Monthly Archives: January 2022

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)

*. The Charlie Chan movies produced by Fox in the 1930s weren’t big pictures, but they were professionally turned out and still offer some entertainment value today. But Fox (Twentieth Century-Fox as of 1935) stopped making them in 1941 (their last entry was Castle in the Desert), perhaps because of the difficulty of selling an Asian hero to American audiences at a time when the U.S. was at war with Japan.
*. The rights to Chan were then bought by Sidney Toler, who took them to Monogram and planned on making two Chan movies a year moving forward, a schedule they pretty much stuck to throughout the 1940s. Monogram, however, was not Fox. Monogram was considered Poverty Row, and even though they had announced with the acquisition of Chan that they wanted to make “fewer and higher budgeted pictures” moving forward, you can immediately sense the falling off in this, their first effort.
*. A good indication of where things were heading was the Mr. Wong series put out by Monogram starting in 1938 with Mr. Wong, Detective. There were five Mr. Wongs, all starring Boris Karloff as the titular hero, and they were obviously just cheap Charlie Chan rip-offs. Acquiring Charlie Chan just allowed them to deliver the same product under a more distinguished brand name.
*. The script actually has a few cute and clever lines, but the plot is the usual wartime hook about stealing some cutting-edge military technology. Here a scientist is killed and a blueprint stolen for a new kind of torpedo. Chan (and Sherlock Holmes) had already done this sort of thing in previous films.
*. What’s new? Charlie is now onto his Number Three Son Tommy (Benson Fong), who is joined this time out by his sister and Number Two Daughter Iris (Marianne Quon). I’m glad they gave Tommy a sister as he’s a much duller fellow than either Keye Luke or Sen Yung. As Iris says to him at one point, “Are you a detective, or a dud?” A dud, I’d say. Though the siblings consider themselves to be “hip cats of a new generation” they don’t have much character at all.
*. Mantan Moreland in his first appearance as Birmingham Brown. The most talented player, though relegated to the usual racist mummery, jumping and fainting in fear, and stuttering lines like “a m-m-m-murderer on the l-l-l-l-loose?”
*. Everything about this movie is cruder, cheaper, and more rudimentary than the usual Charlie Chan fare. Monogram may have tried to up their game (I think that’s debatable) but the results are still a big step down from Fox. The acting is stiff (Sidney Toler, who had been growing into the role, has never been worse), the direction awkward and uncomfortable. There’s a series of shots at the beginning of Toler walking (seemingly with some difficulty) to the crime scene that set the tone. In a number of later scenes you have the sense that the actors are just standing around waiting to deliver their lines.
*. The murders are set up by way of ridiculously complicated contraptions, and all the usual series signature moments (a hand holding a gun sticking out from behind a curtain, the lights suddenly being switched off) are repeated several times. A low point for the series thus far.

Yellow Sky (1948)

*. What? You mean Gregory Peck is playing a bad guy? Wearing a black hat and heading a gang of outlaws whose second-in-command is a sneering Richard Widmark? Is such a thing possible?
*. Well, not really. Perhaps his hat is actually blue, since he’s an ex-Union man. And just before the final battle, when you see him in the moonlight, the way the scene is lit makes it look like his hat has turned if not white then a lighter shade of pale. I wonder if that could have been deliberate.
*. And of course Peck does turn out to the hero. You knew that. You knew there was no way he wasn’t going to be pairing up with Anne Baxter in the end. That’s destiny, in Hollywood.
*. For a while though it seemed as though Yellow Sky really was going to be something different. And by different I mean dark. Peck not only has a dark hat and a chin full of stubble, he’s a sexual predator. Sure it’s just a question of time before “Stretch” (Peck) claims “Mike” (Baxter) as his woman (and their names revert to more traditional gender norms), but what he practices is more than rough wooing. And indeed Mike is threatened throughout with rape by the gang. There is an atmosphere of menace that follows her about from her first appearance and the men start commenting on her sensuous appearance (“when she tucks in that shirt . . .”), culminating in Stretch’s admonishment to “stop swingin’ your hips all over the place!”
*. The setting is also darker than the usual Western locale. There’s a punishing desert (shot on location in Death Valley) like we’d get in later spaghettis, and instead of the usual frontier town there’s a ruin (literally a demolished movie set built by Tom Mix in the 1920s).
*. The plot might have been darker as well. The men falling out over a woman and a treasure in gold recalls The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, released the same year. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a movie that also takes a familiar Western narrative or myth and casts some shade upon it.
*. At one point I was hoping for the return of the Apache at the end in the role of the cavalry, saving Stretch and Mike and Grandpa from Dude and the gang. That, however, would have been a turn of the screw too far in 1948.

*. I was interested in seeing this one because I’d heard that it was considered to be an adaptation of The Tempest. At first glance I didn’t see much of a connection. A group of people stumble upon an isolated place where an old man lives with a young woman (his daughter in The Tempest, his granddaughter here). That’s basically just the old story of the farmer’s daughter. Aside from this, what connection is there? Where is the magic of The Tempest? The music? Where are Caliban and Ariel? Grandpa is a prospector, which sort of sounds like Prospero, but aside from that . . .
*. This made me curious to find out what the source was of this connection. The only reference I found was to an essay by an academic named Tony Howard. Howard’s essay, however, only mentions Yellow Sky a couple of times. The first is in passing, in a paragraph where he talks about how Hollywood basically “kept its distance” from Shakespeare in the 1940s and ’50s except to “use the plots as raw material for mainstream genre films” like Jubal, Joe Macbeth, and Yellow Sky.
*. The second reference is a little meatier. Howard says that in Yellow Sky the “elemental metaphors” of The Tempest “are reversed. Shakespeare’s sea gives way to thirst, and the magic island becomes a ghost town.” Hm. Well, I guess. But that’s not much. The only other connection made is that the film also deals with the “Caliban question,” which is presented as “Can any of these degenerates be redeemed?” This makes no sense to me no matter what angle I look at it. Was Caliban a degenerate in need of redemption? Is Stretch meant to be Caliban then?
*. I don’t want to make a big thing out of this though. I mean, Forbidden Planet is only slightly more related to The Tempest, and that connection has become canonical. For what it’s worth, Wellman himself apparently said that he had no idea there was any connection. And the thing is, Shakespeare basically adapted other people’s stories, using them as his “raw material,” but The Tempest has no known source. The reason being it doesn’t really have a story. It’s more just riffing on a couple of generic situations, of the kind that were popular in improv theatre at the time. It seems to me that what we’re dealing with here are the same basic tropes.

*. Given the talent involved it was hard for this movie to go wrong. With William Wellman directing and Lamar Trotti adapting a W. R. Burnett story you would know you were in good hands. Then you can sit back and enjoy moments like the wonderful shot of the gang coming out of the desert beneath Peck’s horse, or the dark, still portraits of Dude and Lengthy waiting for Stretch in the saloon. As with so many Westerns, it’s a final gunfight that is all anticipation. When the actual bullets start flying we cut, leaving Mike to discover what happened later, as at the end of Stagecoach.
*. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t end there. That would have been too dark. There’s a really silly coda as the gang makes good, returning the money to the bank they robbed at the beginning. Mike has a nice new hat that symbolizes her adoption of a more traditional form of womanhood. The West was safe, for now.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)

*. There was a time when you could expect to find certain volumes on every cinephiles bookshelf. The time I’m talking about being back when people had bookshelves with books on them. Among these were David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, Halliwell’s Film Guide, and the collection of interviews conducted by François Truffaut with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962 and first published in 1966 as Hitchcock/Truffaut. The silver cover with the orange-to-yellow lettering (this was for the updated edition done after Hitchcock’s death) was iconic in itself.
*. The interviews were refreshingly free of puffery and claptrap, instead focusing on a series of entertaining and informed discussions about the practical creative decisions Hitchcock had made. For students of film and aspiring filmmakers it became a sort of Bible, setting a standard for how we talk about movies.
*. That said, I’m not sure why you’d want to make a movie out of it. Nor am I sure that’s what director Kent Jones was aiming for here. Instead it’s more of a general appreciation of Hitchcock’s major work, using excerpts from the interviews to go with clips from the interviews (there were 27 hours of tape to draw from, so no end of material). Other filmmakers like Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, and Richard Linklater also appear as talking heads to give their thoughts.
*. None of which adds up to much. If you’ve read the book, or really any book on Hitchcock, I don’t see how you’d get much out of this. Frankly, there isn’t much more to say about Hitch than has already been said, and if you want close film analysis on a nearly frame-by-frame level you can find it online with more detailed and perceptive breakdowns. Hitchcock/Truffaut plays more like a slickly-produced tribute video, which is fine as far as it goes but that’s not very far. You’d learn more just from re-reading parts of the book, and if this movie is meant to be a substitute for that then I can’t recommend it.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

*. Samuel Johnson remarked that “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” This wasn’t an accurate prophecy, as Tristram Shandy has lasted, but, as always, Johnson did have a point, and since he provides the epigraph for this film I thought I’d start with his observation.
*. Johnson planted his own critical flag on a preference for observations of general human nature, and so had little time for more idiosyncratic works. He was less interested in the ways that people, and the times they live in, are quirky and unique. It would take a cultural revolution, Romanticism, to open this side of things up.
*. But I think of what Johnson said when considering works like Hunter S. Thompson’s/Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or William Burroughs’/David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Do these movies, reflecting very particular cultural and historical moments, have much to say to us today?
*. The drug culture in particular has changed so much. Today the madcap bohemianism of the ’60s is dead. A death that is, of course, part of what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about, with its long build-up to a poetic envoi for the children of Timothy Leary: a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, and freaks in the freak kingdom.

*. So can we say that this film has lasted? Yes and no.
*. Yes because the initial response to it was mostly negative (Roger Ebert: “a horrible mess of a movie, without shape, trajectory or purpose — a one joke movie, if it had one joke”) but it has gone on to become a minor cult favourite, with these earlier takes dismissed as not being able to “get it.”
*. But no because the world that it elegizes, the drug culture of the ’60s, isn’t even a memory now, and not just because if you still remember it then you weren’t there. In the ’60s drugs were fun and liberating. Today they’re a tragedy. A movie made about the meth or opioid epidemic wouldn’t be quite so madcap.
*. Terry Gilliam took over directing duties from Alex Cox, which resulted in some extra levity. I could definitely see this as an Alex Cox movie but it would have been darker (and if Oliver Stone had made it, it would have been angrier, but he’d been here already in Salvador). I think Gilliam made a good fit though for the material. Or at least as good a fit as I can imagine. As with Naked Lunch it’s hard to imagine just what a faithful adaptation of the source would look like. I think this is probably as good as any. To the point where I’d rather re-watch these movies than re-read the books they were based on.

*. It’s a road picture, with Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, a Samoan attorney who’s based on a real person (the activist Oscar Zeta Acosta) but who seems to be more of an imaginary friend in the film.
*. As a road trip it’s engaging and breezy. Depp gets to ham it up non-stop and he doesn’t hold anything back, though he starts to feel reduced to the level of his props: the hat, the sunglasses, the cigarette holder. The narration has a lot of rambling highlights. It’s visually inventive. But granting all of this I still find it kind of disappointing. David Thomson on Gilliam’s penchant for indulging art direction at the expense of any other values: “There are times when ‘visual imagination’ is a diversion from failures of content or sensibility.”
*. I don’t mind that it’s tacky and full of cameos. Vegas is tacky and full of cameos too. But how many of these cameos work? I was left shaking my head at Tobey Maguire and Gary Busey. Cameron Diaz and Christina Ricci are just faces. Ellen Barkin’s waitress I couldn’t figure out.
*. But more than this, it feels in need of greater weight. I mentioned how Alex Cox would have made it darker and Oliver Stone angrier. Those were different visions of the ’60s. So were Ralph Steadman’s drawings, which had plenty of darkness and anger too. Where Gilliam falls down, I think, is in making this version of the ’60s just seem silly. The paranoia, so big a theme in the thrillers of a previous generation, is now entirely self-induced, with our protagonists afraid of themselves and filled with self-loathing. Instead of taking aim at The Man, the system, or the government, Duke and Dr. Gonzo are entirely complicit in everything bad that’s happening, authors of their own destruction, and that for no larger purpose.
*. I wouldn’t deny it cult status though, because it’s certainly offbeat and not quite like anything else out there. But I’m not a fan of the book and it’s not a movie I come back to, mainly because I just don’t think there’s anything much here aside from the bats in the desert and the lizards in the bar.

Castle in the Desert (1942)

*. The last of the 20th Century Fox Chan films with Sidney Toler, and while nothing new I still thought it was one of the better entries and not one that registers any dropping off.
*. The set-up is delightful. It’s basically a manor-house mystery, only the manor in this case is a medieval castle that’s been built out in the desert by a “scholarly millionaire” who thinks that by not having a phone he’s living like they did in the Middle Ages. In a castle. In the desert. Like I say, delightful. Delightfully silly.
*. Apparently the castle is based on Scotty’s Castle, a Death Valley villa still operating as a tourist site that I’d never heard of. I’d thought of it as a cross between Hearst Castle/Xanadu and Manderley. These would have been locations in everyone’s mind since Rebecca had just come out in 1940 and Citizen Kane the year before. Not to mention that the scholarly millionaire’s family name is Manderley. But scholars say Scotty’s Castle is what was meant, so there you have it.
*. This Manderley fellow (Douglass Dumbrille) has married a Borgia. Yes, one of those Borgias, a descendant of the infamous Renaissance Italians. He also wears a black mask over half his face and suffers from a weird psychological condition that makes him suffer anxiety attacks whenever his social status is threatened. What a weirdo! And then there’s a mystic kook named Madame Saturnia making surprisingly accurate prophecies, Henry Daniell playing . . . someone shady, Jimmy Lee running around in armour, and the usual gang of suspects (a doctor, a butler, a lawyer, a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man).
*. I don’t think the various plots make a lot of sense, but at least this time I could follow the basics of what was going on.
*. Busy and with decent production values it’s a lot of fun throughout. They might have gone on forever but with the coming of war it wouldn’t do for Fox to have an Asian hero. Monogram would pick the series up though, and Toler, who had purchased the film rights, would continue to star. Things would kick off with 1944’s Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, which had Charlie working for the U.S. government’s war effort. But the later movies would be a big step down in budget and quality. For the good Chan movies, this was pretty much the end of the line.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

*. I’ve always heard, and read, that Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, though rarely studied even in advanced Shakespeare seminars, were good theatre. Until now, however, I’ve never been able to put that to the test for the simple reason that they’re not often produced. With this BBC production of what’s called the first tetralogy (the Henry VI plays plus Richard III), it seemed I would finally get my chance.
*. Well, I came away impressed. This was great TV. My only reservation is that it’s a free adaptation of the source material. In making it a viewer-friendly, contemporary political thriller (they were aiming to make it “as dynamic and accessible as possible”) a lot of Shakespeare gets left behind, and much of what’s left is transformed. Inevitable? Yes. Responsibly done? Yes. But this is Shakespeare for the twenty-first century.
*. That much would need to be cut was obvious. Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play. Henry VI Part 2 has his largest cast of characters. Something, quite a bit actually, was going to have to give. Henry VI Part 1, for example, comes in at just under an hour. Speeches that go on for dozens of lines are radically pruned to go with a modern editing style. None of Kenneth Branagh’s long takes here! Well, there is one good long take in Richard III as Richard and Elizabeth go walking through the woods together, but I think that was it.
*. The trimming even stretches to a streamlining of the cast, with the characters of Sussex and Somerset, not minor players, being mostly combined into a single figure (Ben Miles, as Somerset). I don’t suppose many people notice this, since I don’t think many people know the plays that well, but it confused me quite a bit.
*. Some cuts are obvious. I don’t think modern audiences can accept speeches that go on for pages. Or take the scene where Henry watches a son mourn his father on the battlefield and a father mourn his son. Anyone seeing that today would likely find it horribly artificial in its formal balance. And so we only get the son who has killed his father. In much the same way the ghosts appearing to both Richard and Richmond, offering up alternating curses and blessings, is almost always cut down to just show the ghosts telling Richard to despair and die.
*. I think in other places the cuts may make us feel a bit shortchanged. In Henry VI Part 1, for example, the conflict between Talbot and Joan of Arc gets short shrift. Talbot’s only big scene remaining is his death at the side of his son, and Joan (who is actually shown killing Talbot) has lost her demons and become a real saint, even going full Falconetti when burned at the stake.

*. Is that being politically correct, or just another nod to realism and authenticity? Seeing as these plays make a hash of history anyway I don’t think there’s much need for it. For example, Eleanor was banished years before Margaret came to England. That cat-fight stuff is in there just because Shakespeare knew it would play well.
*. Another nod to greater realism (or whatever you want to call it) is getting rid of almost all the asides and soliloquies from the Henry VI plays. It won’t do to have actors talking directly to the camera. Of course, this is a decision that had to be jettisoned when the series comes to Richard III, which is built around Richard’s confiding in the audience.
*. I’m all for colour-blind casting, but did they really want to have Sophie Okonedo playing the villainous Margaret, a character who is, to my eye, a close cousin to the ethnic witch Tamora from Titus Andronicus? That doesn’t seem very progressive. Still, it’s a great part.

*. I give Tom Sturridge a lot of credit. Henry VI is a difficult part. The historical Henry VI wasn’t a very impressive figure, by most accounts, and in the play he’s a type of the “holy king” at best (which wasn’t the best kind of king to be) or a dim wimp at worst. Ralph Fiennes played him once and was mainly concerned about his appearing “a weak, dithering fool.” A comic figure even. This is always a danger, but Sturridge really makes Henry believable and sympathetic. No mean feat. I only thought his transformation into Gollum a bit much.
*. Sturridge and Okonedo at least have the luxury of working alone. There aren’t that many performances of Margaret and Henry that audiences would have to compare them to, and almost none on film. Benedict Cumberbatch (a second cousin sixteen times removed of Richard) is playing in a different league, in the shadow of Olivier and McKellen.
*. Physically he’s more grotesque than either, and the opening shot of his naked, deformed back sets the tone. Producer Sam Mendes remarks on the “making of” featurette that “I don’t think you’ve seen Richard with his shirt off.” The prosthetics apparently took over three hours to put on and they add to that sense of realism I’ve mentioned already, going with the mudbowl Battle of Bosworth Field (mud = realism for any depiction of medieval life) and all the shooting on location.

*. One thing about Cumberbatch’s performance that’s really smart is not trying to re-invent the role. He’s very good, but aside from the scene of his naked back it’s not a star turn. If anything he plays some of the hamminess of the role down. What I came away liking best were quiet moments, like his observing Edward and Clarence falling out.
*. Stanley Townsend as Warwick made me think of Brian Blessed. How could you not be reminded of the guy who would naturally fit into that role in the past? Shakespeare had a stable company, and perhaps something of that consistency of players continues into the present day.
*. I started off saying that this is great TV. The hooks at the end of each part reveal a professional showrunner’s sense of timing. There is an attempt made throughout to emphasize a strong through narrative line that works quite well. It’s a treat to see Richard as a character following a real arc.

*. Some of the adaptations made by Ben Power and Dominic Cooke work very well. The death of Clifford, for example, involves wholly made-up scenes between Clifford and Richard and then Clifford and Henry, with both of the latter figures declining to finish him off, though for sharply contrasting reasons. Richard wants him to suffer while Henry can’t because violence sickens him. That’s not in Shakespeare, but it’s a nice touch.
*. Critics made the obvious connection to Game of Thrones, which may be putting the cart before the horse by more than four centuries. I certainly enjoyed these versions a lot more than the old BBC adaptations back when I was in school. Though those products were more faithful, I think perhaps because they were intended partly as study aids.
*. So if you’re looking for the language you may feel shortchanged at times. The dispute in the garden, where the business of the red and white roses is first introduced, often makes reference to the flowers as “dumb [mute] significants.” In this version the line just before the dumb significants line is kept, as is the one after. But dumb significants is lost. A dumbing down? I don’t think so, but it’s an evolution.

Naked Lunch (1991)

*. In my notes on Burroughs: The Movie I mentioned how I really don’t care for the writing of William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch is by most accounts his best known work and I’ve made two determined efforts to get through it, both of which failed. In fact, they failed very quickly, which is really out of character for me. I can stick with a bad book for quite a while. I never came close to finishing Naked Lunch.
*. Is that a barrier to my enjoying Naked Lunch, the movie? Not at all. In the first place, it’s not really an adaptation of the book at all, but in David Cronenberg’s words an “amalgam of many writings of Burroughs” fused with biographical material. This was an approach Burroughs himself approved of, claiming that “all of his work was one work” anyway.
*. But even more than just a Burroughs mix-tape, it’s an amalgam of Burroughs and Cronenberg. The bug-typewriter that talks through it’s (human) anus? I think that’s all Cronenberg. Or take this bit from the DVD commentary track he did: “Joan was a junky, whether she shot up in her breasts or not I don’t know. But . . . the strange drug, the sexual, perverse, sadistic, masochism of it appealed to me so that’s why I wrote the scene this way.”

*. Not saying that Burroughs was uninterested in strange drugs and perversity, but this was definitely a meeting of kindred spirits, at least in terms of some of their obsessions. So when Cronenberg goes off on his own, like inventing the character of Cloquet (Julian Sands) he could do so with the assurance that while Cloquet was “not a character I think that appears directly in Burroughs [he was] very much a Burroughsian type character.”
*. In short, I think this film version is a triumph in taking unfilmable material and making it over into something both entirely new and at the same time true to the spirit of the original. And if I came away from it thinking it was maybe a bit more Cronenberg than it was Burroughs, then that’s all to the good.
*. If anything, I think Cronenberg was too deferential in some ways. He met Burroughs before filming and clearly admired him, even saying he found him sweet and vulnerable. On the commentary track he glides over the question of what sort of culpability Burroughs had in killing his wife. Maybe it was an accident. Who knows.
*. I did, however draw a line at what he says during the scene where Bill Lee (Peter Weller) gifts Cloquet the boy Kiki. “I suppose now this scene would be seen something along the lines of two sexual predators and their prey, but of course times have changed and in Tangier in the ’50s the relationship of the locals and the boys and the gay men who tried to seduce them, I think it was a very complex, intricate relationship and set of dynamics amongst them.” Oh, David. It’s really not complicated at all. They were sexual predators in the 1950s too.

*. Another pleasant trip back to that wonderful time before CGI (for some of Cronenberg’s thoughts on CGI, see my notes on The Fly). I think the puppets here — the typewriter-bug and the Mugwumps — still look terrific thirty years later. The only scene I don’t like is Cloquet and Kiki in the bird cage. On the commentary track Cronenberg admits it’s “the weakest scene in the movie in terms of effects” but that they ran out of time and money and couldn’t do it right. Which really is too bad because visually this is a movie that hardly ever puts a foot wrong.
*. I was surprised to find out that they were actually intending to go to Tangiers to shoot the Interzone stuff (the trip got called off because of the First Gulf War). I think having it look like a studio makes more sense, and visually it’s more of a piece with the rest of the film. But the disjunction of making Interzone more documentary in style might have been fascinating too.
*. Outstanding casting. Peter Weller nails Burroughs, the man as the mask. Judy Davis manages to avoid being just a victim, despite getting killed twice. Ian Holm is surprisingly sinister as Paul Bowles (or Tom Frost, as he’s called here). I thought Roy Scheider may have been enjoying himself a bit too much as Dr. Benway, but it’s a movie that was aiming for black comedy and he plays well off Weller’s dryness.
*. I’m a bit surprised Cronenberg got away with the Mugwump jism-milking scene. That’s pretty explicit fellatio. But I guess the Mugwumps were weird enough to let it get through.
*. Nice credits, made to mimic the style of Saul Bass. Which means they aren’t all that original, but they do fit the period. Naked Lunch was published in 1959 which was also the year of North by Northwest.
*. The DVD box says it’s “from the director of Crash and eXistenZ.” Both of which were still to come. I would have played up Cronenberg’s previous two films, The Fly and Dead Ringers, both of which were commercially successful at the time and have better name recognition today. Along with Naked Lunch I think it’s these three movies that mark a middle peak in Cronenberg’s career. I still might enjoy the early horror flicks like The Brood and Scanners more, but after this film I found him getting a lot less interesting. Still, he has more good movies to his credit than any other Canadian director I can think of. And I give him high marks for making something this good out of Burroughs’s mess.

Burroughs: The Movie (1983)

*. I can’t say I went into this one with high hopes. I don’t think William S. Burroughs was a great writer. In fact, I don’t think he was even a good writer. He survives today, I believe, mostly as a cult figure for his transgressive qualities/shock value. Meanwhile, in terms of his personality and biography I find him to be a creepy figure, bordering on downright repellant.
*. But he was at least a character, which makes him a good subject for a biography. As a documentary Burroughs just follows him around as he performs. And he is always performing. Various friends are interviewed, and you get the sense that most of them, especially Allen Ginsberg, are more than happy to play along.
*. There’s a bigger point here about biographies, either written or on film, of living figures. On the one hand, you’d expect that subject to be someone the author or filmmaker admires, at least to some extent. I think that was the case with director Howard Brookner here. On the other hand, working closely with the subject of your biography, and being given access, inevitably means you are compromised. To put it bluntly, you are being used. There have been notorious cases of this recently when it comes to writing the lives of literary figures, but it’s the same in any medium.
*. I think the best that can be hoped for in such efforts is a glimpse of something that one suspects the subject didn’t want made public. With Burroughs I don’t think there’s much in the way of revelations, and what minefields there are were avoided. Burroughs was an admitted junky, but the extent to which he was also a sexual predator (he basically partook of what we’d now call Third World sex tourism) and/or a murderer (he shot his wife) is left largely unexamined.
*. But then Byron took drugs, abused his wife, and ran off to places where he could have sex with boys, and he’s fondly remembered now as just the rake who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” We seem to put up with a lot from celebs.
*. Oddly enough, the figure who apparently came out looking the worst in the film, at least according to Brookner, was James Grauerholz, who boasts of supplanting Burroughs’ son. That part didn’t sit well with me either, and the whole thing felt creepy as hell. But again: it’s the moments like these that give the film what value it has.
*. Did I feel any greater respect for Burroughs after watching this? No. Did I come away with a better understanding of him? Not really. His face is as fixed a mask as his flat delivery and three-piece suits, and while there are flickers behind that mask they are flickers of something I didn’t like, and certainly didn’t want to spend any more time with.
*. There’s something about drug culture that doesn’t last. Some of the Beats had talent, but I don’t think there’s much they wrote that has lasted. On the Road. Howl. I feel the same way about psychedelic music. I’d keep Pink Floyd, but what else from that era? Just a few songs.
*. If I could check my distaste for Burroughs at the door I’d say this was a game documentary, involving the editing of many hours of footage shot over several years. I like the idea of dramatizing the operating room scene, even if the results are, I guess appropriately, skid row. It’s been restored for the Criterion release but still looks dirty. If you’re a fan of Burroughs you might like that, though I doubt you’ll learn anything new.
*. In his later years, which would include the years covered in the making of this film, Burroughs was on his way to becoming a brand, even pitching Nikes at one point. This was a professional achievement as surprising as it was depressing. For what it says about celebrity and about us. Would you buy a pair of shoes from this guy?