[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 18, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
Boorman has been a great filmmaker for more than thirty years now, but also a
most unpredictable one. He’s made such classics as Point Blank, Excalibur,
and Hope and Glory, only to turn
right around and perpetrate fiascoes like Exorcist
II: The Heretic and Where the Heart
Is—though all those films have their admirers, and even Boorman’s sappiest
endeavors reflect the fervor and grandeur of a true visionary. Following the
(undeserved) commercial and critical failure of Beyond Rangoon and the long, fatal illness of a daughter, Boorman
reestablished himself with a new, Dublin-based production company and a new
family. The General, which he financed himself, is one of Boorman’s
winners. Indeed, it won him the Best Director award this year at Cannes.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
In the opening sequence of John Boorman’s new film, a huge stone head resembling a Greek tragic mask drifts in the air above the Irish countryside, like the floating spirit of Astaroth; it spits forth a spray of rifles and exhorts a congregation of horsemen to go forth and kill. This is the god Zardoz, who decrees that the rapidly reproducing populace must be exterminated, that the gun is good and the penis evil. Here, “deep in a possible future,” the Year 2293, we thus discover John Boorman, in his first film since Deliverance, dealing once again with the conflicts between nature’s way and humanity’s way.
When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank(Warner) where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.
Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker’s odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker’s attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.
Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence.
Having a Wild Weekend (Warner Archive), the Dave Clark Five’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night, has a title that suggests the knock-about fun and goofy banter of The Beatles on film. To some extent you’ll find that here. The five boys live in what appears to be, at various times, an old church, an abandoned farmhouse, a run-down manor, and a rummage sale in a school gymnasium (thus the trampoline in the middle of the room), but instead of playing music, they play stunt men and extras in a beef industry ad campaign branded “Meat for Go,” which are conspicuously absent of any actual meat in the ads. What the ads seem to sell is the blond charm of poster girl Dinah (Barbara Ferris) and the puckish spirit of five mod young men leaping goofily around her.
Dave Clark is the ostensible lead as Steve, one of the stunt men and the only member of quintet to get something approaching a distinctive character (the other four boys goof around the margins), and he kicks off the story by driving off the commercial in a sports car with a willing Dinah. She’s the bubbly starlet as free spirit next to Clark’s brooding would-be rebel Steve, but Clark has, shall we say, a deficit of screen presence, let alone personality or charisma. Ferris effortlessly dominates by sheer personality and energy. Maybe that’s why Dave Clark never made another film.
Or maybe it’s because Having a Wild Weekend is not the happy-go-lucky romp the gag-laden opening promises. Along their flight to freedom from the corporate appropriation of youth style for media consumption, they flee British bombs and soldiers who round up hippie squatters like they were enemy combatants, and are taken in by an older couple of swingers who seem poised to seduce the pretty young things. It’s written by playwright Peter Nichols, who brings an edge of social satire and a shadow of existential emptiness to the runaway road movie story. And it’s the directorial debut of John Boorman (of Point Blank, Deliverance, and Excalibur fame), who adds a kind of mod realism to the romp.
Having a Wild Weekend is like the mop top exploitation version of the social drama cinema that was all the rage in the mid-sixties, with a absurdity of modern life and the spiritual death of commercial compromise behind the driving beat and bright guitars of pop rock hits from The Dave Clark Five. Their climactic gesture may be false and heavyhanded (and almost inconsequential, given how little impression Clark and the boys have actually made in the movie as individuals, let alone as any kind of moral compass), but it certainly leaves the film with a sense of unease at the compromises of modern culture.
The myth and legend of King Arthur has long been a favorite fascination of popular culture, the source of countless novels and movies and the inspiration for an iconic Broadway musical that became the nickname for John F. Kennedy’s too-short inspirational time as American President: “Camelot.” Forget the real-life history, the very mention of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table conjures up images and ideals of chivalry and honor, of magic and myth, of the shining light of hope in the midst of the Dark Ages. It’s a rousing tale of a lowly boy rising to become beloved King, a tragic love story, a thrilling adventure and an inspirational spiritual quest to heal the wounds of war and hate by finding the Holy Grail.
John Boorman’s magnificent and magical Excalibur is, to my mind, the greatest and the richest of screen incarnation of the oft-told tale. Filmed on the rocky coasts and in the emerald forests of Ireland, Boorman turns this landscape into a primal world hewn out of stone and wood and mud by blood and iron. The primordial quality hits us from the opening scenes, as Merlin (Nicol Williamson), part ancient sage and part court sorcerer, draws the magic out of the dragon that is earth from a Stonehenge-looking monument on a hill overlooking a battleground of clashing knights in armor. It’s beautiful yet brutal and Merlin’s attempts at civilization are thwarted by the primal drives of the primitive Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), but from his blood and flesh is born the once and future King Arthur (Nigel Terry), raised a squire but destined to be king.
This is the Arthur legend at its most primal, romantic and tragic, human and supernatural, set on the cusp between the old gods and the Christian God. Boorman and writing partner Rospo Pallenberg rework Thomas Mallory’s tale into an ur-myth of magic and men in the transformation of the world into the age of mankind’s dominion over the Earth through laws and reason and ideals. Every frame suggests the ancient world of wonder and primeval power; even the Christian wedding of Arthur and Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) is set in the midst of a forest, the power of nature overwhelming the Christian imagery while the cloaked religious figures look as much like Druid priests as Christian soldiers.
[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 56, November 1977]
Who’s the biggest box-office star at the moment? Not Redford, not Newman, not Eastwood, but, it would seem, the Prince of Darkness, whose presence in or on the periphery of a large number of popular movies in recent years has led to what Variety might call a Beelzebub boffola. And why? Look to the times: devil movies are not a portent of impending Armageddon, as the originator of TheOmenwould have us believe, but a result. World crises in the Seventies have implied that we may well be merrily off to hell, in metaphorical terms, and it’s nothing unusual for movies to take such phrases literally. Putting it bluntly, devil movies offer a kind of reassuring disturbance. They give us something apart from the grim realities of life to worry about.
It’s an old trick. Chinatownhad the citizens of L.A. suffering from a largely invented drought, and their concern with it diverted their attention from what was really going on. When a real drought hit Great Britain in 1976, everyone had a wonderful time worrying about it, encouraged by their political masters, who were glad of a breathing space in which to tackle the actually rather more pressing problems of the pound. Britain didn’t actually die of thirst or turn into Death Valley, but it was a popular summer madness trying to figure out what might happen. The big thing was that it was a danger from outside. It wasn’t our fault. There was no way we could stop the onslaught of unimagined terrors, but we might conceivably blame people for such mundane and equally depressing (more depressing) things as unemployment, strikes, political corruption, and the balance of payments. Whenever a society is in big trouble, as Western society certainly is right now, it’s vital for the public to find all manner of bogeymen on which to vent its otherwise quite impotent wrath.
[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 own – and thus others’ – ”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.