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Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi was showing on television last night and I decided it was finally time to catch up with it. Unfortunately, the ‘twist’ in the ending left me with the unpleasant impression of having been led up the garden path and having had my time wasted by a monumental shaggy dog, or as Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian puts it, ‘shaggy tiger’ tale. Added to this was a not inconsiderable and uneasy whiff of neo-orientalism.

Like another critic, Will Leitch, I was disappointed that the author of the book on which this film is based wasn’t content to simply settle for a ripping adventure yarn of a boy on a boat with a tiger, but instead felt the need to indulge in extensive ‘postmodern’ pseudo-philophising.

Elsewhere, James Wood in a review of Yann Martel’s original 2002 book observes: “Nothing marks Life of Pi as a contemporary Postmodern novel more strongly than its theological impoverishment (for all that it seems to scream theological richness): instead of being interested in the theological basis of Pi’s soul, it is really interested only in the theological basis of storytelling. The former is or could be a day to day, lived reality; the latter is only a piquant but now familiar contemporary abstraction.”

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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

Watchmen has been on my ‘to view’ list since it first came out and I read the rave reviews and numerous comments to the effect that it was an intelligent superhero film for those who didn’t like superhero films. I am one of that number. I generally find superhero films and other films derived from comic books or even graphic novels to be tedious and unengaging. I am simply unable to connect to the characters they propose and the alternate realities they inhabit.

Unfortunately last night’s viewing of Watchmen has done nothing to change this view. I found it tedious, overlong and pretentious. If the cultural references looked interesting to begin with during the opening credits, they are never extended beyond the range of the average first year undergraduate. Let’s make a list of this cultural hot potch.

American history and politics: the assassination of Kennedy, nuclear proliferation and deterrence, anti-communism, Richard Nixon and Vietnam, the much-touted loss of innocence and belief in the American dream.

Science and religion: the mysteries of quantum physics and a blue god-like figure (Dr Manhattan) looking vaguely like a Hindu god (he actually sits in a levitated lotus position at one point). Dr Manhattan exhibits super powers acquired through the standard experiment-gone-wrong leading to hideous-transformation-of- scientist. This god-like alien figure who through his immense powers has become detached from the trivial mundane matters of ordinary beings must, of course, be shown and be humbled by the true universal and superior value of what it means to be human etc. etc.

Poetry: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ – hoary standard of many an English language high school curriculum. Although the writing, to its credit, makes the associations with Ramses II and Ancient Greek civilisation at the origins of Shelley’s sonnet published in 1818.

Arthouse film: Some of the character Rorschach’s right wing vigilante voiceover fulminations about vice and corruption in urban America as he moves through seedy streetscapes come across as a very close echo of (‘hommage’ to?) the rantings of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).

Philosophy: Benthamite utilitarianism versus Kantian deontology, is it morally justifiable to sacrifice 15 million people to save billions?

Music: Perhaps the use of music is the most interesting cultural aspect of the film. Classics of the protest and counter-culture era occupy prominent positions: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ (1964), Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ (1964), and then Leonard Cohen’s later 1984 classic ‘Halleluja’. If Dylan’s music over the recreated historical montage of the spectacular opening credits is obvious, a little research is required to judge the appositeness of the other two songs. One wonders why ‘Sound of Silence’ is played during a rainy (of course) burial scene in a cemetery for the character of  ‘the Comedian’ who is shown in a flashback to be Kennedy’s assassin until one realises that the song was originally written by Paul Simon in the wake of the assassination. The controversial juxtaposition of Cohen’s song about romantic loss and longing with an extended soft-core porn sex scene is perhaps somewhat more jarring. Perhaps the film makers were thinking of Jeff Buckley who performed the most famous cover of the song. Buckley remarks that in his interpretation, the song is about ‘the halleluja of the orgasm’. But even then, it is Cohen’s version, not Buckley’s, that is used and many viewers have baulked at the sheer obviousness of it all and the elision of the more subtle aspects of the song.

To conclude this list and to paraphrase the Scarlet Pimpernel in his guise as the inane fop Sir Percy Blakeney quipping to his French republican archenemy, Chauvelin: ‘So much for culture and fashion’ (The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)).

‘Cultural’ references aside, Watchmen is wonderfully inventive and quite spectacular on the visual front. But like many contemporary Hollywood films, this immense and impressive visual creativity is disappointingly and fatally undercut by poor characterisation and story telling. As many have commented, not only is the writing the most essential factor in the film equation, it is also the cheapest, so why so frequently does it go wrong? Other films that come to mind on this front include the recent Prometheus (a review in The Guardian entertainingly points out the many character and plotting problems showcased by this film), and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I haven’t included Avatar here, as for all the hype, I found much of the visual landscape it offered cliched rather than inventive. I commented earlier in this blog on the other problematic aspects of this film. But so as not to seem entirely negative, there is at least one film trilogy that does get it right and that is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (for all the failure of its ending(s)).

I hadn’t intended to write so long a review of Watchmen, but in many ways it is emblematic of so many things that are irritating in the contemporary Hollywood multinational (but monocultural) film productions that swamp the global market.

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Sculpting in TimeSculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrey Tarkovsky (1989) Sculpting in Time. Reflections on the Cinema. Translated from the Russian by Kitty Hunter-Blair, University of Texas Press.
My rating: *****

Publisher’s page. Includes table of contents and extract.

I want to underline my own belief that art must carry man’s craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist’s vision, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition to it – otherwise life becomes impossible!

I have been reading Tarkovsky’s truly wonderful book in which he reflects on and explains the thinking that went into his films. If some of the language in the citation above, with its mention of the ideal, hope and faith appears old-fashioned to hardened veterans of the new millennium, it would appear nonetheless, as Tarkovsky argues, that life is still impossible without these things. Having recently viewed a TV series, Spirited, which after the long and careful establishing of two strong and independent characters with a positive control over their own existences, suddenly in the last three episodes, opts to turn them into the pathetic victims of a cruel and heartless universe, his remarks seem very apposite.

Faced in this case with what essentially appears to be a radical loss of faith and hope by the writers in their own creation, the consumer, who feels betrayed by this loss, is left wondering which way to turn. Perhaps this is the experience of many fan fiction writers. (Just to be specific, this is not an art form that I personally practise). And indeed not just fan fiction writers, but a whole range of other creative practitioners. They are forced into creating their own story to make up for the failure of other texts in providing the ideal they were hoping for. Thus in some instances, they might actively engage, as Tarkovsky would have it, in opposing the hopelessness of particular artistic visions.

One could take this further and argue that in Lyotard’s postmodern world, everybody is looking for the perfect story and when they don’t find one ready-made, they are forced to create their own. This applies as much to the most esoteric flight of theory as to the trashiest piece of fan fiction. It applies to a range of other practices as well – including the political, and right down to the way people tell themselves the story of their own lives. This desire to create one’s own story is, of course, by no means simply limited to the so-called postmodern age or culture. As many have argued, the desire to tell and to consume story is something deeply embedded in human experience. Story is not simply about diversion, bread and circuses, the mindless ‘entertainment’ much touted by Hollywood and its ilk. Story is about imagining better (or worse) worlds, of reflecting on our everyday and the possibilities of human experience, and experimenting with different ways of thinking those possibilities.

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In Praise Of LoveIn Praise Of Love by Alain Badiou

My rating: ***

Badiou, Alain with Truong, Nicolas (2012) In Praise Of Love. Trans. Peter Bush, London: Serpent’s Tail

I approached this short essay interview about the notion of love (as it is enacted between lovers) with caution. I was not expecting a 75 year old male philosopher to have much to say that would resonate from a female point of view. There was however slightly more on the table than I expected and some of the discussion provided potential food for thought which crossed gender lines.

I was particularly interested by Badiou’s comments criticising the portrayal of love as something that exists in a moment outside of time. This is a view that pervades romantic literature. It is a love that cannot be enacted in the real world or survive through time. It is also reductive, fusing the difference of two into one. A philosopher like Levinas (whose religious focus Badiou rejects but adapts for more secular purposes) would argue, of course, that love presumes difference and can only exist where difference exists, it is never reduction to the Same. Badiou remarks:

‘I think many people still cling to a romantic conception of love that in a way absorbs love in the encounter. Love is simultaneously ignited, consummated and consumed in the meeting in a magical moment outside the world as it really is. something happens that is in the nature of a miracle, an existential intensity, an encounter leading to meltdown.’ (p. 23)

He cites Tristan and Isolde as an example, continuing that we need to challenge this romantic conception which although it might be beautiful in art fails to make the transition to real life. He notes:  ‘Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world’. (p. 24) The duration of love is seldom dealt with in fiction (p. 50) which usually focuses on the ‘ecstasy of [..] beginnings’ (love at first sight, the ‘encounter’) and ends with ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’. He mentions Samuel Beckett as a somewhat unexpected exception. (I might add paranthetically that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is of course a demonstration of the pitfalls of trying to apply the myths of romantic fiction to everyday existence.)

One can look at this problem in relation to a variety of TV series and films. The stock standard romantic comedy of course usually falls within the expected boundaries of the magical encounter and then the happy end. Another ploy is to kill off one or both partners in order to preserve the purity of their love and happiness from the ravages of time. Many American TV series try the strategy of indefinitely postponing what the writers seem to regard as the inevitable suburban and domestic doom of all relationships, by failing to get the couples together in an infinitely prolonged process which fans commonly label as UST or unresolved sexual tension. Henry Jenkins, the noted scholar of fandom, complains about this common fan frustration in a post on his blog titled ‘A Rant About Television’s Difficulty in Representing Committed Relationships’. He observes:

I often suspect that Hollywood’s inability to depict relationships that grow over time has everything to do with the divorce rate in the entertainment capital, very little to do with the constraints of the medium (given how well television depicts the unfolding of interpersonal relationships over time) and even less to do with the desire of fans. (One of the things to pay attention to is how many of the “commitment” episodes for television series are written by a small handful of writers who have consistently ruined every couple they touched.)

He also adds interestingly that ‘contemporary writers seem incapable of writing such relationships — could it be because they are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup?’ The convenient (American) production myth has it that if you get two characters together in a series, viewers will lose interest. Perhaps this is because the writers can’t seem to imagine a relationship other than a white picket fence with both partners doomed to the drudgery of ball and chain domesticity. (Perhaps these writers could read up a bit on alternative models for relationships such as the ‘commuter marriage’, popular in academic circles). A couple of series which readily spring to mind in terms of being unable to come to a sensible resolution on this front are Remington Steele and La Femme Nikita (the 1990s series).  There are many others. Jenkins cites Castle as perhaps an exception, but I beg to differ. Like Bones, I find that if the writing in this series is able to sustain fairly basic (and not terribly adventurous) characterisation, it is less successful in demonstrating how those characters are modified by their relationships with each other.

Attempts to show long(ish) committed relationships in romantic comedies like Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) can also be dreary, unconvincing and unbearably saccharine. One can only wonder what demographic this particular film was addressing.  The story takes place from the point of view of a rich executive male (Nicholas Cage) with a Ferrari and a string of one night stands, who slips into a parallel world of ghastly suburban domesticity of seemingly volontary semi-poverty with a one time girlfriend. The film – or writers – seem irretrievably torn between (what they regard as) the moral example which is life in the suburbs versus the guilty but exhilarating freedom of a high-flying Christmas-neglecting single life.

Returning to Badiou’s terminology, there is good material out there which shows love between couples (of any orientation) as duration rather than the momentary eruption of the eternal into the real, but one has to search for those rare examples amidst the mountains of dross which foreground the love/romance event with all its artificial boundaries and dubious links to the transcendent eternal.

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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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