Never Too Late

In Amir Bar-Lev’s excellent documentary Happy Valley, someone posits that the crowd at Penn State Games (and by extension, I’ll say rabid sports fans in general) are a crowd in search of something to rally behind. When Joe Paterno turned out to be less than the heroic figure they’d believed him to be, they quickly found another coach to deify. The words “anoint a new king” are used, which is telling. Americans are the loudest people in the world whose lives are completed by blind faith in figureheads. Conservative voters scream the loudest for the worst candidates. Watch the way that one man with a sign that says “Joe Paterno protected pedophiles” ignites so much hatred and violence in perfect strangers passing by. People used to make pilgrimages to a statue of Paterno to take pictures next to him. Then it was revealed that he’d helped cover up assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s raping football players for years. And yet people still came to the statue. They’re understanding of him as a guy who’d helped football teams win overpowered whatever shred of moral obligation they felt to the dozens of young men whose lives had been ruined thanks to Saint Joe. Football came first.
Maybe cinephiles should thank the French (or just Andrew Sarris) for introducing the primacy of theory over the personalities behind movies to us. Critics will be quick to tell you that, for instance, Woody Allen’s movies are more important than anything Woody Allen has done in his personal life because we're not psychologists or ethics professors. Our job is to study the films and watching Manhattan is not equal to supporting what he did to his daughters. In the same way we don’t support Ted Hughes driving Sylvia Plath to suicide everytime we buy one of his poetry books. We also are up front about how fucking terrible our heroes can be as human beings. That's almost a given with geniuses of the arts. However, compare that to the general tone of most commenters under negative reviews of Marvel Comics movies or Quentin Tarantino films. Critics have the theory and can separate the people from the art they make. Criticize a Christopher Nolan movie that fans have not even seen yet, and you’ll see something akin to those pilgrims pushing and swearing at the lone man with the “Joe Paterno protected pedophiles” sign. “How dare you infer that the man who made The Dark Knight doesn’t know what he’s doing. The Dark Knight is the best movie ever and so, then, must Interstellar be kept from intellectuals who don’t understand what kind of movie he’s making this time out. You don’t get it.”

Something I know I’ve struggled with for the last few years is figuring out if the loyalty I feel towards the artists I love is the same way I love cousins I don’t see that often, or if I seriously believe they’re still good directors. Right around the time that The Counselor came out…or maybe it was just before Exodus, I don’t remember, I said that I believed Ridley Scott was one of the greatest filmmakers alive. Today, even after having seen what may wind up being his last good movie (not that I want it to be, but he’s getting on, ya know?) I may not be ready to stand by this claim. What changed? The things I prioritize in film. Pre-Prometheus he was my guy. Then I realized that just having an eye for visuals and an iron clad sense of dramatic pay offs wasn’t quite enough to make him special to me. Ridley gave me a lot of things, including my first memory of movies. He made me grow to love middle brow action films (and by turning Harrison Ford into a detective before anybody else could, he also accidentally invented them - The Fugitive, Patriot Games, The Devil’s Own) and, along with Terry Gilliam, he established the visual standard for mainstream western cinema. Combine the two and you get Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Bong Joon-Ho, Tom Tykwer, The Wachowskis, and, yes, Chris Nolan. And I grew up worshipping at his altar. Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Someone To Watch Over Me, Thelma & Louise, 1492, G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, American Gangster, Kingdom of Heaven... I stand by these movies (well except Gladiator). But I’ve come to see his that like any director he’s not infallible. He fucks up. He’s an old British man with old British prejudices. Occasionally he produces and directs like it’s 1965. Exodus, in particular, reminded me just how human he is. Which had a peculiar effect. Yes, it showed me he can cock up a movie just like anyone, but it kind of made reinvest in him. He’s made it this far, and if his daffy biblical epic (which I believe may have been a perfectly reasonable response to his brother’s suicide, but I’m doing that thing again. Protecting artists I don’t know personally because I have a personal attachment to their achievement) didn’t turn me off of him, than nothing can. Exodus can’t make Alien worse. Nothing can. These are facts, physical, tangible truths, and only our opinions can change. 

So it was with palpable excitement I sat down for The Martian. Everybody seemed to love it, there was Oscar talk for Christ’s sake, and even agnostics seemed to concede it wasn’t the worst thing they’d ever seen. And they’re all right. It’s a good movie. It’s fun. Ridley engages in playfulness, something he didn’t even try in his misbegotten, joyless romcom A Good Year. He has his most sombre astronaut, the Norwegian one, spinning and blowing kisses to his family in zero gravity, a beautiful few seconds in the middle of a montage set to a David Bowie song. Doesn’t that sound like a director rejuvenated to you? Or at least someone finally allowing themselves to have fun. To be different. It’s the fun he’s having that makes me forgive how fucking cute the script can be. Some of that dialogue is…not good. The nerd who wrote the book may have a great grip on the way nerds think, but he can’t write dialogue normal people would say to each other. It’s a long way from the shit-shooting and piss-taking of Alien’s wonderfully accurate blue-collar speak. Ridley has traded one for the other it seems. The believability is in his images and the survival of his lead, not the dialogue between earthlings, who I don’t think he has much interest in understanding anyway. 

What’s funny is that a rejuvenated Ridley looks like an awful lot like a young man who’s just seen Alien and Brazil. The Harry Gregson-Williams music apes Jerry Goldsmith's jittery trumpets early on as we get a god's eye view of the red planet and There’s a lot of Gilliam in Dariusz Wolski’s camera, the way it flies around corners to keep up with its hero’s progress. Ridley and Pietro Scalia burn through the dude’s year and a half in space, because psychological survival itself has never interested him (there's a great press conference where NASA head Jeff Daniels answers questions with blunt disinterest which sounds a lot like he's answering for the racial politics of Exodus and its subsequent box office failure). He likes it when people get fucked up real bad then get up and keep going. He likes his heroics in broad strokes. So we don’t check in on Matt Damon’s Mark Watney as he falls to pieces a la Into The Wild. That’s never been Ridley’s MO. So this is a film that is both right in his wheelhouse and a little more about exceptionalism as a positive force, instead of the thing that keeps you out of the frying pan just long enough to return to dust. He was a colonial critic for a lotta years, but he seems to have let that slide off him a little bit as he’s gotten older. Maybe realised the inherent contradiction in a British millionaire telling everyone about the evils of capitalism and empire building. But The Martian is the kindest he’s been to tourists since A Good Year. Mars doesn’t beat Watney or the governments he represents. It just lets everyone know they’ll have to do better to earn their place there. Doesn’t sound like the guy who gave up Jerusalem or punished soldiers for setting foot in Somalia, no matter how resilient they turned out to be. 
So if this is the way Ridley has to be in order to keep making movies with elephantine payoffs, that’s fine with me, because he couldn’t have kept making films the way he used to. Just look at Robin Hood. His old method had run its course. But it’s still not what it might have been. There’s no way around that. And Ridley Scott isn’t our greatest living filmmaker, even if he’s made some of my favourite films and may do so again. But I couldn’t help thinking about how much even something as rock solid as The Martian had nothing on one of my favourite dead filmmakers, given the same premise. A person marooned in a hostile environment, and the efforts of a few people coming to the rescue. A few weeks ago I went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw Orson Welles’ long-thought-lost (by me, anyway) The Deep. It’s only a work print, so most of the sound is bad temp ADR or indecipherable wild sound, the colour comes in and out and looks faded at best, and some scenes are made up of every take Welles captured on set. But it’s still probably the most thrilling movie I saw this year.

If you’ve seen Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm (a fine, if totally nutso movie, halfway between polite Noyce and Blind Fury Noyce) you know the story, kinda. Charles Williams’ novel has a few more snags than Noyce and George Miller’s adaptation. When the married couple (Oja Kodar and Michael Bryant) are separated by the lunatic seaman (Laurence Harvey, never more obviously a gay man playing straight) Bryant has company on the sinking ship on which he’s abandoned. Welles (a beach ball with arms) and Jeanne Moreau were left for dead when Harvey went off the deep end. Harvey, in his paranoid fugue, thought wife Moreau was fooling around with captain Welles. The absurdity of that to everyone but Welles does wonders for the audience gauging the progress of Harvey’s deteriorating cranium. Harvey plays his character like a cowboy without a horse, all sharpened good ol' boy mannerisms. He sounds like he miiiight have been trying to play it Tennessee Williams, but it's truly the strangest thing, especially because with no background noise, his purring "nah nah Mizzez Ingrim" speech patterns nearly deafen you. It's his worst performance, but it feels kind of at home in this treacherous blotchy world of Welles. Harvey likely didn't have time to clean it up because he was busy making Night Gallery and Night Watch, shooting his proper directorial debut Welcome to Arrow Beach, and dying. Welles wouldn't bother returning to the film after Harvey departed. And though it's truly insane misjudged work, you don't ever feel that Welles didn't trust Harvey and wouldn't have made it work if things had worked out.

The cramped location - two boats on the high seas - ignites Welles’ imagination. He never has trouble deciding the best way to utilize every inch of the vessels. His framing is marvelous, bidding us imagine the dimensions of his set to be larger than they are simply through withholding certain corners. The patchy print MoMA screened takes about twenty minutes to settle into, then you stop noticing the problems, and, if you’ve seen enough Welles, you fill in the blanks with what you know he would have done. Stefan Droessler from the Munich Filmmuseum presented the film, and would talk us through missing pieces or silent patches. He sounded like Werner Herzog, which made the whole thing much feel like a hybrid of church and cinema with its premiere sage offering us guidance in the darkness. Even deprived final cut Welles was the best. I was riveted waiting for the final confrontation between Harvey, Bryant and Welles, which I knew was going to be ugly. There’s a sequence, probably the longest in the film, where Bryant has Welles and Moreau help him set the boat ablaze to get Kodar’s attention across the the horizon. They run out of flammable liquid real fast and resort to paint. So for ten minutes we watch the three of them gleefully splashing different coats of paint all over the deck. Which would have looked great if the colour of the film had been preserved, but its bizarre installation loop feeling paints it for us. I thought for a brief second maybe Welles hadn’t filmed an ending and we’d just watch them throw buckets of paint until the house lights came up. And I wouldn’t have minded. As it stands the shot where the film’s villain is meant to be dispatched was missing, so he’s just gently edited out of the movie, a tragically fitting end to the final semi-completed work of America’s greatest director. If they never finish The Other Side of the Wind, then this will be the closest we get to Welles’ last finished film. Ridley is older now than Welles was when he died, and it’s nice to know he can still try new things, but it’s funny to think how innately cinematic Welles’ imagination stayed even as he kept having his projects forcefully aborted. Ridley has the luxury (not to mention the money, which eluded Welles for most of his working life) to keep experimenting. Orson wasn’t so lucky. But both are proof that you should never give up on artists just yet, even if they appear to reject your easy narratives. I’m rooting for the art of both of these men to continue to be discovered and funded because no matter who they were as people, their work has been with me all my life. 


DavidEhrenstein said...

Fascinating to read about "The Deep." The great Willy Kurant was the DP.

As for Ridley Scott it's clear to me now that the production designer was the auteur of "Blade Runner."

"Thelma and and Louise" and "Alien" are both excellent, the rest is pretty much dreck. "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" beat "The Martian" to the punch decades ago.

Scøut said...

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the better film by a walk. More imagination.