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.

evil dead 1

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.

evil dead 4

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.

evil dead 5

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.

even dwarfs 2

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.

even dwarfs 3

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.

even dwarfs 4

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.

Eternal Sunshine 3

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.

Eternal Sunshine 1

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.

Eternal Sunshine 4

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.

Eternal Sunshine 6

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.

eraserhead 1

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.

eraserhead 3

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.

eraserhead 4

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.

eraserhead 2

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.

eraserhead 6

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.

enter the dragon 5

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.

enter the dragon 3

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.

enter the dragon 7

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.

enter the dragon 4

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.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira

 

I first encountered this strange film during my sophomore year of college when I was taking a class on New German Cinema. This was an important course in my development as it was my first introduction to the films of Werner Herzog, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbender and Wim Wenders, plus many other great German directors of the late 20th century. It opened my eyes to so many great films: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The American Friend, The Tin Drum, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, classics all of them, but the film that most intrigued me was Herzog’s Stroszek. I was fascinated by the strange mannerisms of Bruno S., and ended up seeking out his and Herzog’s first collaboration, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser on my own. Though Stroszek was a truly strange and beautiful film, it didn’t prepare me for the baroque fairy tale that is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and to be honest, I didn’t really like the latter film at the time. It ended up in my collection because I purchased a cheap box set of early Herzog films a few years back in order to rewatch Stroszek, although I hadn’t gotten around to checking out this film again until watching it for this project. It was as deeply strange an experience as it was when I first watched the film at 20, but I think I may have found somewhat more of an appreciation for it.

kaspar hauser 5

The film is based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S), a foundling child who arrived in Nuremburg in 1828 possessing very few verbal skills and no societal upbringing whatsoever. In the film, we see the early portion of Hauser’s life in which he lived chained to the floor of a basement, with only a toy horse for amusement, and an anonymous caretaker who feeds him only bread and water. One day, this man takes Hauser from his cell, teaches him to walk and a few phrases of speech, and then leaves him in Nuremburg at the break of dawn, with only a letter in his hand explaining his appearance and requesting an audience with a military officer in the town. The townsfolk attempt to socialize Hauser, teaching him some words and some basic manners, but ultimately decide that it would be best to profit off of his curious nature by putting him in a circus show. Hauser is rescued from the circus by Professor Daumer (Ladengast) who invites him to live in his home, and who, along with his maid Kathy (Mira), shows Hauser kindness and furthers his socialization. Far from being an idiot, Hauser shows a great capacity for understanding and learning, although he takes circuitous approaches towards the knowledge that is presented to him. Hauser seems to progress in his pursuit of knowledge, but the traumas of his upbringing are always present, and though he makes great strides towards normalcy, his mimicry of societal manners is always somewhat off. One day, Hauser is brutally attacked at random, and while on his deathbed he tells a strange tale of having visions of nomads travelling across the desert.

It’s impossible to imagine this film without its peculiar lead, Bruno S. Bruno was a street musician in Berlin who Herzog discovered and was immediately intrigued by. Though he had no formal training as an actor, Herzog cast Bruno S. as the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and in the process found out that the actor’s upbringing actually had some similarity to the character’s history of abuse and neglect. Though the actual Kaspar Hauser was only 17 when he arrived in Nuremburg, and Bruno was 41 when the film was made, he brings a childlike quality to the role. This bait and switch shouldn’t work, but for some reason it does. Bruno’s wild appearance and idiosyncratic mannerisms are those of a child who has been abandoned and allowed to grow up feral. The performance that Bruno gives here is highly affected, his speech patterns stilted and his physical movements highly stylized and mechanical, sometimes almost appearing painful. Bruno plays the young Hauser as if his mental illness and stunted social and emotional development are physical maladies, outwardly expressing their symptoms through his odd performance. I have to imagine that he leaned heavily on his experience being institutionalized throughout his life when crafting this character, if he even considered the performance to be acting at all. There are times in the film when it would seem that Bruno is actually channeling the historical Hauser, receiving strange signals through the ether that inform his impersonation. It’s a performance that can’t really be accurately described without someone seeing the film, because it is simply too strange and doesn’t have many precedents in film, to my knowledge. Again, the casting of a grown man with a history of serious mental illness and no acting experience to play the role of a feral teen shouldn’t work, but somehow, not only does it work, I can’t conceive of another way Herzog could have brought this character to the screen.

kaspar hauser 2

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser fits in well with Herzog’s other early films. It furthers his cinematic obsession with idiosyncratic characters, many of which are driven to madness. Like Bruno, Herzog has always been something of an outsider artist, and I think that he, too, must have felt some affinity with the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser. Though it’s a simple and direct tale, Herzog presents his film with great style, giving this enigmatic fairy tale an air of import and profundity. The film is presented elliptically, and I’m not really sure how much time is meant to pass between Hauser’s arrival in Nuremberg and his sudden, shocking death, but it is a period of some years although it often seems like little time is elapsing at all. Herzog presents the film as a series of vignettes that show Hauser’s progress towards societal normalcy, but they often seem to have little causal relation to one another. Things seem to happen in the film at random, as there is no explanation given for a scene in which we see Bruno and the other circus performers fleeing from the townsfolk and hiding in trees, nor is there any reason given for Bruno’s attack at the hands of his neglectful caretaker late in the film or for the subsequent attack on him that ends in the stabbing that kills him. These events are simply presented, out of narrative context, as are a series of impressionistic sequences that depict seemingly faraway landscapes. These interstitial scenes are given a dreamlike quality through Herzog’s use of a Super8 camera, and the grainy, blurred images stand out in sharp contrast from the realist style of the rest of the film. Herzog never shies away from making unusual directorial choices and this particular film is clearly no exception.

kaspar hauser 4

I’m not sure if I can say that I really liked The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser very much, but I did find it a more intriguing film now than I did when I first watched in 12 years ago. I had forgotten some of the film’s peculiarities, and it has certainly remained in my thoughts more after this second viewing than it did initially. Bruno’s performance is one of a kind, but I think that his acting is much better in the later Stroszek as he taps into an emotionality that isn’t present at all in this film. Still though, I won’t be forgetting his mechanical, rigid performance anytime soon. The Super8 scenes are equally memorable to me, providing the film with a haunted quality. It would seem that I’m in the minority from looking at the incredibly positive critical response to the film both at its release and into the 21st century, but to me The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser feels like a somewhat lesser entry in the incredibly prolific Herzog’s broad filmography. I don’t mean that it’s a bad film at all, and in fact I think that it’s a very good film, it just doesn’t connect with me on a meaningful level. It’s an interesting movie for me to think about for a bit, but overall I doubt that I’ll be revisiting it many more times.

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man (1980)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch (from the medical records of Dr. Frederick Treves)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Freddie Jones

 

As I mentioned when I was writing about Blue Velvet last year, I have been an obsessive fan of David Lynch’s work since I was about 16 years old. That film and Mulholland Dr. were my introductions to Lynch’s cinema, and they were the only films of his that I watched regularly until I came to college. The Elephant Man was actually one of the last Lynch films that I saw, never seeking it out until it was screened in a class that I took when I was a junior in college. At the time, the movie felt decidedly out of step with the rest of Lynch’s oeuvre, with its period setting and traditionally romantic narrative sticking out like a sore thumb among Lynch’s less direct, more decidedly surreal output. However, as I’ve spent more time with the movie, and as my own opinions on Lynch’s cinema have changed and evolved over the intervening decade since my introduction to The Elephant Man, I’ve discovered that it absolutely fits into Lynch’s strange filmography and shares a distinct affinity with much of his more overtly experimental and strange output.

Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (although in the film he’s called John), a medical anomaly who lived in England during the end of the 19th century, The Elephant Man focuses on the final portion of Merrick’s (Hurt) life during which he was under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves (Hopkins), and during which he gained a level of fame and notoriety in British society. The film opens with Treves attending a carnival freak show where a cruel and greedy master named Bytes (Jones) is displaying the unfortunate Merrick as an oddity that he has dubbed “The Elephant Man,” due to his unnaturally distorted and enlarged features and the preponderance of tumors that have given Merrick’s skin a hardened, scaly look. While the rest of the audience recoils in horror at the sight of Merrick, Treves recognizes him for what he is: an unfortunate human being afflicted with a debilitating and rare malady. Treves gets Bytes to agree to submit Merrick to medical testing, and Treves presents him to his colleagues at the hospital, where Merrick eventually is allowed to live as a ward. Though they initially assume that Merrick is an idiot, incapable of speech or advanced thought, the medical staff learns through Treves’s work with the patient that Merrick is, in fact, fairly intelligent and is quite capable of thought, emotion, and self-determination. Treves begins to work closely with Merrick, and as the two develop a bond, and the word of Merrick’s unique condition spreads, he becomes something of a celebrity, receiving letters from adoring fans and visits from members of the royal family. However, while he is enjoying the fame of celebrity by day, Merrick is still being subjected to brutal exploitation by night, as a porter (Michael Elphick) at the hospital has begun charging admission to sneak the curious into Merrick’s room where they can gawk at and mock the unfortunate man. Despite this daily torture, Merrick seems to take solace in his relationship to the kind Treves and maintains his quest for some small dignity up until the end.

elephant man 4

Although The Elephant Man would seem to be an outlier in Lynch’s body of work, it actually has more similarities to his other films than might be initially apparent. Though this film and its follow up, Dune, a project fraught with tension and one that Lynch would ultimately disavow, find the filmmaker operating with the least amount of authorial control in his career, decidedly Lynch-ian motifs and themes abound in The Elephant Man. The most apparent aspect of the film that could be considered Lynch-ian is the character of John Merrick, himself. Throughout his career, Lynch has exhibited a fascination with the grotesque, the macabre, and the freakish, and the tale of poor, malformed Merrick is one that the filmmaker would seem to naturally gravitate towards. That he presents Merrick as a pitiable, complex character, rather than a monstrosity is also trademark Lynch, as he has shown a career-long sympathy towards characters in crisis such as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet. Lynch gravitates towards dark subject matter, but he attempts to find the light and the life in the characters that people his films, and Merrick is clearly no exception. Though the film, and by extension the filmmaker, certainly relishes the monstrous reveal of Merrick’s deformed body, a revelation that doesn’t fully come until 30 minutes into the movie, it goes out of its way to emphasize Merrick’s innate humanity and civility from that point on.

elephant man 3

The film’s structure also belies Lynch’s influence. After Merrick arrives at the hospital, the day/night dichotomy that is so often present in Lynch’s work becomes the film’s operative framework. By day, Merrick is able to enjoy his time with Dr. Treves and visitors who look upon him with curiosity, sure, but of a more benign sort. Merrick’s daytime world is one in which he can aspire to some level of normality, and gain a modicum of acceptance within society. By night, however, Merrick’s life is a dark carnival led by the greedy porter, Jim, who is reminiscent of the drunkard Bytes in his exploitation and mistreatment of Merrick. All of the basic humanity that Merrick has been able to achieve through his work with Treves during the days is washed away as Jim turns him back into an inhuman monster, something to be feared and scorned, by night. When he isn’t being tortured by Jim and his band of morbid curiosity seekers, Merrick is tortured by nightmares, his restless sleep interrupted by visions of terrifyingly rampaging elephants. These dreams have a specifically surrealistic bent to them, and are reminiscent of Lynch’s early experimental shorts, particularly in their marriage of monstrous imagery to chaotic, industrial soundscapes. Though he was working from adapted material for the first time in his career, Lynch found ways in The Elephant Man to further his cinematic vision, and established patterns and artistic tendencies that would continue throughout his career.

This was the film that broke Lynch into the mainstream, as The Elephant Man was a major critical and commercial success. It’s interesting to see a filmmaker who would become known as something of an iconoclast working in a more traditional milieu, but as I mentioned, this isn’t some generic film without artistic merit and beauty. The black and white cinematography is at once sumptuous and primal, remarkably beautiful, but not in a gauzy or nostalgic way. Instead, the film’s imagery is suggestive of the dark, dingy world of turn-of-the-century London that Merrick inhabited. The film’s greys recall not just the skin of the elephants that Merrick was compared to, but the cold greyness of industrial machinery. This focus on the industrial is backed up by the film’s soundtrack, which often features a faint, impersonal thrum, as of a distant engine cranking away somewhere. Lynch uses the full array of cinematic tools at his disposal to create a rich and evocative period piece, including the famed actors who perform in the film.

elephant man 2

Though Hurt was not yet a household name in America, which is part of the reason he was chosen to portray the deformed protagonist, Hopkins certainly was established as a renowned thespian by this point in his career. The two actors form a complementary pair, with Hopkins’s mannered, urbane performance giving the film a tranquil bedrock upon which Hurt can do his work. Though it would be easy to dismiss Hurt’s performance as being solely the work of the incredible makeup job that renders him totally unrecognizable, but it requires an actor of great sensitivity and poise to humanize the monstrous Merrick. Physically, Hurt renders Merrick’s anguished movements a grace that a man of his stature and predicament should not have, but the actor’s greatest work in the film is in his voice acting. Hurt uses a strained falsetto, giving Merrick’s voice a querulous timbre, both the result of his facial deformities and his constant mistreatment at the hands of others. Merrick stammers and stutters with the hesitance of a dog that knows it will be beaten for barking. Hurt’s belabored words drip with emotionality, revealing the broken, emotionally responsive and receptive heart that beats inside of Merrick’s chest, while his coal-black eyes reflect the deep despair that Merrick must feel. Merrick is a pitiable character by his very circumstances, but it is Hurt’s sensitive, emotive performance that brings him to life and helps the film reach heights of pathos and emotionality unseen again in Lynch’s filmography. In later Lynch films, displays of raw emotion are highly stylized, rendered nearly inhuman in their dissonance, but in The Elephant Man, Lynch gives in to sentimentality and Hurt’s genuinely plaintive performance shines through. It’s an exceptional and memorable turn.

elephant man 5

Though it might feel like an early career diversion, The Elephant Man is actually an important film in the development of Lynch as an auteur, and one that marked a breakthrough into the mainstream for the director. Though his experience on his next film would likely prompt his turn away from prestige projects towards a personally-focused filmmaking, The Elephant Man proves that Lynch can helm a mainstream narrative film while also imbuing it with his unique cinematic vision. It isn’t a movie that I watch frequently; in fact I almost only bring it out when I’m going through a heavy Lynch phase in which I find myself watching through his entire corpus, but it’s a movie that deserves as much attention as his later masterpieces. The film is enjoyable enough on the merit of its beautiful cinematography and the captivating performances from its leads, but for fans of Lynch’s work, The Elephant Man holds hidden pleasures in its somewhat overshadowed affinities with the rest of his cinema. It’s a movie that I should probably watch more often, because I really enjoy picking out the instances of Lynch-ian weirdness that seep into the film at the cracks. It is probably the one Lynch film that I can unequivocally recommend to anyone, as well.

Duck You Sucker

Duck You Sucker (1971)

Dir. Sergio Leone

Written by: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone

Starring: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli

 

I can’t believe I hadn’t watched this great Western until today. I’ve been a big fan of Sergio Leone since I was a teen, but his final Western, Duck You Sucker, had eluded me until a few years ago. I fell in love with Leone when I was 17 and I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for the first time. I was taken by the grandiosity of the film, its famous, epic Ennio Morricone score, Leone’s unique approach to montage and framing, and the performances of its titular trio as three outlaws whose paths are set on a collision course. I instantly wanted more films like this one, and I sought out the rest of Leone’s “Dollars trilogy,” Leone’s first three films which all starred Clint Eastwood in one of his early signature roles. I eventually tracked down Leone’s last two films, as well, Once Upon A Time in the West and Once Upon A Time in America, with the former becoming another of my very favorite films of all time, along with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Duck You Sucker, however, was a film that I didn’t even know existed until I was in my early twenties, and it was introduced to me as a somewhat “lost” Leone classic. Unlike Leone’s other films, this film was not as well received outside of his native Italy, so it didn’t gain wide distribution, and was difficult to screen until a series of remasters of Leone’s catalog in the 2000s led to its restoration and re-release on home video. I picked up a copy of the film on DVD at an FYE store that was going out of business in 2014 and it sat on my shelf, unwatched, for the next few years. When I conceived of the idea for this project, I just decided to wait until Duck You Sucker’s time came up for my initial screening. I’m glad to have finally gotten around to it, because this is a movie that I’d been anticipating for a long time, and I wish that I wouldn’t have waited so long to watch it because it is every bit as entertaining as any of Leone’s other masterful films.

Duck You Sucker 2

Duck You Sucker, or A Fistful of Dynamite or Once Upon A Time in the Revolution, depending on which version of the film you’ve seen and where, is set in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution. It opens with Juan Miranda (Steiger), the head of a family of bandits, waylaying a stage coach and robbing its wealthy, Anglo occupants of their belongings and money. While the family are counting their spoils, they hear a series of explosions in a nearby canyon, and a masked rider on a motorcycle emerges from the smoke and rubble. The rider is John Mallory (Coburn), a former bomb maker for the IRA, who has fled his home country and sought refuge in Mexico. Seeing John’s proficiency with explosives and noting the similarity of their names, Juan suggests that their meeting must be destiny, and attempts to convince the Irishman to help him and his family break into the National Bank in Mesa Verde. John is committed to the revolutionary cause in Mexico, and sees an opportunity to use Juan in service to the revolution, so he allows him to believe that he is on board with the robbery. When the unlikely pair of allies arrives in Mesa Verde, they find it occupied by the army and meet with other revolutionaries, led by Dr. Villega (Valli), who is orchestrating a coordinated attack in the town. Juan and John hit the bank, along with Juan’s family, as a part of this attack, but when they start blowing open vaults, they find them stuffed with political prisoners instead of cash and jewels. Juan is incensed at being tricked, but finds himself lauded as a hero of the revolution when the attack is over for his role in freeing hundreds of prisoners. With the revolutionaries on the run after the attack, Juan and his family stay with John, although the former expresses some distaste for revolutions in general, noting that though it is academics who theorize social revolution, it is the poor who are actually called to enact it with violence and loss of life. Despite these reservations, Juan helps John to destroy an army detachment by blowing up a bridge, but while Juan is away from his family, they and dozens of other revolutionaries are slaughtered by the army. Juan is heartbroken, and strikes out on his own, though he is quickly captured and is facing a firing squad. John arrives just in time to save his friend, with a well-placed stick of dynamite, and his trademark cry of, “Duck, you sucker,” and the two escape on John’s motorcycle, recommitting themselves to the revolution, and to vengeance for Juan’s murdered family.

Duck You Sucker 1

For fans of Leone’s films, Duck You Sucker should feel familiar, as it borrows elements from his previous Westerns, and is dripping with Leone’s unmistakable directorial aesthetic. Leone’s unique vision of the American West (primarily captured through substituting Italian and Spanish locales), is evident from the first shots of the film. The sun-drenched landscape, and the sunbaked people who exist within it are similar to the ones we’ve seen in Spaghetti Westerns before. Juan and John form the same sort of unlikely duo that we’ve seen in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, teaming up to achieve a certain goal despite their differences in motive, and their initial distrust. Leone’s films are often peopled by outlaws, grifters, and malcontents, and these two feel right at home in that world. Juan is essentially a stock Leone character, one that would often by played by Eli Wallach, and John is a variation on the Man With No Name character made famous by Eastwood, although Coburn does put a unique spin on the trope. I don’t say all this to make Duck You Sucker seem derivative, because it takes these familiar elements and uses them in service of a narrative that is more nuanced and cynical than those of Leone’s earlier films, but to say that it is yet another example of a masterful filmmaker having established, and honed, his cinematic voice. Where Leone’s famous close ups and quick zooms were once mere stylistic tricks, highlighting the grimy, gritty nature of his version of the West and helping to create kinetic effects within his often still visual compositions, here they are often used in ironic counterpoint. Leone is retaining his visual style, but flipping its intended meaning on its head in service of a larger narrative argument that he’s making throughout the film.

Though he claims that he did not intend to make a political film, I don’t see any other way of reading Duck You Sucker. From the outset, the film asks its audience to consider issues of race and class, as they pertain to political revolution. Even setting aside the film’s epigraph, a quote from Mao about the necessity of violence in revolution, which was, predictably, excised from the film’s U.S. release, Duck You Sucker is still the most overtly political of all of Leone’s films. The opening stage coach scene, in which Juan is racially abused and mocked by a coach full of well-to-do Anglos, including a priest, is a perfect example of Leone using his trademark style in the service of this politically motivated criticism. The scene is shot in typical Leone fashion, utilizes a lot of quick cuts and eyeline matches, and a camera framing that is steadily bringing us closer and closer to the subjects. As the racial animus that the wealthy passengers are directing towards Juan starts to reach a head, Leone opts to cut to close ups of their mouths, gorging on food, spitting flecks of it from their lips with each invective. Leone visually links the ugliness of their attitudes and speech to their disgusting manners, undercutting the veneer of polite society that they pretend to live within. Also, in predictably Leone-ian fashion, Juan gets the better of his fellow passengers through some underhanded trickery. He allows them to hurl their insults, and plays the role of the stupid Mexican well, knowing that just around the bend, his sons are waiting to ambush the coach and turn the power dynamic on its head. After being called an animal and a brute by the racist travelers, Juan is happy to oblige their stereotypes as he callously robs, beats, and strips them, leaving them for dead in the desert.

Duck You Sucker 5

While the film, and by extension the filmmaker, doesn’t make an overt political statement, there are more than enough indications throughout as to where the audience’s sympathies are intended to lie. We are repeatedly shown the suffering of the individual and of the oppressed at the hands of the wealthy and those in positions of state-sanctioned power. Though I do believe that Juan’s rejection of revolutionary action, which convinces the intellectual revolutionary John to throw away his Bakunin, should be taken as the sentiment closest to Leone’s own feelings about war and revolution, I think that in this narrative the film is clearly favoring one side of the conflict over the other. The film has the highest body count of any Leone film, by far, and it depicts scores of both soldiers and citizens being killed, but only affords opportunities for pathos in the killings of citizens and revolutionaries. When an entire army battalion is dispatched of in the bridge explosion, they are as ants, crushed underfoot and easily forgotten about, but when Juan’s family and the rest of the rebels are murdered in their beds, the camera makes it a point to linger on their faces, humanizing the dead and evoking strong pathos and sympathy within the audience. Leone said that he didn’t intend anyone to read the film literally, and that the Mexican Revolution should be considered allegorically, but the repeated evocations of revolutionary conflicts across the globe doesn’t really allow for any reading of the film aside from a political/social one.

Duck You Sucker 8

But, even if one chooses not to consider the film’s larger arguments and political implications, it’s a masterful Western in the Italian style. Though he certainly wasn’t the first Italian filmmaker to evoke the American West, Leone firmly established the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, and the genre found its Platonic ideal in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Once again, Leone perfectly captures the Spanish countryside, filming breathtaking vistas and deserts that stand in for Mexico. His images are, as usual, underscored by Ennio Morricone’s breathtaking music, providing perfect accompaniment and counterpoint to the images. Morricone has scored some of my favorite films, and the themes in Duck You Sucker rank among his finest work. And, of course, the film features some strong performances from its leads. Despite not always seeing eye-to-eye with Leone, Steiger turns in a great performance as Juan Miranda, allowing an intellectualism and cunning to shine through the character’s motivating greed and avarice. Coburn plays John Mallory as a world-weary, but not resigned, intellectual. He often seems bemused at the circumstances that have led him halfway around the world, but he rarely wanes in his principled dedication to revolutionary action. The two actors play off of one another well and make the unlikely bond between Juan and John feel not just realistic, but deep and true. By the film’s end, it’s clear that these characters have grown not just to respect one another, but to feel a close affinity and kinship with one another, despite their differences. Leone has maintained that the film is ultimately about their unlikely friendship, and that the revolution is just the setting that allows that story to take place, and if one wants to read the film that way, he or she certainly wouldn’t be disappointed, either.

Duck You Sucker 3

I really can’t say enough good things about this movie. I’m kicking myself for not watching it sooner, because I think that I would have more insightful criticism to provide if I had a couple more screenings under my belt. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where Duck You Sucker should fit in the larger context of Leone’s filmography, and of the Western genre, as a whole. It’s a film that sees a legendary director starting to expand his palette while truly refining his signature style. Once Upon A Time in the West, the film that directly precedes this one in Leone’s body of work, is truly an elegy for the American Western, and felt like it was closing a chapter on the director’s career. So what, then, is Duck You Sucker? I think that it’s an example of Leone trying to work out other artistic and narrative concerns within a familiar milieu. If the West of his earlier films represented a filter through which to understand Americanism from the perspective of an outsider, then should we read Mexico and the Revolution in Duck You Sucker as a filter through which to explore and understand human relations and power dynamics, generally? I’ll need a few more viewings to truly settle my own thoughts on this movie, and I’m sure that I’ll take that opportunity as soon as I’m able, which makes me really happy. Part of what I was hoping to do in this project was to potentially reassess my relationship and understanding of movies with which I was intimately familiar, through unfamiliar juxtapositions, or meeting a film text at a totally different point in my life. In this case, watching a new movie has helped me to reexamine my thoughts in regards to a filmmaker that I felt I was already intimately familiar with. Finally introducing myself to Duck You Sucker was a real pleasure, but the most fun thing about it was how it started the process of helping me rethink my own understanding of Leone’s cinema. It felt like putting in a final puzzle piece and completing a picture. Of course, now I have the inspiring challenge of making sense of what that overall picture means to me.

Drunken Master

Drunken Master (1978)

Dir. Yuen Woo-ping

Written by: Lung Hsiao, Ng See-yuen, Yuen Woo-ping

Starring: Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu-tien, Hwang Jang-lee

 

Drunken Master is one of the seminal classics of the kung fu genre. I didn’t see the movie until after I had already become enamored with Hong Kong martial arts films and decided to trace the lineage back to some of the great films of the early period of the genre, but it’s still a favorite of mine. Like many Americans getting into kung fu movies, my journey began with the films of Bruce Lee, and then jumped forward to the modern kung fu films of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, whose American films were becoming very popular around the time that I started high school. After I tired of their late 1990s and early 2000s era Americanized martial arts films, I started seeking out Chan’s earliest work, and discovered a treasure trove of classic Hong Kong cinema. Jackie Chan has become a household name, and in many ways has come to signify a certain type of martial arts cinema. The roots of his particular blend of slapstick comedy and martial arts can be found on full display in Drunken Master.

The film casts Chan as the folk hero Wong Fei-hung, a revolutionary kung fu master who lived at the turn of the 20th century, and a common figure among popular martial arts media. In the film, young Wong is a troublemaker, who is only beginning his journey towards becoming a hero and martial artist. Wong is more interested in causing mischief with his friends and in picking fights than he is in learning the disciplines of kung fu, so his father, Kei-ying (Lam Kau), recruits the feared and legendary master Su Hua-chi (Yuen Siu-tien) to mentor the boy and mold him into a kung fu master. Master Su introduces Wong Fei-hung to a rigorous training regimen, meant to strengthen the pupil’s mind and body in preparation for his learning of Master Su’s secret style of kung fu, “drunken boxing.” Though he initially bristles at the torturous training, Wong eventually falls in line after suffering an embarrassing thrashing from Thunderleg (Hwang Jang-lee), a local contract killer and bully. Wong masters drunken boxing just in time to save his father from Thunderleg, who has been hired to kill him by a business rival to whom the elder Wong will not sell his land.

drunken master 3

Drunken Master wasn’t Jackie Chan’s first hit in Hong Kong, but it, along with its predecessor Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, also directed by Yuen Woo-ping, were Chan’s true breakthroughs. The films established the comedic style of kung fu that the actor would become synonymous with, and ushered in a sea change in the genre. The films also helped Chan to step out from Bruce Lee’s shadow, as he had been groomed as a potential successor to Lee as the next big star of Hong Kong action cinema. While Chan would go on to experience major success both at home and internationally, likely earning a place on the Mount Rushmore of modern action stars, he would do it through establishing a potent blend of comedy and action. Chan’s unique style of martial arts, acrobatic and lithe, is on full display in Drunken Master, and his comedic timing is enhanced by the film’s plot device that drunken boxing can only be optimally performed when under the influence of alcohol. Throughout the film, Chan glides through his fight scenes, displaying an oxymoronic graceful clumsiness and the sort of effortless physical timing that denotes a master. He nails his spots and his stunts, while maintaining the engagingly charismatic persona that makes him a star. Though the film doesn’t feature the daredevil stunts that would become Chan’s calling card later in his career, the seeds of his slapstick style of action comedy are clearly already on display.

drunken master 6

Chan isn’t the only engaging martial artist in the film, however. Drunken Master is full of great fight scenes that are entertaining, exciting, and funny. Yuen Woo-ping began his career with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and used that film and this one to cement his style, going on to further his credentials by working with several legendary martial arts actors and further the blend of comedy and martial arts. Though much of his cast in Drunken Master is not as famous or accomplished as the actors who he would make his name with, Yuen helps his performers stand out in unique ways during their fight scenes. Hwang is the perfect villain in the film as Thunderleg, and Yuen uses the actor’s physicality perfectly, crafting him as a traditionally one-dimensional, cruel and punishing villain. Though the Korean actor would continue to work in Korea and Hong Kong into the 1990s, Thunderleg is probably his signature role, and his unique fighting style in the film is memorable. Dean Shek, who had already been making films for Shaw Brothers Studios for a decade, stands out as Kai-hsien the assistant instructor at Wong Kei-ying’s school, whom Wong Fei-hung and his friends bully early in the film. He provides a lot of comic relief early on and is a good foil for Jackie Chan. Yuen Siu-tien, Woo-ping’s father and an established martial arts star, steals several scenes as Master Su. He plays the role of the drunk and the warrior equally well, snapping into action in the film’s fight scenes, while he dodders around, casually abusing Wong, during its many training montages. The many different styles of kung fu on display, and Yuen Woo-ping’s ability to excellently choreograph fight scenes that highlight those stylistic differences, make for a varied fight-fest that doesn’t get bogged down in the repetition that can befall some lesser martial arts films.

The film is, admittedly, fairly light on plot, but I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t really watch kung fu movies looking for intricately plotted narratives, and Drunken Master delivers on the promise of a fun, action-packed two hours of entertainment. The film’s plot will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the archetypal narrative of the hero’s journey, generally, and intimately familiar to anyone who is familiar with kung fu films. It uses the traditional narrative of some outside force threatening the protagonist’s village/family/martial arts school, and the protagonist having to train to defeat that outside force, and becoming a kung fu master in the process. While some of the specifics of this narrative are unique to Asian cultures, the narrative itself is universal and bears a great deal of similarity to the classic American Western. I have always felt that the Western and the Asian action genres of martial arts and samurai films have had a great deal in common and have regularly been in cinematic dialogue with one another. There are obvious examples of crossover with The Magnificent Seven being a direct adaptation of Seven Samurai, and with A Fistful of Dollars being adapted from Yojimbo, but I think that overall the genres are constantly influencing and informing one another. Specifically in Drunken Master, I think that Yuen Woo-ping shows the influence of Sergio Leone early in the film, particularly in the way he has characterized and chooses to frame Thunderleg.  The sort of primal, direct narratives that Westerns and martial arts films traffic in are cut from the same cloth, despite cultural specificity, and the focus on “men of action,” while perhaps outmoded, is certainly familiar. I guess it isn’t surprising that these two genres are among my favorites, and that I’ll generally be pretty satisfied to watch any Western or martial arts film.

drunken master 5

Drunken Master is the sort of genre cornerstone that anyone who is interested in getting into kung fu movies, or Hong Kong cinema generally, should see. It is an early career classic from some of the central players in the New Hong Kong Cinema that would emerge in the 1980s, and its influence on the modern martial arts genre should not be understated. I don’t know that I personally love the slapstick style of Jackie Chan and the extreme emphasis on comedy in his early kung fu films as much as the traditional wu xia inspired kung fu films of the Shaw Brothers, but Drunken Master is too fun not to enjoy. The film’s fight choreography stands up to modern films, even 40 years after its release, thanks to the work of Chan and Yuen Woo-ping, both legends in the world of martial arts cinema. The film’s injection of humor makes it a perfect starting point for people looking to start watching more kung fu movies, and the presence of a mega-star like Jackie Chan make it fairly easily accessible, as well. Martial arts films had already reached a high level of artistic accomplishment by the release of Drunken Master, but the film’s success helped to reinvigorate the genre after the death of Bruce Lee, and helped to keep it relevant, if somewhat disregarded as “low art,” with international audiences. The film’s innovations wouldn’t be fully realized until Chan broke through as a star in Hollywood in the early 1990s, bringing along with him a wave of Hong Kong action stars and American releases of their films, but without Drunken Master, it’s arguable that this boom period for martial arts cinema wouldn’t have happened. If you’re only going to watch one kung fu movie, this might not be the Platonic ideal to choose, but if you want to explore the genre and seek out some of the more unique entries to its canon, Drunken Master can’t be missed.

Drug War

Drug War (2013)

Dir. Johnnie To

Written by: Ka-Fai Wai and Nai-Hoi Yau

Starring: Honglei Sun and Louis Koo

 

Drug War is the perfect action thriller to follow up last week’s movie, Don’t Say A Word, and to help wash that viewing experience out of my consciousness. Drug War is a great action movie, suspenseful, stylish and original, perfectly paced and shot. I’ve written before about my fondness for Hong Kong action cinema developing early in my teens when my friends and I would borrow tapes from one of their fathers. During those early years, I associated Hong Kong cinema, and Asian action cinema, in general, with the kung fu movies of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. It wasn’t until college that I discovered the wide array of films that were common in Hong Kong cinema tradition, including beautiful ghost stories informed by Chinese mystic traditions, the aforementioned kung fu classics and wuxia epics, and, of course, gritty police procedurals, which became some of my favorites. Over the last decade, or so, my appreciation for Asian action cinema, in general, hasn’t waned, with some of my favorite recent action films emerging from Hong Kong and Korea. I’ve found these imports to routinely be more unique and of a higher quality than the Hollywood action fare that is currently clogging the multiplex from April to October, and Drug War is certainly no exception.

drug war 4

Drug War is something of a hybrid of a procedural and action film, exploring both the tedious minutiae of day-to-day vice investigations, as well as the explosively dangerous situations that drug enforcement officers in China find themselves in when attempting to apprehend drug traffickers. The film opens with Timmy Choi (Koo), a drug manufacturer and trafficker, crashing his sports car into a shop window while fleeing from an explosion at his methamphetamine factory. Simultaneously, we witness a sting operation led by Captain Zhang (Sun), a vice cop, in which a busload of drug mules are apprehended. Choi is brought to the same hospital that is treating the mules, and Zhang realizes that the man is connected to the trafficking ring, and though he attempts an escape from the hospital, Choi is apprehended and offers to trade information in exchange for his life. With Choi’s help, Zhang goes undercover, impersonating two different figures in the Chinese drug underground, and working his way into the organization. He is introduced to all facets of the drug trade, from manufacturing to distribution and trafficking, and he is gradually introduced to the major players of Choi’s syndicate. Zhang sets up a deal, posing as “Haha” a drug trafficker who operates a port and is looking to ship the syndicate’s drugs across the sea to Korea and Japan, but when it’s time for the deal to go down, the gangsters discover that there’s a rat in their midst, which prompts an epic battle in the streets between the police and the gangsters.

I think what I like the most about Drug War is that it feels authentic. Nothing about is glossy or over the top, and there’s not an attempt to glorify either side of the conflict. The drug dealers aren’t, for the most part, monsters, nor are the police shining white knights. Instead, both groups are depicted, realistically, as two sides of the same coin, having to come to unsteady alliances with one another in order to operate. Though Zhang isn’t sure if he should fully trust Choi, he knows that he needs him for the access that he can provide to higher ups in the drug trade, and though Choi can’t fully trust Zhang, he has to try to keep him happy or he’ll face the death penalty. The pair’s tenuous symbiosis is at the center of the film and it stands in for the larger parasite/host relationship that the drug traffickers share with society generally, as well as the predator/prey relationship that the police and the drug dealers share.

dw-detained

The film is also realistic in its depiction of police work. I’m a sucker for a good, slow-moving procedural, and though Drug War is a bit too action oriented to be a true procedural, I appreciate the fact that To chooses to slow the pace and put a damper on his typically bombastic brand of action cinema. Drug War takes special time to show the surveillance teams tensely listening in as Zhang goes undercover in a room full of dangerous criminals. It highlights the technology that the police rely on to gain information about their targets, as well as the planning and precision timing that are required to execute a successful raid or sting operation. We see teams of officers working in tandem, as a finely-oiled machine or a single-brained organism. This slow pace not only allows the audience to appreciate the complexity of the work that the officers are doing, it also creates a great deal of suspense throughout the film. Early in the film, To chooses to drag out several sequences, ratcheting up the tension as the audience shifts to the front of their collective seats, teasing a disastrous outcome for our protagonists, only to rectify the situation at the last minute, easing the tension and letting everyone take a quick breath. As Zhang gets closer and closer to the top of the Chinese drug underground, the stakes, and the suspense, only raise higher. The film, generally, is a slow build towards its ultimate violent denouement, punctuated throughout by short bursts of action, and the tension/release formula that To has mastered.

drug war 1

The payoff for all of that suspense is the film’s explosively violent conclusion. To is known for his stylish depictions of violence, and the conclusion of Drug War doesn’t disappoint on that front. To makes his film’s big shootout poetic, capturing some two dozen players firing wildly in the street outside of a primary school, ducking in and out of cover, while his camera does the same, zooming in and out of the action, reframing the shots quickly to mimic the disorienting feeling of an extreme adrenaline rush. The camera often tracks out from the scene, affording the audience a glimpse of the whole street, which resembles a battlefield or chess board, reinforcing the idea that the individual players, be they cop or criminal, are the chess pieces in a larger game. Though this climactic gun battle is the film’s most virtuosic set piece, it still maintains the overall gritty, realistic aesthetic of the film. There is none of John Woo’s gun ballet on display here. In fact, To’s decision to shoot on location gives the scene an eerie, news-like quality that drives home its realism. Simply put, the scene is a great action set piece.

Drug War is full of memorable scenes, but one that sticks out especially for me, is the extended scene early in the film in which we see Zhang go undercover as two different underworld figures, “Haha” and Li Shuchang, who couldn’t be further apart in mannerism and personality. In the scene, Sun is asked to play three different characters, and he nails each one of them. Sun slides effortlessly from persona to persona, fooling the characters in the film as well as the audience. He first meets with Haha, where he must impersonate the stone faced Li Shuchang, saying very little, not allowing a glimpse into his internal processing. The scene then requires Sun to flip characters and impersonate Haha while meeting with the real Li, so he completely changes his physicality, loosening his gait and adopting Haha’s gregarious carefree style of conversation. The meetings are all incredibly suspenseful, as the audience waits to see if Zhang’s cover will be blown, but with Sun’s perfect mimicry, there’s never any real doubt. He doesn’t break until after the deal between Haha and Li has been secured, and only then does Sun return to the Zhang character. He’s taken too much cocaine, in order to sell his performance as Haha, and Sun enacts Zhang’s panic and fear of an overdose perfectly. As soon as the real Li exits their meeting room, he drops the pretense of being Haha and collapses to the floor, writhing and screaming. The layers of this performance, with Sun playing Captain Zhang, who is in turn playing two roles in his undercover meetings, always stands out to me. The three performances are all markedly different, and they are all realized in about five minutes of screen time.

drug war 3

I don’t typically go for action movies or thrillers much anymore, because they’re often so derivative and one note, but movies like Drug War remind me that the genre is still quite fresh if you look beyond the scope of the Hollywood mainstream. It was on my top ten list in 2013, and it’s still a pleasure to watch a few years later. Even though I know how the story unfolds and when the action set pieces fall, To’s suspenseful film doesn’t lose any of its effect. Drug War is an expertly timed and acted slow burn, and To’s visual style keeps the audience immersed in the world of the film, typically hanging on the edge of their seats. The payoffs at the film’s end are even more satisfying because the tension has been ratcheted so high throughout the earlier parts of the film, providing an appropriate give and take between the film’s contrasting styles. When the violence does finally erupt in Drug War, it has a more cathartic effect than in a mindless action blockbuster because the film has taken the time to properly set the stage by developing its characters and their relationships to one another. It’s a highly satisfying thrill ride and one that I’ll be signing up for again many times in the years to come.