Fists of Fury (The Big Boss)

Fists of Fury AKA The Big Boss (1971)

Dir. Lo Wei

Written by: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee

Starring: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien

 

Bruce Lee’s first major film, The Big Boss (mistakenly released in America as Fists of Fury), is far from the best showcase of Lee’s star power and his physical prowess, but it does hint at some of the exciting things to come. The film was initially written as a vehicle for James Tien, but when a change in director was made, Lee was given the role of the main character, Cheng, and the film went on to become a massive success, turning Lee into the most famous martial artist in Asia. The Big Boss was the first step in relaunching Lee’s career in Hong Kong, as he had left America following the cancellation of the cult TV show Green Hornet, on which he played the sidekick, Cato. It was the first in a pair of films Lee would star in, and serve as the driving creative force behind, for upstart film studio Golden Harvest. Lee’s presence helped to give the new production studio credibility, while Golden Harvest offered Lee the creative control that he was unable to achieve while working in Hollywood. The Big Boss would be the worse of the two films that Lee would complete for Golden Harvest, but the partnership helped to break him into the Hong Kong cinema world in a big way. However, Lee’s earliest Hong Kong films only scratch the surface of the potential that he would later fulfill as an action star when given a proper budget and the opportunity to work with a more competent film crew.

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In the film, Lee plays Cheng Chao-an, who leaves mainland China to live with his cousin, Hsu Chien (Tien) in Thailand. Hsu Chien has secured Cheng a job working with the rest of his family at an ice factory, but when Cheng starts working at the factory, he realizes that the boss is using the ice blocks to smuggle drugs. Shortly after this discovery, Cheng’s cousins begin disappearing one by one, which leads Cheng and the rest of the workers at the factory to go on strike, demanding to know the whereabouts of Hsu Chien and the rest of their coworkers. When the boss’s thugs try to break up the strike, Cheng jumps into the fray to defend his friends, breaking a vow made to his mother before leaving China that he would not get into any fights or trouble in Thailand. In an effort to reconcile with his workers, the big boss makes Cheng the factory foreman, but this only leads to him getting closer to discovering the true nature of the factory’s business and putting him into direct conflict with the big boss and his cronies.

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The Big Boss isn’t a bad movie, but, as I alluded to, it definitely suffers from low production values and a lack of focus. It is obvious that the film had a somewhat fraught production. On-set injuries, poor shooting conditions, a revolving door of crew members, including the director, and, at times, disagreements between Lee and Wei on the vision of the film all added up to make the end result a bit of a mess. The film’s first half gets started much too slowly, with the focus primarily on Hsu Chien rather than Cheng, perhaps a holdover from the original intention for the film to be a vehicle to escalate Tien’s existing popularity in Hong Kong. Using the narrative excuse that Cheng promised his mother that he would avoid violence, Lee’s character is largely brushed to the side while Tien gets all of the fighting scenes. While Tien grabs the spotlight, Lee plays out a mildly incestuous and totally unnecessary romantic hero side plot with his only female cousin, Chiao Mei (Yi). When Cheng finally breaks his vow to his mother and Lee gets to showcase some of his fighting skills, it’s very obvious that he is a much better martial artist than Tien, and it’s hard for me to accept not having enjoyed the clinic that Lee puts on in the film’s second half for the full runtime.

Unfortunately, even when Lee is allowed to fully showcase his kung fu, his skills are undercut by the film’s persistently bad editing. During fight scenes, Lee is rarely shot in full shot, instead his movements are implied by a series of quick cuts from insert shots and close-ups. The shooting angles are often disorienting, and the camera movements lack any fluidity making many of the fights featuring Lee difficult to really follow and enjoy. I’m sure that most of the jarring cuts in the film’s fight scenes were efforts to hide the fact that during production Lee was shooting through both illness and injury, but that doesn’t make the lack of any coherent flow or rhythm to the fight scenes any less obtrusive. Add to this the fact that the beginning of the film hardly features Lee in an action role, and The Big Boss is rather disappointing as a martial arts film, on the whole. Lee and Wei would correct some of these mistakes and turn out a much more enjoyable and consistent effort with their next film, but The Big Boss still has the marks of a partnership that is being felt out, and a star persona that is just beginning to emerge.

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One of the factors contributing to my disappointment in rewatching The Big Boss might be the absolute terrible quality of the transfer on the DVD that I have in my collection. I can remember purchasing this DVD, which is essentially a decently-packaged bootleg from a foreign distributor, when I was about 19. Around that time, I started finding and purchasing very inexpensive copies of kung fu movies online, but the quality of the image and the presentation, in general, was highly variable. This movie is packaged as Fists of Fury, which was the incorrect title that The Big Boss was released under in America, hence its position here in the alphabetical list of my collection, and the disc contains no special features or booklet, just a poor quality copy of the official theatrical release cut of the film. It’s only audio track is the poorly dubbed English-language version, which I actually prefer for these types of old school kung fu movies, but it would be interesting to watch the film in its native language. I understand that by now there have been several remastered official home video releases of The Big Boss and Lee’s other Hong Kong films, so I would be interested to check out a better looking copy of the movie and see if it changes my opinion of it at all.

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I don’t mean to paint The Big Boss in too negative a light, because it is still a pretty fun kung fu movie in its own right. Despite its shortcomings, fans of the genre will absolutely find plenty to enjoy about the movie. It checks off all of the correct campy boxes, features a few fun fights, and, obviously, it’s still a Bruce Lee movie. Lee’s relatively small body of major work remains the gold standard in martial arts films for many people, and it would be hard to argue with that sentiment. Lee was the perfect combination of skill, athleticism, and charisma to break martial arts into the mainstream in the West, and the building blocks of his style are on display here. One thing that I did think about when I was watching The Big Boss was how remarkable Lee’s progression as an actor and star was from this first feature to his later films, Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. There are less than two years separating the Hong Kong release of The Big Boss and Lee’s untimely death, and to think that his career had progressed so quickly and positively in that time is incredible to me, especially having recently watched Enter the Dragon for this project. It’s hard to predict where Lee’s career would have gone after the success of that film, but his rise to fame started with The Big Boss, and even if it doesn’t feature Lee at the height of his powers, it’s worth at least a watch.

A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Dir. Sergio Leone

Written by: Victor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas, Sergio Leone

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volantè, José Calvo

 

Often credited with being the first Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in Sergio Leone’s seminal “Dollars Trilogy,” is undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of that mode of Western, and one of the best of the early period of these Italian-made takes on the Western. Leone’s film isn’t without precedent, but his partnership with Clint Eastwood became the blueprint for European Westerns, and was the first to make a splash in the American market, solidifying the viability of these cultural imports and sparking a torrent of imitators of varying quality. Adapted as it was from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars also points to the cultural universality of these tales, and the malleability of the Western genre to fit into various settings and cultural motifs. Leone’s and Eastwood’s epic final collaboration, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, was my first experience with the Spaghetti Western, and I quickly sought out the first two chapters in the trilogy. A Fistful of Dollars lacks the budget and flair that Leone’s later films would come to embody, but plenty of the director’s trademarks are on display here, and the film obviously points to further great work to come. Maybe A Fistful of Dollars falls short of the masterpiece designation that I have readily given to Leone’s later work, but it’s a great film in its own right, and likely more cinematically important than any other Western of the 1960s.

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In A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone filters the influence of the great American Western auteurs John Ford and Howard Hawks, throws in a dash of world cinema influence, bakes it all under the Spanish sun and adds a transgressive, violent flair, resulting in a Western movie that would set the paradigm for a new form of the genre. The film opens with a lone rider, Joe (Eastwood), arriving in the town of San Miguel. Upon his arrival, Joe meets Silvanito (Calvo), the town saloonkeeper who tells him that San Miguel is controlled by two feuding gangs, the Rojos, a family of outlaws, and the Baxters, headed by Sherriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). Though Silvanito warns the stranger that he should leave town, Joe sees an opportunity to fortuitously position himself by playing both sides of the fence in the feud between the Rojos and the Baxters, and begins to clandestinely sell information to both sides. Though his motives seem to be purely financial, Joe meets a woman, Marisol (Koch), who is being held prisoner by Ramon Rojo (Volantè), and he tries to help her. He frees Marisol and gives her and her family the money that he has gotten from the Baxters and Rojos, and tries to make it appear that it is the Baxters who have freed her. When Ramon realizes that it was Joe who freed Marisol, he captures and tortures him, and in the meantime, the Rojos murder the entire Baxter family, who they believe are protecting Joe. Joe escapes the Rojo compound and is smuggled out of town in a coffin by the undertaker, Piripero (Joseph Egger). With the Rojos searching high and low for Joe, the stranger takes time to convalesce and plan in a cave on the outskirts of San Miguel, but when he finds out that Silvanito has been captured by the Rojos, he must return to town to face off against the gang and save his friend.

I don’t know that I could narrow my list of favorite filmmakers down to something like a personal Mt. Rushmore, where I chose even half a dozen of my favorites to be immortalized, but I do know that Sergio Leone would have a place on that monument, almost regardless of its size limitations. Besides David Lynch, Leone has been one of the most constant presences in my life as a cinephile. Despite his relatively scant feature output, Leone’s work has had a seismic impact on my taste in and appreciation of film. From the first time I was introduced to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when I was 17 until earlier this year when I finally got around to watching and writing about Leone’s final Western, Duck You Sucker, I have been enamored with his parched, fly-bitten, primal vision of the American West. I discovered Leone, at least partially, through my teenaged obsession with Quentin Tarantino. The former video store clerk famously wore his cinematic influences on his sleeve, liberally “borrowing” from his favorite filmmakers, and championing B-movies, pulp cinema, and foreign films along the way. I discovered a lot of movies and filmmakers this way, but Leone was the one who stuck with me. I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly independently, but after having seen the second half of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and the way that that film aped the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, I started seeking out the rest of Leone’s movies.

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A Fistful of Dollars was the next Spaghetti Western that I encountered, and I have to admit that the first time I watched the movie I was a little bit disappointed. When compared to Leone’s epic later work, his debut seems slight. In hindsight, of course, I can recognize the importance of the film, both in terms of propelling the Western genre forward in a different direction, and in launching the career of an immensely important and visionary filmmaker. All of Leone’s soon-to-be familiar directorial tropes are on display in A Fistful of Dollars. This fully formed vision is likely a result of a career working as an assistant director in the Italian film industry that stretched back to the 1940s, providing Leone with the technical chops and industry know-how to deliver unique, artful feature films from the outset. A Fistful of Dollars, with its minimalist dialogue, heavy reliance on extreme close-ups, whiplash editing, and heretofore unseen violence, became the blueprint not just for Leone’s continued work, but for a new vision of the Western, in general. Shortly after the film’s release, European filmmakers across the continent, but particularly in Italy, were attempting to recreate the film’s aesthetic and mood, in hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle, to varying success.

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While some of these copy-cat Westerns are interesting in their own right, most are forgettable, at best, and unwatchable, at worst. Most of the studio directors working in the genre in Italy lacked Leone’s singular vision and visual flair, but what they all lacked was the undeniable star power and screen presence of a young Clint Eastwood. Eastwood wasn’t Leone’s first choice to play Joe in A Fistful of Dollars, but it’s impossible to imagine the film and its sequels without Eastwood as the lead. Though he is explicitly named (differently) in each of these films, Eastwood’s character(s) in Leone’s Westerns has frequently come to be referred to as “The Man With No Name,” perhaps because of Eastwood’s tight-lipped, minimalist performances in the films. His iconic performances in these films set the standard for a new type of cowboy, emerging from the shadow of straight-laced, moralistic defenders of virtue embodied by Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and, of course, John Wayne. Eastwood’s Joe is a quiet, cold, and efficient instrument of violence. His line delivery in the film is clipped, and the dialogue is terse, giving the impression that Joe has little regard for other people, or for human life, barely deigning to open his mouth when he communicates, even with those he seems to like. Eastwood’s Joe isn’t a nihilist, however, as he obviously shows care for Marisol, even hinting that he has a past when he remarks that he is helping her because he “knew someone like [her] once and there was no one there to help.” These brief glimpses of emotionality give the character an unexpected depth, as does the natural humor that Eastwood imbues Joe with. Throughout the film, he makes wry, offhanded retorts and observations, but the humor never feels shoehorned, despite its existence in the brutal universe of Leone’s West. This multifaceted performance as a complex anti-hero turned Eastwood into a bona fide star, and helped to raise A Fistful of Dollars head and shoulders above its imitators.

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Another major factor in the success of A Fistful of Dollars is its source material, with the film being an adaptation of Yojimbo. Though Leone denied that Yojimbo is the sole inspiration for his film, and quite obviously it is not, there is no denying that that film is at least the primary influence at work here. The two films share a symbiotic kind of bond, with Yojimbo retroactively being thought of as a Western, due to its influence on A Fistful of Dollars, and examination of Kurosawa’s samurai films reveals the obvious influence of the American Western. One of the things that I like so much about A Fistful of Dollars is that it is a great example of the cultural cross pollination that cinema can provide. The movie is a Western directed by an Italian, shot in Spain with a cast of Spanish and German actors, starring a barely-known American television actor, adapted from a traditional Japanese samurai film, which was, in turn, influenced by American pulp novels and Westerns. The 1950s and, particularly, 1960s became a boom period for international cinema as film industries in Europe began to rebuild after the devastation of World War II, and the arthouse movement in America began to open up American eyes to movies from around the world that differed significantly from the stories being produced by the recently-abandoned Hollywood studio system. Though it was dismissed as campy and schlocky, nihilistic and excessively violent, by critics upon its American release, A Fistful of Dollars was a major hit with audiences, and it has come to be seen as an important film, aesthetically and culturally, in the broader conversation of the history of world cinema. The cinematic interconnections made here, and throughout Leone’s body of work, indicate the kind of cultural universality that makes great cinematic texts so valuable and so relatable across cultures. A great movie is a great movie, regardless of its language or its visual and cultural aesthetic, and the kinds of pleasures that people take in the visual telling of a great tale are universal.

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As I’ve alluded to, Leone would go on to make bigger, better Westerns and movies that I enjoy more than this one, but without A Fistful of Dollars none of those films would likely exist. A Fistful of Dollars changed the landscape of the Western genre, with the once-quintessential American film being reimagined by an outsider. Leone embraced many of the traditions of the classic American Western, but rejected those parts of the genre that he saw as fallacies, replacing them with a more real, more raw, more savage West, peopled by men of dubious character and duplicitous motivation and painted with buckets of bright red blood. This gritty realism would come to inform the revisionist Westerns of the later 20th century, as well as the hardcore action films of the 1970s. There’s no understating the importance of this movie on the Western genre, helping as it did to revitalize a form that had probably gotten too mired in its own tropes and pretenses by the end of the 1950s. Without this movie we might not get The Wild Bunch, and certainly wouldn’t get Unforgiven, but we also might never get movies like Pulp Fiction or Taxi Driver whose creators were sparked by the unique vision of Sergio Leone. I’ll always prefer The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for its maximalist impact, and because it was my first foray into the world of a filmmaker whose entire body of work I celebrate, but when I don’t have three hours to truly immerse myself in that epic, A Fistful of Dollars is a perfectly fine substitute. While the later film expands upon all of the best tropes of the Spaghetti Western, Leone’s debut establishes them, concentrating them down into their most essential qualities, and providing a blueprint for the rest of the genre to come.

 

 

Fight Club

Fight Club (1999)

Dir. David Fincher

Written by: Jim Uhls (from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)

Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter

 

Over the years, media collections have always served as markers of an individual’s personal tastes. An album collection, a bookshelf, or a list of favorite movies can be a representation of one’s personality and interests that they can cultivate and put on display for the world to see, a Rosetta stone to unlock the mystery of someone’s cultural affinities. The media that we choose to collect and value can make an important statement about our personal identities. While much of my collection is probably a testament to my overall movie snobbery, there are certain movies in it that are so culturally universal and so definitive of a time and a place in American cinematic cultural history that they fail to reveal much about my actual personal tastes. Just like “Rubber Soul” or “Four Way Street” in my mother’s album collection, there are simply certain movies that it seems like everyone who was alive and consuming mass culture during a certain time can agree upon, and seems to have a copy of floating around in their collection somewhere. Fight Club is one of these universal movies for people, such as myself, who came of age in the late 1990s.

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Despite being only a modest box office success, Fight Club is the movie that helped put both David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk on the cultural map in a big way. Fincher already had a few features under his belt, including his helming of a major misstep in the Alien franchise, and his redemptive efforts in directing the cult hits The Game and Se7en. Palahniuk became a household name after the film adaptation of his first novel became a cult hit and a cultural touchstone. Fight Club’s story of disaffected, displaced masculinity, embodied by the Narrator (Norton), came to resonate with a generation of young men who identified with the film’s anti-corporate message and with its ultraviolent content. The film sees the Narrator leave a comfortable white collar job after a chance meeting with Tyler Durden (Pitt), a misanthrope and social provocateur who comes up with the idea for a secret club that can help men struggling with a perceived loss of agency in the face of societal change. Tyler and the narrator found Fight Club, a secret underground fighting league in which men can vent the frustrations of existing in a post-Industrialist, post-Feminist world through brutal fist fights. The fights help these aimless men feel alive and vital, giving them a sense of belonging and purpose, and Fight Club begins to spread across the country, with its adherents praising Tyler like a cult leader. Eventually, Fight Club begins to change into a more organized and militant force, Project Mayhem, as Tyler’s devotees begin to engage in more bombastic, socially motivated acts of vandalism and anti-corporate mischief. The Narrator starts to worry that Project Mayhem has gotten out of control, but there doesn’t seem to be much he can do to stop the momentum that Tyler has built in creating an army.

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I can remember watching Fight Club for the first time with one of my best friends when we were sophomores in high school, a year or two after it had been out in theaters. We watched the movie on VHS and I was taken in by its highly stylized visuals and its hip, sardonic take on modern workplace culture. I clung to Tyler Durden’s sloganeering in the film, taking phrases like “How can you know anything about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight,” and “You are not your fucking khakis,” to heart and starting to turn them into the building blocks of my nascent teenaged personality. I found Fight Club’s anti-corporate, anarchic sensibilities to be mature and enlightened viewpoints, and the film’s overall theme of rejecting societal expectations in favor of a return to a primal sort of self-exploration truly resonated with my developing worldview. Eventually, I bought the movie on DVD, and I became totally obsessed with it. I watched it over and over again, listening to various commentary tracks, watching deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes vignettes. Even though I already knew the outcome of Fight Club’s famous twist ending, I didn’t care, and I reaped just as much enjoyment from my tenth viewing of the film as I had from that first time watching it. Fight Club was exactly the sort of smart, stylish, edgy movie that boosted my credentials as a fan of ”important” movies, and when I moved to Pittsburgh for college, I chose to display my tastes for the world to see by purchasing a Fight Club poster and tacking it to the wall of my first dorm room.

It’s easy to see why Fight Club became such a hit with a generation of movie watchers. The movie is perfect for the DVD era, with its dense and twisting narrative rewarding repeat views. Its cutting edge visuals, for the time, were eye-popping in the relative high fidelity that DVD offered, and lent themselves well to the types of supplemental material that were popular on the prestige DVD releases of the early 21st century. These qualities, and the increasing affordability of collecting DVDs, led to Fight Club’s ubiquity in millennials’ movie collections and helped turn a box office disappointment into a run-away cult success that has garnered praise as one of the best films of its period. Though it tells the story of disaffected members of Generation X, who came of age in a rapidly changing world where the workplace success and stable domestic life that seemed to be enjoyed by their predecessors was rapidly eroding, Fight Club’s sloganeering and paint-by-numbers approach to societal discord and extreme civil disobedience made it a perfect movie to be adopted by the next generation of young people who were actually coming of age upon the film’s release. These teens and preteens took the movie’s simplistic politics to heart and many started to form an identity based around the primal, uber-macho points of view that are embraced in Fight Club. Just like the members of Project Mayhem who mindlessly parrot Tyler’s screeds and credos back to him and to each other, Fight Club’s fans were having the film’s messages drilled into their heads through repetitious viewing at home.

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Of course, Fight Club is a work of satire and its politics and social commentary should be taken with a grain of salt. I recognized the film as such, and while I never espoused the macho posturing in the film, I was taken in by many of its more pointed social critiques, particularly its examination of the inability of the modern American worker to exist as anything other than an undifferentiated cog in a heartless, brutal corporate machine. I took to heart Tyler Durden’s warning that “the things we own end up owning us,” and tried to eschew materialist or corporatist urges, but I didn’t need a movie to tell me that big businesses and corporations were bad for individuals, and that working people are endlessly exploited by a profit-hungry system of Capitalism that values them only for their productive capacity and not for their creative or humanistic qualities. Watching a movie like Fight Club helped to crystallize some of my beliefs, but as I got older, I started to see the fallacy in living your life by movie quotes or by letting a piece of pop culture become a guiding or defining part of your life and personality. I still enjoyed Fight Club as a movie, but eventually the poster came off of my wall, and my viewings of the film became fewer and more far between. Changing tastes and a broadening world view shifted my interests towards more intellectually rigorous and nuanced films, but Fight Club still existed in the background of my cinematic excursions, an old favorite waiting to be rediscovered in a new light, or simply to be returned to as a form of filmic comfort food.

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While I have watched Fight Club a handful of times since it ceased to be a very important movie to me in my late teens and early twenties, I think that watching it for this project must have been my first time really sitting down and engaging with the movie in a deep and relevant way in close to a decade. The experience didn’t disappoint, and, if anything, I found Fight Club to perhaps be more relevant today than it was when I first saw it almost twenty years ago. Watching a movie that attempts to explore the fragility of modern, white-collar, White American masculinity in the age of the Me Too movement and the resultant backlash from so-called “Men’s Rights” advocates was an interesting experience, to say the least. It was difficult for me to watch Fight Club without coming to the realization that perhaps this ubiquitous movie could be, at least partially, to blame for a subset of the male population in my age group who seem bent on creating grievances and blaming the world, and particularly women, for their own shortcomings or disappointments in life. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these Men’s Rights types held Fight Club in high esteem, while certainly missing the movie’s satirical critique of the macho culture that it depicts. Tyler Durden, and the club that he creates, are responses to the perceived marginalization of the White American male, in the face of increased visibilities and opportunities for women, people of color, and other traditionally marginalized groups. In the film, the formation of a heterosocial group, in which physical assault is the only outlet for these men to feel alive or to come into contact with their own conflicted, and conflicting, emotional centers, is celebrated as a return to some sort of male primacy. However, as the film shows, embracing that vicious, violent form of machismo has deadly consequences for many of the characters, and leads to a series of counterproductive and empty revolutionary gestures. Fight Club should be read as a cautionary tale for men against letting too much of the Id control our behaviors, but instead I think that there is a large portion of the movie’s fandom that sees it as a primer and a call to arms against societal strictures that are “emasculating” a generation of men.

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I guess the question that I was left with after rewatching Fight Club and thinking about the movie in the context of its potential role in creating, or at the very least reaffirming the beliefs of, a group of vile, hateful men, was whether or not the film’s positive qualities outweigh the connection that I’ve now made between the movie and a real world ethos that I find incompatible with my own point of view. In the end, I think that I still enjoy Fight Club. Although I’ve found Palahniuk to be something of a provocateur in his own right, I find it hard to believe that either he or Fincher would support the reading of this text that I’m imagining some fans clinging to. Perhaps because the film isn’t ostensibly branded as a comedy, its satirical point of view is easier to lose, but I think that most viewers will very easily realize that Tyler is the film’s antagonist, rather than an idol to be worshipped. As a movie, Fight Club still holds up visually in spite of two decades of technical progression since its release. The film’s gritty, grimy visual aesthetic is perfect, and finds Fincher expanding on the visual aesthetic of his earlier films to incorporate limited CGI, and employing some flashier camera work and editing than he had previously in his feature films. Its twisting, non-linear narrative is still a joy to unpack, and the film’s pacing is spot on, with its lengthy runtime seeming to fly by. Fight Club is a movie that is indelibly of its time, both in terms of its larger context and its role in my own personal development as a film viewer, but like other great movies it remains culturally and cinematically relevant. Great art should be a mirror for the society that produces it, and Fight Club uses its violent, satirical narrative to great critical effect, but there’s often no accounting for the ways that an audience will warp and distort that reflection based on their own prejudices and predilections.

Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana (1971)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

 

I think that Fata Morgana has to be one of the most unique films that I’ve screened thus far for this project. I don’t have a great deal of experience in writing about documentary or non-narrative experimental films, both in this project, and in general, so it should be an interesting process trying to find the verbiage to record my thoughts on what was a truly different film viewing experience. Fata Morgana has its predecessors, particularly in experimental science-fiction films like La Jetee, and I can certainly see the influence that this film has had on a generation of experimental filmmakers, but I don’t know that I have ever seen a movie that was quite like Fata Morgana. Leave it to an outsider and a visionary like Werner Herzog to have created a film that is unlike any other, and to have done it so early in his career. Fata Morgana is at once weird, beautiful, esoteric, and hypnotic.

Herzog and a small crew shot Fata Morgana in the Sahara Desert in the late 1960s without any real plan for how to edit the footage together or how it would be assembled into a coherent narrative. “Fata morgana” refers to the unusual instances of faint mirages that pop up above the horizon line in deserts and on the ocean, and in the film, Herzog captures several of these in slow tracking shots that take in the barren desert landscape. The film also includes some brief interludes with human subjects, but the bulk of its visuals are landscapes. Early in the film, Herzog sets these stunningly beautiful images to a voiceover narration by German critic Lotte Eisner reading a version of a Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, which Herzog has adapted. Later he introduces the music of Leonard Cohen, giving the images a more grounded feeling, while the creation myth used in the film’s first half elevates the images to a more ethereal significance.

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On its surface, Fata Morgana is a very simple film, consisting simply of placid images and sporadic bits of voiceover. However, as you watch the film, the images start to add up to a more complex narrative, giving each other context and significance. Herzog had initially envisioned the film as a science-fiction film about a dying planet, and it’s easy to see how that could have been accomplished. The depopulated landscapes of the Sahara that Herzog and his camera operator, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, film certainly feel cold and alien. The way the mirages that they capture flicker at the horizon line, it’s easy to get the sense that there is some great secret, or a hidden civilization, existing just outside the frame. Herzog shows us rotting animal corpses and the rusting wreckage of aircraft, furthering the impression that we are observing the death of a once-great civilization. Eisner’s narration, however, provides counterpoint to the barrenness of the images, giving the impression that if these are the ruins of a long-dead civilization, they are destined to be the site of a blossoming of the next society. Her recitation of the Popul Vuh gives the mirages a hopeful, if somewhat portentious, feeling.

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As the film progresses, a more explicit narrative starts to emerge as the nature of Herzog’s images changes and he abandons the creation myth in favor of the soft music of Leonard Cohen. My mind couldn’t help but drift to thoughts of colonization and the exploitation of the African continent for centuries when the images began to shift away from an exploration of the natural world of the Sahara and towards a more industrial, urban landscape. Midway through the film, Schmidt-Reitwein’s camera begins to focus more intently on construction sites and the frames of buildings, the skeletons of heavy industry. Flickering mirages give way eventually to the ghosts of Europe’s colonial influence on the continent. Herzog interviews a German scientist holding a monitor lizard, who talks about the unique ecosystem of the desert, and its importance for his studies of the lizards. I felt like his attitude towards Africa as a strange, exotic place, useful only for his scholarly pursuits was quite pejorative, and it indicates a new, less obvious form of paternalism and colonialism. Though anti-colonialist sentiments aren’t made explicit in any way in the film, I have to think that revolution and colonialism were on Herzog’s mind as he made Fata Morgana, as it was partially shot in Cameroon during that country’s war for independence.

Of course, by their very nature, movies like Fata Morgana are wide open for various interpretations. The film was one of the first popular psychedelic experimental films, and I have to think that experiencing it on psychedelics would only enhance the film’s multitude of possible interpretations. The images in the film are hallucinatory and mesmerizing, with the same framings or locations often being repeated with slight variations, furthering their dreamlike nature. Divorced from explicit context or explanation, the images invite the audience to provide their own narratives, spinning them out into collective dreams. While Herzog undoubtedly had an idea in his head about the meaning of the film that he had carefully constructed, he left so much room for interpretation that, like the mirages it depicts, Fata Morgana can appear to be many different things to many different people. It’s a movie that I would be very interested in seeing in a crowded theater, because I think that the reactions to it would be varied and passionate. I think that most people would either dismiss the movie as weird and esoteric, or they would strongly identify with it, having pasted their own experiences and viewpoints onto its beautiful landscapes, imbuing it with a highly personal meaning.

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Though Herzog continues to work prolifically in documentary and his filmography is peppered with instances of formal and narrative experimentation, Fata Morgana is certainly the most explicitly experimental Herzog film that I have ever seen. The film is a product of its montage, with the images being stripped of their context, and therefore being opened up to interpretation and the influence of the viewer’s mind and experience. The fata morgana depicted in the film also become tabula rasa. The film invites intent and engaged viewership, but also offers a sort of hypnotic, sedative quality, as the images and the narration and, eventually, music, wash over the viewer. This is a thinking person’s stoner film, and one that will definitely stick around in your consciousness for a little while after a screening. This is one of my shorter posts about a movie in a while, but not because Fata Morgana isn’t worthy of deep discussion and consideration, both as a formative feature-length experimental film, and within Herzog’s filmography, but because I don’t feel that I really have an adequate vocabulary to really describe the film’s uniqueness. It’s a movie that deserves to be more watched, particularly by people who are fans of midnight movies like Koyaanisqatsi and Body Song. It’s a cinematic trip well worth taking, and one that will likely open up your mind to new ways of engaging with cinema as art.

Fargo

Fargo (1996)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

 

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a Coen Brothers movie for this project, and getting to another one feels a bit like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Certainly not because the quality of the films that I’ve been watching and writing about since I wrote about The Big Lebowski has been lacking, but because there is something comforting to me about immersing myself in the offbeat world in which these sibling auteurs choose to set their films. From an early age, I can remember the movies of the Coen Brothers being a background figure in my upbringing. Both of my parents had loved Raising Arizona and would regularly reference and quote the movie when I was young, though I don’t remember actually watching that movie until I was a little older. Instead, like many, Fargo was my introduction to the Coen Brothers. My parents rented the video when I was about 11, and I was allowed to stay up and watch the movie with them on a weekend night. I thought the Midwestern accents in the movie were hysterical, and even though I didn’t really understand it at the time, I sensed a darkness and a weirdness that existed on the fringes. Over the years, the movie would become an absolute favorite, and I would return to it time and time again. Fargo is still a favorite, and I think the older I get, the more I appreciate the film’s tale of small-time grift and murder born out of desperation, and its black sense of humor.

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Fargo begins with Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), a sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership who has gotten in over his head in a bad financing scheme, meeting with Gaer Grimsrud (Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Buscemi) at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota. Jerry has hatched a plan to hire Gaer and Carl to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), and then extort a ransom out of his wealthy father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell). He plans to tell Wade that the ransom is $1,000,000, of which he will pay Carl and Gaer $80,000 and keep the rest to cover his debts and give him seed money for a new investment. Though Jerry begins to have second thoughts, the kidnapping takes place, and while the kidnappers are transporting Jean to their hideout to await the ransom, they are stopped by a state trooper. Gaer kills the state trooper, and later kills two witnesses who see him and Carl trying to hide the trooper’s body. The sloppy triple homicide obviously alerts the attention of the local police department, and Chief Margie Gunderson (McDormand) of Brainerd, Minnesota, takes the case. Margie’s initial investigation leads her to the discovery that the murdered trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates, which eventually leads her investigation all the way to Jerry’s dealership in Minneapolis. What was supposed to be a simple staged kidnapping has spawned multiple homicides, and Jerry and Carl struggle to keep the lid on their scheme while Margie comes closer and closer to uncovering the truth and the connection between Jean’s kidnapping and the subsequent murders.

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As I mentioned, Fargo is a movie that I grew up with, and in many ways, grew into. I think that it’s a perfect movie to introduce someone to the Coen Brothers, especially if they’re young. There are a couple of brief sex scenes, and a few instances of pretty graphic violence, but depending on a kid’s maturity level, there shouldn’t be anything too objectionable in Fargo, and even though it’s a darkly themed film, its sinister core is coated in a quirky, quaint veneer. When I was young, the overstated Midwestern accents and mannerisms of the characters were all I really picked up on in the film, but they stuck with me, making me want to rewatch the movie where they talked about the Golden Gophers and said, “Oh, you betcha!” There was something about the specificity of the movie that spoke to me, and, as I’ve written previously, the Coens are masters at nailing the specific feeling of a time or a place. Each of their films, though often set in wildly disparate universes, feels genuinely rooted in this sense of time and place, and Fargo is no exception. From the film’s outset, with its opening shots of Jerry Lundegaard driving across the snow-swept tundra of North Dakota in a stolen car to meet up with the men he will hire to kidnap his wife, there is no mistaking the setting for anywhere but the upper Midwest. When I was young, I latched onto this aesthetic. I know I didn’t see it more than once or twice on television in the intervening years between first seeing it when it was new and purchasing the movie on DVD several years later as a teenager, but I can distinctly remember being enamored with the hermetically sealed, snow globe world of Fargo.

When I got older, I went back to Fargo and I was surprised at the depth of the movie that I mostly remembered for its cartoonish depictions of Minnesota niceties and the coldness of its mise-en-scene. I found that the coldness of its setting was reflective of the cold brutality with which the characters treat one another in the movie. I had understood the movie’s plot when I was younger, of course, but I don’t think that I had quite picked up on the callousness behind much of it. When I initially watched the film, I think I viewed Jean’s kidnapping as a farcical flawed caper, rather than the horrifying act of desperation that it really is. Being young, I didn’t really understand the deep, adult nature of Jerry’s selfish desperation, or his willingness to sacrifice everything in a misguided effort to rectify his earlier financial blunders. William H. Macy would make his name playing these types of characters, down on their luck losers who emit a palpable air of sadness and shame, but Jerry Lundegaard still stands out as one of his best performances. Macy’s hangdog expression and “aw shucks,” line delivery are perfect here, as is the nervous energy that he plays Jerry with. It’s a backhanded compliment to say that Macy might be the best actor in Hollywood at playing a weasel, but he nails that quality of Jerry perfectly. Until he made the fateful decision to hire men to kidnap his wife, Jerry was simply a parasitic, small man, desperate for a little success and recognition, who got in a little over his head and made poor decisions. Unfortunately, as a result of those decisions, bodies start piling up like snow in January.

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Another major thing that I never picked up on in Fargo is the film’s moments of immense strangeness. When I returned to the movie in my late teens, I noticed a distinct, almost Lynchian, undertone of surreality throughout the film. This plays out most regularly in the odd, clipped manner of conversation that the Coens employ often. Several times characters engage in brief conversations that seem to begin or end abruptly, or interject phrases that seem oddly out of place. When Margie is interviewing the two call girls who slept with Carl and Gaer, one of the women blurts out her high school and gives a small cheer when Margie asks her where she’s from. It’s a funny line that could easily be chalked up to the film’s specificity and the cultural pride of the Midwest, but it’s also a moment of dark absurdity. The interjection has no place in a murder investigation, and it marks a moment of darkness bubbling up from underneath the tranquil surface of small town Middle American normalcy.

Another moment in the film that has come to strike me as incredibly odd is Margie’s dinner with her former classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). They meet for lunch in Minneapolis while Margie is in town working her case, and before they’ve even had a chance to eat their meal, Mike breaks down, confessing that he’s always loved Margie and that his wife has recently died of leukemia. Only later does she find out that Mike’s wife was not dead, and in fact was never his wife, instead Mike had stalked their former classmate. Margie reflects on this information, as she had clearly pitied Mike during his breakdown, and the audience is also forced to view Mike’s previous pathetic desperation as a sinister attempt at manipulation. The interactions have always struck me as affected, and the nature of the revelation of Mike’s stalking and lying has always felt a bit out of place in the film. The scene is largely tangential to the rest of the plot, but it serves to reinforce the premise that there is a sinister sort of perversity underlying some of the character’s seemingly upstanding nature. I suppose that I connect these moments of ancillary strangeness with Lynch because I think that he explores very similar themes in Blue Velvet. Just like he explores the darkness underlying small town America in that film, in Fargo, the Coens explore the neuroses and sinister urges that can propel even the most normal seeming people.

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Of course, there is one character in the film who seems to be truly guided by noble principles, and that is Chief Margie Gusterson. Frances McDormand won an Academy Award for her performance as the pregnant police chief, and I think that this role still stands out as her signature role among a deep body of work. I’ve written before that McDormand is one of my favorite working actors, and my affinity for her work began with seeing Fargo for the first time. McDormand is the source of much of the film’s humor, playing Margie with a natural sense of bemusement that helps the audience identify with her as a character. However she also gets to be strong and tough, giving Margie an innate knack for police work and investigation, while the other cops in the movie are shown to be bumbling and inadequate. More than anything, though, McDormand imbues Margie with a sense of goodness that shines through in spite of the ugly circumstances that the character finds herself in. This basic decency and goodness makes Margie a great foil for the sleazy and selfish characters, such as Carl and Jerry, who people Fargo. Her performance is the light at the end of a tunnel, a reassurance of the basic decency that drives most people.

The rest of the film’s performances are top notch, as well. The film’s characters are often paired against one another, and the casting is spot on. Harve Presnell is an apt foil for Macy’s Jerry. Where Jerry is timid and soft-spoken, Wade is bold and bellicose, and successful, to boot. Presnell is a perfect angry old man, and he delivers some great, memorable lines when he’s criticizing Jean and Jerry’s parenting. Buscemi and Stormare form a perfect pair, with Buscemi’s garrulous, frenzied acting style providing a complement for Stormare’s laconic, stoic delivery. The Coens also perfectly pit these characters against one another, utilizing Stormare’s physicality to turn Gaer into a classicly hulking villain, while Carl’s impatience and irritability come out in Buscemi’s characteristic verbal patter and his jittery screen presence. Both actors get their moments of comedy as well, with Stormare employing expert timing and a wry sense of humor to deliver blasé punch lines, while Buscemi adopts a more physical, frenzied comedy that plays like a very dark slapstick. John Lynch turns in an understated supporting performance as Norm, Margie’s devoted, loving husband. He and McDormand share several moments of genuine tenderness, and their relationship, and glowing anticipation of their unborn child, give the film its emotional heart. The two actors share an easy chemistry, helping to ground the otherwise chaotic, spiraling narrative of the film. It’s fitting that the film ends on a bedroom conversation between Norm and Margie, as it feels like their love is the good thing that is worth saving from the avaricious ambitions of Jerry, Carl, and Gaer.

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I’m sure it’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of Fargo. It’s been one of the most consistent movies in my life, and I still return to it every couple of years, or so. One of the things that I’ve learned from working on this project is that any attempt to rank or order favorite movies, particularly within the body of work of my favorite filmmakers, isn’t really an exercise that I’m interested in. I’ve hung onto these movies, for the most part, because on any given day they could find themselves mentioned among my favorites of all time. Some, like Fargo, would find themselves in that discussion with more credence and more regularity than others. It’s accepted as a masterpiece, and I think many people would rank it as the Coen Brothers’ best film, which I wouldn’t have much quibble with. The movie’s reputation as a classic is well-earned, given the strength of its performances, its perfect balance of humor and suspenseful intrigue, and its iconic and memorable visual imagery. I know that many of the movies that I champion on this site are often somewhat esoteric, but Fargo is honestly a movie with something for everyone. It can be appreciated on many different levels, and it satisfies so many different things that I would want out of a go-to comfort movie. I can put it on in the background when I’m doing chores around the house, or I can sit down and watch it intently, appreciating its perfectly crafted script, and Roger Deakins’s coldly beautiful cinematography. It’s a movie that even though I’ve seen it over a dozen times, I never tire of going back for a repeat viewing. Chances are if you can’t find something to love about Fargo, you don’t really like movies at all.

 

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead (1981)

Dir. Sam Raimi

Written by: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker

 

From the age of 15 until I was about 20, I was totally obsessed with horror movies. I collected all of the modern classics, from Nightmare on Elm Street to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dawn of the Dead, I loved all kinds of different varieties of horror from the 1970s and 1980s. I started to get out of the genre during the early 2000s when theaters started filling up with half-boiled remakes of classic horror films and ham-fisted adaptations of Japanese ghost stories. Eventually, I even parted ways with many of the horror discs in my collection, losing them or allowing them to get mixed in with the collections of various different roommates in college. I just wasn’t watching scary movies much anymore, and even though I still liked to see the occasional horror movie, there were very few that I felt were worth regular revisits. Of course, there are a handful of horror movies that I haven’t ever been able to let go of, and The Evil Dead ranks highly on that list. It’s an influential classic in the genre and it played an important role in my youthful desire to be a filmmaker, with its low budget, DIY aesthetic encouraging me to try my hand at making my own movies.

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The Evil Dead finds Ash (Campbell), and his group of college friends setting off for a camping weekend at a secluded cabin in rural Tennessee. Their journey to the cabin is beset by portentous omens of the danger that they are walking into, but the real terror occurs when they arrive at the cabin and discover a curious book and a recording left by the cabin’s previous occupant, an archaeologist. The book, which is bound in human flesh, is revealed to be the Sumerian Book of the Dead, containing incantations and funeral rites, some of which have been recorded to the tape. When Ash and his friends play the tape, the recited incantations awaken an ancient evil in the forest. Though they are all disturbed by the tapes, the group tries to settle down for the night, but their restfulness is interrupted when Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Sandweiss), is possessed by a demonic entity from the woods, forcing the rest of the group to lock her up in the cellar. One by one, the rest of Ash’s friends begin to turn, and he is forced to fight them off, dismembering and disemboweling them in an increasingly gruesome fashion. Ash is finally able to destroy the Book of the Dead, which causes Cheryl and his friend Scott (Hal Delrich), both under the influence of the demons, to spontaneously decompose into piles of gore and viscera, but as Ash finds out when he limps out of the cabin to greet the rising Sun, the supernatural danger is far from over.

It would be tough to overestimate the impact seeing a movie like The Evil Dead had on me as a young teen. It was more raw, grittier than most of the horror movies I was used to seeing, even the slasher movies that I really liked. The low budget style and the tiny cast started gears turning in my head in the same way that they did when I first saw Clerks. It dawned on me that this was a popular movie, a classic even, and it had been made by a group of amateurs. I knew Bruce Campbell already, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already been introduced to Sam Raimi, as he had since graduated to bigger, more mainstream projects, including Spiderman, but seeing their origins as filmmakers was really inspiring to me. While Clerks taught me that movies don’t have to be big and flashy to make an impact, watching The Evil Dead taught me that you can make a truly effective horror movie on a shoestring budget with just a dedicated crew, a little ingenuity, and a lot of Karo syrup and food coloring to make fake blood. The effects in the movie certainly look dated now, but for a young person whose mind was already open to the possibilities of independent cinema, they were ingenious. Though I rarely ever put any of the knowledge into practice, I started reading up on DIY practical effects while I was in high school, hoping to have the opportunity to use them on my own feature film debut one day. Obviously, that day never came, but just because I didn’t follow through on my dreams of becoming an independent filmmaker doesn’t lessen the influence that several of the touchstones of independent cinema of the 1980s and 1990s have had on my taste in art, and on my outlook on life, as a whole.

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One of the things that I found most refreshing about The Evil Dead when compared to studio slasher films like Friday the 13th is that the fact that the filming process was not only a labor of love, but a grueling endurance test, is palpable in every frame of the movie. It’s clear that the cast members, who often doubled as erstwhile crew members, care about getting this film made despite the arduous circumstances they often found themselves in. I’ve since read about the difficult shoot that found the cast and crew subjected to freezing temperatures, physical injury, and a grueling shooting schedule, and I think that knowing the difficulty that went into creating this piece of art makes it even more special to me. Even though its premise is obviously absurd, as are most horror movies’, The Evil Dead feels more real than a lot of the slicker, more highly polished gore fests of the period. It shares this grittiness with one of my favorite horror movies of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another film in which the scares are made all the more effective by the clear duress that the actors had to endure.

Even today, in spite of all of the technological advances that have been made since its release, The Evil Dead retains its power to shock and horrify. I almost never find supernatural horror of this type to be truly scary, but The Evil Dead is a brutal and effective movie. The ramshackle cabin and its remote setting are scary enough without the threat of demonic possession, but Raimi further sets the mood with long, snaking, point-of-view tracking shots that alert the audience to an otherworldly presence living in the woods. He takes his time in the early parts of the film, creating tension in the audience. He allows for a few cheap scares to lighten the mood early on, but continues to use the location and his arsenal of cinematic tricks to set an ominous and eerie mood before the film erupts into full on horror. When it does take its sharp turn, after the demons in the woods have been released by Scott and Ash playing the archeologist’s recording, Raimi doesn’t relent until the film’s end, presenting the audience with classic scene after classic scene of terror, violence, and extreme gore. The Evil Dead doesn’t pull any punches, featuring graphic scenes of decapitation, dismemberment, and torture which result in buckets and buckets of fake blood that coats the actors, the sets, and even the camera lens. This extreme violence not only serves to escalate the film’s horror quotient, it also helped the film gain a great deal of notoriety as it was famously given an NC-17 rating upon its initial release, and was banned in several countries for its graphic, disturbing content.

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Though it likely seems tame by the standards of today’s brutal horror franchises like Hostel and Saw, there’s no denying the impact that The Evil Dead must have had upon its arrival on screens in 1981. The found footage aesthetic that the film brushes up against was used by other notorious films of the period such as Cannibal Holocaust, and likely influenced the new swath of found footage horror films that has been popular recently, although I haven’t seen many of them to verify that influence. The film was popular and influential enough to spark Raimi’s ascent as a filmmaker, and to lead to a media franchise revolving around Ash and his battles against the forces of evil. It’s also a testament to the impact that a dedicated, visionary filmmaker and crew can make with their art in spite of technical or financial limitations. Some people prefer the slightly more polished sequel, which is something of a rehash of the original film with a bit more humor, but I have to stick with my preference for the original. The Evil Dead sets the blueprint for the campy, low budget, ultraviolent, schlocky horror film of the 1980s. It’s a genre classic and a must-see for any fans of horror movies.

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Helmut Döring

 

Well this was certainly an interesting first-time watching experience for me. Even Dwarfs Started Small, Herzog’s second feature, was included in the Herzog box set that I purchased a few years ago, and it was one of the films of his that I hadn’t seen that I was keen to eventually get around to watching. As it turns out, I wouldn’t find myself making the time until this project started so I waited until getting to its turn in the alphabetical lineup of my discs to finally check this movie out. I was only familiar with the film’s plot and its use of a cast made up entirely of little people, so I didn’t go in with any real expectations about the movie. I’m not sure that I enjoyed the film, overall, but it was an interesting watch, and I did notice a strong affinity to some directorial traits that would appear later in Herzog’s filmography, as well as elements that have clearly been influential on later filmmakers. It’s always interesting to me to go back and watch early entries into the bodies of work of acclaimed filmmakers and see where they got their start.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small is a satire set in a far-away country where all of the inhabitants are little people. The film opens with Hombre (Döring) being booked by police and questioned about his role in an uprising at a remote institution. In flashbacks, the audience becomes witness to the uprising and the chaos that ensues when the wards of the institution rebel against their instructors. The uprising begins at a fevered pitch, with the inmates of the institution having forced their instructor to barricade himself within the institution with a hostage, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), who is also a ward of the institution. The rebellion quickly descends into total chaos as the inmates set fires, kill one of the pigs that lives on the institution, and generally run roughshod over the grounds of the institution. In the end, the inmates seem to have accomplished very little through their uprising, as it is quashed by the police, but they did get to spend one afternoon living in absolute freedom, for better or for worse, and made quite a mockery of several societal institutions in the process.

I would be hard pressed to say that I actually liked Even Dwarfs Started Small, but it was certainly an interesting viewing experience, and one that I won’t soon forget. The film is incredibly simple, with Herzog simply documenting his cast running amok under his direction. Narratively, the rebellion is given little political or social context, although there is a general sense of a desired egalitarianism among the wards of the institution. They seem to desire the same freedoms as the guards and the instructors, however, their sense of social justice seems to be limited to their own group, as the would-be revolutionaries seem quick to harass and belittle a couple of blind wards who are kept separate from the general population of the institution. Herzog seems to be making the point that all political revolutions are ultimately facile, and that given enough power or enough freedom, any revolutionary group will eventually descend into a brutal form of anarchy. While I disagree with this sentiment, and I think that it’s an overly pessimistic view of society and of then-recent revolutions around the world, I applaud Herzog’s artful attempt to portray his viewpoint. Despite its raucous subject matter, Herzog’s film unravels poetically, and he captures some distinctive and memorable images in service of his overall thesis.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small feels something like a fever dream, with strange images surfacing in front of the camera, and brief narrative asides that explore some minutiae that is only tangentially related to the overall plot. Halfway through the film, one of the wards opens up a small box that she has kept close to her person for the entire film to reveal it to be full of insects that she has dressed up in formal wear. She pulls each tiny creature from the box, showing off their dresses, coats, and top hats, while the other wards look on in curious fascination. Later in the film, the wards steal the institution’s truck, ostensibly to go into town, but they only get so far as the institution’s central courtyard where they leave the truck running in lazy circles while they chase one another around the courtyard, trying to avoid being struck down. Several times, Herzog cuts to the curiously circling car, seeming to provide a visual representation of the pointless chaos that is unraveling at the institution. Shortly before the film’s end, the wards capture a monkey and parade around the institution with it tied to a cross in a scathing mockery of religious ritual and iconography. All of these instances of strange, unmotivated behavior help lend the film its dreamlike qualities, and also add to its satirical impact. Throughout the film, Herzog is sending up society and its hypocrisies, using the little people in his cast in a pseudo-allegorical role to prove a point about the devolution of society in pursuit of total freedom. While I think that his overall premise is somewhat flawed and his casting of little people could be considered pejorative, because using people with a disability in an allegorical/symbolic role essentially denies them of their personhood, there’s no denying that the film has some powerful and memorable imagery.

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It’s not surprising that this film has proven to be influential, not just on Herzog’s later career, but for many other outsider artists and filmmakers. Harmony Korine, perhaps the modern standard bearer for earlier enfants terrible such as Herzog and Lars von Trier, cites Even Dwarfs Started Small as a major touchstone for his own films. Herzog himself has often visually referenced the film, particularly the motif of the car circling out of control which he returns to in Stroszek, and the tension between the individual’s desire for freedom and society’s need for structure and stricture has been a guiding theme throughout his filmography. Despite understanding the importance of the movie to a subset of filmmakers and, likely, audiences, I just didn’t really enjoy Even Dwarfs Started Small. It’s a fine movie, but it almost seems to be provocation for the sake of being provocative, and I find its central theoretical assumptions about society to be facile and fundamentally incorrect. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I found myself very bored by the film’s midway point. Despite all of the apparent upheaval that takes place in the film, nothing much really happens in Even Dwarfs Started Small. I won’t soon forget the film’s brief moments of visual clarity, particularly the procession with the crucified monkey, as they do form the basis of an intriguing experimental film critique of society, but the overall film left me pretty cold. It’s disappointing, because this is a movie that I had long looked forward to watching, and perhaps in the context of more early Herzog films that I’ll be screening soon for this project, I’ll gain a better appreciation for Even Dwarfs Started Small. As it stands now, the movie seems mostly important to me as a foundational text from which Herzog clearly draws later, but it’s not a movie that I feel compelled to revisit soon.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Dir. Michel Gondry

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst

 

From its release until about five years ago, I think I would have confidently listed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind among my very favorite films. In fact, I know that there was a time when I attempted to create a concrete “top ten” list of my favorites, and Eternal Sunshine was granted a place in the bottom half, somewhere around number six, I believe. My feelings towards the film have not soured in any meaningful way; quite the contrary, I think that I might actually appreciate it more now in my thirties than I did when I was younger. It’s a great love story, presented in a unique and stylish manner, brimming with real, painful emotion, and speaking to the kind of loss and longing that only the most romantic and the most maudlin of souls can aspire to. When I was younger, I fancied myself that kind of romantic, seeing my own failed and failing romantic relationships through the prism of this film. I was taken by the overwhelming feeling of the movie, the aching way that Gondry visualizes a person trying to mentally compartmentalize their crumbling relationship. I’ve certainly gotten more cynical since then, but the film still has a magical hold on me, although for different reasons. I’m now interested in the ethical quandaries raised by the film’s memory erasure process and still incredibly impressed by the visual flair of the movie and the perfect way that Gondry expresses psychological and mental processes in a visual and spatial manner. While Eternal Sunshine doesn’t hold the vaunted position it once did in my cinematic pantheon, it is still a very good movie, and one that I was glad to revisit for the first time in several years.

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Eternal Sunshine portrays the beginning, middle, end, and rebirth of a passionate, tumultuous relationship between Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet). Their love story is primarily told through flashbacks experienced by Joel after he undergoes an experimental memory removal process to try and erase Clementine from his brain. After their breakup, Clementine impulsively had her and Joel’s relationship erased from her memory. Upon finding this out, Joel is, understandably, hurt, and vengefully decides to scrub all traces of Clementine from his consciousness. While undergoing the removal process, however, Joel becomes consciously aware of his desire to try to save the memory of Clementine, and, potentially, save their relationship. Joel’s mental avatar starts to fight back against the removal process and tries to secret Clementine away, burying her deeper and deeper in unrelated memories, in a vain attempt to stop her from being erased. However, the process is completed successfully and Joel wakes up the next morning with no recollection of his previous relationship, though he doesn’t appear much better off for it. In the end, it is revealed that Joel and Clementine may be destined for one another as they meet again and rekindle their relationship.

Like Kaufman’s earlier scripts, Eternal Sunshine is something of a maze, inviting the audience to unpeel the film’s layers and daring them to keep up with his script’s twists and turns. Eternal Sunshine retains the emotional sincerity of Kaufman’s film Adaptation. and builds upon that film’s occasional raw emotionality. Joel and Clementine are two of the most relatable protagonists that Kaufman has written because while they are both shown to be deeply flawed people, they lack many of the outward symptoms of anxiety and overarching neuroses that plague more autobiographical Kaufman protagonists. As a result, I think that Eternal Sunshine is likely the Kaufman-scripted film with the most mainstream appeal. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. were both critically lauded and fared pretty well at the box office, but I’ve noticed that Eternal Sunshine is the Kaufman film that most people I talk to about movies seem to really latch onto. It isn’t especially difficult to find the heart within Kaufman’s more esoteric scripts, but Eternal Sunshine is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, and I think the open, raw emotionality that Kaufman and Gondry tap into in envisioning Joel’s and Clementine’s lives and relationship rings true with audiences.

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I know that for myself, the emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine was what really attracted me to the film in the first place, and what cemented my affection for it early on. The movie came out right before I graduated from high school, and I can remember when the relationship I was in at the time began to sour that I thought the idea of erasing my significant other seemed like a very attractive proposition. My girlfriend and I were both fans of the movie, but when our relationship started falling apart due to my moving to another state and continuing to allow a fairly serious drinking problem to develop, I personally began to identify with the film more and more. I was experiencing one of my first real relationships starting to crumble and I felt like Joel as he travels through the landscape of his mind while his memories are crumbling around him. I vacillated between wanting to cling to that relationship and that person, and wanting to destroy everything that reminded me of her. It was my first really serious break up and I wasn’t emotionally or socially ready for it. Of course, as time went on, I moved on and developed some coping skills and realized that it is actually possible to bounce back from what seemed at the time to be an all-consuming, emotionally devastating turn of events. Still, though, to this day when I watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I can’t help but think of that girl and that relationship and the important role that she played in my life when I was transitioning into adulthood. There’s a sentimentality to the movie that I’ll probably never fully shake.

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I still love the groundswell of emotion that a screening of Eternal Sunshine induces, but I’ve also come to really appreciate the movie for other reasons, as well. Chiefly, I’m always enamored with Gondry’s visual style and the unique way he envisions mental processes in a visual, tangible space throughout the film. The editing and camera movements are incredible, but still subtle. Gondry is a master at creating practical effects and manipulating images in-camera, and those skills are on full display as he creates a dynamic world within Joel’s head. Obviously, some of the film’s more memorable visual effects are the instances in which the mise-en-scene begins to become unstable and, often, literally crumbles as Joel’s memories are being eradicated, but I’m more intrigued by the smaller, more nuanced visual tricks that Gondry plays that serve to mimic the overall instability of memory as a neurological process. The film depicts the nature of memory perfectly, as within the memories that Joel traverses through, Gondry uses filters, color schemes, and trick photography to hint at the influence of nostalgia and association on our memory processes, as well as highlighting the sometimes imperfect nature of memory, and the readiness of a person to reflect back on an experience in a more perfect or sentimental manner. The film, like a relationship, is built upon a foundation of several small moments that add up to a meaningful whole, but the audience is constantly reminded that the recollection of those moments may not always be completely accurate. Eternal Sunshine is a movie about love, and it presents a complex, realistic depiction of a relationship, but it’s also very much a movie about memory, and I think the ways that it represents the process of forming and recalling past memories is even more impressive.

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I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a memorable and enjoyable movie to go back to time and time again. The film’s score is beautifully melancholy, matching the mood and timbre of the film. The performances of its deep ensemble cast are all top notch. Jim Carrey stands out as Joel in what, I believe, is his best performance since Man on the Moon. Kate Winslet turns up her automatic charm and gives a reliably solid performance as Clementine. Her turns of phrase in the film always get stuck in my head for some reason. Kirsten Dunst provides depth and a spark in an important supporting role that turns the film on its head in its last few minutes. Of course Gondry’s direction of Kaufman’s superb script is unique and visionary, as I’ve mentioned. The older I get, and the more life experience I gain, the more depth I find in this film. I certainly wasn’t moved to ponder the ethical dilemmas presented by the prospect of memory erasure when I first encountered Eternal Sunshine, but now, as an adult, it’s all I can think about. While it used to release a cascade of emotional feeling in me, the film now leads me to ask heavy philosophical questions, such as “Is it ethical or even sensible to eschew formative life experiences in such a concrete way?” and “Is there an experience or a person who I value so little that I would want to completely remove that person/instance from my life history?” and even, “What right do I have to the contents of my own head?” Even though it may no longer hold a distinction in my personal top ten list of favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine is undeniably a great movie, and I think it has only gotten better with age. It’s one of the films that I was most affected by early in my foray into cinephilia, and one of the few from that time period that I still return to with some regularity, and it still never disappoints.

Eraserhead

Eraserhead (1977)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: David Lynch

Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart

 

Finally getting to write about Eraserhead, something that I’ve avoided ever doing despite enjoying the film for the last 15-odd years, should be a liberating experience, but it feels very daunting at the same time. It’s a film that I know well, having watched it over a dozen times since first experiencing it in my late teens via a little red Netflix envelope, but it’s a film that still vexes me in many ways. It’s the auspicious debut of my favorite filmmaker, and a dark indicator of the themes and content that would make up his ensuing output. Lynch’s filmography is celebrated, but also troubling, with his films asking audiences to bear witness to dark urges that exist buried deep within themselves. His films are designed to trigger deep-seeded anxieties and fears that rest at the core of the human experience. Eraserhead begins this trend with its look at the anxieties surrounding bringing new life into a flawed, disturbing world. Though it’s presented in an exceedingly strange package, at its core, Eraserhead is a look at the struggles of an everyman trying to get by in a world that is designed to sap him of his energy and his will to live. It took me a long time, and many, many repeated viewings to come to some sort of understanding of this film, but it was a process that was richly rewarding, and one which helped to open up my mind to new analyses of the films of my favorite director.

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I wasn’t really ready for Eraserhead when I was 19 and I first saw the movie. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, because I did enjoy the movie, and I thought that it was delightfully weird and esoteric, but I didn’t have any sort of framework with which to really understand it. I had seen visually experimental, non-narrative films in college, but those didn’t seem to apply here. Eraserhead was using some of the tools of experimental cinema in a symbolic and narrative way that I had trouble reconciling. Even in reference to the other David Lynch films that I had seen, Eraserhead was something totally foreign and new. In Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., I recognized the world that Lynch was depicting as somewhat similar to my own; even if I did find Mulholland Dr. narratively inscrutable, I still felt that I had some foothold into its world. Eraserhead, on the other hand, felt hermetically sealed, existing in a separate and decidedly interiorly-focused cinematic space, one that I could observe but not enter into in any meaningful way. The film’s bleak industrial-noir setting felt at first familiar, but it gave way to the unfamiliarity of tiny, misshapen chickens that ooze black inky liquid, hellish factories that turn men’s heads into pencil erasers, and, of course, one monstrous and insatiable infant. This was uncharted cinematic territory. Trying to cobble together meaning out of the film’s disparate and confusing imagery seemed impossible, but I was still drawn to the film. By the end of my first viewing of Eraserhead, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had watched, but I knew that I wanted more of it.

I’ve encountered countless films in my life that I’ve held up as seminal or formative in some way, and I encountered many of those for the first time in my late teens and early twenties, as my cinematic world was rapidly being expanded, and my understanding of the medium was growing by the day. Eraserhead found itself firmly in that group of highly meaningful films. Though I didn’t screen Eraserhead again for two years, it lingered around the periphery of my consciousness, its iconic images popping up from time to time. I expanded my viewership of Lynch’s films, but I still wasn’t able to find a direct line into the heart of Eraserhead through an auterist critical approach, which was often my preferred critical approach to films at the time. Even within this singularly weird filmography, Eraserhead stood as an outlier, defiantly experimental, refusing codification by my young brain. I read critical analyses of the film, which attempted to parse out its dense symbolism and orient it within the larger context of Lynch’s body of work, but still Eraserhead remained a mystery. Eventually, I just chalked up my lack of ability to come to complete grasps with the film to the mark of Lynch’s true artistic genius, and my own woeful shortcomings in that department.

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While I’m certainly still not a genius on the level of any of the filmmakers I’ve been writing about for this project, much less on the level of a visionary like Lynch, I do think that I’ve come to a much more comfortable place of understanding with regards to Eraserhead. Clearly, Lynch is using the film to help work out some of his anxieties about his newfound status as a father, but it’s also obvious to Lynch fans that Eraserhead sets the table for all of the films and media projects that would come later. The film’s chaotic, densely-layered soundtrack points forward to Lynch’s continued sonic experimentation. He is known as a master of film sound, and that use of sound as a mood setting and narrative device is very much on display in Eraserhead. The film’s soundtrack swells with an omnipresent whooshing, intermittently interrupted by industrial banging and cranking. The way Lynch records the plaintive cries of Henry’s monstrous baby results in an unnerving caterwaul that stops far short of invoking sympathy in the audience.

Thematically, Eraserhead finds Lynch already mining the source material for his later films. Paranoia, anxiety, and voyeurism all factor heavily into Eraserhead, and Lynch will return to these ideas more explicitly in films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Eraserhead is also one of Lynch’s most complete explorations of a dream space, as much of the film could be interpreted as an extended dream triggered by Henry’s fear of his impending fatherhood. Even if you eschew that reading, the film contains several notable scenes that explore Henry’s interior fantasies, including his obsession with the tiny woman who lives in the radiator, and the nightmare that gives the film its title, in which Henry’s head is stolen and sold to a factory where it is ground down to make pencil erasers. Dreams are privileged sources of symbolism and truth in Lynch’s work, and he often attempts to explore the liminal space between dreaming and the waking world, in which that truth is most accessible. We see dreamlike sequences in all of Lynch’s media, but Eraserhead is a bold film that spends nearly all of its time locked into its protagonist’s interiority.

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I’ve neglected the plot synopsis that I typically write for each film because Eraserhead’s narrative can be summed up in just a sentence or two. Henry (Nance) is informed by Mary (Stewart) that she has given birth to his child, though she isn’t sure that their offspring is a child at all. The couple marry and take the baby back to Henry’s one room apartment, where it is revealed to be a monstrous lizard creature, without arms or legs, that cries incessantly. Mary can’t handle the crying and she leaves Henry alone, to go insane as he tries to care for a creature that he can’t understand or relate to. The film is narratively straight forward and simple, though its surface weirdness might obfuscate this, but it is incredibly symbolically dense. Henry is trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare and the only logic that can prevail is the logic of the dream, therefore we are presented with a stream of imagery that makes no narrative sense, but carries deep symbolic truth. Henry’s responses when faced with the responsibility of caring for his child are all in some way attempts to infantilize himself. He dreams of the lady in the radiator, which represents a womblike space, and when he finally connects with his beautiful neighbor (Judith Roberts), they have sex in, and eventually submerge themselves in, a pool of milk. Henry’s apartment is strangely symbolic itself, with mounds of dirt on his furniture, many of which are sprouting small trees or shrubs. The apartment should seem like a productive, organic, space, but instead these strange dirt piles give the room a fetid and decaying feeling. Of course the most obvious symbolic element in Eraserhead is the baby itself, which both Henry and Mary view as a monstrous Other. The baby is an unwanted imposition in their lives, and, as such, they view it in a way that allows them to disassociate themselves with their offspring. This disassociation leads to Mary’s abandonment of the child and Henry’s ultimate infanticide/mercy killing. These are just a few of the more obvious symbolic signifiers in Eraserhead, but the film is rich with impressionistic dream sequences, non-sequitur dialogue, and other-worldly imagery, which allow for a richness of unique interpretations of the film.

This fluidity of meaning is one of the things that I think initially drew me to Eraserhead, and that has kept me coming back to the film as frequently as I do. Although I’ve settled on my own interpretation of the film, I still find myself challenged by it with each subsequent screening, and I often find myself considering it in a new context, based on my own changing life experiences or on my changing relationship to the film and to related media. Watching Eraserhead in 2018 with the viewing experience of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return fresh in my mind was a totally different experience than any other time I’ve seen the film. For me, the newest season of Twin Peaks functions as Lynch’s magnum opus. It contains throughlines and references to Lynch’s earlier films and serves to bring all of his disparate thematic and aesthetic concerns together in one dense, strange viewing experience. I felt several affinities between Lynch’s first feature and what I believe will be his final visual media project, and my recent screening of Eraserhead only strengthened those connections for me.

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I found a thematic kinship between Henry’s abandonment by Mary and subsequent retreat from adult responsibility and Audrey Horne’s (Sherilyn Fenn) curious appearances in The Return. Though the narrative circumstances in each case are quite different, something about the dreaminess and illogical, circular dialogue used in both Eraserhead and in Audrey’s scenes with her husband Charlie felt very similar. Both characters are being neglected and emotionally abused by people close to them, though Audrey’s victimhood seems more obviously apparent, while Henry seems to be in a more mutually dysfunctional relationship where he, too, adds to Mary’s mental anguish. Both characters are infantilized, with Charlie’s gaslighting of Audrey keeping her in a subservient and dependent role, and Henry’s chosen retreat away from responsibility and into the safety of a childlike interior fantasy world. In the end, both characters are also last seen in a blindingly white space. Eraserhead has a superficially happy ending, with Henry finally uniting with the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), whose earlier song reminded the audience that “in Heaven, everything is fine,” indicating that Henry has killed himself after killing the baby. This marks the furthest expression of Henry’s retreat, as his suicide can be read as a rejection of all of life’s responsibilities.

In The Return, Lynch reverses this dynamic to some extent with Audrey’s final scene, in which she reprises her iconic dance from Twin Peaks. Audrey’s dance is interrupted by a fight breaking out and she rushes towards Charlie, who is sitting at the bar, imploring him to get her out of there. There is a brief crackle of electricity, and Audrey appears in a starkly white room, staring at her face, sans makeup, in a vanity mirror. She, and the audience, are stricken by this jarring change of scenery, and it throws into question the handful of scenes in which Audrey has appeared thus far in The Return. This being Twin Peaks, the most operative reading of the scene is that there are two Audrey’s, and we are discovering that the “real” Audrey has been trapped in a Lodge all along. However, there is some indication to support a reading that Audrey’s interactions with Charlie may have been a dream or a vision that she had, before waking up, confused, in the white room, which appears not dissimilar to a mental hospital. Though there is very little of the white space around Audrey shown, she appears to be wearing a white hospital gown, and the sheer blankness of the space indicates a sterile, clinical setting. This reading, when coupled with the ending of Eraserhead, provides for a very bleak vision, indeed. Audrey dreams of a sad and dysfunctional life, from which she is ripped during her one moment of ecstasy performing her dance, while living a reality that may be even more maddening. Henry’s narrative begins with an unhappy reality from which he retreats into a dream that is by turns menacing and seductive, ultimately succumbing to the temptation to live in the dream by taking his own life and murdering his child. For these characters there isn’t any easy way out, and the few reveries they get to experience are symbolically and explicitly linked to madness and death.

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Eraserhead is a landmark film, a bench mark and a step forward for modern surrealist filmmaking. While Bunuel and Jodorowsky were making films that set their aims on societal structures such as religion and class through an experimental and surrealist viewpoint, Lynch sought to examine the more personal territory of the human mind and emotion. He had trouble getting financing for the film and it took over five years to complete, as the production was plagued with complications. When Eraserhead finally arrived, it was a film that was seen as a visionary work by some and a confounding mess by many, although its stature in film history has certainly appreciated over time to the point that it is almost universally regarded as a classic. I have come to love the film for what it represents as the true foundational text in my favorite filmmaker’s body of work, as well as for the singular viewing experience that Eraserhead provides. There’s not a film that I can think of that is quite like it, and it is a film that two people can walk away from with markedly different opinions about and experiences of, and I really like that. More than many of the movies that I’ve written about, Eraserhead isn’t for everyone, but for the initiated it’s a rewarding treasure of a cinematic experience, with iconic visual imagery, rich symbolic nuance, and a terrifyingly original vision.

Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Dir. Robert Clouse

Written by: Michael Allin

Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Shih Kien

 

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Enter the Dragon. It wasn’t the first movie starring Bruce Lee that I ever saw, nor was it my first foray into the kung-fu genre, but I do know that it made quite an impact on me at a fairly young age. For many people, Enter the Dragon stands as the high water mark of the classic era of kung-fu movies, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to call it the most well-known mainstream martial arts film of all time. Lee’s star appeal was just beginning to break through in the United States, and Enter the Dragon was set to be his triumphant entryway into mainstream action filmmaking. However, Lee tragically passed away shortly before the film’s release, making Enter the Dragon the last film that he would live to complete. Though he left behind a relatively scant filmography, only starring in a handful of films, Lee has become synonymous with martial arts cinema, and is still one of the most widely recognized and celebrated martial artists to ever grace the screen. Instead of serving as a launching point into greater stardom, Enter the Dragon now serves as a reminder of Lee’s athletic ability, charisma, and viability as an action star.

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Enter the Dragon marks a diversion from traditional kung-fu narratives of the time, including significant Western influences and playing out something like a blend of a James Bond spy thriller and a traditional martial arts film. In the film, Lee (Lee) is approached by a British intelligence agency and is encouraged to enter into a martial arts tournament held on a mysterious island owned by Mr. Han (Kien), a suspected crime lord. While attending the tournament, Lee is to investigate Han’s compound and find evidence of his involvement with prostitution and drug trafficking. Lee agrees to attend the tournament after learning of his sister’s death at the hands of one of Han’s bodyguards, O’Hara (Bob Wall), and vows to avenge her death, as well as bring down Han’s crime syndicate. When he arrives on Han’s island, Lee meets Roper (Saxon), a gambling addict on the run from the mob, and Williams (Kelly), a Vietnam veteran on the run from the police. The three men are obviously the most skilled fighters in the tournament, and they quickly dispatch of their opponents, although each of them runs afoul of Han in some way for disobeying the rules of his island. By night, Lee infiltrates Han’s compound and discovers the extent of his smuggling operations, although he is captured by Han’s guards. Meanwhile, Han has tried to recruit Roper to his syndicate, but Roper refuses when he realizes that Han has murdered his friend Williams. The next day, Han orders Roper and Lee to fight each other, and when Roper again refuses to be used as Han’s pawn, a melee breaks out which leads to Lee pursuing and eventually killing Han in an epic fight. With Han defeated, Lee and Roper await the arrival of the British helicopters on their way to recover Han’s prisoners and clean up the last of his criminal operations.

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The influence of Enter the Dragon can’t be understated. The film was a box office and critical success, earning $25 million in American box office receipts alone, against a shoestring budget of less than $1 million.  As I mentioned, the film marked the real introduction of Western audiences to Hong Kong cinema and martial arts cinema, in general. Far from being just a martial artist, Lee served as a cultural ambassador and representative of Chinese philosophy for many American audiences who were unfamiliar with the tenets of martial arts. Without the success of Enter the Dragon, I really doubt that American audiences would have ever experienced the films of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, or scores of other martial artists who would emerge as key action stars both in Asia and in America in the years to come. The popularity of Enter the Dragon also kicked off a fervid interest in martial arts in America, with kids all over starting to take kung-fu and karate lessons, emulating their onscreen hero, and embracing the strength, hard work, and discipline that martial arts training instills in its adherents. Simply put, Enter the Dragon was one of the most culturally significant films of the 1970s.

As a film, Enter the Dragon is a joy to watch. Though it was shot on a limited budget and under unique constraints due to language barriers between the American and Chinese crews, as well as creative disagreements between Lee and screenwriter Michael Allin, the finished film is a thing of beauty. The setting of Han’s island is lush and vibrant, and his compound is a visually rich location that hints at the opulence that a life of crime can afford him. The film is perfectly paced, and though it is light on the exposition, it delivers on the promise of great action. Its espionage scenes are tense and exciting, underscored by a funky jazz score from one of the great film composers of the 1970s, Lalo Schifrin. The fight scenes, all of which were conceived of and choreographed by Lee, are shot impeccably, capturing the aggression and grace of the fighters perfectly. The film’s climactic showdown between Lee and Han, in which the pair eventually square off in a hall of mirrors is a stunning cinematic achievement. The precision with which the scene must have been filmed is hard to fathom, and I still don’t know how the crew managed to pull it off. It’s one of the most memorable fight scenes in the martial arts genre, and the image of hundreds of mirror images of Bruce Lee repeating into the background as he stalks Han through the mirrored room is one of the genres indelible calling cards.

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Kelly and Saxon certainly hold their own in their fight scenes, but Lee is the obvious star of the show. His lithe physicality is on display throughout the film, and his fight scenes capture the effortless way in which he cycles through movements, countering and striking with such ease and skill that he seems imbued with an innate sense of placement and momentum that the other martial artists simply don’t have. More than his obvious physical prowess, which had been on display in his other films, Enter the Dragon gave Lee the chance to introduce the philosophy behind his martial arts to the Western world. Particularly early in the film, Lee takes the opportunity to expound upon the ways in which his martial arts practice emphasizes living a balanced and harmonious lifestyle. Lee saw his martial arts as a form of self-expression, and his journey in life as one of constant self-improvement and of increasing the knowledge of self. Though much of the content relating to Lee’s philosophies and to Chinese philosophy, in general, was excised from the original American theatrical cut of the film, these scenes were reintroduced to later home video releases, and I think that the film is better off for it. If Enter the Dragon is to be seen as Lee’s magnum opus, it must contain at least some of the revolutionary thinking that he espoused and that ran as an undercurrent to his martial arts.

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Though it isn’t my absolute favorite martial arts movie, or my favorite Bruce Lee movie (that’s Way of the Dragon, which I no longer own), Enter the Dragon is a classic, and an interesting look at what might have been had Lee lived longer and continued making films in Hollywood. Lee’s impact on the action film scene of the 1970s was seismic, launching a kung-fu craze that lasted long after the release of this film and, of course, long after his untimely death. The film is often imitated, but never duplicated, and it serves as a perfect entry point for the uninitiated into classic kung-fu films. It has all the campiness and action that fans of the genre are looking for, but it’s also a film that is clearly grounded in Lee’s unique philosophical viewpoint. Lee’s star burned so brightly and his legend grew so outsize after American audiences got a taste of his prowess in Enter the Dragon that the film’s director cobbled together the film Game of Death from outtakes and partial scenes that Lee had filmed before beginning work on Enter the Dragon. Though his image and reputation have often been traded on in the decades since his death, mostly to diminishing returns, such is the quality and intensity of Lee’s small filmography that he will be forever seen as an action film legend. Lee was already a star by 1973, but when Enter the Dragon was released, he became an icon.