In Nolan We Trust

“Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighbouring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.”

Winston Churchill’s speech delivered to House of Commons  /  June 4 1940 

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In an unusually cold May of 1940, German forces advanced into France and drove the Allied troops into the wall of the English Channel and trapping them in the port town of Dunkirk.  French, Belgium, and Dutch soldiers, alongside the British, desperately were counting the minutes upon the vast beaches of Dunkirk while waiting on a few ships for safety across the Channel.  With the German forces closing in, Dunkirk was hit with a barrage of fire from land, sea, and air putting close to 400,000 lives in constant danger.  With meager support from French/British ground and air forces, nearly all the men were miraculously safely evacuated utilizing every serviceable ship or civilian boat in the area.  Churchill used this event to rally the British people in their continued fight against the growing German empire.

This is the basis of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s newest venture, Dunkirk.  It is a mesmerizing study of time and pressure.  It is abundantly clear, based upon past projects such as Inception, Memento, Interstellar, and even Insomnia (notice all the one word titles in his catalog, including the newly released Dunkirk), Nolan has always been fascinated with effects of time and its relation to human perceptions and behaviors.  Dunkirk is no exception while it tinkers with land, sea, and air stories with each unfolding section several hours behind the other.  It builds tension within one perception, while giving more information from another view.  We get swept up in the experience of a particular story, only to discover we do not have all of the specific information of that event as we delve into another perception.  No exposition is really given to any of the characters.  We are expected to discover for ourselves who these people are within the different facets of time and dimension.  This is an experience film (much like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), but Nolan brings such a ferocious tension throughout the proceedings that leaves one breathless.  War is not pretty and this film certainly sows the cruelty and ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man.  It also shows the valor and the human instinct to help fellow strangers in need.  There is a toughness to Nolan’s images, but they are never just cosmetic for the sake of aesthetic worthiness.  Dunkirk is filled with arresting camera work that rightly puts the viewer into the fear of these men.  The screaming German Junkers throttling towards their prey on the beaches of Dunkirk are nail bitingly tense.  The running squad being picked off by a snipers places you directly in the line of fire as you scramble for safety.  This is war where the only option is to survive.

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“..the politique des auteurs seems to me to hold and defend an essential critical truth that the cinema is in need of more than the other arts, precisely because an act of true artistic creation is more uncertain and vulnerable in the cinema than elsewhere…”

André Bazin / La Politque des auteurs  /  1957

In Nolan we trust is a moniker coined by fanboys during his Batman days when anticipating his next adult take on the dark knight.  It is actually a statement that fits.  Christopher Nolan is a modern cinema auteur who believes in film language as a visual aesthetic with limitless possibilities.  The name is synonymous with craftsmanship which would make any smart person look forward to a new work of his.  He can rightly be compared to another master auteur, Stanley Kubrick (Nolan is British).  Like Kubrick, Nolan is a perfectionist and oversees every aspect of his films.  No detail is too small and every shot contains information to further the story or idea.  This is what makes both Kubrick and Nolan’s films entirely re-watchable.  Dunkirk resembles a Kubrick film in the slightly detached god-like stance in direction and the sparse dialogue which makes the viewer pay more attention to the images on the screen.  His playfulness of relational time and audience expectations is also very Kubrickian in the cinematic sense.  Nolan adheres to the old school of film-making which is refreshing in this day  of CGI overkill.  His dedication to an artistic vision, within the confines of big budget films, is what makes him stand far apart from his contemporaries who sometimes sell out for the sake of success.  One need look no further than the mind bending epic that is Inception, which goes against all what makes a mainstream big budget film successful.  It is filled with dread and the loss of self control with an ending that is as ambiguous as it gets.

Dunkirk is an unexpected surprise (well, maybe not that big of surprise since we are talking about Christopher Nolan after all) because it paints upon a WWII canvas for the audience in a brand new hard light.  We are simply thrust into the proceedings, while Nolan expects us to figure it out.  It is a rarity with a mainstream film that the audience is expected to be smart.  None of his past films pander to the latest trend, for his films become the latest trend with originality and daring.  He may not hit it out of the ballpark every time (Interstellar and its ending), but this is a film-maker that consistently challenges you and dares to ask the questions no one else in big budget films ask; who are we?  What is truth?  What is really our perceived reality?  Where are we going?

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The microsom of society is in the form of a civilian boat christened Moonstone which exemplifies family, sacrifice, and honor.  War affects everyone, not just the brave men/women in battlefield.  Moonstone suffers tragedy in the face of war, as if the unit were back in London during the nightly blitzkrieg attacks.  There is nothing lofty or sentimental in Nolan’s treatment of the Moonstone participants.  It just is.  When tragedy does strike, the boy and his father honor the dead.  Consequences are accepted and some are haunted forever as a result of it.  These people tried to make a difference…and some succeeded.

In Nolan we do indeed trust.  His eye is on the prize at all times with his usual concerted and secretive efforts.  Dunkirk may be his finest film in which everything is honed to its essential properties.  Cinema started out as a visual medium and Nolan pledges his allegiance with his latest release.  Every image tells a story, such as the soldier at Dunkirk beach throwing off his gear and attempting to swim back home in a suicidal act.  There are many such moments which begs a second or third viewing.  This is the kind of big budget movie making we need with far reaching ideas and the understanding of cinema language.  Christopher Nolan is an auteur for the 21st century.  Let’s hope he continues upon his personal artistic path and continues to give us stories that astound and challenge our way of thinking.

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Our Most Unwelcome Visitor

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Sensuality without love is a sin; love without sensuality is worse than a sin.    /  Jose Bergamin

The oppressive sound of late afternoon cicadas blanket the emerald hued deep south woods whose very branches seem to hang down in some sort of defeat from the summer sun.  A young girl steps into the space, humming a tune while picking mushrooms from the mossy floor.  She takes her time stepping amidst the wooded area and comes upon unexpectedly to find a wounded Union soldier lying against a tree.

This is how writer and director Sofia Coppola’s newly realized take on The Beguiled begins.  Filmed previously by the underappreciated Don Siegel in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, Coppola ramps up the mood with dripping humidity and creeping sensuality that seems to emanate from the surrounding trees right from the very first frame.  Setting the mood  a couple of years into the American Civil War, an all girl’s school in Virginia finds themselves sheltered and cut off from society with only the distant sounds of cannon fire to remind them of the encroaching brutal war surrounding them.  Daily lessons, gardening, and evening prayers take up the bulk of their lives.  Routine for survival during wartime which brings the household into a protective bubble that is in danger of bursting with the appearance of the wounded Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell).  Head mistress, Miss Martha (played with the usual aplomb by Nicole Kidman) eyes the intrusion with suspicion and an undercurrent of buried sexual desire despite her lofty station within the school.

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The rest of the cast includes Kirsten Dunst (a regular of Coppola’s films) as the repressed, but yearning Edwina and Elle Fanning as Alicia, the budding young woman barely containing her sexuality (notice how her blouse is rebelliously unbuttoned halfway in the beginning sequence).  The rest of the young actors Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard are first rate unknown faces which lend an authenticity to the period.  In all of Coppola’s films, the exploration of female sexuality and gender are forefront in her vision.  The Beguiled affords a chance for Coppola to zero in on these specific themes with a dark foreboding melancholy of hidden desires.  Her insistence on focusing the camera longingly on the beautiful forms of costumes, surrounding nature, architecture, and the human body is unmistakably Coppola’s eye (look no further than her excellent Lost In Translation).  For some, this may be a slow, but slowly burning, film that takes too long to reach its pivotal climax of gender wars.  It seems to be Coppola’s intention for this pace to build up the tension slowly so that the audience has the time to appreciate each of the character’s eccentricities, hopes, and somewhat fatal desires that Corporal McBurney unlocks.  Madness does not arrive in quick editing jump cuts or swirling camera moves.  This madness comes out of necessity and slowly evolving logic.  There seems to be no alternative when faced with the Corporal’s rage and hostility towards the women.

There is one presence that seems to be missing in Coppola’s “gender Civil War” period drama; the African-American presence.  This is a Civil War drama located in the South that has no appearance of slaves, working or freed.  The school has none, perhaps as a result of runaways or some other event.  It is never mentioned (to my knowledge) in the film, although the original source novel does contain characters as such.  Does the exclusion of such characters do a disservice to the story?  Or does it focus ever so much more on the subject at hand; gender and sexuality?  All through Coppola’s work, the same themes are of interest to her and The Beguiled is no different.  By excluding the presence of African-Americans in this Civil War themed drama,  Coppola is only using the artist’s intent to tell the story on her terms because this is what interests her the most.  If she were to introduce a racial theme in the midst of already established points, the story would lose its concentrated focus.  Perhaps there is another story to be told that would not only present gender differences, but racial differences within the same gender.  The Beguiled is not that story and therefore confidently renders its intended vision.

The Beguiled is a rich and darkly atmospheric tale which goes beyond conventional stories pervading today’s mulitplex cinemas.  It requires your patience and richly rewards it with questions of morality and female empowerment.  Coppola’s film does not purport to have any answers, but it does make you think of the differences of perception between men and women; the persona (or mask) we tend to wear that is wrenched away when threatened or emboldened with desire.  As Miss Martha quietly tells her girls,  “…it’s seems the enemy… it’s not what we believed.”  The enemy being their most unwelcome guest and all he symbolizes.

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[Writer/Director Sofia Coppola on set, 2016]

Come Back, Philip Kaufman, We Need You More Than Ever!

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“Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limit of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.”      

Milan Kundera / The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

Philip Kaufman is an American writer, producer, and director with credits that span the seventies till his last project back in 2012.  A progressive thinker, Kaufman cannot be boxed into one category.  His films can be overtly political and sexual, with sometimes intermixing the two into interesting themes regarding societal doctrines.  As a writer, he crafted one of the best Westerns Clint Eastwood ever made (Outlaw Josey Wales) and gave Indiana Jones his first (and still best) ever adventure that was tough as nails.  He was the first to earn the much maligned NC-17 rating for a film with adult themes deemed too much for teenagers sneaking into R rated screenings.  Kaufman’s projects are acidly funny, but challenge audiences on serious subjects in an offbeat literary sense.  Some of his best work is based on original novels or sources, but his screenplays inject a European modern wit, a wink and a smile if you will, to the proceedings which leavens the sometimes heavy subject matter.

Kaufman’s voice in cinema is sorely missed in these current turbulent times.  One can only imagine what he would make of the continually scorched political climate, the confusion and chaos of our landscape.  One would hope he will soon plunge a dagger into this soft mess and reveal the vile under layer with amusement and wit in the very near future.  His last film was a project featuring Ernest Hemingway locking literary horns with Martha Gellhorn in 2012.  There have been no new works since.

Filmmakers, such as Philip Kaufman, fly under the radar and need a voice sometimes to spotlight their contribution to cinema.  What better way to argue for Kaufman’s return than to swing that spotlight now onto some of his best films which clearly illustrate his eye for the political, social, and sexual mores of our society.  These are highly intelligent, humorous and challenging films.  They are entirely re-watchable and entertaining in the best way possible; they cater to intelligent audiences.

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In 1983, the film version of a much beloved book, The Right Stuff, was released to theaters with all the Academy Award hyperbole sufficient to deem it as “important”.  What no one realized at the time, was that Philip Kaufman wrote a subversive script that gave rise to the wonder of space travel, but also poked fun at the convoluted political shenanigans that went behind the scenes with the space race with the (then) Soviet Union.  The one line during an exchange between President Lyndon Johnson and several German scientists hard at work on the American side is so much on point with how ludicrous the actual space race could be:

Von Braun: Mr. President, our German scientists are better than their (USSR) German scientists!

The media covering these events certainly did not get any mercy under Kaufman’s direction.  We see the propaganda infused Life Magazine editors, the incessant buzzing sound of bug/pest like reporters surrounding the Mercury Seven astronauts, and the flash bulb intrusions into homes and personal lives of these people.  The media in 1983 did not take kindly to this and blasted Kaufman for this (actually accurate) portrayal on screen.

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The Right Stuff certainly infused the mythological aspects of space travel beginnings in the guise of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (played memorably by playwright Sam Shepard).  It is the very stuff legends are made of in the sequence featuring Yeager on horseback challenging the new test rocket plane designed to break the sound barrier.  The old ways versus the new.  Kaufman continually alludes to how brave these men were, but reminds us the absurd conventions that made it possible to put these lives on the line.  It is a glorious epic that transcends the normal biopic.  It captures an all encompassing view, both intimate and huge, with a pace which is languid and engrossing.  This film failed at the box office because it was marketed as a patriotic emblem, instead of the subversive epic it really was.  The socio-political landscape is detailed beautifully amidst the grandeur of reaching for the stars.  That is a hard balance to maintain, but Kaufman effortlessly achieves it in this fine film.

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In 1988, Kaufman turned his attention to another much beloved novel by Milan Kundera about the roving adventures of a Czech surgeon, along with two very important women in his life, in Prague 1968, right before the Soviet invasion.  The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a marvel of originality.  This time, Kaufman tackles the sexual politics along with the radical politics of a country on the cusp of intellectual and spiritual freedom before the Soviets crushed those dreams underneath the many tanks it rolled into Prague.

This sounds very serious and its themes of political/religious/sexual freedom are indeed very serious.  However, Kaufman’s touch gives the film an airy texture that lifts the film to a place where characters have room to breathe and grow and laugh.  One such example is the wonderful scene where Tomas (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) hints at his jealously of another man dancing with his live-in girlfriend Tereza (a simply glowing Juliette Binoche) and it develops into a free-for-all tickle romp on the floor ending in Tereza proposing marriage to a laughing Tomas.  It is sweetly intimate, as if we are peering into a room and seeing this spontaneous and loving couple enjoying life.  Sexual freedom comes with a price.  Sabina (brilliant performance by Lean Olin) completes the triangle of Tomas and Tereza as an artist who claims to want no ties with anyone–but secretly loves Tomas completely and runs from it.  The sex in this film is gloriously silly, playful, and intensely erotic.  The tension between these characters is so thick, you can sense an electrical bond between these characters.  It is a credit to the actors and to Kaufman’s innate ability to present sex outside of Hollywood’s gauzy pristine standards.  The photo shoot sequence between Tereza and Sabina was worth the price of admission alone.  There is a European flavor to it, but the heat generated between these two characters provided such a fitting tribute that love can still never be easily defined.

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Let us not forget how The Unbearable Lightness Of Being displays a political landscape of Soviet blanketed propaganda that tried to place a good light on their invasion of Czechoslovakia.  People were brutalized, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for protesting such a wrongful show of force.  The film deftly mixes actual documentary images with our characters to give a real grounding on how massively shocking this all was to the world.  The Soviets placed a foot on the throat of democracy and freedom until it choked under the weight of the so called righteous.  We now live in a world that frowns upon the act of protest as a movement.  We are to follow our leader into the abyss if need be.  We blindly take sides against each other and do not listen.  There was a time when you took to the streets because there was no alternative choice remaining at your disposal.  We are faced with those times again and it would be wonderful to see what Kaufman could do with these themes today.

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In 1990, Philip Kaufman brought a dream project of his to life by adapting the lives of writers Henry Miller and Anias Nin with the first NC-17 rated film in cinema history, Henry & June.  Sex is prominently in the forefront with this film as Miller (a surprisingly great Fred Ward) assumes the self exiled status of an artist living in Paris.  He loves his wife, June (a luminously tragic Uma Thurman), and is jealously devoted to her.  Nin (a sexually intelligent performance by Maria de Medeiros) catches his eye, but it is her mind that he craves even more.  Their romance ended up lasting a lifetime through letters, but again, Kaufman presents sex and love in an entirely adult fashion that confused general audiences.  Their definition does not fit the norm of society.  Paris was at the height of freedom to explore and redefine sexuality and art.  American audiences may have been too straight laced to fully appreciate what Kaufman was attempting, thus the box office failure of yet another wonderfully subversive and intelligent film.

Another love triangle was on display in Henry & June which beautifully defies all standard love story conventions.  These are people rich in the experience field willing to put themselves (and their partners in some cases) on the line in order to find something that no one else has found.  Miller and Nin duel mentally throughout the film with literature, life, and love.  They consistently habitually redefine themselves, but fall back onto social conventions such as monogamy and financial success.  It is a rarity to see a Hollywood project take on the fringe elements of art and love with such openess.  It is not surprising it earned an NC-17 rating, but it is not exploitation.  It is adult with adult themes which require an audience with intelligence and open mindedness.  How often can one be challenged on how we were brought up to think about relationships and sex on a level that questions it.  Miller and Nin were free spirits, but haunted by their own inadequacy and limitations placed by society and class structures.  These people may come across as self absorbed, but Kaufman places them in the context of adventurers of a modern world not quite ready for their conquests.

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So, we plead to Philip Kaufman, the missing in action American writer and director…please return to the cinema screen and give us your shaman magic for the modern world.  Redefine for us again what it is to be human with all of our subtleties and frailties and the wonderfully funny behaviors that enrich us.  We don’t care what project you have your eyes on, just put your wonderful words to paper and train the camera with your all seeing eye.  We need it now, more than ever.  Our subversive nature is slowly being throttled by unseen forces.  Please, Philip Kaufman, we need you more than ever.

Rumble Fish and the Ghosts Of Time

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Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.

The American writer, Susan Eloise Hinton (better known as S.E. Hinton) gained fame as the teenager author of “The Outsiders” in 1967, a “young adult” novel before there ever was such a genre.  Her gift for language and setting (Tulsa Oklahoma) among the disillusioned and lost youth has since become a regular part of public school curriculum.  The novels Tex, That Was Then This is Now, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish deal with themes which resonated with young readers and continue to influence today.  Francis Ford Coppola, frustrated with his brand name (The Godfather series in particular), embarked on two small personal projects with limited budgets with his “family” of actors and creative team members from past films to reach back to his instinctive creative days.  The resulting work produced The Outsiders in March 1983 in expressive color and Rumble Fish later that October of 1983 in striking black and white.  Both films were photographed by Stephen H. Burum (veteran of many Brian De Palma films such as The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way).

There are tragic echoes, ripples in time, that reverberate and connect most of the characters in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, a underrated effort which recently received a prestigious Criterion Collection release on disc.  These ripples flow through the two troubled brothers, their alcoholic father, the mother who abandoned them, the veteran street cop watching over one of the brothers, the doomed romance between two young lovers, and the addicted ex-girlfriend.  The disconnects, loneliness, and quiet despair lies underneath the everyday lives of these people.  They are all ghost-like searching the city streets for clues.  This ethereal longing for something greater is a central theme that Coppola brought strongly to the forefront on screen.  Youth has a taste for self destruction while believing themselves indestructible.  This duality is the heart that beats in Rumble Fish.  Floating within the confined wastelands of Tulsa, the yearning to break free trembles beneath the surface at all times.

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Coppola touted Rumble Fish as an art film for teenagers.  It is much more than that for it relies on the unforgiving conceit that youth is not all that it is cracked up to be.  This is perhaps why the film tanked at the box office and never managed to acquire young audiences such as the novel did.  Coppola does not utilize cinema tricks just for the sake of it.  The clock in Rumble Fish continually ticks (you can hear it in Stewart Copeland, founder of the band The Police, and his manic percussive score) that makes the characters march towards some unknown fatal destination.  Many ghost-like scenes invade otherwise standard exchanges between characters such as the father, inebriated as usual,  confused at first whether he really sees both of his sons in his squalid apartment.  The lovers spat on the street is suffused with other-worldly smoke that swallows up the characters.  The knife fight between gangs where we can see striking shadows and mist surrounding a nightmarish decaying stage set for some long ago battle.  Tulsa is seemingly transported to another age and another time, again giving rise to this idea of ghosts floating through this story.

Rumble Fish incorporated many of Francis Ford Coppola’s merry band of regular cast members and some of his own family.  Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, fresh off of The Outsiders with Coppola, were the first cast.  There is Lawrence Fishburne (Mr. Clean from Apocalypse Now), Nicolas Cage (nephew of Coppola), Herb Rice (Roach from Apocalypse Now), Tom Waits (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Sofia Coppola (daughter and filmmaker in her own right), Vincent Spano (whatever happened to him?), the late Christopher Penn, Diana Scarwid (whatever happened to her?), veteran character actor (and personal favorite) William Smith, and even a sly cameo by author S.E. Hinton as a prostitute trying to drum up business with the two brothers.  Coppola brought master production designer Dean Tavoularis (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather trilogy, Zabriskie Point, Ninth Gate) which took actual locations in Tulsa and heightened the surreal uneasy feeling of the film.  Director of photography Stephen H. Burum worked closely with Tavoularis to create the German expressionist landscape of deep shadows and confining spaces that defines this wasteland of youth (they even painted shadows on the sets to deepen the expression on film).  The fact that these very creative filmmakers contributed their time and energy to such a small project is a testament to Coppola’s mettle as one of America’s top modern cinema masters.

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Clocks are ever present in almost every scene either by visual or an auditory sense.  It is counting down the seconds, winding up the tension in Rumble Fish.  Time is like some heavy cloud (such as the time-lapsed clouds in the beginning sequence) that weigh upon Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) and his ghostly idolized older brother, Motorcycle Boy (played to perfection by a young Mickey Rourke).  This longing, referred to earlier, reaches such high levels when these two are on screen together.  Rusty-James tearfully pleads with his brother to just see him.  See him for who he really is.  That inherent need to belong, to feel needed or loved, is such a universal feeling we all share.  With the incessant feeling of time ticking away, the film presents the characters as being short on that time to discover their place in this world before that world chews them up and spits them out.

Time also ticks away on the soundtrack (an incredibly intricate sound design by Richard Beggs) in a variety of inventive ways.  We not only hear clocks ticking, clanging, buzzing, but in water dripping, echoing voices (another ghostly like effect), percussive beats from the Stewart Copeland soundtrack, and an underlying blanket of sound that gives that sense of something different in this world running away with time.  Beggs never seems to overindulge in these effects.  It seems a natural part of the world they have created.  Do yourself a favor and turn up the sound when watching this film to fully appreciate the work that went in to creating this aural landscape.

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The title Rumble Fish refers to Motorcycle Boy’s statement of certain fish in the local pet store that are separated in the fish tank for they would kill each other if in the same space.  His thought of freeing these fish into the river, giving them the space they really needed, would undo that primal need to destroy each other.  Is this what we need for the self destructive behavior for youths in gangs?  Freedom and the responsibility to choose, rather than be like the ghosts of past gang members on the endless cycle of nihilistic violence?  Sometimes it takes a ghost (in this case, the quiet presence of Mickey Rourke) to show the way; break free of the constraints of endless repetition that life sometimes hands us.

This all sounds so bleak on the surface, but there is a beautiful hope.  Coppola provides it little by little as the film progresses for we end up caring, against our better judgement, for these characters and want them to succeed.  These are flawed broken people, but they carry the same needs and desires we all do.  Hope is possible and given in the end which lifts the film up right where it needs to be.

No longer a ghost of time will Rusty-James be, but living in the present upon a path to something better than the world he left behind.  Rumble Fish is a work of art with heart, daring, and the inventiveness of a Coppola that he strives to be outside of the ghost of his mainstream successes.

On the Set of

[Francis Ford Coppla (foreground) with Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke on set, Tusla OK 1982]

Valhalla Of Masculinity: The Alchemy Of Nicolas Winding Refn

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mas·cu·lin·i·ty
ˌmaskyəˈlinədē/
noun
 possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a 46 year old Danish film director, writer, and producer that engineers striking visuals with some punishing violence.  There is a lot of flash on the surface which at times conceals his myriad statements about masculinity, which is interesting and at times disconcerting to the uninitiated.   Born in Copenhagen, Refn has a unique world view that houses European sensibility with flat out Hollywood enfant terrible tendencies.  His films are deadly serious, but so much fun to watch with his fractured male “heroes” blindly groping for meaning.

You may have seen at least one of his films, though you might not know his name.  To discuss the landscapes he has created in his films, one must pick and choose which stories merit such mention.  I chose three that I find myself returning to again and again.  These are works worth seeking out to stream or rent, but for the purpose of this article I want to make the reader aware they exist and certainly worth trying at least once.  Plus, they are entertaining as all get out.

Let us start with 1990’s Valhalla Rising.

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Valhalla, according to Norse mythology, is a vast hall armored with a roof adorned with shields for half of the slain warriors in battle to live forever in harmony under the god Odin.  It is a virtual palace filled with abundant feasts under a rafter of spears.  The Hall of the Slain.

Valhalla Rising concerns a one-eyed mute kept as a fighting slave, who escapes with the help of a boy and joins company with a group of reformed Christian Vikings wanting to bring their way of life to a new land…Paradise.  With very little dialogue (a risk by Refn, but works in favor for the film), the story is bone crushingly violent, as was the times, and borders on the mystical with “One-Eye” and his apparent visions.  His ultimate quest is to journey to Valhalla in the only way he knows; a valiant and honorable death in battle.  How he comes about with answers for that journey is what the film purports to present in graphic shocking terms intermixed with moments of tenderness.

The male mystique, as Refn showcases, is a trial by pain, brutal violence, and survival of the fittest.  The animal-like behavior is necessary to coexist with the harsh realities of the times.  “One-Eye” never once utters a word, but you feel his perplexing confusion and naked curiosity when faced with his own mortality.  The boy he befriends (if you want to call it a friendship) is his only concession to being human outside this facade of brutal masculinity.  That boy is central to “One-Eye” and his humanity.  There seems to be a connection that links his own childhood past with that of the boy walking alongside him.  One-Eye sees what he has lost in himself and what he has become.  Masculinity among the breathtakingly harsh landscapes of the Scottish Highlands (where the film was shot) lends no room for mistakes and no trust for your fellow man.  In the end, “One-Eye” achieves his Valhalla quest, but also regains some of his humanity, thanks to the boy.  We only hope the boy, who witnessed the proceedings, will go forward with a newer definition of what it is to be a man; of sacrifice, honor, duty, and a trust in something good.  “One-Eye” was no mentor by any stretch of the imagination, but the boy saw something in him more than just the ragged animalistic masculinity around him.

Refn’s visual splendor is on display in Valhalla Rising with the gorgeous muted landscapes, bodies sculpted in mud, and blazing colors within those visions.  These men seem to be hewn from the very rocks scattered across the fields.  Death surrounds them at all times and yet, “One-Eye” yearns for something greater.  A slowly natural progression from the endless circle of violence.

Next up is 2011’s Drive.

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This is another of Refn’s “heroes” who are actually bad men striving to be good against their better nature.  Drive was Refn’s critical and audience breakout hit.  The film boasts some terrific performances with knockout visuals which highlight a far more symbolic foray into the realm of masculinity.   The Driver (we never know his real name) is a Hollywood stunt driver by day, but yields a sideline business as a getaway driver by night.  This all sounds somewhat cliched, but director Refn infuses the whole scenario with Driver’s need for salvation, something he discovers he has a need for, but has trouble reconciling that need with his darker nature.  Being a man, a good man, is Driver’s quest.  Entering within his masculine world of cars, speed, danger, and the solitary male existence is his next door apartment neighbor, Irene and her young son, Benicio.  What starts as casual words in the hallway, soon leads to the opening of a whole new world for Driver; the world of hope and a new sense of the masculine mystique.  This involves the caring and nurturing of possible loved ones, as opposed to the disposable criminals rushing into his getaway car (and if late per his dictated schedule, he leaves them behind with only the concern for himself and his own safety).  He sees an existence beyond his male definition, perhaps one that was created by the Hollywood dream factory that he works in by day.

There is one glorious sequence in Drive where Refn gives the audience everything that is conflicted within Driver and necessarily explodes.  I am, of course, referring to the elevator sequence.

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This spellbinding scene places danger (a man sent to kill Driver) in between Irene and Driver in close quarters.  Driver realizes he has to resort to his darker nature, but before he does, he holds Irene close and kisses her tenderly one last time (notice the lighting change Refn chooses during this kiss) because Driver knows Irene will now finally see his true nature; a bad man capable of punishing exact violence.  And she may never want him back after that, for she will never again see him as a good man.  The action is sudden and very brutal, however the violence is necessary.  This is who Driver is and Irene needs to see him for what he is.  When Driver pushes Irene out of the elevator, she looks upon his blood splattered face with horror and confusion as the doors close on him.  He has turned into a monster of a man.  It is masculinity both ugly and bent.  How can a man who tenderly kisses her reverse into animal mode destroying another human all within a matter of minutes?  Where does that line in the sand appear between man and animal?  Driver recognizes this quality within himself, but cannot help himself.  Like “One-Eye”, Driver seeks redemption after this and eventually finds it at the cost of many lives and a hopeless future.  His Valhalla is a solitary existence or death after making his great sacrifice on the Los Angeles streets of battle.

Lastly, we discuss one of my favorites, but has turned out to be Refn’s first critical and commercial bomb, 2013’s Only God Forgives.

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Only God Forgives is such an interesting, but polarizing film.  There are no “heroes” to root for, least of all the leading character Julien; a man so traumatized by his mother and past deeds that it immobilizes him from any real human relationships.  Julien wants to love and be loved, but the very idea frightens him because of his conditioning (by his mother) of what kind of a son/man he should be.  His mother’s ideas are bizarre to say the least and verge into Oedipal territory.  Julien struggles with his inner demons and, like “One-Eye” and Driver, seeks salvation.  He recognizes his Valhalla in the form of Chang, a retired Thailand police officer, who exacts redemption (Refn has corroborated this in later interviews) as if he were in fact…God.

Pretentious, you might say? That accusation can be justified on this film, but that is what makes this such a glorious mess to watch.  All of Nicolas Winding Refn’s gallery of societal male anxieties are all on display here with a good dose of that sudden punishing violence Refn is known for.  He does not glorify or push aestheticism into his violence, but rather makes it an extension of his character’s inner demons which can explode to an ugly effect at any time.  Violence has consequences and there are no heroes when one uses it in Refn’s world.  Even Chang (God) seems to have no remorse in his actions, only to coldly and systematically carry out his redemption.

So why the fascination with this overly symbolic and (as I admitted earlier) pretentious piece of work?  Quite honestly, I have never seen a major released film present such a brutally fractured view of the male psyche in such a stylish celebratory manner.  The surface has stunning cinematography, faces that fit with the story, beautiful music, and editing that is peerless.  Underneath is nasty, grimy, pulsating with an idea of masculinity gone horribly wrong; so wrong that the man we should be rooting for is pretty much a lost cause.  His only hope for Valhalla is to rid himself of the root cause of all his deep seated problems, which is mutilation.  Sounds very extreme, but it is his only path to salvation…to his Hall of the Slain as it were.  It all sounds so over the top and that is part of its charm.  Perhaps Refn intended that, for I cannot help myself from returning to this film from time to time to reaffirm what I had witnessed before.

It is a big beautiful train wreck of a film with a major star and a major director striving to achieve greatness and falling short.  It was also the last time the two worked together (Ryan Gosling and Refn).  There was talk of a Logan’s Run reboot with these two and I cannot help but wonder if Refn would have concocted only a big budget version of Only God Forgives with Sandman Logan 5 as another fractured male seeking redemption or his Valhalla known (as in the original film) as Sanctuary.  Seems tailor made for Refn and maybe that is why the studio scrapped the project before it ever got to script phase.

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[director Nicolas Winding Refn (l) with Ryan Gosling on set of Only God Forgives, Thailand 2010]

Exploration Directed Inward: James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z

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[pictured-writer/director James Gray on location Columbia South America 2015]

“The rise of science in the nineteenth century had had a paradoxical effect: while it undermined faith in Christianity and the literal word of the Bible, it also created an enormous void for someone to explain the mysteries of the universe that lay beyond microbes and evolution and capitalist greed.”

“Exploration…no longer seemed aimed at some outward discovery; rather, it was directed inward…”

– David Grann / The Lost City Of Z: A Tale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon

Lieutenant Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett DSO was a British geographer, artillery officer, cartographer, archaeologist, and outspoken advocate for the belief of a greater civilization in the Amazon jungle more ancient and complex than any in recorded history.  His belief in learning, not destroying, the indigenous cultures within this dense landscape went against most fellowships within the Royal Geographical Society in the dawn of the 20th century.  Percy Fawcett undertook several trips into South America looking for a fabled city (of gold) and fell in love (some say obsessed) with the jungle in the process.  It consumed much of his life, to the detriment of his devoted loving wife and three children.

American writer and director James Gray (“The Immigrant”, “We Own The Night”, “Two Lovers”) has produced a literate and astoundingly beautiful treatise on the explorer spirit turned inward with an all consuming passion.  Based upon the bestselling non-fiction book by David Grann, Percy Fawcett is a fascinating figure who understood the ramifications of exploration and yet, chose to forge ahead for the adventure of seeking to rewrite the history of civilization that he believed was far greater than his own, hidden deep inside the Amazon jungle.  Another fascinating facet was his marriage to his wife, Nina, which was one of equality and respect (practically unheard of in that time and age).  The relationship mirrors another real-life 19th century romance between Sir Richard Francis Burton (explorer, writer) and his wife Isabel (see Bob Rafelson’s “Mountains Of The Moon”, an near great depiction of Burton).  Nina’s devotion, knowledge, and passion were equal to her husband’s in many ways and soon paved the way to his legacy and their story today.

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“The Lost City Of Z” (prounounced Zed) is an adventure film, but one that provokes thoughts and questions, rather than slam bang action sequences.  Trekking through the jungle requires iron will and stamina.  There are sequences which remind viewers of just how unforgiving this terrain can be with piranhas, disease, madness, and the threat of instant death around every turn of the river.  The persistence of Gray’s script is to detail what drives humans to that razor’s edge of mental exhaustion for the sake of knowledge and a greater love that no other has experienced.  Not only does Fawcett, along with his wife Nina at home, explore unknown lands, but they both explore the limits of themselves.  Society usually does not favor the forward thinkers, the humans who seek far beyond the norms of conventional wisdom.  Fawcett was much criticized for most of his career.  It is only much later do we, as a society, reexamine and realize some were ahead of their time in deeds and actions.

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The film itself boasts a terrific script which never lends itself to flashy trendy flourishes.  It is set in a specific time and place which never feels false.  The seventies vibe is added with the help of directory of photography, Darius Khondji (Midnight In Paris, Se7en, My Blueberry Nights), with a smoky light-filtering glow which harks back to another Amazonian adventure, Werner Herzog’s 1972 “Aquirre, The Wrath Of God”.  The production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos hones those early times with authenticity and beauty.  The break-out acting of Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), an unrecognizable and excellent Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin), the intelligent radiance of Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett), and a tragic Angus Macfayden (James Murray) round out a cast that rings true to the proceedings thanks to Gray’s sensitive direction.

What truly makes this a must-see film is Gray’s audacity to tell his story in his own way filled with beautiful words, mystery, and the simple magic of cinema tools.  Nothing flashy here, just good old fashioned story telling.  Adventure films aspire to give the viewer a sense of wonder and place one totally within their world.  “The Lost City Of Z” succeeds on these levels and still has room to make us think in terms of history and the folly of such human endeavors.  Lastly, without giving anything away, director Gray fashions one of the best endings in recent memory.  His choice perfectly captures the inner mind of a particular character that is simply haunting and gorgeous to behold.

This is a beautiful and terrifying film that requires repeated viewings to catch all the filmmaker’s intentions on screen.  It is truly an adventure of the mind and spirit.

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“The Lost City Of Z” [2017 2hrs 21min] written/directed by James Gray, photographed by Darius Khondji

 

Bill Murray Finds Enlightenment: The Razor’s Edge Within The City Of Light

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“The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.”

“Well, you know when people are no good at anything else they become writers.”

― W. Somerset Maugham / The Razor’s Edge

Back in 1983, director John Byrum sent a script, that was having trouble selling at any studio, to his friend who happened to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time.  Bill Murray read the script in one night and telephoned Byrum early in the morning with the words, “Hi, this is Larry Darrell.”

Columbia Pictures now had the backing of a major star with Byrum’s script, on the express consent that Murray would do their summer comedy film going by the title of Ghostbusters.  Murray was aching to do something out of the mainstream and more in tune with his dark sensibilities.  “The Razor’s Edge” afforded a range never before attempted and a trip to his beloved City Of Light for several months.  In the preceding months, Murray hammered out a revised script with Byrum and was ready to take on the role he felt he was born to play.

When the completed film was released in October of 1984 (I was one of the few who attended), it tanked at the box office so drastically that it sent Bill Murray into a self imposed exile to Paris, much like his beloved character Larry Darrell, to think through his life.  Audiences were not ready for a serious Bill Murray and were confused as to why he chose this route.  To Murray, this made sense as a career trajectory and much more satisfying as an actor.  It wouldn’t be until many years later, and thanks to directors such as Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Jim Jarmusch that Murray would come into his own as a serious actor.

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“The Razor’s Edge” is an anomaly in his career and a very interesting one.  On the whole, the film certainly has its faults.  For starters, the overbearing music score by the usually reliable Jack Nitzsche hammers home every emotional moment to an excruciating degree.  The injection of Murray’s goofy humor seems very out of place in certain scenes.  John Byrum’s earnest direction certainly needed some polish in certain wooden-like intimate scenes between characters.  For all its faults, the film’s standouts lie on the other side with the gorgeous photography by Peter Hannan, the exquisite production design by Philip Harrison, and lastly the acting; Saeed Jaffrey (always a joy to watch), Denholm Elliot, Theresa Russell (so sexy and daring), and of course, Bill Murray.  Murray takes the role and makes it his own.  It is sad to think many people missed or disliked his performance purely based on perceptions of past films.  His droll delivery intermixed with that cold seriousness lends the character Larry Darrell as a real damaged soul.  It is remarkable that Murray pulled it off in the midst of his super-stardom as a comedic actor and a credit to his talent.

The original novel, by  W. Somerset Maugham, has long been a favorite of mine.  The essence of yearning, striving, questioning for what this life means was (and still is) very attractive to me.  Like Murray, I can claim to be Larry Darrell.  Life does not make very much sense, so I read a lot and question everything.  I may not have made it to Paris, but give me time.  Bill Murray took to heart Larry Darrell’s predicament and identified with it so completely that he stayed away from Hollywood for a few years in The City Of Light.  Unlike Darrell though, Murray could afford it without any worries.

On one occasion of my rereading Maugham’s novel, I decided to flesh out some stories during Larry Darrell’s exile in Paris that I felt the novel kept hidden.  It was fun and a great exercise in fleshing out a situation with one of my beloved characters.  I’ve taken one of those exercises and placed it below for anyone’s reading amusement or disgusted outrage at the amateurish attempt.  You be the judge.

Paris. 1923.
Larry Darrell remembered that he left the novel he was reading back at his squalid tiny apartment off Rue de Rivoli-Le Marais. He loved that tiny space. He had acquired so many books these days that they lined the walls covering the exposed chipped paint that badly needed a fresh coat. Need to talk to the landlord about that, thought Larry.
The avenue he chose to walk tonight was a different route to his favorite eatery. Larry liked to change things up, enter the unknown. He was never a man of habit,
or so he fancied himself to be. Yet, Larry was a seeker. Someone who searched for answers to questions he has yet to think of. Life, love, existence, and the pursuit of his next glass of wine.
Damn, I won’t have anything to read at dinner tonight, Larry rumbled inside. The alley was dark with running water and he stumbled across the broken pavement stones, cursing at his clumsiness. Larry wiped his brow and fished in his pockets for that Mekka he bummed off that university professor yesterday. An interesting conversation, the bespectacled professor claimed the novel as a dead art form with nothing more to be said after Joyce’s odyssey through Dublin. Larry clasped his prize from his pocket and struck a match on the brick side, lighting the alleyway momentarily in a fiery red haze.
With a smoke halo across Larry’s crown, his eyes looked up at the stars as if searching for a God that did not exist. He let out a heavy sigh. It has been a tough year since The City Of Lights captured his attention and it has since disappointed him time and time again. The food was fine, when he had enough to actually pay. The libraries and dusty book shops were better. He spent hours perusing novels, histories, philosophical diatribes, and the occasional newspaper. There was something that bothered Larry. Something that followed him these days. That bitter taste in his mouth was from the loneliness he felt. It was getting harder with each day. All the books in all the world still had no answers to quell this empty space he seemed to live in. So, Larry kept reading. Life had meaning, he waxed, but in layers. Each one of those layers opened to another more complex one, like some onion he saw prepared at Le Procope.
The cigarette was tossed into a pool of brackish water down from the cannery. Larry eyed the cozy lit restaurant ahead and put his hands in his trouser pockets. I have enough for some wine and some cheese, he noted. Damn. Wish I had remembered that book, Larry thought. He hated to eat alone without something to read.
Walking up to the outdoor tables, Larry found his usual spot and sat down. Reflexively, he reached for his phantom book he had forgotten and cursed again out loud. “Are you alright, Monsieur?” Startled, Larry looked up at a face that shone with the stars above. It was a face of porcelain texture lovingly dotted with the finest of freckles. Those eyes, Larry thought, those gray piercing eyes can see right through me.
I am sorry to disturb you, Monsieur. Her voice was languid and pleasant to the ear. Larry stumbled upon some words to apologize himself. Please, he practically yelled, please join me? She looked upon him questionably, but made up her mind that he was harmless. Larry jumped up to offer her a chair. She smiled at his quaint gentlemanly ways as she sat down slowly, cautious still of what was transpiring. Larry smiled a big cheesy smile, until realized the mistake and offered her a drink. Guess I will skip the cheese tonight, he laughed inside.
The two sat in the outdoor corner with a gentle breeze ruffling the tablecloth in its wake. It was a gloriously still night, perfect for such an accidental chance meeting to take place. Larry introduced himself as the typical American expatriate bumming off the city. She listened to his story with an intensity. Her studied look made Larry nervous and when he was nervous, he tended to talk too much. Catching himself, he suddenly ended the explanation as to why he was in Paris. The air was quiet as she continued to study him. Larry felt as if he were an exhibit in the Musée d’Orsay. She took a long drink from her glass and licked her ruby lips.
Larry was mesmerized by this spectacle. He had no idea what to do or say to this vision. After what seemed like minutes, she set her glass down and appeared to begin speaking. Larry leaned in closer across the table. She whispered something he will never forget till his dying days. No woman he has ever met has ever matched her steely beauty and upfront behavior. Was this a dream, he wondered? It was that whisper, those softly said words, that took him forever from that empty space he was trapped in. And for that, he was eternally grateful to her, for those words were what he never found in any book after searching these many years.
That was when Larry Darrell truly opened his eyes and his heart towards a new path.

-Misha / 2014

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“The Razor’s Edge” 1984 2hrs 8min (direction John Byrum, screenplay John Byrum and Bill Murray)