“I’ve been through it all, baby. I’m Mother Courage.”
“What’s the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? Just stayin’ on it, I guess.”
In 2007, my blood boiled as “Entertainment Tonight” gushed ghoulishly over the possibility that 75-year-old Elizabeth Taylor had a “new boyfriend” — referring to the gay black gentleman who escorted the actress to an AIDS benefit. The interviewer had to kneel to get right in the face of the wheelchair-bound movie star, resplendent in jewels of her own design and a sequined gown just slipping off her shoulder. “Are you ready to be a bride for the ninth time? Would you accept a proposal of marriage?,” baited the blond ditz.
“Marriage?!” shrieked Taylor, her face a mask of mock horror. And then the diva threw back her head and howled like a banshee.
Viewers, of course, were being invited to enjoy the spectacle — and sound — of a blowsy old dame, veteran of so many soap-opera scandals, acting dotty. What could be funnier than pretending the sedentary septuagenarian might be up for connubial hanky-panky?
There was a time when the star of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) would have cut the belittling ditz off at the knees. Her character, Maggie the Cat, would have narrowed her great violet eyes, thinned those lush lips and, wasp-voiced, nailed her victim as a “no-neck monster.” Still, I loved that unabashed banshee howl.
[First published in 1982, in “This Sceptr’d Isle” Autumn Quarter Film Series, Office of Cinema Studies, University of Washington.]
The Quarry, a 75-minute film for the BBC (early 1960s): A sculptor named Arthur quests for a very particular kind of stone, amid many references to King Arthur, Merlin, and magic.
Point Blank (1967): On some level, a conventional tale about betrayal and revenge among corporate gangsters and their women. This strange film, in which time slides backwards and forwards, begins in a deserted, decaying Alcatraz, where a man named Walker (provocative name for a quester) is doublecrossed and seemingly murdered by his wife and best friend. Reborn or resurrected in the waters of San Francisco Bay, he sets out to pay them back and to find out who ultimately “runs things.” Guided by Yost, a Merlin-like figure, Walker passes through a sterile city encased in plastic, metal, concrete, and glass. Nature is buried, love and friendship dead, and only the greedy accumulation of “things” and sensations a thriving concern. The film comes full circle back to its beginning, at a disused San Francisco landmark described as “safe as a church” and used for a gangland money-drop. Walker finally discovers the identity of the corporate puppetmaster: Yost/Merlin himself. Walker, a mindless, primitive force—perhaps a zombie—recedes into the shadows, back into his own dream, thwarted by a world in which the unconscious is an anachronism.
The Lord of the Rings (1969): An abortive project in which Frodo was conceived as a young King Arthur and Gandolf as Merlin. (Boorman’s Merlin script deemed “too expensive” to film by United Artists.)
Deliverance (1972): Four city men trek into a Southern forest and down river rapids with the notion that nature can test a man benignly. Where the land is to be “drowned” into a lake by the construction of a dam, primitive forces and emotions are loosed, and the four friends fall into terrible knowledge of themselves and their environment. They try to bury that knowledge, but the corpse’s hand that thrusts up out of the dark lake at the end of the film signals the futility of such repression.
Zardoz (1974): Its title an elision of The Wizard of Oz, this film takes place in a 23rd-century wasteland devastated by nuclear war. Survivors who have regressed into brutality are kept in check and occasionally exterminated by the Eternals, sexless, immortal intellectuals who cannot sleep and therefore never dream, but consider themselves the “custodians of the past for an unknown future.” A hand—holding a gun—explodes out of a heap of golden grain: thus Zed, a time-bound catalyst of evolution, is “born.” Three women assist Zed in his quest for the Creator—a scientist, a visionary, and his eventual mate. May, the scientist, warns him when he opens his mind to her knowledge, “It will burn you”; he replies, like Excalibur’s Morgana, “Then burn me.” The “wizard,” only a lesser god, turns out to be one Arthur Frayn, part show business con-artist, part magician, who professes admiration for Merlin and T.S. Eliot. Paradoxically, Arthur insists that he has “invented” Zed even as his intelligent primitive wrecks the godhead, kills the Eternals, and flees into the natural world, a new Adam with his Eve, promising to be fruitful and to multiply. In the last moments of the film, the couple make love in a cave and then, in a series of dissolves as they stare at the camera, at us, they pass from youth to age to death, and finally into dust. The cycle of birth and death, frozen by the Eternals, moves again and the earth is satisfied. All that remains of Zed is a hand painted on the cave wall and a rusted gun, symbols of making and destroying.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): A child once possessed by the Devil becomes the best hope of salvation for humankind. This strange messiah is guided by a lapsed priest who must journey to Africa, where man began, to seek renewed faith and knowledge from a scientist who, in visions, sometimes becomes a primitive and powerful native priest.
The above is offered in evidence that John Boorman did not come to Excalibur unfamiliar with archetypal patterns of myth, especially as they are embodied in the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Boorman is a literate man who has actually read those literary, philosophical, and critical works that inform, directly or by allusion, nearly all his films. Sometimes that’s made for a problem: too much self-consciousness about mythic ideas and images can retard the movement and impact of a visual narrative. People begin to say things so Significantly and take action that is so Fraught with Symbolic Weight that after a while there isn’t any life left in the old story—and myths are nothing if they aren’t alive and kicking us into new ways of seeing and being. Boorman has said that he wanted to make Excalibur “as if it is the story—not a retelling of the myth, but the very events on which the legend was based.” In this, I believe, he succeeded—as he had not done so completely in any of his previous films.
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world…
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. —Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
More than one person, myself included, was not too terrifically turned on by the prospect of The Tamarind Seed. Despite Blake Edwards’s modest rep as a quirkily competent director, and memories of his refreshingly adult Peter Gunn television series in the late Fifties, the notion of Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif let loose in an environment “where love grows and passion flowers” (to quote the early ads) did not set my critical—or indeed, any other—pulses racing in anticipation. Mary Poppins and Dr. Zhivago, as one Movietone News writer aptly dubbed them, might make magical music for Middle America, but they aren’t the couple that comes most readily to mind in the context of passionate, grownup love. In fact, I fear I had come to cast the two as top-of-the-line Barbie and Kenny doll stars: handsomely groomed and coiffured, offending no one (and even enchanting some) with their unrelieved attractiveness, and wholesomely bereft of bothersome genitalia.
Even when I got the word that the love story was set within the spy-thriller framework, I wasn’t much more sanguine about TheTamarindSeed. I’ve about had my fill of the institutionalized world-weariness of this venerable genre. Like the cop flick, the international spy drama has come to wallow in unearned cynicism, automatic angst. Current events haven’t helped this drift towards self-congratulatory recognition of corruption here, there, and everywhere. Having been conditioned to accept it as our native element, we are all too easily and undiscriminatingly immersed in a cinematic environment in which every landmark is subject to change without notice, depending upon the ebb and flow of political and/or ideological expediency. With poleaxed complacency, we watch individuals, relationships, ethics suffer such swift sea-changes that nothing is certain, save the expectation that the ground under one’s feet will be shifting again at any moment.
[Originally published inQueen Anne & Magnolia News, June 2, 2010]
Among the trio of directors crowned as Emerging Masters by the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival, Australian Ana Kokkinos seems a mite premature. On the evidence of the three Kokkinos films I’ve seenâ€”Head On, Blessed and The Book of Revelation (not in SIFF but available at Scarecrow)â€”this onetime lawyer turned filmmaker is a long way off from joining the masterly company of fellow Aussie directors Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong.
Kokkinos’ strong suit lies in dramatizing the flesh-and-blood bondsâ€”sustaining or smotheringâ€”that tie parents and offspring, and in finding the dynamics of emotion in dance. Drawn to the power of color to code emotional states, she likes to saturate key scenes in hot shades of gold, red and blue. Notably, her command of storytelling falters; narratives feel overlong and aimless, adrift in Melbourne’s mean streets, as though the lady at the helm doesn’t quite know where she’s going or how to stop.
In HeadOn, her 1998 feature debut, homosexuality works as a metaphor for the unbreachable divide between old-fashioned Greek-Australian immigrants and their feckless kids. Pointlessly interspersing black-and-white archival footage of the older generation’s battles for assimilation, Kokkinos follows Ari, a handsome, halfway closeted 19-year-old, through a long dark night of the soul fueled by sex, drugs, dancing. We watch Ari ping-pong gracelessly between straight and gay worlds, flirting with rough trade, an old girlfriend as lost as he is, a handsome Aussie offering something besides another degrading hook-up.
[Originally published inQueen Anne & Magnolia News, May 26, 2010]
What are film festivals and film critics good for? Well, for one thing, discovering and boosting new or under-appreciated talent. And don’t discount the power of such visual and verbal exposure: that’s precisely how a little film called The Hurt Locker stole the Oscar out from under the nose of James Cameron’s massively promoted blockbuster Avatar! So by introducing fledgling artists from all around the world to mainstream American audiences, SIFF’s Emerging Masters program can do some real good for cinema while striking a blow in the ongoing battle against this country’s cultural parochialism.
This year’s slate of Emerging Masters includes Mohamed Al Daradji (Iraq-Netherlands), Ana Kokkinos (Australia) and Valery Todorovsky (Russia). In the coming week, two films by Al Daradji will be screened: Ahlaam and SonofBabylon, both powerful testaments to the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, caught between dictators and invaders.
After studying theater direction in Baghdad, in 1995 Al Daradji moved to the Netherlands where he worked as a cameraman. Later he earned a degree in cinematography in England, going on to make many short films and commercials before returning to Iraq in 2003. While the war dragged on, Al Daradji filmed Ahlaam under incredibly difficult circumstances. Lack of equipment and electricity, the near-impossibility of finding a Muslim actress to play a victim of rape, kidnapping by Iraqi insurgents, detention by the American military â€” everything conspired to block the completion of the shoot. (Al Daradji chronicles the making of Ahlaam in his documentary, War, Love, God and Madness.)
That’s the ticket! This year’s Seattle International Film Festival promises to deliver all the goods so enthusiastically ballyhooed by Phil Silvers in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (apologies to Stephen Sondheim for lyrics-tampering!). From May 20 through June 13, the 36th edition of Seattle’s all-inclusive film extravaganza invites us to get lost in the cinematic dark with 256 features and 150 shorts, including documentaries and lots of slots for Northwest helmers, a heavy slate of Contemporary World Cinema, a Grease singalong, family-friendly fare, edgier midnight tripping … something for everyone!
SIFF 2010 sprawls into venues all over Seattle and beyond: Queen Anne (Uptown), University District (Neptune), Capitol Hill (Egyptian), West Seattle (Admiral), Kirkland and Everett (Performing Arts centers). SIFF Cinema at Seattle Center, Pacific Place, the Paramount, and even Pacific Science Center IMAX also will host festival films. (For schedules and locations, check out www.SIFF.net.)
[originally published in The Austin Chronicle, October 22, 1999]
Nowadays, most movies look factory-made, mechanically repeating cast, storyline, or F/X from the last big blockbuster. They touch us skin-deep, ask nothing of us but box-office, kill time and vanish. In contrast, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is like getting accosted by a wild-eyed Ancient Mariner, a colorful dreg who draws you willy-nilly into his tragi-comic tale about an albatross, love, and death. The grizzled fellow’s story literally rubs your nose in the stink and sweat of Mexico, Sam Peckinpah’s earthiest haven from the Dream Factory. Playing Head‘s anti-hero Benny is anti-star Warren Oates, five-foot-three sleazebag, he of sheepish gaze and shit-eating grin. Suffering through an ever more hallucinatory journey, this latter-day Bogey pursues Peckinpavian Treasure of the Sierra Madre: a rotting head. Not politely stowed off screen, not tricked out in horror-movie makeup, but an inescapably flesh-and-blood thing that oozes, draws moscas, thunks off a car seat — and grossest insult, this revolting memento mori is flung right into our collective face!
Peckinpah means for his Head, his movie, to be hard to take. Every frame, cut, dissolve, line of dialogue, performance is chosen, sewn together to weave a seamless, searing pattern, its style inextricable from its substance. This black-humored parable exposes cruel conception and labor, the ugly agony of an outlaw artist’s desperation to make movies in spite of heartless moneymen in Muzak’d executive suites — and his own self-crucifying sins. Pulling critics and consumers down into the bloody muck of his artworld getting born, Peckinpah revels in images of himself as whore, martyr, vengeful creator.
In March 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside) was arrested and locked up in Tehran’s Evin prison, initially for “unspecified crimes,” then on charges directly related to his work. Though Mr. Panahi’s award-winning films have brought credit to his native land, his countrymen have been banned from seeing his work during the last ten years. Worse yet, this outstanding director has essentially been prevented from making movies in recent years. Panahi suffers from a heart condition and there are serious concerns about his health.
Filmmakers, film festivals and film critics all over the world have protested the incarceration of Mr. Panahi, a respected artist who should enjoy the freedom to make and screen movies for the pleasure and admiration of audiences everywhere.
As members of the film community in Seattle, Washington, we the undersigneÂ deplore the detention of Jafar Panahi and strongly urge the government of Iran to release him immediately.
Tim Appelo, critic
Sean Axmaker, critic
Justine Barda, programmer, SIFF
Sheila Benson, critic
James Bernhard, teacher
Yomi Braester, faculty, University of Washington
Peggy Case, producer
Robert Cumbow, author
Ryan Davis, NWFilm Forum
Robinson Devor, filmmaker
Jim Emerson, critic
Janice Findley, filmmaker
Ted Fry, critic
Claudia Gorbman, faculty, University of Washington
Kevin Hamedini, filmmaker
John Hartl, critic
Ruth Hayler, film buyer, Landmark Theater
Robin Held, curator, Frye Museum
Nick Henderson, graphic artist
Robert Horton, critic
Wayne Karrfalt, writer
Tom Keogh, critic
Richard Jameson, critic
Moira Macdonald, critic
Kathleen Murphy, critic
Paula Nechak, critic
Bruce Reid, writer
Adam Sekuler, NWFilm Forum
Jeff Shannon, critic
Kevin Shannon, manager, Scarecrow Video
Lynn Shelton, filmmaker
Mark Steiner, buyer, Scarecrow Video
Tom Tangney, KIRO radio personality
Andrew Wright, critic
[Originally published in Movietone News 10, January 1972]
Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs reminds us that inour rush to civilization, we too often deny the violent origins of our favorite myths and rituals—and pretend that the primal power of our lizard brains never was. Who wants to recall that Christian Communion is a sanitized version of the actual sacrifice—sometimes involving dismemberment and cannibalism—at the heart of innumerable pagan religions? In the time of Sophocles, it was considered beneficial to communally cathect archetypal fantasies. Now we believe that if we just aren’t reminded too often (via the movies, for instance) of the dark underside of human experience, the unpleasantness will all go away, and we’ll all be polite and peaceful together. Isn’t evil all out there,not stubbornly in residence within us? Or if within us, it’s just a matter of biochemical misfires. Retro filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah should chill out, instead of unreeling incendiary words and images.
InStraw Dogs, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), in Cornwall to do mathematical research, ignores the possibility of forces and emotions which cannot be contained in neat theorems or controlled by the rational mind. The Cornwall locals question him about what he’s seen of the “troubles” in America—”Did you take part, sir?”—and he quips, “Just between commercials.” For him, the reality of disorder and violence is a made-for-TV movie safely sandwiched between the plasticized fantasy-worlds of Madison Avenue. The irrational is closer to the surface in David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), who deliberately changes the pluses to minuses in David’s neat little equations, trying to tell him that his mathematical framework fails to include certain realities. (For a screwball comedy take on Peckinpah’s psychodrama, check out Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant’s scientist, unmanned and paralyzed by living too much in the head, and Katharine Hepburn, a bundle of impulse, irrationality and energy, survive by finding a point of balance between creative chaos and rigid order.)
[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 21 Number 2, April 1985]
There is the grand truth …. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,â€”why, they … cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpetbag, â€”that is to say, the Ego. –Herman Melville, in a letter to and about Nathaniel Hawthorne
“It’s not so much dyin’ you hate,” confides gravel-voiced Cable Hogue, sinking fast. “It’s not knowing what they’re goin’ to say about you when you’re gone.” Sam Peckinpah’s 14-film gallery is crowded with broken mirrors of himself; Cable Hogue was his wholest and holiest reflection. Betrayed, left for dead by his colleagues in outlawry, Peckinpah’s desert rat “finds water where it wasn’t” and shapes a corner of wasteland into a ramshackle, low-down Eden. Just another Peckinpavian parable about making waterâ€”movies, that is–in the City of raptor Angels. Hogue was the complexly comedic upside of the American hunger artist Sam Peckinpah took himself to be–and projected, cruelly, in film after film.
So it’s only right that the dying Hogue, Sam’s surrogate, should prompt and prod his last critic, preacher and fellow-snake-in-the-grass Joshua Duncan Sloane, into composing a devoutly ironic funeral oration: “Don’t make me out to be a saint, but don’t put me down too deep.” The process of deathbed creation is cut; overvoiced into graveside performance, dissolving the time and space that separated Cable alive, Cable dead and buried, and Cable “gone into the whole torrent of years with the souls that pass and never stop.” Time may kill men; Peckinpah’s montage aims to kill time. His camera roams around Hogue’s kingdom, eulogizing, in the gathering dusk, the signatures and stations of his life, the mise en scene of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Easy to see Sam in the skinny coyote that laps water in this unlikely oasis.
Sam Peckinpah died on December 28, 1984. That evening, Entertainment Tonight buried him in a Mary Hart-slot of throwaway news: Dead at 59. Director of The Wild Bunch. Known for extremely realistic violence. Hart’s empty-headed epitaph distilled the kind of shallow reading that plagued Peckinpah’s work while he was alive. Most reviewers trivialized his art. Brandishing critical-moral cudgels, they beat film form and style down to barebones plot recital. Concerned, educated liberals would sooner have given up jogging forever than witness one of his orgies of “realistic violence.” (Only the aesthetically illiterate would describe Peckinpah’s dances of death as realistic.) Often, they’d never seen the devil’s work for themselves; knee-jerk-wise, his name alone was sufficient deterrent. Now, even notoriety can’t hold him. Like Alfredo Garcia’s head, the man’s a cinematic relic.
[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.
Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.
If movies indeed tap into the zeitgeist, Terminator Salvation, director McG’s grim reboot of the 25-year-old man vs. machine franchise, speaks to a demographic in awfully low spirits. Will this relentless, episodic slog through post-apocalyptic drear, punched up by paroxysms of extreme violence, deliver at the box office and resurrect the Terminator series (sequels are already in the works)?
Set in 2018, after nuclear Judgment Day, Salvation‘s ruined world has been leached of all color and signs of life. The days are steeped in sickly beige-brown, the noirish nights drenched in rain. Hunted down by machines of assorted shapes and sizes, the few remaining humans, always starkly lighted, resemble gaunted concentration-camp survivors stripped of any expression but a reflexive hunger to stay alive. (“We’re in the cattle car now,” despairs a fellow picked by an Ã¼ber-machina transporter.)
Lock-jawed Christian Bale plays grizzled resistance messiah John Connor as if programmed to project nothing but single-minded rage laced with unstoppable courage. Happily, Connor’s unlikely brother-in-arms (Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, soon to star in James Cameron’s Avatar), a convicted killer reformatted by Cyberdyne, occasionally permits himself a welcome break from the stoic mode. On screen more and longer than Bale, permitted to act human once in a while, Worthington, like homeboy Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, steals the film away from Bale. Call it minimalist charisma.
[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 31 No. 4, July/August 1995]
The world is full of women who hunger for movies that unreel not Gawain’s but Guinevere’s gutsy quest to repair her ownâ€”and thus others’â€”broken souls and psyches. The Round Table of peerless travelin’ ladies includes Bringing Up Baby‘s Katharine Hepburn, a vessel of dangerous anarchy into which her juiceless lover (Cary Grant) must dive to save them both from deathly extremes. And Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, scenting out the dark, devouring angel who will perversely father her into wholeness. Seat too the sadly underrated ClosetLand‘s Madeleine Stowe, who braves a lacerating descent into the “ultimate closet” of her own violated self, another brutal Janus-faced male her guide and confessor. And Sigourney Weaver’s tough mother, crucified for humankind at the end of the Alien trilogy in a fortunate fall into fire.
Such mythic passages for distaff knights are rare as hen’s teeth. Thank goddess for John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, a pell-mell adventure featuring a Lancelot who happens to be woman, doctor, and tragically bereaved mother and wife. The derailed tourists in this new film and David Lean’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India are sisters under the skin. But the real-as-headlines, yet timeless, journey Boorman’s Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette) makes through alternately fecund and fatal Burma is “known” in her (and our) blood and nerve-endings.
In contrast, the “passage to more than India” that transforms bony, brainy Adele Quested (Judy Davis) is fueled by a drier, more metaphysical outrage. Immersed in an Otherness of her own making, Davis confronts the dark, heated disorder that reduces character and experience to a cosmic sound effect signifying nothing. By the time of A Passage to India‘s homecoming, Quested has matriculated into an older soul, worthy daughter of the cozily mystical Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) who, gazing into the moonspangled Ganges where corpses sometimes float, exclaims, “What a terrible river!” then, “What a wonderful river!” (Mrs. Moore’s cosmic opposites flow through every film by Boorman, an artist who acknowledges that his most abundant visions iris–out into darkness.)
Boorman’s quester beyond Rangoon sets out as a member of the walking dead, a fragged spirit barely tethered to her flesh, for whom the wheel of time, of life, has stalled. (The image of that wheel on monastery walls and as shadow on the ground at her very feet greenlights Laura’s eventual takeoff into “more than Burma.”) Early on, sightseeing a monumentally reclining, dreaming Buddha, Laura listens indifferently as their tour guide (Spalding Gray) puns on the Buddhists’ lack of belief in the soul by gesturing at the bottoms of the statue’s great feet, adorned by stories shaped in curving pictograms. Behind him, parents caution their son to come down from Buddha’s back. Boorman creates a visual schism between foreground religious studies and background actuality. The effect suggests the kind of Hitchcockian back–projection that often signaled psychic deracination for traumatized heroines such as Marnie or Kim Novak X2 in Vertigo.
In the week since I attended a press screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I’ve talked and argued about religion, with believers and unbelievers alike, more than I have in decades. Every film reviewer, pundit and talkshow host in the country has fervently weighed in for or against this controversial, ultra-gory reenactment of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. So much, frequently hysterical, verbiage has heaped up that the movie itself — the way it looks, moves, its way of shaping a primal story into art — gets buried. Indeed, many have just skipped the film entirely, so that their opinions won’t be hampered by actually experiencing the gospel according to Gibson.
As almost everyone knows by now, Mel Gibson invested his own money in this 126-minute visualization of Christ’s Passion — not the euphemized, abbreviated, cleaned-up version that contemporary Christians have mostly espoused, but a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring. (One Catholic novelist objected “to the way Gibson’s film disturbs [emphasis mine] our sense of peace and acceptance of the cross.”)
Distasteful and even embarrassing to many latterday Christians, this horrific chapter of Christ’s life on earth obviously possesses some special, visceral appeal for Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whom some accused of anti-Semitism even before the film was released. (For the record, I didn’t register any anti-Semitic subtext in The Passion, and I didn’t come away filled with hatred for anyone. For me, the operative emotion was pity: for benighted humankind and Gibson’s religious hero.)
Take a look at the final 15 minutes of Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner Braveheart; it’s startling to see how literally Gibson rehearses — sometimes shot for shot — for The Passion, with himself as the suffering Christ. Praying for the strength to die well; spread-eagled on a cross; tempted by a satanic figure; empowered by the eyes of those who witness his awful torture; inspiring his followers with the sustaining legacy of Braveheart‘s last image, a sword-cross planted in the earth — the bloody end of Gibson’s Scots hero presages the formal, stylized contemplation of his god-man’s lengthier, equally barbaric Passion.
[This essay was originally published in an issue of Steadycam magazine devoted to the cinema of Frank Borzage.]
Quentin Tarantino once warned a movie palace full of his fans not to “sophisticate yourselves out of feeling.” It’s a good credo to bear in mind while watching movies by Frank Borzage. When I recently plunged into 16 of this American Romantic’s redemptive melodramas–scarcely one-fifth of his total career output–I wondered if I’d land in comfy cushions of outdated sentimentality, pillowed by the kind of emotional certitude we postmoderns have long since seen through. Instead, the cumulative effect of these cinematic trips was comparable to getting high on revelatory “speed.”
What’s seen and experienced in Borzage’s numinous universe is often so ratcheted up in intensity, so pregnant with his stylized ideas of sin or salvation and stations in between, that your nerve-endings may start to sizzle.
There’s no standing outside Borzagean passion plays like Street Angel (1928), Strange Cargo (1940) and Moonrise (1948); if you cannot give yourself up to the prevailing metaphysics, then you will be blind to the overarching power and beauty of these cinematic autos-da-fe, in which space and time and death are no match for souls on fire with love.
Borzage’s films are Dantean voyages in which flesh-and-blood Beatrices–Janet Gaynor (Seventh Heaven, 1927; Street Angel; Lucky Star, 1929), Loretta Young (Man’s Castle, 1933), Margaret Sullavan (Little Man, What Now?, 1934; Three Comrades, 1938; The Shining Hour, 1938; The Mortal Storm, 1940); Jean Arthur (History Is Made At Night, 1937); Gail Russell (Moonrise); and, yes, even Joan Crawford (Mannequin, 1938; The Shining Hour, and especially Strange Cargo)–act as spiritual lighthouses for their lovers and thereby, themselves.
In From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell’s on the right track when she characterizes Janet Gaynor as a “peasant madonna,” a big-eyed waif turned goddess by Borzage’s sanctifying gaze. But applying traditional religious terminology to Borzage’s cinema too often encourages critical freeze-frames, snapshots of the start-and finish-lines of a complex journey, as opposed to motion pictures of an Everywoman in resplendent transition.
And Borzage can’t be pinned down to any madonna/whore iconography based on light-and dark-haired women: Gaynor and Crawford, Arthur and Russell incandesce equally in his beatifying mise-en-scÃ¨ne.
It’s true that Borzagean goddesses are so wonderfully down-to-earth, they might all be named after The Mortal Storm‘s Freya (Margaret Sullavan). Mostly capable, often courageously independent, they are replete with common sense even as they are carriers of transforming magic. It’s mostly a given that, in the world according to Borzage, lovers enjoy each other sexually. Unless blocked or twisted, the carnal isn’t dramatically foregrounded, but flows naturally from ecstatic spiritual attachment.
Borzage’s no Victorian when it comes to mad love, unwholesome libido. In The River (1928), Mary Duncan’s Rosalie lounges on a riverbank, flanked by a funereal raven Marsden, her brute lover, left behind on his way to prison for murder. Sullen, affectless, she projects an aura of spiritual–even physical–decomposition. At her very feet, naked, open-faced Allen John (Charles Farrell) rises up out of a whirlpool he likes to ride. At first sight of louche siren and her familiar, this natural man lowers himself in the water so that only his eyes are visible. From the start, she mocks his manhood, his ability to keep her as “warm” as Marsden did.