Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Thin Blue Line (USA, 1988)

In 1976, a Texan patrol officer named Robert W. Wood was the victim of an apparently motiveless murder when he ordered a car to pull over on a dark Dallas road. In 1977, a drifter named Randall Dale Adams was wrongfully convicted of the killing and sentenced to the electric chair. Finally, in 1988, master director Errol Morris premiered The Thin Blue Line, a landmark documentary that achieved what the justice system could not: it solved the murder and identified the true killer. As a result of the evidence Morris had presented onscreen, Randall Adams’s conviction was overturned and his freedom restored.

That story alone makes this picture worth watching. What makes it worth including in this collection is its status as one of America’s most fascinating and accomplished bits of filmmaking. The Thin Blue Line is more than just a documentary: it’s a non-fiction thriller, a murder mystery that touches on racism, corruption, perjury and the Klu Klux Klan, but revolves around an innocuous non-event, a perceived insult so slight it’s almost impossible to accept that everything that was done to Randall Adams happened because of it.

Many documentary-makers are compelled to cast themselves, if not as the star of their films, at least as a major supporting player. Morris has no such vanity, and removes himself from The Thin Blue Line as completely as Truman Capote removed himself from the events of In Cold Blood. Not once in the film do we see or hear our director. Instead, like all investigators, we are alone with the facts and fictions of the case, the witnesses and the would-be witnesses, and our instinct to somehow sort it all out. The static camera studies its subjects so intently, and Morris’s ability to draw out their stories is so refined, that at times we feel we are interviewing them ourselves; in those moments we can actually forget we are watching a film.

But we’re not allowed to forget for long; Morris constantly reminds us that, though he’s never seen, we are always in the company of a brilliant moviemaker. Showy as he is, he avoids the flashy but formulaic devices so abundant in non-fiction films – the camera never zooms in suddenly to signpost that something incredibly important is about to be said, and there are no unnecessarily arresting jump cuts to make sure we’re still paying attention. Instead, Morris ensures that everything in his film – whether it’s a stylised reconstruction of the crime; a burst of Philip Glass’s distinctive score; or a plain old interview with a policeman – provides insight either into the murder of Robert Wood, or those offering their opinions about it.

Some documentaries, rather than feeling like finished works, can seem like rough cuts of films to be crafted later on – but I would I never noticed that had I not watched Morris’s movies. Furthering the comparison with the Capote of In Cold Blood, Morris is the filmmaking equivalent of a tireless prose stylist who sifts a mass of information and condenses it into a taut and carefully honed essay. This film is only around an hour and forty minutes long, and the case it details is complex and contradictory, but its content is constructed so efficiently, and paced so precisely, that we never feel either overwhelmed by, or deprived of, information.

We are even allowed time to develop emotional reactions to the key characters, so that when we are confronted with the last scene – in which we hear the real murderer dispassionately confess both his crime and his reason for incriminating Adams – we are devastated. The final shot, which tells us that Randall Adams is ‘serving a life sentence in Eastham Unit, Lovelady, Texas’, would be unbearable if we were watching without the knowledge that this film eventually freed him.

An entire academic career could be devoted to tracing the impact of The Thin Blue Line; if you’ve ever watched CSI, Crimewatch or The Sopranos, or practically any documentary or crime film made after 1988, you’ve seen this movie’s influence. Now see the movie itself.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

El Topo (Mexico, 1970)

A black-bearded gunslinger possessed of mystical powers rides across the desert with his naked, seven-year-old son clinging to his back. Happening across the aftermath of a massacre, he urges the boy to commit a mercy killing before resolving to hunt down the bandits responsible for the slaughter. Finding them holed up at a Franciscan mission where they pass the days spanking monks and pretending to be dogs, he delivers justice by castrating their colonel. Then, he callously abandons his child and rides around in circles until he has found the magical ‘four great gun masters’ (the most unremarkable of whom seems to sleep on a sand dune and can catch bullets in a butterfly net) and challenged them to a series of showdowns.

Later, our hero – presumably the titular El Topo – is murdered and reborn a god to a subterranean race of inbred beetle eaters. To raise funds to free his newfound followers from their underground incarceration, he finds work as a tap-dancing clown in an anarchic city where black people are branded like cattle, cross-dressing churchgoers play Russian roulette to prove their faith, and he is forced to publicly make love to a midget. After this, he becomes the agent of a miniature apocalypse, survives a full-on assault from a firing squad, and inadvertently unleashes a cripple stampede.

I promise it’s even stranger than it sounds. Adored by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and considered almost sacred by stoners and students (not that those are mutually exclusive classifications), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s absurdist Western is a definitive cult film and possibly the weirdest movie it’s worth watching.

Bashing Eastern imagery against Christian iconography in a way that’s both sacrilegious and reverential, offsetting the intellectualising with sex and sudden violence, and filtering it all through the sensibility of a Spaghetti Western, Jodorowsky creates in El Topo an cinemascape of staggering, if incomprehensible, beauty. Ideas are everywhere: scabrous assaults on organised faith are presented alongside endorsements of Christian teaching and handpicked pearls of Asian philosophy; fragments of mysticism and mythology supplement post-Freudian probing of basic sexuality; and discussions of destiny collide with parables about self-determination. There’s even, apparently, a bit of autobiography – Jodorowsky claims his father was so afraid of turning into a homosexual he only once touched the infant Alejandro: when he carried his six-year-old son on his back across several kilometres of sand.

There’s always an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ quality among admirers of any film as obtuse as El Topo. Buoyed by Jodorwosky’s boast that ‘If you’re great, El Topo is a great picture; if you’re limited, El Topo is limited’, there are those who claim to see in it a cohesive satire of all spirituality that practically reveals the meaning of life. Equally, there are those who dismiss the whole thing as a slapdash headtrip, and still others who attack it for being, at times, indecipherable and, at others, too transparent. Perhaps I’m just limited, but I tend to think they’re all missing the point.

Though the film’s message – if it has a central message – is never clear, it is never supposed to be. The main character is, for much of the movie, adrift in an unlikely universe in which he finds no unifying faith or obvious purpose, and it’s the perilous uncertainties of forming your own philosophy in an environment where anyone can pick whatever they like from whatever they find on a belief system buffet accessible to all that is seemingly Jodorowsky’s theme. We’re living in an age, he argues, without many easy answers – and we’re watching a movie that reflects that.

Nevertheless, El Topo is occasionally over-earnest – but this can’t be held against it either. True, some of its attacks on the evils of unchecked capitalism and American concepts of racial integration range from the unsubtle to the unbelievably obvious, but they are delivered in such an unusual way they never seem tired. What’s more, these unsubtle sections are necessary oases amongst the inscrutability – we need a little obviousness to help us engage with a film that could otherwise be un-involving.

And, while it might seem unlikely from a summary of the plot and its theological implications, El Topo is certainly involving. It is a searing, amazing, alarming experience; the more you watch it, the more you want to watch it, and the more you are rewarded for looking beyond the films at the local Odeon or the popular choices in Blockbuster. If you like a film to resemble at least one other you’ve seen, and aren’t fond of the unfathomable, then El Topo isn’t for you. If, however, you fancy seeing the eccentric extremes to which imagination can be stretched on a cinema screen, there is no better film in the world.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Drunken Master / Drunken Master II (Hong Kong, 1978 / 1994)

Jackie Chan is one of cinema’s most valuable treasures: a performer as accomplished as any of the great silent comedians and as appealing as any idol from Hollywood’s golden age. Watched together, these two slapstick kung fu classics – shot sixteen years apart – make the best showcase for his astonishing skills.

Real-life martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung is one of the most frequently filmed characters in movie history: since the 1940s, portrayals of the 19th Century folk hero have appeared in over 100 films – but I doubt any of them were more memorable Jackie Chan’s turn in Drunken Master. Far from foreshadowing the emotionally repressed but physically indestructible incarnation later created by Jet Li (in the magnificent Once Upon A Time In China series), Chan plays the young Fei-Hung as a lovable delinquent who, callow and unpredictable, is forever embarrassing his father with his merry insolence and high-kicking hi-jinks.

Despairing of his ability to discipline his troublesome son, the humourless Master Wong eventually forces Fei-Hung into the tutelage of Beggar Su – an aged, hirsute vagrant whose kung fu is unbeatable provided he’s smashed off his face. The dynamic that develops between the scarlet-nosed teacher and his reluctant student will be familiar to fans of The Karate Kid, and the explosions of high-tempo low comedy it leads to well known to admirers of the Marx Brothers. As Beggar Su, Yuen Siu Tien proves himself as much a master of the secret art of scene-stealing as his character is of booze-fuelled fisticuffs – and, in maintaining his equally endearing performance whilst enduring such obvious agonies in the training scenes, Chan defies both physics and physiology.

Everything in the first three-quarters of the film, however, really only exists to set up the finale. When a local land dispute results in a contract being taken out on the life of Wong Sr., Fei-Hung returns home to defend his father against an apparently invincible assassin known as ‘Thunderfoot’ (played by Hwang Jang Lee, a fighter so ferocious he was once challenged to a duel by a South Vietnamese knife-fighting expert and supposedly killed him with a single kick). The resultant eruption of hand-to-hand (and face to foot) combat – in which Jackie uncorks the extra-strong wine and unleashes the legendary Eight Drunken Gods – is as brutal and hilarious as only one of Chan’s cinematic scraps can be.

Drunken Master’s director, Yuen Woo-Ping, is now the most acclaimed fight choreographer in the world – aside from overseeing the action in innumerable Hong Kong classics, he also orchestrated the dazzling dust ups in The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill – and the combination of Yuen behind the camera and Chan in front of it creates a level of on-screen excitement inconceivable in 99% of other movies. If you think kung-fu films aren’t for you, watch Drunken Master and think again.

Over a decade and a half after his first outing as Wong Fei-Hung began Chan’s transformation from aspiring star to international icon, he revived the character in a complex but pleasantly lightweight story about British attempts to purloin invaluable Chinese artefacts, a catastrophic mix-up over ginseng, and – of course – the combative benefits of binge drinking.

The main difference between the first Drunken Master and the second is that, while the original is a classic movie starring Jackie Chan, the sequel is a classic Jackie Chan movie. By 1994, Chan had long since switched from mere superhuman actor to superhuman actor-choreographer-director, and Drunken Master II demonstrates the best of everything that makes his films so unmistakable.

Most unmistakable of all is what happens after the film has finished. The end credits of a Jackie Chan film are always welcome – not in the way that the end credits of a Pauly Shore film are always welcome, but because, as the list of key grips and gaffers scrolls up one side of the screen, the other is generally filled with eye-watering outtakes of stunts gone awry. More than anything that actually makes it into the movie, Drunken Master II’s procession of outtakes – in which horrified crewmembers are perpetually rushing into shot brandishing bandages and even fire extinguishers – demonstrates the outrageous risks Chan is prepared to take in pursuit of a perfect stunt.

The action scenes that do feature in the final cut have only one flaw: they are so intricate – and so spectacular – they overwhelm the eyes. Watch this film only once and you’ll miss most of it; I can pretty much guarantee, though, that if you watch it once you’ll want to watch it a least a dozen times more.

One day – and it’ll be one day soon – CGI will render most of Chan’s talents obsolete and all of his risks unnecessary. While that may deprive cinemagoers of whoever would have become his successor, it won’t harm him. Jackie Chan has left a mountain of work that will be enjoyed, regardless of fashions or technical advances, for as long as cinemas exist. The Drunken Master movies sit at its peak.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Rocky (USA, 1976)

Before Rocky Balboa succumbed to sequelitis and morphed into a comic book hero battling Soviet supermen and ending the Cold War with just a pair of patriotically patterned shorts and a sturdy uppercut, the character was a believable human being – an unranked boxer who coulda been a contender but never had the guts to try. ‘You had the talent to become a good fighter,’ snarls Burgess Meredith’s archetypal cornerman, Mickey. ‘But instead of that you become a leg-breaker to some cheap, second-rate loan shark … It’s a waste of life!’

Having lost his locker for being more of a bum than all the other bums at the local gym, and with a mounting distaste for breaking bones to order, Rocky has little in his life except his stuttering attempts to chat up Thalia Shire’s sweetly shy pet shop assistant. Then, through a series of flukes and a marketing masterstroke, he is given a token chance at the Heavyweight Championship of World, held by the preening, Ali-esque Apollo Creed. What follows is enough to make anyone bounce about their bedroom screaming, ‘Yo, Adrian!’ before nipping to the kitchen to drink half a dozen raw eggs.

If you started watching the Rocky films somewhere among the sequels, you might assume the original saw Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character switch from obscurity to world domination in no more than the length of a masochistic training montage and one inspiring sprint up some museum steps. But Rocky isn’t that kind of movie. In it, Balboa doesn’t transform from street thug to the greatest boxer in the world: he moves from a man content to be a disgrace to himself to one unwilling, at least for one glorious night, to be any less than he can.

It’s a powerful tale, and nowhere near as saccharine as it sounds. It’s based on the real life achievements of Chuck Wepner – the un-fancied pug who, in 1975, so nearly went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali – and reality in Rocky wasn’t just confined to the inspiration for the script. Enough grit pervades every scene, and every important performance, to (almost) balance out any implausibility. Throughout, while it’s the broad strokes of the plot that make you want to watch Rocky, it’s the perfectly rendered details of the production that make you want to revisit it.

Seminal moments – and tunes – abound. Rocky’s thigh-pumping climb to frozen-framed glory before the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the bloody-fisted beating he gives a side of frozen beef in the meat locker; and his climatic in-ring embrace with Adrian are all, I’m sure, somebody’s favourite movie scene. Bill Conti’s score is justifiably as famous, and beloved, as the film itself and its finest few minutes – the suitably soaring 'Gonna Fly Now' – has, I’d bet, spurred more men into sudden explosions of vigorous activity than anything in Emmanuel. (I’ve always said that, were Ivan Pavlov still around, he would long since have abandoned conjuring dog spit with the sound of a bell, and would instead get his kicks using snippets of the Rocky theme to make men of a certain age suddenly start shadowboxing.)

Of all Rocky’s highpoints, however, it is the ending that ensures its status as a classic. The last seconds of Rocky, which I won’t spoil here, are as flawless as those of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or – though I’ll be struck down by thunderbolt for saying so – Casablanca. Astonishing when you consider that Stallone, who in scripting them showed such expert judgement, later decided it was a good idea to marry Brigitte Nielsen and make Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

I absolutely love all the Rocky movies (with the exception of Rocky V, which is an abomination against Nature and the undisputed low point of Western culture) – but even I wouldn’t attempt to argue that the follow-ups belong in a collection containing the likes of Brief Encounter and Come and See. But Rocky does. Its quality stands out from the rest of the series as conspicuously as ten-year-old Michael’s did from the rest of the Jackson Five. It’s a classic of populist American moviemaking and one of the greatest film fairytales.