s most popular Hollywood directors arguably unleashes more creativity on the genre of film noir. An unemployed writer (Jeremy Theobald) develops a fascination for following people, intrigued by where they go, and hoping the answers he finds will allow him to scribe more relevant fiction. He is soon caught in the act by a man named Cobb, played by Alex Haw (does this character have parallels to Leonardo DiCaprio’s identically named planter/stealer in Inception? That, folks, is deserving of its own essay). Cobb is a burglar, but as the writer comes to realize, this man is no petty thief. He steals to introduce chaos into people’s lives, rather than to simply steal items. As he explains to Theobald’s character, he hopes to “show them what they had.”

Complications ensue when the writer becomes involved with a woman who Cobb and he have stolen from (Emma Thomas), prompting Nolan’s own ingenious writing to take hold. Almost more so than Killer’s Kiss, Nolan’s skills are all too present here; in the future, he would simply be given much bigger budgets. Following was shot on weekends in London over the course of several months, Nolan limiting costs by shooting on black-and-white, 16mm film stock and using primarily natural light.

His first endeavor is thrillingly scrambled, the story being told in several narrative frames. This style would become popularly accepted in Memento two years later, quickly placing Nolan in the spotlight. Here, Nolan is successful by always maintaining one step ahead of his audiences, or to be more accurate, several steps. In a manner that Nolan almost never returned to, Following‘s naturalistic cinematography, jump cuts between scenes, and hip score by David Julyan tend to evoke New Wave pioneers such as Godard, more so than any conventional homage to American film noir.

Nolan’s characters are never believable, and that leads to his advantage. He is able to manipulate them any way he likes, and in a film based upon a compelling exercise in genre, not quite knowing what to believe about the principal characters is certainly engaging in an unexpected way. Considering this, Following is a very well-acted film. I’m sure that arthouse faring, late-’90s audiences, not yet associated with Nolan’s scripted trickery (and still virgins to Sixth Sense logic), were also pleasantly taken aback by the surprises Nolan had in store.

The film, clocking in at just ten minutes over an hour, is a tight package; it takes awhile to become used to Nolan’s manipulation of time, staging of specific motifs, and play upon audience anticipation. And just when you becomes complacent within Nolan’s storytelling methodology, he cons you. Twice. As an audience member, such rapid changes in plot may be confusing. Critically, it’s bliss. Christopher Nolan, despite not having much of anything to make Following, knew what he wanted the film to be, and did the best he could to make it great. It comes awfully close, and is the first entry in a career that would continue to defy our expectations.

 

 

Nolan’s first feature also ties itself together through a quite interesting theme, one that we do not fully understand until the credits roll. As his talent was recognized, the Englishman would only be given more to work with. Kubrick, who passed away a year after Nolan made Following, had encompassed the same principle. These are entirely different filmmakers, Kubrick being my second-favorite director, and one who is legendary beyond a level current Hollywood “auteurs” are never likely to touch.

Yet both directors, through making such movies, have introduced a little chaos into our lives, shocked us, shown us things we have taken for granted, and more so for Kubrick, have displayed sides of ourselves that we are often not accustomed to facing. As his Dark Knight trilogy concludes, Nolan will continue to entertain international audiences, likely to never make anything as profound as Kubrick, but still write and direct movies of mass appeal more intelligently than almost any contemporary filmmaker. How odd it is, to compare these two great talents; radically different in both style and generation. Even stranger that they both began with noir.

 

CKEP’S VERDICT

KILLER’S KISS – 3.5/5

FOLLOWING – 4/5

“The Most Profound Fall of All,” A Film by H. Dumpty

American History X (1998)     3.5/5

Directed by Tony Kaye (New Line Cinema)

CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS

The continuous, positive response to American History X by audiences is a wonderful thing. Rarely is a modern film this provocative, clearly displaying that a hefty number of Americans still seek thoughtful entertainment. On Empire‘s list of the 500 greatest movies of all time, the 1998 film by Tony Kaye clocks in at #311. Shockingly enough, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a film that defined the editing technique of montage (and surely belongs in at least the top 50), is two notches below American History X, while two numbers above is Michael Bay’s Transformers, which while possibly being Bay’s best flick, is in a completely different ballpark. Weird. While that may be going off on a tangent, the fact remains that no matter how powerful Kaye’s film may be, the result is far from perfect.

Kaye, having not been allowed by New Line to release the cut he wanted, attempted to have his name removed from the movie, first attempting the common pseudonym for directors who disown their films, Alan Smithee, and when that didn’t work out, appealed to use the name Humpty Dumpty instead. It is no secret that Kaye is perceived by the film community as an eccentric whacko; in fact, he has only directed three films since (including this year’s Detachment, starring Adrien Brody). Enter Edward Norton, who helped edit the final cut of the film (and who in recent years, has been notorious for rewriting scenes of the movies he stars in), also giving an astonishing performance in the lead role. Given his domination onscreen, Norton even lends the impression that the heart of this film beats within his own chest.

He plays Derek, a white supremacist recently released from prison, who attempts to keep his high school-age brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), from following down the same path. The result of Derek’s extreme racism was the shooting of his firefighter father, supposedly by African-American drug dealers. But American History X is most successful when it asks deeper questions about the roots of such prejudice. In a flashback scene (all of which are portrayed in black-and-white), we see a discussion at the family dinner table, where Derek’s father presents a seemingly logical argument as to why he believes other races are impeding on the prosperity of others. At this point, the family has yet to descend into neo-Nazism, but there is surely an undercurrent of racism. The breaking point comes when the father is murdered, and Derek begins to apply all the anger within his soul to those who are not white Protestant. His transformation from comically long-haired teen to vicious skinhead seems slightly exaggerated, although the film supplies a motive in possibly the best way it can.

This is arguably the notion audiences are most receptive to in American History X; it allows us to re-evaluate our own beliefs and prejudices. Yet the film doesn’t really hit its stride until the extended midsection, in which we chart Derek’s reformation. This section is an obvious showcase for Norton’s performance ability, and if I were him, I would have certainly cut out little footage from this segment. In prison, Derek gradually comes to realize the irrelevance of his beliefs, a main catalyst being an act of horrifying, sexual violence. Other scenes of terrifying brutality, all superbly shot and edited, include the murder sequence that tossed Derek into prison, in addition to a riot scene which remains one of the most chilling displays of hate I have ever seen onscreen.

So at the end of the day, why is the film sort of a mess? Kaye has a hard time with tone; much of American History X feels as though it were made by a pretentious film student. The cinematography, also by Kaye, is scattershot, working well during the quick-cut sequences, but suffering during slower-paced scenes. Kaye loves low angles, and when there are several characters in the room, he tends to place the camera at quite interesting focal points. But a lot of what Kaye does with the camera is simply unnecessary. In medium shots, he tends to use Yasujiro Ozu’s take of having actors look almost directly into the lens, which seems deprived of any purpose. Realism would be far more applicable. He also intends to overindulge on close-ups, as he does with most of the film’s technical aspects.

The best film I have ever seen about race is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The greatness of that picture comes in its ability to present two different points-of-view, and allow us to empathize with both. While the message of American History X is rather singular, it is successful with presenting alternative perspectives, many of which are quite thoughtful and realistic. What it lacks, however, is the true, moral ambiguity that would have made the film a classic. While the film may include provoking, moral conflict, Kaye’s cinematic skills often work against him. When you have a film of power, especially one that advocates a particular message, you have to be careful about the overuse of style.

The black-and-white flashbacks are indeed, quite nifty, but scenes such an epic basketball game (blacks vs. whites, of course), set to an operatic score, just don’t work. The expectation is that when realism is substituted for style, there must be an ironic subtext to allow such techniques to justify the message. Instead, Kaye uses techniques such as slow-motion and outrageous compositions while still telling his story with a completely straight face. There are moments of dark humor, but they are often awkward and uncertainly presented. There is no sense of satire, and while that is not necessary for a film like American History X, the way it presents itself requires something that it is severely lacking. While the film makes quite an impact, it somewhat fails with the realistic nature of what it hopes to convey, diminishing what audiences can take away from it.

Like the cinematography, the script by David McKenna is also a mixed bag; I wonder what portions remain in the final cut. Some dialogue is simply poor, stagnant, and predictable, but on other occasions, Norton or Furlong will have a monologue that will truly knock your socks off. In terms of acting, the film is near flawless, Norton earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination as an angry man who becomes tired of hate. The young Furlong, who starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, consistently holds his own with an exceptional actor, one whose presence never ceases to command whatever action is occurring onscreen.

I won’t completely spoil the resolution of American History X, but I will say this – nice try. There is a recurrent foreshadowing of what is bound to occur in the film’s final scene, although it is not likely to be predicted, especially after McKenna throws in a late, narrative twist to dissuade us. This is a movie that will certainly stick with you, but what the filmmakers do in their final minutes is out of context, despite the elements of Shakespearean tragedy it alludes to. This ending completely ignores the moral conflict suddenly imposed upon Derek (which is even stronger than it has been at any prior point), although his guilt and devastation are conveyed exceptionally. Luckily, Norton is a good enough actor to make these moments honest, moving, and unforgettable.

A lot of what occurs in American History X is graphically depicted, but no matter how necessary this may be, the film never finds a completely satisfying, cohesive way to string together these events of an ambitious narrative. However, the meaning, emotion, and power certainly comes across in a way few films have the courage to portray. The opening credits of the film overlay a beach, captured in black-and-white, while immersed in silence. We immediately sense something wrong with this image. A beach is supposed to be colorful, overlaid with peaceful sounds. What we are instead given is a representation of hate. It is not until the film’s conclusion that the beach becomes the one that lingers within the joyful memories we all share, that of color and life; one free of the anger and hate that Danny refers to as “baggage.” From a technical standpoint, American History X may resemble a broken Humpty Dumpty, a film made by talented people who never quite jived together. But for what impact it has on any given person, this is a full egg, begging you to knock it over. Because once you do, it will likely stand up, put itself back together, and kick you square in the ass.

The Man in the Box

Buried (2010)     3.5/5

Directed by Rodrigo Cortes (Lionsgate)

Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin for 94 minutes. Good luck getting heterosexual men to see that one. But seriously, Buried actually is a quite effective thriller, directed and edited by up-and-coming filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes. It is, however, quite debatable as to why the National Board of Review awarded Chris Sparling for Best Original Screenplay back in 2010, not because the film is poorly written, but simply because it draws suspense through baroque camera angles, dazzling lighting, and a genuine sense of claustrophobia. Meanwhile, the story elements leave something to be desired.

Reynolds is terrific as the film’s only principle actor, no scenes being presented outside of the coffin (although there are some cool shots that visualize the space directly surrounding it, simply represented as darkness). Unfortunately, Buried is very quick to announce why exactly Reynolds has been trapped underground, and it soon becomes obvious that the Iraq-centered narrative has a political agenda. This presents no lack of ambition, but does distract from the the principle concept of the movie, which is to display one of the greatest human fears in a way that only cinema can.

To convey this claustrophobia (and fear of quickly approaching death) is Reynolds, who has basically been given a chance to display his acting ability. His performance is utterly captivating and realistic, although the story that encapsulates his character never quite works. Reynolds plays an American truck driver based in Iraq, his unfortunate situation being a result of higher powers meddling in a place they don’t belong, and as a result, simply not giving a f**k about the little guy.

I almost wish Buried would have taken this concept further, but instead we have melodramatic ties to this character’s life, including a senile mother. The film would have been far more interesting if it had applied its political allegory to an overall, humanistic question – whether we could care about a man living or dying if he means basically nothing to us, rather than just the good ‘ol USA. Instead, we do care about poor Ryan Reynolds (in addition to that situation overseas), which ultimately makes for compelling entertainment, but fails to fully take advantage of the intriguing premise.

This is no 127 Hours, which was tremendous in accessing its protagonist’s psyche, in addition to thoroughly moving us, but Buried does arouse significant interest in its question of who is genuinely attempting to help Reynolds get above ground, or what is actually occurring in the outside world (Reynolds has been given a cell phone with remarkable service, yet a gradually depleting battery). Further ambiguity and plot twists would have helped this cause, as could a MacGuffin or two (Cortes claims that Hitchcock is one of his influences). In other words, if deeper mystery were to surround us, the constraints of the coffin would only apply more pressure, and for the audience, continued pleasure.

But the film does provide a conclusion worth appreciating, staying true to the themes and narrative strands that the film uses to continually entertain us. It also makes your heart skip a beat. Hitchcock was groundbreaking in his use of dark humor, telling bizarre stories that somehow seemed grounded within reality. To some extent, he was showing us the simple perplexities of life. Although Rodrigo Cortes isn’t completely successful with Buried, he makes it quite clear that he is attempting something beyond simple entertainment. On that front, it’s important to note what a true talent Cortes is behind the camera, thrilling us like few modern filmmakers have the skill to execute. You’ll feel trapped, yes, but unlike Reynolds’ character, you’ll also have quite a fun time under a few feet of dirt and sand.

Last to Live, First to Die

Battle Royale (2000)     5/5

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Toei Company)

For those of you who love the The Hunger Games, I regrettably announce that I have yet to see the film. But after viewing Kinji Fukasaku’s pulpy masterpiece of over a decade ago, I now fail to realize how the latest young adult novel-turned Hollywood blockbuster has even the slightest chance to measure up. Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, also based on a novel (by Koushun Takami), was as successful as it was controversial in Japan, and naturally, is the type of film that would never get past the MPAA. It’s like A Clockwork Orange combined with Lord of the Flies, an ultraviolent shoot-em-up with literary pretense, and as darkly hilarious as it is socially relevant.

Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a ninth-grade student still coping with his father’s death, a suicide by hanging that occurred two years ago. The past comes rushing back as Shuya’s class is chosen randomly to compete in the Battle Royale program, a killing competition held on a remote island, this “game” being headed by none other than the class’s seventh-grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano). As we are told, Japanese society has now collapsed, resulting in widespread youth violence and thousands of dropouts. The intent of the “BR Act” is to reduce that trend, the absurdity of such logic lending itself to satiric brilliance.

The students must kill each other until only one remains. If not, they all die, via explosive collars on their necks. There are also “danger zones,” meaning that if a student remains in one such zone during an allotted time period, the collar will also explode. If more than one student remains after three days, once again, everyone dies. As for how the killing is done? Well, each student is given two bags, one for food and water, one containing a weapon. The weapons are completely random, just as the class’s selection was. One may get a crossbow, a semi-automatic rifle, an axe, or a trashcan lid. It all depends. Yet weaponry is not the only factor in this violent competition, especially when the players have known each other, and grown with one another, over several years.

Some students confess their love, others beg for peace, some rediscover or abandon cliques, and horrifically enough, some find that killing is the best option. Some may even enjoy it. Whatever choice these kids make, each seems like a realistic possibility, especially considering the detailed character profiles that the film provides us. We are therefore given interesting perspectives of how both children and adults view friendship, love, innocence, violence, life, and death.

Children are new to this world, their perceptions and developments somewhat biological, yet clearly influenced by their surrounding environment. In Battle Royale, adults force these children to sacrifice their innocence, and by doing so, bring out the worst in human nature, applicable to both themselves and the children they force to murder each other. Yet some refuse to give in, the motif being that if these kids hope to succeed, they must “run.” Whether advice or warning, the point is that there is hope for escaping both the game and this society, through nothing other than the youth which it has condemned.

Battle Royale beautifully executes the romance between Shuya, and the crush of his best friend, Noriko (Aki Maeda), yet retains the most power through Noriko’s relationship with an adult – Kitano. This man has been deeply hurt by his own family, disrespected by children, and lastly, been coaxed by the government into sending his former pupils to the slaughterhouse. Of course, there is also the desire for revenge. When all else is lost, it is possibly the easiest source of fulfillment to pursue. Meanwhile, Noriko, who was the only student Kitano had truly been able connect with, is his only link to something he can no longer understand. These character relationships are what drive Battle Royale in unexpected directions, providing it with thorough developments that do nothing but enhance the violent narrative.

In this fictional period, adults have destroyed the present, abandoning hope for the future by losing control of their next generation. Yet they feel as though they must regain control. They do so not by repairing themselves, which would arguably lead children back to their homes and schools, but by further destroying the future. Even though they may regain the upper hand, exerting some control over present circumstances, the Battle Royale Act only further destroys the country’s chances for a future run by today’s children, those we hope to inspire throughout our short lives. It is the equivalent of suicide, something Shuya knows all too much about.

In the film’s Director’s Cut, a release containing about eight extra minutes (mostly consisting of dream sequences and flashbacks), Battle Royale concludes with the line – “What do you think a grown-up should say to a kid now?” The ambivalent sadness in Battle Royale arises from this very disconnection, the concept that societal issues will preoccupy adults to the extent that they will forget about the future, and therefore, forget about their children. In the most tragic sense, they may even forget to love them. It is important to note that Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, wrote the film’s screenplay. Here is a pair who vowed to not make the same mistake.

Stylistically, Battle Royale is a combination of various sensibilities, the violence and humor straight outta Tarantino, yet use of framing and classical music more along the lines of Kubrick. The profound emotional, however, is Fukasaku’s own. The action sequences are also brilliantly choreographed and edited, exerting energy at every possible opportunity. And while the narrative of Battle Royale is not without flaw, there are seamless jumps between past, present, and dream, all while projecting titlecards onscreen that would make Tennessee Williams proud. So much inspiration went into Fukasaku’s ambitious project, and whether intentional or not, it has exerted more influence than almost any film of the past 15 years. Pretty cool.

The Harshest Possible Way

The Shining (March 3, 2012)*     5/5

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (Warner Bros.)

*Screening of an original 1980 print at the Library of Congress (Packard Campus) in Culpeper, VA, preserved by the National Film Registry

Upon Stephen King’s angry reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his bestselling novel, the nation’s most popular horror writer claimed that The Shining was made by a man who “thinks too much and feels too little.” Woah. I’d be a little upset too if some guy out in Hollywood took my book, stripped away half the plot, neglected to include certain themes, shredded the humanity of the characters, and in doing so, made an artistic product at least ten times scarier. Kubrick does take the essence of what made The Shining a terrific read and transform it into pure cinema, but indeed, this is an entirely different work, almost as if Kubrick were simply given an outline of King’s book and the freedom to rewrite it through film. And if there’s one thing we can all agree about Kubrick (I’m talking to you, Mr. King), it is that the world’s most notoriously particular director always made a film exactly the way he wanted to make it.

It is a story that Kubrick’s singular style permanently imprinted in pop culture. Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is the new caretaker of the empty Overlook Hotel during blizzard-prone winter, bringing along his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their seemingly telepathic son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Soon, the family begins to realize that there is more wrong with the Overlook than cabin fever, which becomes rather obvious as Jack begins to run around with an axe, following in the footsteps of former caretaker Grady (Philip Stone), who murdered his wife and two daughters before killing himself. The family’s only hope is Danny’s mental connection with a man who can also “shine,” the hotel’s head cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who along with the rest of the guests and employees, has departed for the season. They can only pray that he arrives before the bloodshed begins.

Kubrick’s key elements of terror are isolation and ambiguity. The family is not only separated from the rest of the world, but we are also fairly detached from any sense of human goodness within these characters. Jack is a recovering alcoholic, a theme of King’s that Kubrick keeps, but any ability for us to relate is purposefully lost. We are not given the context to feel sorry for Jack as the hotel manipulates his inner demons, and are instead left with the impression that he is simply a deadbeat gradually becoming insane, and whose weaknesses might have led him to have a slight mental illness in the first place.

Wendy, meanwhile, is loyal to her husband, and despite the odd quirks that make her an individual, blissfully accepts his bizarre nature until Danny or she is violently threatened. Yet in her sobbing and fragility, Wendy remains a symbol of human weakness. The great irony is that she is the last to see the hotel’s hallucinations, and the most gifted character, Danny, is the first. And never does he shed a tear.

This is where The Shining approaches brilliance, in a frequent shift of perspective that never allows us to have a clear view of what is real or unreal, or which character is even seeing what Kubrick portrays onscreen at any instant. One can even interpret the Overlook as a character of its own; after all, it interacts with Jack, Wendy, and Danny in completely different ways. I for one, prefer to think of it as a living entity. But is it the hotel, cabin fever, or inner turmoil that drives Jack to madness so quickly? What is Jack’s association with Grady and the hotel’s history? What does the photograph mean? Kubrick allows us to draw our own interpretations in a way that King never quite did, although the novel was spectacular in its own right.

Here, a good deal of the film’s greatness lies in both the visual design of the Overlook and the way Kubrick shoots it. The hotel is a fairly large place; one could explore quite a few places over the course of a single season. Yet the tightly wound corridors and atrociously patterned carpets tend to enclose us in what was initially a vast locale of unlimited space, not only in the terror of this current situation, but also the decades of history with which the activities in the hotel begin to intertwine. The Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, plays a key role in the shots which memorably track behind the characters (whether through the hallways or in that infamous hedge maze), rushing toward / running away from imminent terror. Kubrick’s use of red also plays a dynamic role in the bold color scheme, contrasting with the white slate of winter outside the Overlook’s walls.

The whole production is a little mad, a little hilarious, and just the right amount of Kubrick to make a profound statement about the American way of life. The conventions of a typical, middle-class family are substituted for characters and situations of near absurdity, cast within an ironic location of luxury. I mean, if it wasn’t haunted, what better place to take the wife and kids? During the summer, at least. Kubrick took over a year in shooting alone, and many cast and crew members have described it as one of their worst experiences. That’s right – all work and no play.

Duvall, in particular, was bullied by Kubrick to be scared into character. Her performance is one of the best personifications of pure terror to ever reach the silver screen, and that she was nominated for a Razzie upon the movie’s release is pure idiocy, especially when Nicholson’s performance is the one that is eternally treasured. “Here’s Johnny” aside, it truly is a sensational portrayal of supernatural insanity. Thank God the cast had the tolerance to sit through each “Kubrick shot,” which might consist of more takes than each of their fingers and toes. Put together.

So what does it all mean? Is it a symbol for the American slaughter of the Native Americans, the Holocaust, or even the awesomely ridiculous theory that Kubrick helped fake video footage of the moon landing? I’ll tell you one thing, when I saw Danny in his tight-knit Apollo sweater, I couldn’t help but chuckle. I also couldn’t help but think when I saw Wendy and Danny’s matching red-white-and-blue outfits at the beginning of the film. What exactly is Kubrick trying to say, if anything, about topics that we are not consciously aware of? This is a factor that I believe enhances nearly all of Kubrick’s films, and in the case of The Shining, were examined in a documentary shown at Sundance this year, Room 237, directed by Rodney Ascher. I’ll eagerly await the Blu-ray.

In the meantime, seeing an original print of The Shining (on the big screen, nonetheless), complete with scratches, faded color, jerkiness within the projector, etc., made for the complete experience of Kubrick’s movie, his meticulous detail being aided by the sheer eeriness that seeing horror on actual film can present in itself. This might be the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen the picture, and for all it leaves up the air, it is still incredible to see how Kubrick just gently eases that book of newspaper clippings into the frame, daring us to notice it. Plus, there is nothing quite like that zoom onto Scatman Crothers’ face, as if we are about to take a ride into his nostrils. Nothing like seeing Duvall drag the unconscious Nicholson into the pantry, dried drool on his lips. Nothing like that blood slowly erupting from the elevators, as if it will soon rush under our feet. “Feels too little, huh?” I can assure you, The Shining has made me feel things that only Kubrick could ever arouse.

It’s like taking a trip into your worst nightmare, one where you can’t tell if you’re asleep or awake, and most horrifically, where you are not even the lead character. But you have to watch, and you have to decide why you are having this dream. Then you wake up, and are haunted by the fact that you stumbled upon something you never should’ve found, but were bound to discover. You pretend you weren’t there, but know you were somewhere. This place is the Overlook, and it is unlikely that you will ever leave. After all, “somewhere” is one place where you have always been.

An Introduction to Werner Herzog

Conquistadors & Bad Lieutenants: A Fool’s Search for El Dorado

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Francois Truffaut, one of the main proponents of the French New Wave, once described New German director Werner Herzog as “the most important film director alive.” Herzog certainly has quite the repertoire, ranging from such influential films as Fitzcarraldo and his 1979 Nosferatu remake, to such recent, critically acclaimed documentaries as Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I have not seen any of the above mentioned films, but as evident to any viewer who has seen Herzog narration parodied in YouTube videos (check out his hilarious “commentary” on Where’s Waldo?, for instance), Herzog has a perspective of humanity that may be the most genuine to have ever been translated onto film. His characters struggle with both God and themselves, their dreams and their visions, and most of the time, simply can’t sort their lives out. But in the process, they do discover something, and in most cases, it is often up to the audience to interpret what that something truly is. And for viewers open to the experience, it is often nothing less than divine.

The two works I will discuss in this piece are Herzog’s fourth and seventeenth fictional films, book-ending a long career of movies that I hope are as rich, stimulating, and reflective as those I have studied. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, made by Herzog in 1972, is a visual envelopment of madness, illusion, power, theology, and nature. 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, meanwhile, focuses on the tangible deceptions that remove us from purpose, loyalty, and happiness, yet finds hope in the dreams that may or may not lead us back.

 

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre marks the beginning of Herzog’s collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski, a powerful, money-hungry performer who Herzog never quite got along with, but always felt was a key element of his films. The two argued quite a bit about how Kinski’s role should be performed in Aguirre, but whatever did occur onset (including supposed tantrums and the occasional murder/suicide threat), Kinski clearly ended up dominating the screen.

He plays the blonde-haired, menacing-looking, Spanish soldier that the title refers to, and throughout the film, claims to exert “the wrath of God” that nature, in fact, is inflicting on him. Aguirre has been sent by conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), along with two commanding officers and a group of several, on a mission through the dangerous, Amazonian jungle below the Andes mountains, one that the group hopes will ultimately result in gold, or more specifically, the treasures of El Dorado.

The film’s opening shot, which displays the explorers’ mountainous decent from the widest possible angle, already establishes the picture’s forthcoming,  illusory elements, a hazy fog enveloping before the lens. Aguirre never loses its stylistic imagery, impossibly beautiful, on-location shots displaying some sort of subtle evil, emphasized by the haunting, musical score by German rock band, Popul Vuh. The film is narrated from the journals Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, played by Del Negro. He serves as the film’s guiding reminder of religion, a source of order that becomes obscured as Aguirre mutinies against those in charge of the expedition, granting himself unlimited authority, which in an uncivilized land, appears to give him the powers of God.

Aguirre’s daughter, played by Cecilia Rivera, is a source of purity in all this madness, and it is only upon her death when it is fully realized that the humans have lost; the wrath of Aguirre has destroyed them, as will any sense of authority in a world where we are bound by our surroundings, in addition to powers that do not transcend earthly ability.

Aguirre‘s striking, hallucinatory imagery takes a powerful role when the men literally begin to see reality melt before their eyes, starvation leading them to question everything they see. Aguirre, the only survivor, is therefore left with nothing and everything. He has the whole world before him, but no one left to dominate, not even his own daughter. He is in complete control of his own destiny, yet trapped by the horrid depravities of the jungle. He is lost, and the search for myth has made him not only inseparable from greed, but from the physical location in which avarice has taken his soul. The dream has become a nightmarish reality, yet the illusion remains that his conquest has been victorious.

The cinematography by Thomas Mauch is one of the best examples of a story driven by visual ingenuity, not relying on dialogue to advance the relatively simple plot, but instead, a surreal, deeply layered reality that can only be visualized in cinema. This would no doubt inspire Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as well as Terrence Malick’s The New World several decades later. Even today, Aguirre, the Wrath of God descends into the “heart of darkness” like few films would even dare to attempt.

 

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Decades later,  in Bad Lieutenant (a film that has virtually nothing to do with the 1992 movie of the same title), Herzog also directs a fantastic performance, one that ranks among the best of Nicholas Cage’s career. Cage plays a pain-ridden cop with both a drug problem and a conscience, a dangerous combination when attempting to solve a homicide case in New Orleans, post-Katrina.

Meanwhile, Eva Mendes plays the prostitute he loves, reprising the performers’ romance from 2007’s Ghost Rider, a superhero flick that provided zaniness and poor writing in equal dosage, making it in my opinion, quite more fun than it had any right to be. Cage carried that movie, and in Bad Lieutenant, it is fair to say that his performance is not only flawless, but also one of the most overlooked in many, many years.

Cage embraces each role he’s given with complete focus and charisma, even if it’s a completely ridiculous, typecast bit that he has accepted simply because he needs to give the IRS some sort of compensation. There is some slice of autobiography in his role as Lieutenant Terrence McDonagh, playing a conflicted man whose debt digs him into quite a deep hole, but provides some way for the better part of himself to suppress his inner demons. Herzog allows Cage to play the character with completely realistic insanity, Cage simply filling the role with his entire being.

Terrence has a limp, and damned if in every shot, we don’t see the actor dazed with the satisfaction that the coke and painkillers are keeping him from wincing. It’s like a twisted version of Laura’s handicap in The Glass Menagerie. Meanwhile, when he overdoses, we know. As he begins to get high, the gradual transformation is evident. McDonagh is simply one of the most realistically portrayed drug addicts I have ever seen, Cage conveying the mental and physical torture with both humor and vigorous humanity.

There are obviously anti-Bush undercurrents in Bad Lieutenant, but the film is most successful in conveying Katrina as a metaphor for Terrence’s suffering. Water has flooded the already crime-filled streets of  New Orleans, and as a good deed leads to a crippling accident for Terrence, the ensuing drugs that make the “bad cop” numb are symbolized by the suffocation of those waters. Like we cannot prevent the fury of nature, we can also not stop the inevitable pain that unfairly enters our lives, even if we attempt to do the right thing. Terrence fulfills his duties by trying to solve his current case, but that does not mean he doesn’t try to score drugs at every opportunity.

When he gets high, he often sees reptiles, an element associated with both Katrina and his current state of drowning. For all you Harry Potter fans out there, they’re basically his anti-Patronus, a sign of weakness rather than protection. In one scene, where Terrence begins to develop the hallucination of iguanas on a coffee table, or another, when he may literally see a dead alligator on the road, Herzog provides us with POV shots from the reptiles’ perspective, almost as if Terrence is having an out-of-body experience. More specifically, Herzog wants us to recognize that the troubled man is currently living within his demons, and it will take quite a unique narrative for him to escape.

That opportunity comes in the crime lord, Big Fate (Xzibit), who is responsible for the crimes Terrence is investigating. This portion of the film leads us to heavily question Terrence’s character, whether he will work with Big Fate to score drugs and resolve his debts, or fulfill his responsibilities as an enforcer of the law. The solution to this drug-induced haziness is foreshadowed in several ways, including the moment when after Terrence is removed from duty, he utters the line – “a man without a gun, that’s not a man.” Being a cop is the only source of order Terrence has in his life, and if he wishes for any hope of clarity, his duties must be fulfilled.

But Terrence also has a greater dream, and that is to love and be loved without the sorrow that surrounds us in other areas of life; to aspire to something greater than a little fish in the great ocean of human imperfection. It may be an impossible goal, but with the laws that his career places so prominently within his life, the “bad” lieutenant at least has a chance to try. Try he does, and when the pieces do fall together in his favor, whether through coincidence, karma, a genuine stroke of conscious, or through a parody of the “American happy ending,” the crime is indeed, solved. But part of that “crime” remains within Terrence, and as the credits roll, it becomes clear that even though that darkness may remain forever within his soul, fish do indeed have dreams. And maybe one day, they will escape the flood.

The most touching moment in the film occurs when Terrence describes a story to his beloved, about how he once placed a silver spoon in his childhood hiding place and was never able to find it again. When Terrence uncovers the goodness within his troubled soul, he obtains the spoon once again, and gives it to the woman he plans to be with forever. It has become rusty, but at least it’s there; at least there is some proof of life before this devastating present.

As the film ends, we know our protagonist isn’t quite clean, but we are not yet impatient with his incurable addiction. Instead, we sympathize, and hope for his dreams to become a reality. His nightmares, like Aguirre’s, certainly have. Cage may play a seemingly “crazy” character, similar to many of his others. But with Herzog’s direction comes the diary of a man who is deeply human and relatable, and who over the course of the film, becomes someone we actually care for. These two artists take us to Hell and back, making it rain in a way that is hard to ignore. Weeks later, Terrence’s soul will still dance within your mind.

 

The Fool

Upon viewing these films, I reflect upon a chapter of Roger Ebert’s latest memoir, Life Itself, as the critic contemplates the ways in which Herzog has affected his life and career. I enjoy this passage in particular –

I felt a connection with Herzog’s work that went beyond critic and film. We shared an obsession. He engaged with the infuriating relationship between the human will and the intractable universe. Each film, in a new way, dealt with the fundamental dilemma of consciousness: We know we are here, we know what we see, we learn what we can, we try to do more than is possible, we fail, but we have glimpsed a vision of the infinite. That sounds goofy and New Age, but there is no more grounded filmmaker than Herzog. He founds his work on the everyday realities of people who, crazy or sane, real or fictional, are all equally alive to him.

No person can fully understand the universe, one may even call it foolish to try. But as Ebert explains, Herzog provides a pathway to mortal comprehension. He obtains this through characters who try as hard as we do, not only to understand, but to accomplish the many objectives that life has placed before them. Whether or not we can consciously connect with his films, it is obvious that Werner Herzog understands people. That still means he’s one step ahead of us.

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