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Shoot the Sun Down (see interview with the director David Leeds on Refracted Input) has now been remastered in high definition, DVD and Blu-ray. This special 35th anniversary release was made available on November 14 2013. For more information and background about the film, please visit the SHOOT THE SUN DOWN Facebook page.

See also David Leed’s blog A Husk of Meaning

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rainbow15Interview with David Leeds, director of Shoot the Sun Down. Interview by Clare O’Farrell, November 2003. Edited by Clare O’Farrell

Previously posted on the Walken Works site
© David Leeds and Clare O’Farrell 2003

David Leeds’ blog A Husk of Meaning
Imdb link to Shoot the Sun Down.

Added November 2013 The film has now been remastered in high definition, DVD and Blu-ray. This special 35th anniversary release was made available on November 14. For more information and background about the film, please visit the SHOOT THE SUN DOWN Facebook page.

My review of Shoot the Sun Down will be posted shortly.

Interview

What was your background before you made this film? How did you come to make the film?

I had graduated from Harvard with a degree in Art History before enrolling in the UCLA Theatre Arts graduate program – film school – for an MFA. After completing my course work and several shorter films, I started to write what would become Shoot as a thesis film. I quickly realized that what it really was, was a feature, and I couldn’t figure out how to shorten it for UCLA. This was still in the days of tax shelters, so I dropped out of school, having been ‘advanced to candidacy’ and preceded to raise the money for an independent film. Quite a few years later, I submitted the film as a master thesis equivalent, and received my degree.

When was the film made and when was it released? What were the reasons for the delay in its release? How did you choose the working title ‘Santa Fe 1836’?

The film was actually shot in 1976, on a six-week (six days a week) shooting schedule in late August and September. The locations were, just outside of Santa Fe, at an old Western movie ranch, where we built the Mexican town set. (The Western town was where parts of The Cowboys (1972), with John Wayne, directed by Mark Rydell was filmed.) Our set was subsequently used in Silverado (1985). It was the town where Kevin Kline gets a gun while dressed in his underwear, and goes after the guy that had his hat – where the action takes place when he runs into Brian Dennehy. Silverado, by the way, was a movie I wished I had made. We also shot outside of El Paso, at the Hueco Tanks – the site of the Navajo Village, and a little mini village outside of Las Cruces – where they all gather before going out to ‘save’ the Navajos. We also shot some general exterior stuff in Chaco Canyon. I was the first person to use it for filming, and we stayed in the trailers where the original archeological excavation team stayed.

The desert dune stuff was in Alamogordo, New Mexico (where they did the first test of the A bomb) at the White Sands Park and missile testing range. (This was the scene, earlier, of the horse race in Bite the Bullet (1975) with Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen.) There was a serious production problem there. The sand there is normally very white – it’s actually gypsum- like snow. In September, it was our last location; it actually snowed, after we had been shooting for several days. Supposedly it was the first snow this early since 1880. When the sand is wet, it becomes a more normal, yellowish brown colour. There was no way we were ever going to be able to match what we had already shot, and I certainly couldn’t afford to reshoot, so we came up with the ‘snow’ storm at night stuff – an optical shot – to deal with that situation. This flows into part of the delay scenario in getting the film out. I had to compress the postproduction budget a bit, because I did have to shoot a several extra days.

When the first version was completed the film was still entitled Santa Fe 1836 and was quite a bit longer, and even slower, although much more narratively coherent. The very original title of the first draft of the screenplay was actually Mr. Rainbow. I changed it early on, however, to Santa Fe 1836, because I wanted to make sure it was perceived as a Western. I have always liked brief, inferential titles. I thought that the simple pronouncement of where and when would automatically make someone ask, what? (The mantra of where, what, when, was inculcated in me in high school, as editor of the school newspaper). The date 1836 is set by the fact that Mr. Rainbow is on his way to the Alamo (of course, to die, as they all did) and that he has the first, six shot repeater, a Colt Patterson repeater, which was introduced in 1836 as well.

At this point I had a hard time finding a distributor, but finally did. We both agreed that the film could use some tightening and started on the process. About half way through, they went out of business. So I then had a half re-cut film. It then took me a while to find an investor group associated with a small company in San Francisco, who put up the money to finish the re-editing, and to rescore the film. The original version had a largely acoustic and slide guitar score by Bruce Langhorne, who had done Peter Fonda’s film The Hired Hand (1971), a movie I admired with a score I loved. There was also a wonderful end title ballad by Kinky Friedman. While I liked both the original score and song, we had decided that film needed a more aggressive score to propel the narrative, so I went for a very Kurosawaesgue, more percussive feeling – with a little Spaghetti thrown in.

Finally two years after it was originally completed, I got limited domestic distribution through a regional distributor who focused on the Southwest and Southeast. The film was finally released, to the extent it was, in 1978.

Could you talk about how you came up with the final title of the film?

I had a foreign distributor before a domestic one, and he, and the group who helped re-edit the film, thought something more elegiac would work better. I was half-convinced myself, and came up with the name. I thought the combination of ‘shoot’ and sun down, somewhat of a play on sundown and also the literal image of the sun being shot down conveyed a bit of the Western, desert feel. It implied both a tearing down of the generic image – a deconstruction if you will, plus a reference to the end of all the characters – their dreams and aspirations, as well as those of the Navajo – in the sense that pollution by the white man brings destruction.

You mention a ballad by Kinky Friedman. Did he write this especially for the film? Do you think, in retrospect, that you would prefer the earlier soundtrack to the final one that was chosen? 

Let me tell you about Kinky. [1] He wrote the song for the movie, and it was terrific. I wish it were still in, along with most of the original score, in retrospect. Although I would have added some of the percussive, Spaghetti Western effects as well. Actually, some of the percussive stuff was a direct reference to Kurosawa – I had the composer watch Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). Kinky and I became friends, but I haven’t seen him in probably fifteen years. He is a great guy, and a true original.

How did you work with your co-writer on the script?

Richard Rothstein, the co-writer, came into the picture after I had written the first draft. I thought I needed some help tweaking and reorganizing some things. At that time he had not had anything produced, but we met through friends, and I liked him very much and two scripts of his I read. We were an excellent collaborating team. It was not a case where one of us was better at structure or dialogue per se, but we each went back and forth with both. He was a kindred sensibility, and a big help. We pushed each other in a very positive way. I also made him a co-producer, because I wanted somebody else around while making the film that I really trusted, and with a shared a sensibility.

Mr. Rainbow, right down to his name, is a hero of sixties and seventies counter culture with his championship of oppressed minorities and rejection of the establishment (the army). Did you choose the themes first or the genre? In other words, did you want to make a Western first, or was the Western simply a convenient genre to explore certain issues?

You’re right about the counter culture. In fact, in the script, Mr. Rainbow wore coloured glasses – basically hippy shades, which were actually rare, but historically authentic. It was from these that the character got the name, Mr. Rainbow (prismatic effects, etc.) The first moment I saw them on Chris I said forget it. They just looked weird, not cool or believable at all.

Definitely, I chose the genre first. I had always loved Westerns as a kid and always fantasized about being in that world. I loved the idea of the frontier, of remaking yourself, of the vast open landscape and of the code of personal responsibility that was implied in a culture basically without law, or rather where everyone was the law. Westerns fed my mythic aspirations and wish that the world could be what you made it, not what a stuffy, entrenched society said it was. To me the dream of the West was about who you were in the present, not how you were born, or the pre-existing rules. I also believed and frequently told people the Western was the only legitimate or at least original, American subject matter.

Speaking of names, could you talk about the inscription on one of Mr. Rainbow’s knives: ‘For your distinguished service. Captain Jefferson Davis.’?

Actually, it was meant to be a citation for bravery signed by his former commander, Jefferson Davis. Jefferson Davis fought in the Indian Wars just before that period, and went on to become a famous general, for the South, and in fact the President of the Confederacy in the Civil War. We couldn’t resist the idea of Mr. Rainbow’s connection to a later, and very well known, doomed cause (in addition to the Alamo) via this earlier association.

Obviously Spaghetti Westerns were an influence on the way you made the film, but were there any other influences?

They certainly were. Leone was my hero, as well as Kurosawa. I saw this story and the myth of the wandering man with no name, anti hero-hero, as fully contained and realized in Kurosawa’s samurai pictures as well. In film school, I did see a very weird film, which influenced me as well. It was El Topo (1970) by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Some of his images and his surrealistic juxtapositions really struck me. The opening desert scene where we meet the Girl with the parasol and the Captain is visually an hommage to that picture. Also, I should mention Lawrence of Arabia (1962), both visually and thematically (the ‘hero’ imposing himself on other cultures, ultimately to their detriment no matter what his intentions are) as being important.

Were you already interested in painting and sculpture at the time you made the film? If so, did these art forms have any impact on the way you made the film?

I was certainly interested in painting especially. I had majored in art history and before going to film school, was about to enroll in a Ph.D. art history program. I had specialized in nineteenth and twentieth century art, and written a thesis on Cézanne’s self-portraits. I was incredibly lucky to have a Director of Photography, who knew painting as well. We would often set scenes with the feeling of specific paintings. I remember one scene where I told him Messonier – and actually a specific painting, which he knew. What a pleasure that was. I actually feel, in a sense, that the picture suffered because of my orientation to the more static, painting like shot, than the inherently movie-like, tracking shot. Almost immediately after finishing the movie I realized that I really did not move the camera enough, and if I had it do again would have certainly done so with much more vigour.

Was it difficult filming on location in the desert?

Yes it was. The White Sands National Monument had a lot of restrictions on where you could go and what you could do. You could only have horses in what they called the inter-dunal flats. (A lot of their restrictions came into place because of Bite the Bullet (1975) which really trashed the site and caused a lot of natural destruction, and also killed a horse for real for the movie.) This particular restriction stopped me from doing a lot of Lawrence of Arabia, tromping through the sand dunes stuff that I had counted on and always conceived in my design of the film.

The desert was the toughest on Chris. In the white sands material he is running around with very little clothing, and it was freezing. In the Hueco Tanks, outside the Navajo village it was really hot. The scene where he is staked out and attacked by vultures took a long time to film. He insisted on being tied down so he could not move, and even refused to be untied during lunch break. He did allow someone to cover him from the sun (with Margot’s parasol – the only thing we had that could do it) and give him a little water. In general, we were in very remote places with complicated topography, trying to move around horses and wagons. In a way, it was total folly to think we could do this kind of picture for the money we had. It forced me to move quicker than I would have liked through each set-up. I would, in retrospect, have tried to be a little less ambitious that way, and not tried for such a big film look, on such a meagre budget.

How did you do the vulture scene? They looked like real vultures and that they were actually attacking Walken.

Indeed the vultures were real and they very much were trying to attack Chris. We had a ‘vulture wrangler’ who swore he had done this before, but after what we went through to shoot that scene, I doubt it. The vultures were tied with wire and staked down, just below ground level, or in some cases, we put rocks in front of the stakes. They were wild and frenzied, and were trying to get at Chris for real. Several times they broke away, but luckily none went right at his face. In retrospect, we were very lucky he wasn’t hurt. Chris’s attitude throughout the film, in scenes of physical distress and discomfort, was to dive right in.

Were the people who played the non-speaking Navajo parts from local indigenous communities? Where did their costumes come from?

Almost all of the non-speaking Navajo parts were from the local indigenous community. They were far from all Navajo, however. Many were Hopi, or Apache, and various mixes from local pueblos and towns. The local extras, both native and otherwise, were helpful, friendly, and entirely easy to deal with. The local actors with previous experience tended to be overly ‘theatrical’ for my taste, and I kept having to sit on them. The natives were mostly inexperienced, which was a good thing, No bad habits, and a bit, sadly, passive.

Our own wardrobe person designed the costumes. I had told them that I only wanted something authentic to the period, and had expected something out of a Curtis photograph. [2] When I first saw their design, I flipped, thinking it looked modern, machine made, and fake. However, they had done their research well and showed me all the historical documentation. We also double-checked it through some historians in Santa Fe, and they were spot on.

Did you have any particular actors in mind when you were writing the script? Were the actors who eventually appeared in the film your own choice?

The only actor that I had in mind specifically when writing the script was Geoffrey Lewis, who played the scalp-hunter. I had seen him in another Western I had loved, called The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972). I recommend it highly. I loved Geoffrey’s character in that movie and thought, what if you take that guy, and then ramp him up times ten. Speaking of the script, I should tell you that I was listening to the Eagles album, Desperado while writing. It gave me the feeling I wanted to imbue the story with. I actually had one conversation about some of them appearing in the film. It was a time when rock stars wanted cameos. In fact Alice Cooper wanted, for a moment, the part of the conquistador henchman of Geoff Lewis. I decided against him, and had actually hired Christopher Lloyd for that part. But, a problem arose after he arrived on the set, and he dropped out.

While writing the script, I kept thinking of a young Clint Eastwood type. Then, I saw the Paul Mazursky film, Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976). There was a moment at the end of the film where Chris, who really had quite a minor, supporting role, walks into a bedroom and finds a buddy dead of suicide on the bed. He turns when someone else starts to come in, and says: ‘Don’t’. That moment and look, and affect was where I said, wait, that’s the character. It was like a young Clint Eastwood on the surface, but with all the interior life, questioning, and angst that Chris has.

Margot Kidder, I wanted, though not in the writing stage, and I had to coax her out of retirement. She had married the novelist, Tom McGuane – a whole other story, and was living in Montana. Margot got Superman (1978) right after we finished, and in fact, I turned her onto Chris’ agent, who got her the job right away. Chris went straight to The Deer Hunter (1978). And, I think if anyone looks at the scene in Vietnam, in the cages, you see the antecedents in my scene when he was staked out with the vultures.

I have to also say A. Martinez, who I wanted as soon as I saw him was terrific, and there were a lot of his scenes that had to be cut out because of time and narrative movement, that were among my favorites. In this group of scenes was a whole back story of when Mr. Rainbow had an earlier sojourn with this group of Navajos, and a minor love interest with a native woman – Sacheen Littlefeather, of Marlon Brando Academy Award acceptance fame, that was totally cut. [3]

I’ve just remembered that the other character that I wrote with a specific person in mind was the sea captain. I envisioned and tried to get Hugh Millais. He was a character in Robert Altman’s movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Another movie I loved, and a definite influence. He was not really an actor, and in fact was a falconer – part of why he was interested in this movie, but couldn’t do it because he had to go to Saudi Arabia, for a falconers’ meet. Pretty weird.

Christopher Walken has mentioned on various occasions that he doesn’t like (i) horses (ii) the sun (iii) guns. Did he have any particular problems with any of these things while shooting the film? [4]

Chris was at that time, totally a creature of New York. I had in fact arranged for riding lessons for him in Central Park, and sent him a shootable version of the Colt-Patterson repeater, asking him to practise taking it apart and putting it together and had arranged a place where he could fire it. I also asked him to grow his hair a bit and not shave for a week before filming, and we’d figure out the best look when he got to location. Let’s put it this way: the wrangler said he’d never been on a horse, the gun was unfired, and his hair was short, normal for him. It’s fair to say that he didn’t like horses, guns, or the sun. What he did have, however, was an early form of that intense, hard to read, off rhythm syncopation that has come to be so much him. I don’t think he’d spent much time out of doors, certainly not in the wilderness, but part of what’s so compelling and interesting about his performance, is all these tensions, which definitely, in the end, served the character well.

He approached the character, from an interior point of view, and stayed focused on that. When Chris was staked out, for example, he did a good job of going in and out of delirious fragments which applied to the character, situation, conditions and so on. It was totally improvised, and it is something I find in films, not that easy to do convincingly. Chris’ instincts for things like that, and in general are exceptional. I think he nailed the combination of alienation and engagement I had in mind, terrifically.

In terms of Mr. Rainbow’s aborted sunglasses, and long hair: my original conception was very much as you posited earlier, in terms of the seventies hippy anti-establishment credo. There were many shots of and cut aways to prismatic effects from his sunglasses throughout the script. And, as I mentioned, Chris’s initial look was a disappointment to me. However, In retrospect, I think, again, his instincts were great, and served the character better than mine would have. I think my image was too obvious and clichéd. His created a much more universal and certainly more timeless character in terms of ‘look’.

I notice that Mr. Rainbow is an adept at throwing knives. Is this a deliberate reference to the Eastern martial art of shuriken throwing? Was Walken actually throwing something in these scenes?

The throwing knives were totally a reference to shuriken, and as well as a nod to Kurosawa, and Kung Fu (1972-5).  They were actually little knives with short leather handles that can be seen when he is dealing with his weapons, before Margot Kidder comes to his room. And he was absolutely throwing them on all occasions. I initially toyed with the idea of having the shuriken as stars and going into a sideline about Mr. Rainbow’s exposure to Chinese history, but decided the specificity of the reference, would take away from a more implied, and shown, not explained, nature of the mystery surrounding the character. So, I just miniaturized the knives. They were really like arrowheads.

What were the other actors like to work with? Do you have any interesting stories?

I’ve told you a bit about Chris, and let me add something else. Margot’s husband had just finished shooting the film The Missouri Breaks (1976) which he had written, and was largely shot near their home in Montana. Brando had one of his more outrageous turns in the movie, (you might remember the scenes where he wore a dress) and he had stayed with the McGuane-Kidders during a lot of filming. Chris could not get enough of Brando stories from Margot. Brando was obviously one of his heroes, and he reveled in any info he could get. [5]

Geoffrey Lewis, I’ve mentioned a bit. For me, working with him was just the greatest pure pleasure. He did an enormous amount of research, and came to location, full of ideas, facts, and enthusiasm. As a writer, it was phenomenal to see a character you’d written, with a specific person in mind, take and expand and probe that character in ways you hadn’t imagined, but had only set in motion.

Margot Kidder was the ultimate professional and trooper, and someone with whom you would not hesitate to go into battle with. A. Martinez, like Geoffrey, had done Westerns, liked horses, and could stretch any moment to something more real and intense than was indicated. He always expresses such a sense of dignity and presentness. It has always been one my regrets about the film, that so much of his great work had to be cut, for time constraints. I always imagined that character as a brother – reflection – of Mr. Rainbow who was not cut off from his roots, as, inevitably, the wandering samurai is.

Did you have stunt doubles performing for any of the principal actors in any of the scenes?

There were some stunt doubles, certainly, in all the fight scenes. Also, a bit for some shots of people riding. Margot, A, and Geoffrey were accomplished riders. Most of the others, for any scene with a gallop were stunt doubles.

Were there any scenes not included in the final cut that you would have liked to have seen in the film?

You know, the first cut of the film was about two hours and ten minutes. I knew that, realistically, talking to distributors, and without a famous director, it had to be ninety minutes or less. That allows theatres to have an extra show a day. But I feel it definitely needed to be about fifteen minutes longer!

There were many scenes with the Navajos and Mr. Rainbow that had to be cut. I’ve mentioned a few. After Mr. Rainbow is saved by the Navajos from the Apaches, in that incredibly truncated and badly shot scene after he leaves Santa Fe, in those beautiful red canyons, having just saved Sunbearer at the cantina, he had a long sojourn with them, bonding with the village, Sunbearer and the unseen Sacheen Littlefeather character. That scene in the canyons was an example of my over reaching in trying to use a remote location, which was difficult to get into and so on, for a short scene. I need much more coverage than I was able to get. It was a bad, immature tactical decision to go for a separate location for that. The beautiful landscape was not worth the skimpy and short-hand way it had to be shot.

There was also another key scene that I would have certainly put back. It was originally designed to be the opening scene. Three comanchero type bandits pursue Mr. Rainbow through a beautiful and elaborate rock formation near Chaco Canyon. It is a long cat and mouse, until finally they seem to have him boxed in. At the climax he faces the three gunmen fanned out on horseback, in front of him. They are full of smirks and cheesy bandit talk. One of them draws and Mr. Rainbow shoots him. Rainbow then rests the pistol on his saddlehorn, as the other two really taunt him, literally, about shooting his wad. They slowly draw, and Mr. Rainbow fires and kills them both. He goes up to the first one who is not dead, and gives him a drink of water, as the man says in bewilderment – not having seen a six-shooter before – ‘three shots from one barrel…’. Mr. Rainbow then throws a pistol with one shot close to the man, and rides off. Off screen, as we are on a close up of Chris’ face while riding away, we hear a gun shot in the distance. The scene became too long to include. There was an editing problem which came, frankly, from the way I shot it.

I understand this is your only feature film. Could you talk about why you haven’t made any further films?

I had previously done a feature length docu-drama, and a couple of shorts. After I made this picture, I tried, unsuccessfully, to get hired as a director. I then started to try and develop other projects. I flogged a sort of revisionist, Raymond Chandleresque, detective story I had written. (This was another genre that I loved). Then I tried to purchase the rights to several novels. My most interesting attempt, and the one closest to my heart, was Oliver LaFarge’s book, Laughing Boy. He was an archaeologist of the Southwest, who only wrote this one novel in 1929. It was a big critical success and has been a cult favourite ever since. It is an incredibly beautiful, lyric, Navajo love story, involving the intersecting of cultures, and choices people make to survive. I used to give people copies of it. I had been talking to the estate for years, trying to convince them to sell me the rights. They were afraid of the purity of the book and its reputation being tarnished, by in fact, any film adaptation – not an unreasonable fear. Finally, however, after I had given up, quite a few years later, they sold the rights to Robert Redford – but he has done nothing with it.

So, I was finding it difficult to get the kind of thing I was passionate about going, and in a sense, I had been spoiled by having too much freedom too young, and was not willing to compromise. You know the difficulty involved with making a film from beginning to end, especially if done independently. I found that it was hard enough with something you loved, but without that level of passion – just to settle in order to do something was difficult for me. In the meantime, I had continued writing poetry, which I have always done, and out of the blue, took a painting class. I found myself spending more and more time painting, then got a studio outside of the house. I also spent a lot of home time raising my son (a little of the John Lennon syndrome). I was also involved part-time, in some family investment activities, and tutoring children in a disadvantaged school, as well as some other educational, non-profit activities.

Yet, I still never totally lost the bug. About ten years ago, I optioned a book by Phillip Caputo, called Indian Country (1987), a story of a returning Vietnam vet, who lives in Michigan, and has serious re-entry problems. There was a major sub plot in it that involved the Ojibwa people. I can’t seem to get away from Native American culture and mythology. Five years ago I started sculpting instead of painting. I’ve now moved from clay/bronze to stone carving. I still talk to people occasionally about getting involved with another project. And, in the right circumstances, I would give it a shot. Meanwhile, I am relishing an activity, in which I am in total control.

However, I do think that despite not having to endure all the frustrations, etc., making movies is a bit like a first love. It always stays with you, and in a sense, you never get over it or the fantasy of it.

rainbow1References

1. Kinky Friedman is the author of such classic ballads as ‘They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore’ and a number of highly original detective novels featuring himself and his friends. For information about his career and works see  The Kinky Friedman official site.

2. Edward S. Curtis is famous for his immense work photographing the remnants of Native American cultures in the early twentieth century. His work later became controversial as a result of his tendency to reconstruct with varying degrees of accuracy, rather than simply document, what remained of these cultures. See, Anne Makepeace, Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light. National Geographic, 2001.

3. For information about the Oscar incident and Sacheen Littlefeather’s career to present see Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Brando, Littlefeather and the Academy Awards, about.com site, Native American History, n.d

4. Concerning horses, Walken comments: ‘I come from New York city. I grew up right in mid town. I don’t know anything about horses. I’ve made some Westerns but my experience with horses has not been good. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me much.’ ‘Sleepy Hollow: Behind the Legend’, documentary, USA, 1999. Available on the Sleepy Hollow DVD. As for the sun Walken remarks: “I hardly ever go in the sun. I don’t like it because it hurts.’ Jan Moir, The Telegraph, UK, 11 March 2002. Walken also notes his dislike of guns: ‘Whenever I hold a gun, I want to get it out of my hand as quick as possible.’ Chris Nashawaty,’The Greats: Christopher Walken’, Entertainment Weekly, 17 March 2000.

5. This is confirmed in a 1981 interview with Walken: “‘We’re like ducks, really,” says Walken. “We learn by imitating bigger ducks. I think you always begin by imitating someone. The trick is to stop.” He willingly admits his admiration for Brando, but he adds James Dean, John Garfield, and Spencer Tracy to the equation. “And the women, too. A man can learn a lot from watching an actress. Somehow that seems like a terrible thing to say. But I learned a lot from Hepburn and Davis and from working with somebody like Irene Worth.”‘, In Scot Haller, ‘I am the malevolent WASP’, Esquire Jan. 1981, pp. 40-6

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Warning spoilers

My rating: ****
imdb link

While on things vaguely religious, I thought I would post up another item from my now defunct film website. I originally wrote this review in 2002. I have made some very minor updates.

Plot
A New York doctoral student in philosophy, Kathleen (Lili Taylor), gets bitten by a female vampire in evening clothes and becomes one herself. Drifting aimlessly and neglecting her thesis, Kathleen stumbles across an ancient vampire called Peina (Christopher Walken) who promptly sucks all her blood and gives her a lecture on philosophy and literature which inspires her to finish her thesis. A post-doctoral party becomes a vampire feeding frenzy and Kathleen, having already infected the rest of her philosophy department, ends up in hospital. There she repents of her addiction to evil, dies and is saved. The film’s dialogue consists mainly of heavy duty quotations from, and discussions of, pre-1960s philosophy, mostly of the existentialist and Jansenist variety.

Review
This is not a movie for the faint hearted. But then Abel Ferrara‘s films never are. This bizarre and intense film operates at a number of levels: first of all, as a suitably blood-festooned vampire flick (although the word vampire is never mentioned). Secondly, it operates as a philosophical and religious reflection on human evil and redemption and finally as an amusing take on certain aspects of university life, probably best appreciated by those directly involved in that venerable institution.

To comment first of all on its vampire credentials. It helps if one has more than a passing familiarity with the vampire genre in order to stomach the gore. The action is filmed in black and white which helps distance the viewer from the more graphic elements. Indeed in colour, the effect would probably have been unintentionally comic, evoking the lurid excesses of Hammer horror in its hey day. Even so, a vampire feeding frenzy at Kathleen’s post Ph.D party looks amusingly like some avant-garde actors’ workshop. Having said this, if there were such a thing as vampires, this would probably have to be the most realistic depiction of the sheer mechanics of their practices in all their repulsiveness. No romantic sparkling vampires of the Twilight variety here! But in the end it is probably the documentary images of the piles of bodies in concentration camps at the end of World War II which form the most disturbing visual material of the film. As for sound, the most disgusting scene must surely be the evil vampire Peina sucking Kathleen’s blood.

But the core of this film is its philosophical and religious reflection on evil. Clearly writer Nicholas St. John has been reading some heavy duty philosophy of the most gloomy existentialist kind: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Beckett, Baudelaire and theologians such as Calvin and J.C. Sproul are referred to and quoted at some length by the characters. It seems he wrote this film and Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral (1996) after his son’s death. No-one has a mundane or even a remotely cheerful conversation in this film and certainly no-one refers to any philosophy produced more recently than 1960. No Foucauldian, structuralist, or postmodern vampires here! The tone is reminiscent of such Catholic pre- and immediately post-war novelists as Graham Greene, Shusaka Endo, Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac – all heavily influenced by a bleak angst ridden Jansenist outlook. One is also reminded of the French film maker Robert Bresson’s approach –  another atheist/Catholic film maker who was concerned with showing how evil people could be and the grace of God that could save them in extremity.

The only people in the film able to resist the lure of the vampire are a priest and a young man handing out religious pamphlets in front of the building where the post-doctoral gore fest is about to occur. Kathleen, after having her vampire advances rebuffed by the young man, goes inside and starts screaming hysterically ‘I will not submit!’, an obvious reference to Lucifer’s ‘non serviam’. The whole premise of the film seems to be that if one does not recognise and face the evil within oneself and the rest of mankind and accept the saving grace of the Christian God, then one is controlled by evil, becomes addicted to it and is compelled to pass it on to others.

The nausea of existence à la Sartre is also much in evidence – quite literally as the newly made vampire Kathleen sits in a café and toys digustedly with her food. Nonetheless, for all its references to the philosophy of another era, this is very much a film of the 1990s with its passing references to AIDS and its view of postmodern social detachment and disconnection.

The philosophical dialogues and pronouncements of the various characters are anything but naturalistic and it helps to have some philosophical background to follow what is being said and the links between the action and the talk are not always clear. This produces a similar, but perhaps less extreme effect, to the one produced in Luis Bunuel’s film The Milky Way where characters from different periods in history conduct sword fights, drink in taverns, sing at school fêtes, all the while discussing the finer points of medieval Catholic doctrine or arcane heretical deviations. But the radical disjunction between words and things or actions is an attractive one and serves to emphasise the non-naturalness of all human words and actions.

Along the way Kathleen meets an evil and corrupt vampire who tells her his name is Peina and who is able to control his hunger and pass as human through a kind of asceticism of evil – a Nietzschean will to power. He has managed to make his evil mundane and almost invisible and he is able to control it for his own purposes which makes it far worse than Kathleen’s. Peina achieves a kind of perverse evil enlightenment and asceticism through the management of his addiction. Kathleen is more classical in her salvation but is far less interesting because we don’t see her involved in anything like the 12 steps to get to that point. All we see is the addiction and then the miraculous salvation. Peina on the other hand has a whole ascetic practice which is much more intriguing – but it is an asceticism in the service of darkness rather than light.

I would suggest that any postgraduate student who is having trouble finishing their thesis would probably benefit from Peina as a supervisor. He roars at Kathleen frighteningly: ‘You are nothing! You know nothing!’ gives her a reading list of French and German philosophers and Beckett then sucks all her blood. Prior to running into this vampire she had been neglecting her thesis. Afterwards she gets on and finishes it. Amusingly, by the end of the film Kathleen has turned most of the philosophy department into vampires. Some academics would no doubt feel quite at home with the whole notion of postgraduate students sucking their blood.

This is not a big budget production and the filming is rough and ready but it is the ideas that carry this work. Watching this flawed film, if not always a pleasant experience, is certainly a challenging and thought provoking one and as such well worth the effort.

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Bearing in mind these reflections about the shortcomings of lists…

Introduction

Prompted by re-watching one of my all time favourite films over Easter, I was inspired to make a list of a small handful of favourite films that I re-watch every couple of years or so.

The Glaswegian actor Robert Carlyle mentions that he has always been fascinated by films that feature a cowboy riding into town from nowhere pausing for a while before continuing on his way to somewhere equally vague. This has prompted me to reflect on what my own favoured themes might be. I’m not entirely sure if this will hold, but the exploration of secret and multiple identities is probably a major interest for me. Another fascination is the dissociation of words from their commonly accepted meanings – either making those meanings literal (Flying High (1980) and Police Squad! (1982)) or disconnecting them entirely (India Song (1975) Sapphire and Steel, 1979-82, some of Alain Resnais’ films). Unfortunately there are not too many films or television series which provide fodder for this esoteric interest. Any suggestions for further viewing on this front would be most welcome.

I, like many others, am intrigued by the motif of a secret identity – the secret man of action hidden behind an everyday innocuous and often incompetent persona. The Scarlet Pimpernel appears in my list below, but Zorro, of course, follows in this tradition as well – my favourite film rendition being Zorro, the Gay Blade (Peter Medak, 1981), played with early 80s camp panache by George Hamilton. This is not the kind of role inhabited by many (if any) women unfortunately – except under duress – a condition which disqualifies them from my personal pantheon. The various versions of Nikita (two films and two TV series) and Alias are cases in point.

Also disqualified are the comic book heroes who follow this trope (Batman comes to mind). I think this may be because I find the kind of alternative worlds that characterise comic books, graphic novels and game worlds tedious in their remove from our own world and overwhelmingly and excessively gendered. A notable exception to this personal rule of superhero exclusion, however, is the one version of Superman originally helmed by a woman, namely the 1990s TV series Lois and Clark.

Rules for my list

The criterion for selection here is that it must be a film that I enjoy and which gives me food for thought every time I re-watch it.

Excluded from this list are films I have found immensely powerful, but which I am not tempted to watch over and over again. In this latter list, I would include Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951) (and certain other of Kurosawa’s films), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Masaki Kobayashi’s trilogy The Human Condition (1959-61), Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975). There are quite a few others as well – definitely more than enough material for another blog post or two.

Also excluded from the current list are films that I have watched and re-watched and have eventually worn out to the point that they have nothing to offer further viewing.

Also excluded are TV series, which would need to form the subject of an entirely different discussion.

I have arranged the list chronologically in order of year of original release. There are quite a few links (but not exclusively) to Wikipedia here, as for all its unreliability, Wikipedia often provides a good general overview and offers links to the most important sites concerning the topic in hand. In the case of films, Wikipedia articles provide general plot background and useful pointers to critical and production information.

Be warned: as this is a list of my favourites, the writing may be characterised by the excessive and gushing language more commonly seen in marketing blurbs.

The list

‘Pimpernel’ Smith (Leslie Howard, 1941). Actor and director Leslie Howard returned to Britain from the USA at the beginning of World War II to help the war effort and was subsequently killed when the plane he was in was shot down in 1943. In this film he reprises his 1934 role as The Scarlet Pimpernel, but moves the character from the French Revolution to pre-War Europe where he engages in the fight against the rise of Nazism. The film is an entertaining and occasionally edifying blend of English whimsy and anti-Nazi propaganda. In addition, it is gratifying to see a university professor as hero of a film and one who uses his intelligence to propel the action (Indiana Jones simply doesn’t cut it on the second front). Interestingly, the film helped inspire Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to mount an operation which saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from concentration camps during the War.

The Seventh Veil (Compton Bennett, 1945). A wonderful and intense combination of cod psychoanalysis (a young Herbert Lom given the gravitas of age by a pince-nez and white streaked hair), romantic classical music and a superbly neurotic and complex-ridden lead couple in James Mason and Ann Todd. It also helps that the entire plot revolves around a talented and successful (if notably maladjusted) woman who is not punished for her success at the end of the story. Audiences loved the repressed ambiguities of this film and it remains the tenth biggest box office hit in Britain of all time – outstripping even the later Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Leaving aside the magic cure offered by the psychiatrist/psychoanalyst and the taken-for-granted social class divisions, this film is still engrossing more than sixty years on.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). The striking noir cinematography, the extraordinary zither music and the corrupt atmosphere of post-war Venice and the location settings are the overwhelming attractions here.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951). A film shot in gorgeous lush technicolour by noted cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The visual references to paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, the on location settings in Spain, the genuine flamenco and bull-fight, and Ava Gardner’s beautiful dresses all make this a film worth watching. But it is the back story of the mysterious stranger played by James Mason which combines elements of the Flying Dutchman, the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, with some Othello thrown in which is the main drawcard for me. One thing that removes this film from perfection (apart from the odd clunkiness of the intellectual and cultural references) is that although the concept of the doomed romance is excellent in theory, Ava Gardner is simply unable to match Mason’s intensity and acting prowess. As a result, the chemistry between herself and Mason remains lack lustre and unconvincing.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951). The expressionist black and white cinematography, the extraordinary theremin music and Michael Rennie’s subtle and sympathetic performance as Klaatu are the standouts for me. Don’t even mention the 2008 Keanu Reeves remake (shudder).

Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977). A film about the surrealist imaginings of a dying writer (John Gielgud) who creates a nightmare world populated by members of his family and memories from his past which intermingles with his current reality. This visual and intellectual interpretation of how the writer’s imagination works is a vision I can readily identify with – for all the gender barriers posed here. Dirk Bogarde is at his sarcastic best. The music by Hungarian born composer Miklós Rózsa, a mainstay of 1940s and 50s Hollywood film scoring, is absolutely wonderful and creates an extraordinary atmosphere of lush excess, nostalgia, menace and mystery. It is a crime that this film has not yet been released on DVD.

Flying High aka Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, 1980). The literalist visual and verbal jokes in this never get old. Cigarette? Yes, I know.

The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). 1980 was clearly a vintage year for American comedy. Every scene in this film is perfect. Wonderful music, two immensely cool protagonists and an anarchist anti-establishment message delivered with deadpan humour.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (Clive Donner, 1982). This film (which was originally a mini-series made for TV) is an amusing ride from start to finish with highly entertaining and polished performances from Anthony Andrews, Ian McKellen and Jane Seymour, all in sumptuous period costumes. This is my favourite of all the film and television versions centred on this persona. The 1999 Richard E. Grant TV series, for example, simply doesn’t offer the outrageous character contrasts that are so entertaining in this 1982 film.

The Prophecy trilogy (1995-2000). Christopher Walken’s unique and over the top, but at the same time fascinatingly nuanced, performance as the Archangel Gabriel and a truly satisfying end to the series is what draws me back. A good musical score in the first film is also an attraction. The one major problem with these films is that Walken’s screen time is far too brief – particularly in the third instalment. (The two later Prophecy films without any Walken at all are not included here.)

Cypher (Vincenzo Natali, 2002). Again, a film about secret identity and multiple layers of cover-up. A beautiful minimalist soundtrack, a discreet and touching love story and striking cinematography. My favourite scene is the last one: a close up which fades to black of the main character (a great performance by Jeremy Northam), his eyes enigmatically hidden behind sunglasses. The director on the commentary track remarks at this point that we never truly know anyone, not even ourselves. This scene is a striking visual rendition of this idea.

Honourable mention

Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007). This should really go into a separate blog entry on favourite scenes or performances, but I will include it here for the time being. Robert de Niro’s wonderful performance as a cross-dressing pirate is the standout for me in this film. Under the harsh exterior of an old school marauding walk-the-plank pirate, de Niro’s character hides a cultivated and kindly man with a love of fine dresses. His crew, unbeknownst to him, are well aware of his secret identity and are quite happy to play along and maintain his fearsome reputation to the outside world. De Niro’s work has been very patchy since his great performances of the 1970s and early 1980s. For me at least, this performance is a minor return to form.

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Spoiler alert
My rating: **

Imdb link

The only reason this film gets a two star rather than a one star rating is Christopher Walken. In recent years his choices of films and roles have been puzzling to say the least after a previously fairly illustrious career in mainstream and independent cinema. He is not listed on the Imdb as currently involved in any productions and one might speculate as to whether these kinds of roles have simply been a way for him to wind down to retirement and to have fun socialising on film sets.

This particular film appears to be a star vehicle for Dan Fogler – an actor in the John Belushi, Jack Black school. It is also a spoof of the 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon and the title clearly references the Lee film Fists of Fury. (According to Wikipedia the film makers describe their film as the ‘retarded ping-pong version of Enter the Dragon‘). Here ping-pong occupies the role that Kung Fu occupies in Lee’s films. James Hong, veteran of many a token oriental role, plays the clichéd blind master à la the TV series Kung Fu – cue for numbers of tasteless blind man jokes, including him falling down a lift well at the end of the film after declaring that ‘the master of ping-pong must be aware of his environment’.

Walken plays the evil overlord Feng and cuts a fine figure in a magnificent Fu Manchu outfit complete with nail polish and hair that is a cross between Elvis and a traditional Chinese long plait. It is worth noting that in spite of this costume, Walken makes no attempt to play standard ‘yellowface’. His casting choice is clearly a deliberate reference to the practice of having Caucasian actors play evil oriental villains in old American and European films. As one would expect from his past performances, Walken eschews the racial stereotyping of minorities and remains a New Yorker from Queens to the hilt. On this subject, the film is full of over the top spoofed orientalist clichés and American actors of Korean, Chinese and Japanese origin indiscriminately play ‘orientals’ in Feng’s South American head quarters. None of them appear to be taking proceedings too seriously.

The final showdown between the hero and Feng involves a game of ping-pong played in booby trapped suits – a game which continues off the table through the soon-to-explode villain’s headquarters and onto a jungle rope suspension bridge. Perhaps it is the sheer inventive absurdity of this battle and the chance to dress up that appealed to Walken’s sense of humour and of the theatrical and persuaded him to take part in this dire, if amiable, film.

Feng’s demise is undignified and it is disappointing to see Walken’s character treated in this fashion. On this subject, Walken’s character in The Stepford Wives meets an even more demeaning end and one feels uneasy viewing these scenes. An actor of this calibre is surely worthy of more respect from the writers.

At the end of the film, à la Saturday Night Live, all the actors get together to sing over the end credits to the strains of some nondescript rock song that the audience is clearly meant to find rousing and singalong worthy. Walken acquits himself of this task with grace and elegance and these are possibly his best (if brief) scenes in the film. His comedic villain role is now a well-worn one otherwise – we have seen him do it before – but usually not in such a magnificently costumed manner.

One thing I did like about Balls of Fury was its bringing together of an ethnically diverse cast. It’s a pity that they weren’t given better material to work with and that it is not always entirely clear whether various racist stereotypes are being lampooned or simply perpetuated.

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