I need to write a proper riff on William Friedkin’s astounding 1977 film Sorcerer—I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a better film this summer—nor have I seen anything that zapped me with that How the hell haven’t I seen this yet? feeling since Michael Mann’s Thief. But as the summer ebbs and a new year of a full teaching load approaches, I’m not sure if I’ve got a spare three hours to watch Sorcerer a third time any time soon (the third viewing was perfect, by the bye). It’s great though. It’s about four dudes, exiles, trying to move nitroglycerin in two old trucks across a mountain in an unnamed South American country.
I had scratched out some notes on the first viewing though, which I won’t bother to cobble together here in anything other than a silly list, which I hope to mine later in Something Bigger on Sorcerer:
- Metaphors of postglobal cooperation in the cause of self-interest.
- Multilingual, but postlingual: Film as language. Sorcerer as its own language.
- Post-WWII; somehow hasn’t absorbed the Vietnam War.
- Like Herzog, here is a depiction of nature that conveys the sublime while stripping from it the romance, leaving only the horror and awe.
- Comments on its own engineering, its own technological processes (like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo).
- But also, its focus on engineering points backwards (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and forwards (uh, the Fast/Furious franchise? —but not fast here; no: slow).
- (Clearly the double feature of Fitzcarraldo).
- Postglobalism — terror, crime, religion, economics, class, “high” art, — all the shit that’s dealt with in the first 30 min — is subsumed into nature vs techne — a kind of nihilsm against nature pointing at the current century.
- IT’S ALL ABOUT ENGINEERING!
- Unself-concious postmodernism, before postmodernism is properly “postmodernism”: That Friedkin is perhaps working in Modernist idioms (all the noir touches, the irony, the hallucinations, the cuts, etc.), but produces something we might describe as “postmodern.”
- That end — tragic, ironic, pathetic, bathetic—and a loop! (sort of)—Friedkin’s film ironizes the Romantic touches, the Bogart shadows.
- (Watch it again).
Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls has been on my radar forever (or at least since its publication in the late nineties), but I’d resisted picking it up until earlier this week—maybe because of its awful, awful cover (good lord), or maybe because of that off-putting subtitle, which just seems to scream, Boomer mythologies!
But after watching William Friedkin’s Sorcerer a third time, I wanted to read about the film, and Biskind’s book was easy to find used and so well hey. Of course I skipped to the index, and found enough pages on Sorcerer to take the book home. I read those pages at home, right away, with mounting disappointment, or frustration, rather. Biskind’s dishy, bitchy style is annoying, (although I assuaged the bad prose by reading the whole thing, as best as I could, in a Robert Evans accent) and beyond the bad prose is a paucity of information about, like, the actual filmmaking behind Sorcerer. It might be interesting to some people that Friedkin was a total asshole to his girlfriend, but I guess I wanted to know about the work, y’know? At least there’s a whole bunch of stuff on Heaven’s Gate too.
So well anyway, I read the introduction to the book and I can see how it does seem promising, but there’s also something deeply frustrating about Biskind’s approach (from the outset, anyway)—he seems to want to valorize the Baby Boomers at every turn. He introduces the first wave of the heroes of his book at “white men born in the mid- to late ’30s” without a hint of irony, noting that the “second wave was made up of the early boomers.” Of course it’s the names of the heroes that attract the reader: Bogdanovich, Coppola, Nichols, Scorsese, Malick, De Palma, etc. (It’s also sort of fascinating that even in the late ’90s, Biskind, a few paragraphs later, parses the “new group of actors” he lauds (Nicholson, De Niro, Keitel, et al) from “the women,” the “new faces.” Yeesh). My guess is that I’ll pick at this book as I watch and/or re-watch the films of the decade it valorizes—the films of the ’70s—the films that it so boomerishly insists were The Last Great Golden Age of Film Never to Be Replicated Again, Nope, That’s All Folks.
Here’s the trailer for Friedkin’s Sorcerer (the soundtrack is by Tangerine Dream, who also scored Michael Mann’s 1981 film Thief. Mann is not indexed in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls):
- Our present is utterly Ballardian.
- Our present is so utterly Ballardian that our present is actually our (unevenly distributed) future.
- Like, what is the 2016 U.S. presidential election but a short story Ballard might have written in 1983 (and hopefully thrown in the trash)?
- Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise is particularly concerned with this present-future condition: the phrase to come (as in a future to come) repeats throughout the novel, a key dissonant note.
- Near the end of the novel, Ballard’s free indirect style drifts into the mind of protagonist Robert Laing:
...he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.
- A version of this line shows up in the first minutes of director Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film adaptation of High-Rise.
- While Ballard’s satire evokes the post-future’s psychological (ir)reality, Wheatley’s film adaptation feels like a nostalgic period piece for a future that came and skedaddled. Perhaps he (and his fellow filmmakers—screenwriter Amy Jump, the editor, the set designers and costumers, etc.) found it impossible to do more than stylistically recapitulate the Modernist contours that Ballard transcended.
- Critic Tasha Robinson lays it out neatly in her proper review at The Verge:
The retro cars, suits, and architecture all put High-Rise more in a quaint, remote past than a dystopian future. They also add to the sense of otherworldliness that hangs over the film.
And so does the sense that High-Rise is driven more by Wheatley’s poster-ready striking images — a suicide falling from a high balcony in ultra slow motion, Laing expressionless and spattered with paint — than by any sort of human drives.
- (I modify “review” in the above with “proper” because Robinson wrote a real review; I’m not doing that here. I think her take on the film is far more detailed and broad than what I’m doing here, and certainly attends more to the, like, plot of the film—even as she acknowledges that the plot basically gets put on the back-burner for long stretches).
- So probably my biggest quibble with the High-Rise film adaptation is its nostalgia, its obsession with midcentury modernism and Brutalism and style—by which I mean the idea of style—over, like, ideas.
- Those ideas: Ballard’s central critiques of capitalism, consumerism, and class do come through in the film, but Wheatley and his team resist giving them any air to breathe, let alone room to stretch their legs. (My god. Forgive me these metaphors, this terrible personification).
- There are very, very few scenes in the film where people exchange ideas.
- Instead, ideas are wedged in, often in snippets lifted directly from the book, crammed quickly into a frame that will surely veer back into the film’s main technique: Montage!
- The first chapter of Ballard’s novel is titled “Critical Mass.” As I pointed out in my review of the novel, “Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery,” and gets his pot boiling in a hurry.
- In contrast, Wheatley’s film gets a slower—but strong—start. (The first 50 or so minutes are actually pretty great).
- At its midway point though, the High-Rise film tries to pick up the pace—dramatically. The solution is montage after montage.
- Indeed, the final hour of the film slips into a state of near-constant montage. The big set piece scenes (y’know—dance parties and food riots and orgies and the like) dissolve into the film’s frenetic technique. It often feels as if Wheatley is more interested in making a bunch of cool music videos than a film. While this jumpy method might have been the filmmakers’ intention—y’know, to evoke paranoia, anxiety, exhaustion, claustrophobia, etc.—the result, at least for me, was a kind of paradoxical lethargy, a creeping dullness.
- Key moments, like the first encounter between Wilder and Royal for example, fly by in rushed blips. It’s as if Wheatley was afraid that if he let two people talk on-screen for more than 30 seconds the viewers would not, y’know, pick up on the fact that we are witnessing the thin veneer of society crack open revealing an abject tumult of sex and violence underneath.
- (Wilder—the Id man! Royal the Superego. So much of Ballard’s psychological stuff gets lost in the film, which foregrounds class hierarchy instead of synthesizing the two. But that’s a separate quibble).
- What were likely great performances (and much potential for humor) get lost in all the short cuts and montage.
- Still: Sienna Miller is great as Charlotte Melville, and Tom Hiddleston is charming enough.
- But best in the film—at least for me—is Elizabeth Moss as Wilder’s pregnant wife Helen.
- Still, the filmmakers insist on mining her pregnancy for cheap nostalgic jokes—she’s always smoking, always finishing a drink or pouring a new one.
- Which brings me back to: Why a period piece? Why not update High-Rise—or, even better take it outside of time completely?
- (It will be interesting to look at the film in twenty years: Oh! These were the aesthetic obsessions of the 2010’s, these were the nostalgic totems of that silly decade).
- (And while I’m wedging points in parenthetically in a rush: The ending. I read the novel’s conclusion ironically—the high-rise is a phallic failure, and as its patriarchy devolves into chaos and death, a matriarchy arises (or maybe coalesces is the verb I want). But the film concludes more ambiguously—sure, it points to the idea of a matriarchy (or harem)—but it leaves Laing in the kind of alpha male position that the novel had sought to ironize).
- And, to return to point 24: Did the filmmakers underestimate the currency of Ballard’s satire? We live in an era of radical wealth inequality, where the richest in our society are rapidly establishing their own private greenzones away from the plebeians. High-Rise is more timely now than ever.
- (A short list of (non-)adaptations of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise: Pete Travis’s Dredd (2012), Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (2008), and George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005)).
- (And re: point 27 w/r/t adaptations—in a sense, Ballard adapted/revised the novel himself in his 2003 novel Millennium People).
- Reading back over this riff, briefly, I see that there’s so much I left out—on stuff the filmmakers left out (why change the key plot point of Laing’s sister?)—on stuff I should’ve praised more (great soundtrack; good cinematography)—but most of all, what doesn’t come through is my admiration that the filmmakers tried. And they tried hard, successfully evoking a Ballardian style. But while the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.
From Washington University’s marvelous Modern Literature Collection YouTube channel.
In her cameo in the Coen brothers’ newest film, Hail, Caesar!, Frances McDormand gets her scarf stuck in her editing machine. It nearly chokes her (or, I should write, her character, film editor C.C. Calhoun) before Josh Brolin’s studio head/fixer Eddie Mannix hits “Reverse,” saving her life.
Like so many of the scenes in Hail, Caesar!, the editing scene is funny, well-acted, impeccably filmed, and ultimately superfluous. It’s a throwaway, a wonderful scrap, one of many scraps that the Coens seem to toss to their audience, goading, Hey, you put all of this together.
The McDormand scene is ultimately just another way for the Coens to highlight the artificiality of their medium. Hail, Caesar! is of course a film about film, a film that aims to satirize how the metaphorical sausage is made. As such, Hail, Caesar! is self-satirizing, meta-metaphorical. It’s the Coens pointing out the flawed seams or imperfect varnish before the product is even finished. McDormand’s editor getting caught in the machine is some kind of clumsy synecdoche then.
These metatextual gestures only helped to heighten my own awareness of Hail, Caesar’s! flawed seams. This is a film brimming with wonderful, energetic set pieces—synchronized swimming with Scarlett Johannsson! — Channing Tatum tap-dancing on a bar! — Alden Ehrenreich (not so famous, yet) stunting on horses!—that add up to almost nothing. The end result would almost be fascinating were it not so dull.
Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is not dull, and every time he’s on the screen Hail, Caesar! threatens to become interesting. “Called up” to be in more, eh, prestigious fare than the cowboy pictures he’s been doing so well in, young Hobie’s plot has the slightest (just the slightest) tinge of Mulholland Drive — “This is the girl.” (Or, eh, “This is the boy. The cowboy”).
Hail, Caesar! can’t commit fully to Hobie for its hero, alas. Instead the film, after an initial bout of goodwill-building (including an especially funny early scene in which religious leaders are invited to critique Hail, Caesar!, the film-within-a-film here)—instead the film (the Coens’ Hail, Casear!, that is) plods along a few not-quite-intersecting tracks, introducing the occasional grotesque for a cameo that serves no real plot point.
Look, I get it. Having a character’s fate expositioned away via clumsy dialogue at the end of the film is like, meta, right? It’s the Coens way of grinning at the corny clumsy past of their chosen medium, hey? It’s like, purposefully, self-reflexively bad, a piss-take on an audience’s willed suspension of disbelief, hm?
Suspension of disbelief—faith. Does Hail, Caser! aim to take on faith? It certainly dabbles, exploring (“exploring” is not the right verb—but I already used “dabbles”) political faith, economic faith, religious faith. Faith in the aesthetic power of film, which again and again Hail, Caesar! attempts to embody via kinetic spectacle before puncturing said aesthetic transcendence with ironc winking (or technical failure).
The signal moment in the film’s ironic treatment of faith is delivered in its penultimate scene. George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock’s character (a Roman soldier whose name I can’t recall, but, hey, note the layering, man) deilvers a monologue. The speech is meant to be this kinda sorta Road-to-Damascus epiphanic transcendence deaile, and the aesthetic power of Clooney’s Whitlock’s delivery is confirmed internally on set by the various film people (grips and script folk, etc.) offering up admiring Brady nods—only Whitlock stumbles over the last word of the speech—which last word, of course, was faith. Charlie Kaufman did the same thing much better in the funeral monologue near the end of his film Synecdoche, New York. In Hail, Caesar!, the moment feels like a glib trick played on the audience
It’s entirely likely that there’s a much finer design to Hail, Caesar! than I’ve credited the Coens here. Maybe on a second viewing, I won’t be bogged down so hard looking for a thread to follow. (Shagginess is hardly a sin though, yes Lebowski?). And I’ve failed to point out some of the fine performances here—Josh Brolin anchors the film admirably (although half the time he was on the screen, I kept hoping the film would turn into Inherent Vice). Hail, Caesar! has plenty of great moments, and those moments, like I said, might cohere into something sharper upon a second screening. But right now there’s nothing that compels me toward a second screening any time soon.
Not sure about this one…but I love the Ballard novel, so…