Archive for the ‘adaptation’ category


October 11, 2015

The horror of Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks is not simply that it showcases “freaks.” It kicks off with a long, gloriously pious text prologue soliciting the audience’s sympathy for the malformed, the mutilated, and so forth. (It was assumed, of course, that the film’s audience was composed of “normals.”) Then, for a good long while, every scene seems to make the same point: that the differently bodied are no different from “normal people” in emotion, in their need to belong, and in their sexual drives. The “normal” audience is thus conditioned to see the “freaks” merely as “normal” people in unusual packages. So we shouldn’t be so surprised, perhaps, when the “freaks” end up acting, indeed, much like the violent, vindictive, vengeful “normals” who have forced their hands.

Set behind the scenes of a circus sideshow, Freaks gives us what Stephen King pegged as an E.C. Comics horror story twenty years early. The midget Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with able-bodied trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She strings him along, getting jewelry and “loans” out of him, until she learns he’s sitting on a fat inheritance. Then Cleopatra conspires with her real love, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry Hans and gradually poison him to death. Hans’ fellow outcasts — who had earlier grievously offended Cleopatra with their wedding-night chant “Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us” — band together for ghastly revenge.

The beginning of that climactic sequence boasts a genuinely badass moment Quentin Tarantino would be proud to have filmed: dwarf Jerry Austin snapping open his switchblade and polishing it, followed by “half-boy” Johnny Eck taking out a gun and polishing it, while dwarf Angelo Rossitto plays his flute, unperturbed. Freaks is essentially a melodrama (based glancingly on Tod Robbins’ rather corny short story “Spurs”) that rolls inexorably towards a uniquely powerful and frightening denouement. It’s not that the “freaks” confirm our suspicions about them as inhuman; it’s that they, after spending much of the running time seeming quite amiable, fulfill their potential towards a darker kind of humanity. In true noir fashion, they prove as rotten as almost anyone else onscreen.

After the movie died in previews, a nervous MGM hacked out roughly half an hour, reportedly including a scene in which we see exactly what the enraged performers do to Hercules (castration, rumor has always had it). In the existing film, we never find out what happens to him, which kind of makes it worse, since our imaginations fill in the grotesque details. Part of the horror, for me, was seeing one of the “pinhead” women — previously never seen without gleeful smiles — crawl through the mud after Hercules, her face frozen and numb. The “freaks” are not shown to enjoy their revenge, exactly; it’s just something that must be done. The “straight” world has stomped on their kind once too often. At that point, the movie’s putative heroes, good-hearted “normals” played by Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, have been soundly forgotten; they turn up at the very end in a happy coda that feels pasted on. We know the true final shot should be of Cleopatra in her new role in the circus.

Tod Browning, who’d directed a few Lon Chaney vehicles as well as Lugosi’s Dracula, more or less killed his career with this film; he would helm only four more before spending twenty years inactive until his death in 1962. In truth, Browning’s choice of material and comfort with the unusual were always more interesting than his generally stiff direction; someone like James Whale might have found bizarre outsider wit in the story. But where it counts, in that apocalyptic finale and the revelation of Cleopatra’s fate, Browning locked in some of horror cinema’s most indelible images. Decades later, of course, Freaks would find a younger, more appreciative audience on video and midnight-movie showings, influencing filmmakers as well as the Ramones (who misquoted the freak-chant as “gabba gabba” on their 1977 song “Pinhead”). By then, it wasn’t that Americans accepted freaks but that Americans accepted themselves as one of them.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

September 13, 2015

the-man-who-fell-to-earth-4For some reason, The Man Who Fell to Earth feels like a Pink Floyd album to me, even though Floyd had nothing to do with the film. It’s oblique, morose, spacey, a little po-faced about dramatic themes and subtexts that strike high-school students as particularly profound. It’s essentially Dark Side of the Moon 2: The American Dream. David Bowie, by his own admission nuked out of his skull on ten grams of cocaine a day, is a fragile alien who takes the Earth name Thomas Jerome Newton. He, or his ship (it’s not really clear which), lands in New Mexico, and he promptly sets about getting filthy rich with electronic patents. (Perhaps meaningfully, he doesn’t develop anything major to help Earthlings — just better quality cameras and recorded music: leisure gadgets.) His mission is to amass enough wealth to build a spacecraft and return home to his dying, drought-ridden planet with enough water to save his people.

Things don’t work out that way, and a great deal of Man Who Fell is devoted to why they don’t work out. After the first scenes, which feel absurdly telescoped in time (Newton goes from pawn shop to pawn shop selling gold rings, and then he’s shopping his patents around), the movie slows way down. It becomes mesmeric in a way, not to mention repetitive, with not one but two sequences in which chemistry professor Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) gets it on with a student. One tryst might have been enough, but then we realize that director Nicolas Roeg and scripter Paul Mayersberg (adapting a Walter Tevis novel) are contrasting Bryce’s sexual behavior with that of Newton, who meets and becomes enamored with hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). We might also throw in Newton’s lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry), whose homosexuality is handled so matter-of-factly we may have to remind ourselves the film was released in 1976.

But then Roeg and Mayersberg are both British. For a while, based on this movie and Don’t Look Now, Roeg had a glowing international reputation for a truly adult erotic sensibility. The frequent sex in this film is explicit, joyous, desolate, satirical, but never American, never inflected with that peculiar Puritan sense of guilt and sin. People have sex in the movie because they’re of age and they want to. It happens often enough (though never between Farnsworth and his lover, significantly) that one might begin to read Man Who Fell as an allegory about American sexual mores and how the government seeks to punish sex. It’s about roughly fifty other things too, of course. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the film is hazy and amorphous enough to be about whatever you want it to. Christ allegory? Sure. An “alien” (British) view of “Earth” (America)? Why not.

The movie is bleakly gorgeous, with a growing sense of ennui, but not a lot of urgency to Newton’s mission. We have no idea how much time is passing, and besides, Newton gets sidetracked with twin addictions to alcohol and television. He sits around drinking and watching the tube (in some scenes multiple TVs) while his chance to make a difference passes him by. That’s the American dream whose native hue of resolution, to paraphrase Hamlet, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of CBS and Beefeater. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who has fallen from the pinnacle of this and Don’t Look Now to the depths of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) lights the New Mexico desert and cottage lakes for mysterious beauty, and makes Newton’s interior lodgings appropriately antiseptic. Past a certain point, Newton might as well be a zoo creature in a cage even before the plot essentially makes him one.

The Man Who Fell to Earth gains, of course, from its on-the-nose casting of Bowie in the lead. He isn’t acting, quite; again by his own admission, he was stoned and behaving in character. His scenes with Candy Clark, who overacts and whose voice sounds too clangorously dubbed, feel emotionally lopsided: he’s Brit cool, she’s hot-blooded American Woman. (I should point out that the American men don’t come off much better.) But as a sort of found object of alienated angst, Bowie is suitably iconic. The movie is so effective at building a mood of dislocation that it’s almost a bummer when it has to punch its time card as a sci-fi film, with scenes of Dr. Bryce surreptitiously getting a photo of Newton to prove he’s an alien and then asking him if he’s the first visitor to Earth. Newton gives a rather too explicit answer to that question; it would have been better if he’d just flashed an enigmatic smirk. Like many another classic science-fiction film, Man Who Fell seems larger than its sci-fi trappings, seems to have more on its mind and under the hood.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

August 23, 2015

the-chant-of-jimmie-blacksmithIn the otherwise forgettable 1985 potboiler Badge of the Assassin, there’s an exchange between a black cop and a black revolutionary that I think of often (it was also used as a sample in the incendiary 1992 single “Guerrillas in the Mist,” by Consolidated ft. Paris). The cop tells the revolutionary that what he did “doesn’t make any sense.” The revolutionary shouts, “It do not have to! It only has to get noticed. They have to understand — oppressing people costs!” Well, those last three words could serve as leitmotif for America these last few years, and also for the morally complex 1978 Australian drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. This film, perhaps still the greatest of Aussie cinema, is recommended to anyone who doesn’t understand why Ferguson burned — why it had to.

It’s the turn of the century in Australia, and eager young Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a “half-caste” (half white, half Aborigine), goes from one job to the next, being denied full proper wages for the work he does for casually racist white landowners. It gets harder and harder for Jimmie to hold his placatory smile in place, especially when he marries a white woman (Angela Punch) and she gets pregnant. Jimmie can’t support a wife and child on what he makes, and pretty soon some local women conspire to make sure Jimmie no longer even gets groceries in exchange for services rendered. The agenda, it’s clear, is to send Jimmie back to the squalor he’s trying so hard to transcend.

Jimmie has rejected the black world — the Aborigines are required to live in repulsive circumstances — and won’t be accepted into the white world. He’s a true nowhere man, and it drives him insane. He goes to the house of those meddling local women, accompanied by his not-entirely-with-it uncle, and before anyone knows what’s happening Jimmie has killed or maimed several of them with his axe, leaving only a crying infant alive. Thus begins a terrible, personal war on whoever has slighted Jimmie, and along the way he no longer leaves infants alive. He’s too far gone. The movie in no way justifies his rampage, but it has patiently laid the sociological groundwork so that we understand why it happened. Oppressing people costs.

Released in America two years after its Australian premiere, Chant was a calling card for the strong director Fred Schepisi, who soon moved to Hollywood; his best-known mainstream film is probably the superb Steve Martin rom-com Roxanne. Here, Schepisi works in a classical style, no funny business with the camera or with editing, just a clean and horrifying account of a man breaking down in insupportable conditions, his anguish both mocked and heightened by the wide-open spaces preserved in flawless widescreen compositions. The movie is gorgeous pure filmmaking even when we wince at the violence — and we do, because Schepisi doesn’t present it as cathartic or exciting. Especially not cathartic. Jimmie goes over the edge and it does nothing for him other than to get his cheerful half-brother (Freddy Reynolds) killed and to get his own face half shot-off.

Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List), which in turn was based on a true story, the film might these days, in more sensitive times, be called “problematic”: After all, does not Jimmie fulfill the whites’ jaundiced view of him as a savage? Yes, he does, and that’s the tragedy. Jimmie wanted so badly to be welcomed into white society (he was raised by a white minister and his wife), and when he was systematically rejected, he had no self to fall back on, no identity other than the “other” he was shown that he was. He had no choice but to become the “black bastard” his world insisted upon. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is both a national epic and a national nightmare, and of course the nightmare extends beyond Australia. It may trouble the sleep of anyone who is part of the white-privileged group, who scoffs at “Black Lives Matter,” who has knee-jerk racist panicky reactions to the mere presence of black people because they know deep down that oppressing people costs, and who knows when the bill will come due?

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

August 16, 2015

valerieweekofwonders2Grown-ups want to scare kids away from having sex too soon. Fairy tales are loaded with this agenda, and so are any fable-inflected movies about a young innocent’s fearful introduction to adult sexuality — David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, Marielle Heller’s current Diary of a Teenage Girl. To this list we might add Jaromil Jireš’ Czechoslovakian surrealist gem Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which shares with Stephen King’s Carrie and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps a certain menstrual dread: when the girl becomes a woman, blood flows, and not just the expected blood.

Valerie, like the actress who played her at the time (Jaroslava Schallerová), is thirteen. She lives with her grandmother (Helena Anýžová) and pursues an odd relationship with a young man (Petr Kopriva) who may or may not be her brother. There is a horrid-looking vampire skulking around called the Polecat, and Grandmother seeks to sacrifice Valerie to him and become a vampire herself so as to gain eternal youth and get back together with her former lover, a repulsive priest who tries to molest Valerie. This bedtime story, with its knife-edged sexuality and nightmare logic, is decidedly not for children, though it uses what we would call adult themes to illustrate what children know instinctively anyway.

The visuals are positively swollen with metaphorical import, starting with the early image of a daisy dappled with blood. At one point, Valerie comes right out and says she’s asleep and dreaming, but that just seems like a reassurance to the more insecure viewers in the audience. Why do we demand that everything in a movie, especially one as elliptical as Valerie, make literal sense? Sometimes a movie is a story; sometimes it’s a song or a poem or a sketch. The story at the heart of Valerie is somewhat emotionally convoluted, premised as it is on yearning and dread. We may fear for Valerie, but she seldom fears for herself; she tells herself she’s dreaming, and therefore none of this is “really happening” to her, but she also could be aware that she’s in a fairy tale.

One thing Valerie knows, that all children know and grown-ups wish they didn’t, is that adults can’t be trusted. This is why Grandmother is all too willing to sell her granddaughter’s soul, and why the priest wants Valerie’s body. The movie isn’t saying anything as boring as “all grandmothers and priests are bad”; it’s more that grown-ups have their own angels and demons, incomprehensible to children on their side of the sexual equator. (In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, adult male sexuality is likened to the chittering of chthonic insects.) To understand grown-up madness is to cross over into it forever and to lose the magic of childhood, symbolized perhaps by Valerie’s enchanted earrings, which she’s always in danger of losing or having stolen from her.

There’s an awful lot to unpack here, and it’s full of nightmarish supernatural creatures and bizarre human behavior. Sexuality here grins and feeds and infects. It drives adults crazy, makes way for the sleep of reason that literally produces monsters. Valerie is a horror film, sort of, in that it touches on carnal terrors, but for Valerie herself it’s all a strange but wonderful journey — hence Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, not Her Week of Trauma. The world surrounding Valerie is populated by corrupt men and weak women, who drain each other’s lifeblood figuratively. Valerie hasn’t quite entered that world yet; she sees it through a scrim created by being half in childhood and half in womanhood, so therefore she sees it as we see it through the film — jumbled and chaotic yet serenely menacing and darkly erotic. We see it all through Valerie’s unfrightened gaze. Like the best fairy tales, Valerie is voluptuously suggestive, a bit dangerous, and perfectly legible on its own subterranean terms.

A Face in the Crowd

August 2, 2015

a-face-in-the-crowd-1On a recent episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg prescribed a viewing of 1957’s A Face in the Crowd as a way of understanding Donald Trump’s unaccountable popularity among a small segment of the populace. The movie explains more than that, actually. A primer on the ease and dangers of American demagoguery, A Face in the Crowd sets its sights on a drunk drifter and takes him all the way up to the position of political kingmaker. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) goes a long way on cornpone aw-shucks charm, most of which he consciously ladles on. Rhodes has a sharp, shrewd mind, and people underestimate him at their peril; he has an instinctive comprehension of the relatively new medium of television, and he uses it to sell products — energy pills, candidates. Same thing.

Rhodes is discovered in an Arkansas jail by radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and soon enough she regrets her role in “making” him (she even dubs him Lonesome). Rhodes segues from radio to a local TV station to a major New York network. He can’t seem to step wrong. His listeners/viewers love his honesty, and when he ridicules his first sponsor, a mattress company, sales of their mattresses rise 55%. Marcia and one of Rhodes’ writers, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), look on in dismay. They know Rhodes is starting to rot behind the mask. There he is on his top-rated show, enabling a senator’s explanation of why Social Security is un-American. Daniel Boone, after all, wouldn’t have needed it.

Griffith’s hungry, lunging performance (it was his film debut) is a shock and a revelation to anyone who knows him primarily from The Andy Griffith Show or, God knows, Matlock. Rhodes wasn’t the last villain Griffith played, but it was most likely his most vulnerable and recognizable. Rhodes’ impish, vulpine grin and ferocious cackle — Whitman’s barbaric yawp in full frightening effect — complete the mask, the face that the crowd wants to see. In one respect, it’s the audience’s fault for buying into Rhodes’ patter, because they need someone to believe in, someone to give that power to. If it isn’t him, it’ll be someone else. The audience is gullible but also fickle, and is always looking for a reason to discontinue its belief.

Budd Schulberg’s script verges on didactic at times but never quite tumbles over. As sociopolitical satire, the movie was decades ahead of its time, even scooping 1976’s Network. The acting, especially by Griffith and Neal, is witty but primal at times, almost Kabuki-like (also note Neal’s silent-horror-film method of indicating distress by clutching her face). There were moments when I was afraid on behalf of various characters in a room with the raging Rhodes, even though, aside from a bar fight he gets into (but doesn’t start), he’s never particularly violent. He’s never too far away from hysteria, though. One of the film’s virtues is showing us the burden of Rhodes’ cult of personality. He got where he is by artificial honesty, and now he can’t ever say what he truly feels or it’s all over. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says to us about Mr. Trump, but it bears remembering no matter who steps up to a podium to sell us a pill, a candidate, or a war.

The Third Man

July 26, 2015

The popular line on The Third Man is that it’s a thriller, or even a film noir, but it reads to me as a tragedy about disillusionment — personal and global. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, and the great city’s old-world beauty is crosshatched with scars. One American pursues another: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has landed in Vienna to take a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Harry has been fatally hit by a car. Apparently it was an accident — or was it? The story keeps changing: two men supposedly carried Harry’s body to the side of the street, but later an unidentified third man is said to have helped move the corpse.

Thus the title, I suppose, and yet it also seems to refer to the overlap that happens when two very different men meet. Holly is a naïve American, the author of many pulp westerns; his outlook on the world has a similar simplistic coloration. Harry is more worldly, an avatar of the moral murk America muddled into during and after the war. Holly would have been shocked by the revelation of bodies strewn like broken toys at Auschwitz; Harry would not. After the movie, Harry was resurrected for 52 radio episodes and 77 television episodes; Holly, poor sap, was not, ultimately being as desolately ignored as he is at the end of the film, when his unrequited love interest (Alida Valli) pointedly disses him in a final shot famous for its bitter understanding of life in Harry Lime’s world.

Welles’s Lime is given an equally famous intro (a little more than an hour into the film’s running time) — first only the feet, then his smug moon face briefly illuminated in the shadows of the city. Harry is the villain of the piece, but Welles, like so many others playing villains, acts as if the movie were really about him exclusively, with him as the misunderstood hero. Welles was a still-ridiculously young 34 when he played Harry, but he was probably born sounding 56, and his voice caresses Harry’s monologues. Oh, how pleased he is with himself — Harry, I mean, not Welles, I guess — when he uncorks his legendary “cuckoo clock” speech, prefaced by remarks about the meaningless shapes moving around down there. This sort of thing sounded self-serving and callow when Joseph Cotten spewed it six years earlier in Shadow of a Doubt, and it sounds the same now. Harry has made money by consigning children to death with diluted penicillin; his villainy is not savory and amusing but sordid and appalling, however he tries to justify it by nihilistic rhetoric.

The movie’s ugliness — wreaked on architecture by the war and on humanity by greed, as if nothing were learned from the war and people were just going to go on doing the same old stupid exploitative things forever — is leavened by aesthetic loveliness. Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot almost every scene off-kilter, except for a few establishing shots, but as soon as people start talking the camera tilts. Anton Karas’ celebrated zither score finds an unstable balance between sprightly and melancholy. All the elements are in place for a standard classic, but the decay is never far from the lovely surface. In that respect, The Third Man is as perverse as any David Lynch film, and probably more knowing on a political level than most of Hitchcock.

And so we return to Holly and Harry, the soundalikes, two sides of the same rusted coin. Holly, maybe, was driven to the simplicities of pulp by the incomprehensibility of the war. Harry, driven the other way, styles himself an elegant, suave villain, but he’s really a squalid little opportunist (Welles as seen in The Third Man is “the most hideous man alive” used by the girls in Heavenly Creatures as their imaginary kingdom’s hideously sexy villain), and he closes things out in an appropriate place. In the end, though, who truly wins? Harry has at least been saved from the indignities of prison, and chose his old friend as the one to send him off, whereas Holly, profoundly disillusioned, stands on the side of a road at the end, like the two men who allegedly bore Harry’s corpse to the side of another road, or like the third man.

Forty Years of Jaws

June 21, 2015

This past weekend, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned forty. I used to consider it a horror film; after some thought, I decided it fit better in the action-adventure section; nowadays, though, it almost plays as a comedy-drama. Not that it doesn’t pack scares and thrills, but it has a peculiarly ’70s appetite for small character detail. Jaws isn’t really about a shark, or even really about the hunt for a shark. It’s about a man, Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), looking to make an impact on his new community. Brody has moved himself and his family from New York to Amity (a thinly veiled analog of Martha’s Vineyard), and he expects his new peacekeeping gig to be, well, peaceful.

Adapted from a fairly awful Peter Benchley novel, Jaws clears away the book’s bestseller-chasing junk and flab — infidelity, the Mafia — and whittles the story down to three men against nature. In that respect, the movie actually feels more literary than the novel does, with its echoes of Melville, Hemingway, even Ibsen in its controversy over whether to close the beach. The men — ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and old salt Quint (Robert Shaw) along with Brody — represent various male responses to societal threats. You can know everything about it, you can be a hard-ass, you can have the authority of a badge — you’re still not guaranteed to beat it (“it” being death itself).

The young Spielberg, aided immeasurably by a cadre of top-flight artists — composer John Williams, editor Verna Fields, cinematographer Bill Butler — turned in a visually restless yet smoothly, supremely confident piece of work that suggested this was his twenty-second feature as director rather than only his second (if we don’t count such TV films as Duel, which I suppose we should). Aside from the much-cited suspense that came about from not being able to shoot the problematic mechanical shark, Spielberg gets the fierce adrenaline and joy of the seafaring hunt for the monster, who at this point in the movie could be a submerged leviathan or the Kraken or a dragon as easily as a shark. Past a certain point it hardly matters.

The concept goes back to Grimm: the villagers are imperiled by a beast, and brave men must face it. It did not, of course, occur to Benchley or his adapters that brave women could also face it, but then this isn’t a movie that especially values machismo, either. If anything, a woman — the grief-stricken Mrs. Kintner — is the one who finally gets the ball rolling, shames the mayor into authorizing the hunt. The first attacks, as in a horror film, happen under cover of darkness; when the emboldened monster feasts in daylight — and on a child, no less — the conflict shifts, and most of the second half at sea unfolds in the sun. The major exception is the rightly celebrated Indianapolis monologue, which takes the form of a historical campfire tale.

In the intervening decades, during which movies have often been said to have degenerated from the glory days of the ’70s, we have been asked to imagine a contemporary blockbuster that would take so much time out for the story of the Indianapolis. It’s assumed that today’s audiences wouldn’t sit still for it, but I think they would, if the scene were as tightly edited, sharply written, and beautifully acted as it is in Jaws. The movie has been blamed for creating, or at least cementing, the box-office worship of the blockbuster era; the movie also happens to be brilliantly crafted, and I’d like to think that, more than anything, is what changed the face of the blockbuster (which for several years had been the province of generally klutzily-directed disaster movies like Airport). In Spielberg’s hands Jaws becomes a gleeful, sometimes sadistic celebration of pure cinema, man against beast, all the chthonic symbolic stuff that makes the story work even on people who’ve never been near the ocean. Forty years on, let’s raise a glass to that.


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