Millennial Traversals – Foreign Film Reviews I (Warm-ups)

I’d been attempting to integrate some of the pre-millennial pieces here in my previous book anthologies, but they always dropped out on the way to final draft. The reason may be evident in the first few samples: I treated foreign releases as exercises for themes and styles that I could take up in earnest when tackling Philippine movies. Foreign studies had the effect of reversing this dynamic, where I felt I had to explain Pinoy cinema to my colleagues, yet from what I could observe, my perspective on local films remained the same even as it inevitably deepened and expanded; it was non-Philippine cinema that benefited – from an emergent conviction that everything is interrelated, even though (contra the principle of the dispositif) one may prefer some modes, sources, and personalities to others.

A CLOCKWORK YELLOW

The China Syndrome
Directed by James Bridges
Written by Mike Gray, T. S. Cook, and James Bridges

The China Syndrome is more than just sheer entertainment. It is also a remarkably realized instance of committed art. Of course old-school critics would dispute the validity of such a category; but even outside its explosive social context, the movie remains reasonably well-made. By this is not meant the brand bestowed by a gala screening at the Cannes Film Festival or the numerous nominations by various award-giving bodies in the United States. Expectations generated by such accounts serve only to avert the average moviegoer.

The China Syndrome certainly does not deserve such dubious distinctions. Its celluloid nature, notwithstanding, is in many ways too true to be just good, constituting a minor achievement. The obvious showpiece to which it may be compared is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a “brilliant, stylized, unsparing treatment of the nuclear crisis,” according to an ardent admirer. Dr. Strangelove anticipated elements of the Third World’s perspective toward such a crisis nearly a decade before it was put to painful use by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. In the movie, both American and Russian superpowers were depicted as atrocious arms racers who eventually bring about doomsday. (Curiously, the film was broadcast fairly often on Philippine television until the anti-US bases movement was launched last year.)

More unfortunate circumstances attended the scheduled screening of The China Syndrome in local theaters, including a momentary ban by the board of censors for motion pictures (BCMP). Had it not had an influential distributor, it may never have been passed at all. This was because the Philippines is quite accustomed to the presence of nuclear power, starting with the nuking of an admittedly abusive neighboring country during World War II. Apart from the confirmed storage of nuclear arsenal in US bases, a $1.2-billion nuclear power plant is almost certain to be constructed in Bataan.

The China Syndrome’s struggle with the BCMP paralleled that of the opposition to the construction of the nuclear plant: when the plant was under construction, the movie was banned; when construction was suspended, the movie was passed. It may not be safe however to go beyond these observations. Negotiations between the government and Westinghouse Electric concerning the plant were re-opened this month, and one can only hope these would not affect the current status of media commentaries, including the rather pointed statement made by The China Syndrome.

The movie is an account of an accident in such a plant and the series of events which follow. A TV reporter and cameraperson (Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas respectively) witness through a glass brightly the soundless panic of the plant’s operators. In violation of relevant US statutes, the cameraman films the occurrence and fights for its appearance on TV. After he is overruled by TV executives, he protests and, antagonizing them further, he runs away with the film with the reporter’s help but fails; so he turns to nuclear activist-experts.

The reporter, meanwhile, encounters the plant engineer (Jack Lemmon) while looking for her camera operator. Through his investigative initiative, the engineer realizes that a resumption of operations would prove dangerous for the public, the same conclusions arrived at by the activist group. They describe the possibility of a China syndrome – the spillage of radioactive material which would theoretically bore through the earth all the way to China. The worst part of it is that once the material reaches water level, it would explode upward and render a territory the size of Southern California permanently uninhabitable.

Reporter and cameraperson arrange for a live testimony from the engineer, but are prevented from carrying out their intentions because of sabotage and harassment from businessmen whose interests are threatened by the plant’s closure. In frustration, the engineer takes over the nuclear plant, demands publicity, and is given more than what he asked for. The movie’s ending is first tragic and then righteous in the grand manner, vivid enough to impress itself upon the average moviegoer. If it has to be faulted with anything, it would be along the charge of yellow-journalistic treatment: why present an already alarming issue sensationally and possibly incite the audience to immediate action?

By way of speculation, if the movie’s propagandistic approach makes it less of an achievement, then one may as well dismiss all other political films except those which make nihilist or avant-garde statements. Even by standards of style, the movie’s production values meet the best expectations of Hollywood: glamorous performances, fast pacing, frenzied build-up with hopeful ending. The film’s most praiseworthy attribute, though, lies in production rather than direction. This partly explains the discomfiture of critics accustomed to auteurism (the director as a movie’s central intelligence) in appreciating The China Syndrome.

Director James Bridges, whose previous credits include trivia like The Paper Chase (1973) and September 30, 1955 (1977), covers controversial ground for the first time, though as a promising director he remains still largely a promise. From Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon we have sound delineations of character – more so from the former, who has always been careful in her choice of material. Michael Douglas, as producer, deserves the most returns he can get from The China Syndrome. He spent four years trying to get Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) off the ground, was well-rewarded, financially and critically, for his efforts, and spent about as much time on the present film, this time as sole producer. May those returns go to similar, if not more worthwhile, projects, local ones included.

[First published February 22, 1980, in Who]

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KRAMER VS. WOMEN

Kramer vs. Kramer
Directed and written by Robert Benton

How can anyone resist loving Kramer vs. Kramer? This movie seems to have everything going for it: glamorous performers, domestic concerns, competent direction, Oscar trophies. The movie is so disarming, in fact, that it is almost fashionable to gush over it and dismiss dissenting opinions as anti-social affectations. Based on a novel by Avery Corman, Kramer tells the story of a father and son, Ted and Billy Kramer, who were abandoned by Billy’s mother Joanna. Realizing that he was responsible for what had happened, Ted tries to make up for lost time by becoming both father and mother to Billy, and loses his job in the process. Over a year later, a more affluent and self-assured Joanna comes back, claiming custody of the child. Inasmuch as Ted objects, the couple take their case to court, where the judge opts for a motherhood ruling. Joanna, however, becomes aware of the damage she might bring about and opts not to claim Billy for herself anymore.

Compared to Corman’s novel, Robert Benton’s movie is a commendable improvement. Extraneous plot development and excessive telegraphic dialogues in the novel were discarded – a sort of novelization-in-reverse. But fully falling for the movie would only be too easy for any earnest moviegoer: Kramer vs. Kramer should be viewed with the realization that its dramatic intensity derives from inaccurate representations of reality. The courtroom scenes, for instance, have been criticized by American lawyers themselves as unfaithful to the actual legal process. To begin with, no unduly influenced judge would rule so readily in favor of a parent who admitted having been guilty of abandonment; neither would such a judge desist from calling on the child in question to testify. In fact, as per contemporary legal requisites, the judge would be compelled to consider the child’s testimony before delivering a verdict.

The worst oversight of all, however, lies in the movie’s support for Ted at the expense of Joanna. Although Meryl Streep delivers a sympathetic performance, the movie makes no effort to clarify that feminism is not the issue at stake. Notwithstanding Benton’s assertion that “the picture isn’t mean to be a film about…whether fathers or mothers are better qualified to raise kids,” Kramer vs. Kramer reveals its own bias in its portrayal of Ted as victor – first morally, if not legally, then virtually. Such propensity for partisanship may not be as harmful as that of the previous Oscar awardee The Deer Hunter (1978, dir. Michael Cimino), in which American patriotism was evoked at the expense of the very same victims of the sentiment. Nevertheless for a society such as ours, which still has to realize the true emancipation of women, misgivings on well-intentioned efforts like Kramer vs. Kramer should always occasion further discussion.

[First published June 8, 1980, in Parade]

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STAR-CROSSED

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Harold Livingston

Critics can hardly be faulted for approaching so-called epic productions with wariness. Such an attitude was brought about by several historical or religious films whose artistic aspirations fall flat as the screen they’re projected on. For a time a number of big-budgeted futuristic projects were considered relatively respectable. This was first made possible by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and sustained by Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind almost a decade later.

Then Star Trek: the Motion Picture lumbered along and nullified the notion that it is always best to set the sky, pardon the pun, as the limit in such undertakings. The movie takes off on the three-year TV series of the same title. A Starfleet station witnesses the annihilation of Klingon spaceships by an unidentified alien, which is soon reckoned to be racing toward earth. To meet the alien, a re-fitted USS Enterprise is reconscripted, its crew comprising the same characters as before, with the addition of Commander Willard Decker and his lover Ilia from planet Delta.

Upon nearing the alien, the ship is inexplicably incapacitated. Ilia is spirited away and a likeness of her, representing “Vger,” the alien, is beamed back. (The difference between Ilia and “Vger” can best be understood in the context of the biblical concept of the Trinity, with Ilia as god the “son” and “Vger” as god the father: the former, although a human counterpart of the latter, enjoys a separate, distinct existence.) The Enterprise dispatches a delegation, which includes Commander Decker and the likeness of Ilia, to confront “Vger,” which turns out to be a Voyager spaceship undergoing an identity crisis: its new name was formed when the “oya” on its nameplate was blotched out in the course of its travel.

The delegates deduce that the Voyager, which had fallen into a black hole, was invested with intelligence by whatever or whoever existed there and sent back into this universe to realize its reason for “living.” Commander Decker demands to merge himself with the likeness of Ilia and offer themselves to the Voyager, that it may acquire a human dimension. His demand is granted, the Voyager is appeased, earth is saved, and another viewer’s intelligence is extinguished.

Entertainment-wise, Star Trek is confusing although its emptiness is as vast as space itself. Director Robert Wise, in successfully demonstrating that what is ponderous can also be pretentious, winds up with a narrative that plods along toward its soporific climax, laden with every conceivable excuse to indulge in subplots or SFX displays. The characters exchange existentialist cliches and wind up as interesting as classical philosophers in one respect: those sages have, to their advantage this time, long been dead.

Campiness could have saved the exercise from absolute inertia; but apparently in keeping with the tone of the TV series, Wise decided to use a staid style throughout. Which wasn’t, well, wise at all, since how else could the interest equivalent to one hour be spread over about three times that length of time? Even special effects wizards Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Close Encounters) and John Dykstra (George Lucas’s Star Wars) were unable to surmount Wise’s propensity for profundity: what they have achieved in Star Trek are visual displays with predictable and pointless recurrence. The disappointment of Star Trek, however, should not deter local producers from spending more on their projects, so long as they keep in mind the realization that bigger budgets deserve proportionally bigger talents.

[First published June 15, 1980, in Parade]

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BRAINLESS LOVE

Endless Love
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Written by Judith Rascoe

The most ironic development in cinema is the fact that, more likely than not, love stories constitute the most hated genre. This is easier to comprehend than love itself, since nothing lends itself to manipulation more than the most positive human emotion there is. Not a few film directors have therefore not surprisingly succumbed to the lustful lure of love stories, if only to renew their run-down careers.

Among the latter, Franco Zeffirelli has arguably been the most successful lately. His 1977 tearjerker, a re-make of King Vidor’s 1931 knockout The Champ, had audiences all over the world (Manila included) crying over the comeback woes of a has-been boxer. Critics cried too over the misuse of the thespic talents of Jon Voight as the boxer and Faye Dunaway as his separated wife. In any event, Zeffirelli’s Champ established its director as a box-office, well, champ, and reminded his early followers of his skill at executing filmic elegance, if not anything else.

The Champ may have been a hard act to follow, but Zeffirelli has just landed another hit in his box-office bid for perennial presence with Endless Love. Based on the novel by Scott Spencer, the movie tells the story of David Axelrod and Jade Butterfield, two teenage lovers whose romantic ideals are challenged by society. The thankless plot begins when Jade’s parents discover their daughter messing around with David in their own house, whom they forthwith (and understandably) forbid from further such trysts; the latter reacts by burning down their residence, which causes his confinement in an asylum.

Unfortunately for the Butterfields, not to mention the audience, David is discharged earlier than his stipulated sentence. He seeks out Jade’s whereabouts, and in the process he seduced by the newly separated Mrs. Butterfield and pursued by her paranoid husband. Both, however, do not get him: she gets jilted; he gets run over by a car. Meanwhile David finds and has a last fling with Jade, whose vindictive brother builds up a more solid case against David on the basis of Butterfield’s death. Endless Love finally finishes with Jade making up her mind in David’s favor.

Such pitfalls in the plot’s development are betrayed by the perfunctory performance of the leads. Brooke Shields is as devoid of depth as she is of facial blemishes; by her the already awkward role of Jade is further cheapened. As for Martin Hewitt, the less seen of him the better. He has neither the talent to hold up to the complexity of his role as David nor the charm to hold up to the presence of Shields. Franco Zeffirelli, for his part, would do well to turn to honest money-making instead of dishonest movie-making in the related field of advertising, wherein exquisite but endless bores like Endless Love would be more readily appreciated.

[First published June 15, 1980, in Parade]

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MANILA EVENT SHORT TAKE I

Ragtime
Directed by Milos Forman
Written by Michael Weller

Ragtime the novel set a difficult precedent: it was both the most critically acclaimed novel and the best seller of its year of publication (1975). Critics of Milos Forman’s cinematic counterpart could clinch their cases faster by resorting to the unfair practice of comparing the film to the novel. They would find that E.L. Doctorow’s literary techniques do not translate as smoothly in visual terms. Forman has been too reluctant to employ conventional methods even if (or perhaps because) these proved effective in another medium.

This attitude is correct in so far as runaway successes are concerned. In the case of Ragtime the movie, however, such suspicion has resulted in undue emphasis on production values instead of human concerns – which was what the novel achieved despite its impressive historical context. Hence the explosive (literally and figuratively) story of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is developed without the attendant parallelisms provided by the breakdown between the white couple, Father and Mother, who get involved in his case. Furthermore, if we are to take the fully developed story of Walker as the movie’s main concern, then all the other subplots should have been accorded more incidental treatment.

The story which culminates in the assassination of Stanford White, for example, has no immediate bearing to that of Walker; coming as it does before the latter, no tie-up is made the way that the other story allows (i.e., Mother’s Younger Brother joins Walker’s all-black gang). Problems in adaptation aside, Ragtime runs along the visual and aural lines of a Hollywood spectacular. The recreations of turn-of-the-century Americana move beyond accuracy to nostalgia, and the appearances of celebrities like James Cagney and Norman Mailer are authoritative enough to impress those in the know. Would that the movie as a whole were at least equal to the sum of its parts.

[First published February 1982 in The Review]

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MANILA EVENT SHORT TAKE II

Man of Iron
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Written by Aleksander Scibor-Rylski

Man of Iron is preceded by the disadvantage of comparison to its predecessor, Man of Marble (1977, dir. Andrzej Wajda). Although almost a decade older, the latter would probably lose little of its initial impact, detailing as it does the rise and fall of a labor leader working within the confines of totalitarianism, as perceived by an initially naïve female filmmaker. The use of a female reporter’s point of view is daring in itself, fraught with the irony of the profession’s claims to objectivity compounded with the opposing gender’s conservative credos. Nevertheless Andrzej Wajda has chosen not to rest on the triumph of this device and proceeded in Man of Iron to employ an even more challenging (not to mention controversial) means: the story of the filmmaker, who marries the son of the late labor leader, is this time tracked by a government informer.

Wajda presents the son as motivated by the murder of his father. The truly cognizant character, the filmmaker, is, throughout the present plot, incarcerated. To top it all, the informer is dealt with, right from the very start, sympathetically. Yet the film works more effectively than the best-crafted progressive tract possible, precisely because it is honest enough to face these contradictions and differences within the labor movement. Subjective leaders and likable villains are realities that only complicate discussions, but Man of Iron transcends these concerns by its convictions – of the nobility of the cause and the humanity of the characters involved.

By such means the argument against the incorporation of censored outtakes from Man of Marble into Man of Iron is rendered irrelevant. In the flashback, for example, where the murder of the hero in Man of Marble is depicted, Wadja shows how the son and the filmmaker are hindered by gunfire from government troops so that they could not even catch a glimpse of the body, much less retrieve it. Here Wadja could have resorted to more visually impressive scenes – e.g., the murder itself; instead he restrains himself by reserving such spectacles for the finale, where the fully developed ironies are seemingly resolved by the triumph of the workers. Even then the flush of victory is kept in check: an establishment spokesman assures the demoralized informer that the conquest cannot last. The latter’s reaction – that of further disappointment – clinches the distinction of Man of Iron not as just another manifesto masquerading as a movie, but as a testament to the fullness of critical resistance.

[First published February 1982 in The Review]

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EPIC SOAPBOX

The Mission
Directed by Roland Joffé
Written by Robert Bolt

The Mission, a British movie, is this year’s Golden Palm winner at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the second directorial effort of former producer Roland Joffé, who had previously scored with The Killing Fields (1984). Where the latter is structurally flawed but manages to compensate through the purveyance of a fierce, almost shrill, Cold-War political conviction, The Mission is more subdued, reliant on a more straightforward mode of presentation.

Its very neatness makes it easier, in fact, to pinpoint the central weakness in the film, a weakness shared by Joffé’s maiden work and therefore indicative so far of a blind spot in an otherwise exceptionally lucid visual consciousness: at the point where two male protagonists, each representing antithetical social positions, arrive at the contact crucial for dramatic discussions, the filmmaker pulls back and resolves the issue on a socio-historical scale. This strategy provides an opportunity for epic grandstanding, but invalidates the groundwork so painstakingly laid earlier. In The Killing Fields, the issue of guilt – as seen in the desertion of a hapless native by his circumstantially advantaged employer – is set aside to make way for a debate on the acceptability of two opposing political systems. The digression is admittedly more profound than the original conflict, but it hardly justifies the reconciliatory resolution between the lead characters.

Similarly The Mission starts out on a trifle too obvious but still-valid problem. A slave-trader captures the converts of a Catholic missionary, but meets with his share of divine justice when he commits fratricide after his woman professes to love his brother. He imposes upon himself the penance of carrying his worldly goods to the priest’s mission, until he should be set free by the very tribe he had victimized. Upon his unexpected emancipation, he undergoes a spiritual awakening strong enough to convince him of a calling to the priesthood – and here the extraneous influences intrude. Given a choice between the introduction of colonialism and the retention of the primitive state, the film suggests spiritual enlightenment as a worthy compromise, and then imposes this non sequitur on the freshly frocked character, the former slave-trader. The original missionary is next made to assume the voice of the Vatican, espousing the alternative of non-violence in the face of the dismantling of the mission camp by state forces.

In the end both the new and the original missionary lose out to military might, but win out with the conveyance of a parochial sympathy for the specific religious order that got caught up in this strain in church-state relations. In the end, too, I assured myself that I could take a false conclusion so long as it arose from faithfully observed propositions. On the other hand, why get too holy with the director who, apart from the Monty Python group’s Terry Gilliam, seems qualified at the moment to come up with the next major British film? That is, once he finds a way to surmount what had turned out to have been a Mission impossible.

[First published December 10, 1986, in National Midweek]

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EXPLORING THE WORLD OF DREAMS

Dreamscape
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Written by David Loughery, Chuck Russell, and Joseph Ruben

By this time an enterprising film scholar, obviously with a penchant for psychology, will have developed an aesthetic system based on the function of film as demonstrator of the dream state. She would have a rich legacy of items to draw from, and I’d like to boost the credit of having suggested the entire body of work of Luis Buñuel; that pipe dream aside, however, our hypothetical expert, if she were to be more ambitious, would have to be comprehensive enough to include mainstream realist samples, perhaps even the ultrarealism of documentaries (also part of the Buñuel oeuvre), to accommodate any objections to her argument.

By being comprehensive she would also have to present a voluminous study, and if it were detailed (read: boring) enough, a footnote might refer to a Hollywood production, Dreamscape. Yes, folks, this entry does stand out at the moment only because the rest of the foreign releases (save for The Mission [1986], which I’d reviewed two installments back) are so frustratingly dismal. Here we have the titillating premise of how dreams, which are normally regarded as unreal, may on certain occasions subvert our accepted notions of reality by suggesting a verisimilar situation so urgent that in our other condition, wakefulness, we are impelled to intervene. In one instant the titillation assumes a thoroughly physical aspect, when the lead character projects him into the dream of a hypocritically resistant beauty, the better to seduce her toward total submission.

That in fact was the only engaging sequence in a hopelessly awry latter half – and come to think of it, said portion could be capable of standing for what the entire work should have been: compact, appealing, logical according to its own terms. Its only shortcoming would be a lack of dramatic purpose, but then the movie as a whole leads toward such an earnestly misdeveloped objective, so much so that the value of the film-within-a-film appreciates within context. To go beyond abstraction, Dreamscape narrates the story of a man who is recalled to participate in an academically initiated parapsychic attempt to enter another person’s dream, with the aim of exercising some control over the events that take place in that alien world. An earlier disappointment over the clinical approach of the project’s proponent provides the conflict here, enough to sustain a modest movie – but not for the makers of Dreamscape.

Enter a child with a recurrent nightmare, then a female laboratory assistant with an outmoded sense of work ethics; each replaces the previous character as the embodiment of our hero’s struggle for significance. Nothing wrong with this device, I daresay, except that instead of allowing the present contradiction to proceed from the previous one, the movie winds up presenting a series of episodic sketches. Before you know it, the hero finds himself up against a similarly gifted psychotic, aided by sinister government agents, who both decide to scare fatally the President of the United States in his dreams of nuclear devastation so that the latter may be prevented from affecting a program for disarmament!

Needless to say our hero overcomes everything, except the audience’s feeling of how total the movie’s manipulation has been, how utterly inconsiderate of the sense of reality that returns after the filmic experience, when every single informed individual on this planet knows that such literally earth-shaking problems cannot be resolved in so facile a manner. Ah well, such is the stuff of dreams, and maybe our fantasy film scholar can come up with a more accommodating view, once she succeeds in protecting herself from fallout. Next notion, please.

[First published January 7, 1987, in National Midweek]

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BLOODY FINE

The Untouchables
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Mamet

Now that The Untouchables has made a well-deserved killing (grisly pun and all), a few observations on gangster films are in order. There’s no denying the fact that the genre is as American as apple pie, arising as it did in an industrially advanced capitalist system that allowed for both Hollywood and organized crime. No proof could be more final than recent US films in the genre with a measure of ambition – specifically Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather (1972 & ’74) films – plus countless titles that either have served as models for the style now known as film noir (as formulated by the best among the genre’s imitators, the French), or continue to affirm the one unquestionable claim to significance of Hollywood in aesthetic, not to mention box-office, terms. The Untouchables is closer to the first category, the one occupied by The Godfather and its sequel; the latter is, of course, distinguished by structural innovations that transcend considerations of genre altogether, and the more I view the pair, the more I get convinced that the reputation of the original is enhanced by the association.

By this time you might have guessed my sneaking preference for the Brian De Palma entry over its fifteen-year-old predecessor. It isn’t so much the question of artistic seriousness that should be raised, as I see it, but rather the issue of honest approaches to the use of the medium. Simply (and dangerously) put, The Untouchables makes no pretense about exploiting its entertainment potential to the hilt, something that the original Godfather seems so defensive about in retrospect. The most obvious proof is in the films’ comparative treatment of cross-references to film literature. Where Coppola’s breakout movie sought to preclude any possible accusation of influences by earlier generic samples, The Untouchables integrates into its extended climax the baby-carriage detail in the Odessa steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) – not in the fleeting, almost embarrassed manner that another recent release, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil (as well as previous De Palma movies, in paying homage to Hitchcock), utilized, but in a situationally urgent way that justifies its presence in both Untouchables and Potemkin.

Not that the association between the two enhances The Untouchables the way the Godfather sequel does the original. The more defensible point, the one universal enough to demand applications even in our own national cinema, lies in the treatment of well-known non-fictional material. The Untouchables doesn’t re-present the story of Al Capone at all, not even by a long shot the version of the Chicago cops who finally nailed him; it takes off from the story instead, not just flirting with so-called poetic license, but shamelessly fornicating, for all intents and purposes, and in full view of all shades and capabilities of moviegoers at that, without even the modesty of fictionalizing dramatic details the way the Coppola movies (and the Mario Puzo novel that spawned them) did. Even more brazenly, The Untouchables makes a stand that’s downright defiant of the entire liberalist tradition laid down by the gangster genre’s pioneer practitioners. Coming full circle from Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson’s Scarface (1932) more than five decades back, the Al Capone character is this time not only identified by name, he’s also posited as an out-and-out social menace.

God (or Marx or whoever) knows it isn’t the ideology I appreciate here so much as the willingness and the ability to stand by it. This holds particular and peculiar significance for our current action-film practice, in which we’ve taken a step from appropriating foreign (particularly Westerns and martial-arts) models, to using our wealth of real-life (anti)hero stories; not that the step has been forward in direction – this was where the state of local action filmmaking was before censorship forced creative detours during the early ’60s. What I think we need to appreciate, or at least tolerate in these parts, is the necessity of questioning our modern-day candidates for movie-mythmaking. The statement holds even in reverse, for in the first place it’s the belligerence of the real-life personalities that defines the filmmakers’ interpretation of their stories. Critics, both of film and of society, need to be apprised as well of the potentials of film beyond documentation – which function after all is already becoming the domain of video. Too often do we hear of complaints about this or that work’s near-perfection were it not for a deviation from verisimilitude in this or that instance, as if the very process of recording reality on film would have been free from subjectivity if not for its practitioners’ interventions.

Documentary practice has already proved a long time ago that objectivity in film recording is plain impossible. Feature film practice shows what we may be able to get in return for giving up reality as we know it: art, that much-abused word that still manages to make argumentative arbiters of us all. Would that our writers on film, whether deserving of the title or not, cease harping on hopeless causes like technological limitations, or absurd expectations such as objectivity in the medium. That, if I may add, is one issue that will definitely turn out…well, untouchable.

[First published November 11, 1987, in National Midweek]

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THE DEVIL TO PAY

The Witches of Eastwick
Directed by George Miller
Written by Michael Cristofer

Somewhere on my bookshelves lies a near-complete collection of the works of John Updike. Us budding writers way back in college were all quick to claim appreciation of the guy, though I doubt if we were all honest about having read everything that we said we did. Today my John Updike books have all been thumbed through, and I must admit I keep adding to the collection more as a matter of nostalgia rather than affection – an attitude I find I could currently conjure up only for early Greek dramatists, 19th-century Russian novelists, or contemporary South American writers. My Witches of Eastwick edition’s a hardbound one, the only such Updike book I’ve got. I bought it on the threshold of my (re)discovery of the above-mentioned groups of writers (simultaneously, honest), which means I was coming close to regretting the purchase. Then I read the book.

There’s a certain characteristic of The Witches of Eastwick that overlaps with a certain type of local concern – the search for meaning in the past without compromising the lessons of the present. Three women in modern-day Massachusetts discover a supernatural ability to control their environment, so long as they wish for it collectively. They’re unattached, bright, and lonely, so they ask for the impossible – a perfect man; by a brilliant application of Judaeo-Christian logic, they’re sent the devil himself, fiendishly grateful for this excuse to assume human form and even implant his seed in three willing receivers. The nights-long carousing of these pulchritudinous sorceresses with their dreamboat-come-true doesn’t need to match the extremes of porn-industry decadence to prove the pleasures of good clean sex. Besides, this isn’t exactly Puritan-era America, Jerry Falwell and his televangelic ilk notwithstanding. The girls stand up successfully against the machinations of fanatic moralists, and when their, er, man takes this as an approval of his brand of pragmatic excess, they take him to task on that score as well.

The film adapters correctly presumed the new medium’s experiential potential over the analytical properties of literature. The essential issues of the novel are all in the movie, but will prove of value only for those who care to reflect after the viewing experience. Those who’d rather stand with the majority will be sure to get their tickets’ worth of new-look editing and special visual effects, plus about the only value that nowadays sets superior fantasy pieces above the common run: humor, wit and irony specifically, in quantities that may suffice to beat, well, the devil. This preoccupation with entertainment seems to have been pursued at the expense of the novel’s multi-layered achievements, in which a community’s intricate social fabric is held up for the reader to marvel at; one wonders what sort of classicism could have resulted had the filmmakers striven for an equivalent outcome in their work.

No matter for local practitioners though. What needs to be pointed out now is the fact that adaptations tend to work out better if they’re oriented toward their new media rather than their original sources. We seem to have been fixated at the stage where veneration for individual accomplishments has refused to give way to exploration of new terrain, both within similar media and between disparate ones – hence film producers’ preference for pretention-less materials (such as komiks and low-life stories) over quality literature. And no matter either if Hollywood, in representing its country of origin, can be taken as a symbolic cause of our domestic malaise. If the example of The Witches of Eastwick and similar others can be forced upon our practitioners, we could eventually wind up, as Hollywood has, with frivolous output drawn from sensible sources; but meanwhile we’ll have a truly thriving movie industry, and the lesson gained from successful adaptations will surely prove indispensable for whatever stage of development we decide upon next.

[First published December 23, 1987, in National Midweek]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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