Category Archives: 1980s

The Sacrifice (1986)

*. I want to begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris and Stalker are among my all-time favourite films, though they’re both flawed masterpieces. The thing is, when Tarkovsky is “on” his flaws, which can be substantial, don’t matter. You’re left with the feeling that very few filmmakers are working at the same level.
*. Which brings us to The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last film. It was made in Sweden and very much stands as a sort of homage to Bergman, with the main actor being Bergman veteran Erland Josephson and Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist behind the camera (though it wasn’t shot on Faro, as was apparently often reported). What this means, unfortunately, is that it’s a movie that has a lot to say about Man and God and Love and Death and the End of the World, and says it in a very ponderous way.

*. Look, Tarkovsky is a slow filmmaker. There’s a 45-minute parable here stretched to 142 minutes by way of lots of very long shots and exquisitely composed frames. That’s not the problem. Tarkovsky is also a spiritual guy, so there’s a lot of vague religiosity on display that I didn’t think added up to much. Words like “truth,” “ritual,” “sin,” and “sacrifice” are turned into leitmotifs. But that’s not the problem either.
*. The problem is that these two things are combined, without any great payoff at the end. Here’s Roger Ebert in what was a four-star (his highest rating) review: “The movie is not easy to watch, and it is long to sit through. Yet a certain joy shines through the difficulty. Tarkovsky has obviously cut loose from any thought of entertaining the audience and has determined, in his last testament, to say exactly what he wants, in exactly the style he wants. . . . The Sacrifice is not the sort of movie most people will choose to see, but those with the imagination to risk it may find it rewarding.” Wow. How enticing does that sound?

*. As things proceed we may well think that the presiding spirit is less Bergman than it is Ibsen or Strindberg. What year, nay what century is this? Surely the nineteenth! Is there running water in this house? But no, someone is seen driving a car. And there’s a JVC home stereo (in a wood housing) and television. And as we’re finally told in the film’s final act, the year is 1985. Which is about 100 years later than it looks to be. Or sounds like. It’s a movie that deals with anxiety over nuclear war, but don’t expect to hear Nena belting out “99 Luftbaloons.” This is Tarkovsky, and only Bach is going to do.
*. It also feels like nineteenth-century drama because the interiors all look like stage sets. I mean, there’s an acreage of (mostly empty) floor space not just in the main house but in Maria’s supposedly more downscale cottage. But then the exteriors seem no less staged, as they in fact were. That house, and that tree, planted out in the middle of nowhere are more an art installation than anything that’s part of nature.
*. Staging also informs nearly every shot of the film. This is taken to the point where you know how shots are going to end even as they’re being set up. I’ll give two examples, in one a group of figures walk toward an open doorway. There was a space to the left of the screen that was empty and when the last person entered the frame I said to myself “he has to walk over to the left to fill in that empty space and then stand there to complete the tableau.” And he did.

*. In the second, we see the main character, Alexander (Josephson) standing in front of a dresser with a full length mirror in the door. The door slowly opens, reflecting Alexander in the shot. Again, I said to myself “the shot has to end with the door stopping just at the point where Alexander is framed perfectly in the mirror.” And it did.

*. When your shots become this predictable I think there’s a problem. In a way it’s even worse than a script that you’re always two steps ahead of. It adds an extra level of impatience to one’s experience of a film that is already moving slow enough.
*. Reinforcing the slowness of the proceedings is the photography, which deliberately reduces the amount of colour throughout the central part of the movie. It’s almost like black and white (Nykvist says nearly 60% of the colour was removed). Now Tarkovsky is no stranger to this sort of experimenting with juxtaposing different levels of colour — it plays a big part in Stalker and is used dramatically at the end of Andrei Rublev — but here I had trouble getting the point. Is the middle section of the movie all a dream/nightmare? Maybe.

*. Much of what I’ve said here about the staginess of the compositions, the long takes, the fiddling with colour, and the Bach chorus, could be said of all of Tarkovsky’s work, including some of the best of it. What undercuts it all here is the vagueness of the message, and my sense that what I did understand of that message was something I didn’t like very much.

*. The parable, in outline, has it that a nuclear war is launched and Alexander gets down on his knees and prays that the world can go back to the way it was, and in return he’ll sacrifice everything he loves the most. Then a fellow who studies occult happenings tells Alexander that another good way to save the world might be to sleep with the maid Maria, who is sort of like a good witch. This Alexander does, and things do sort of go back to normal, but Alexander figures he has to keep his part of the bargain with God so he burns his house down.
*. I don’t know where to begin with this. First off, Alexander doesn’t give up all he loves and possesses by burning down his house. I was figuring he’d be sacrificing his son, who’s called Little Man but might as well be Isaac. Also, bargaining with God is a bad look and I don’t think makes for good theology. Then there’s the stuff with Maria. It’s an even worse look for an old guy to figure he can only save the world by sleeping with a woman half his age, and who even uses emotional blackmail (putting a gun literally to his head) to get her to go along. Not even another levitating bout of lovemaking can make this right.
*. In fact, I didn’t like Alexander-as-Christ at all. He’s a combination of the intellectual vice of preferring talk to action wed with the old-person vice of fearing change and wanting everything to magically go back to the way it was before (a golden age, pre-technological, pre-nuclear weapons, when he could still get it up). I didn’t find anything tragic about his ending at all, and didn’t even think the ambulance (which miraculously appears out of nowhere) should have bothered with him. He doesn’t need therapy so much as he needs to be taken to the woodshed.

*. The house burning down is a great image. But then so is Holly Hunter playing a piano on the beach in The Piano, but just as in that case a great image does not a great movie make. Tarkovsky doesn’t have any kind of point here. When he’s at his best, you can feel what he’s saying in a deep way. But I didn’t feel much of anything in The Sacrifice except a sense of frustration and grumpiness with the world. I couldn’t help thinking that Tarkovsky would have been as happy seeing the world burn as watching that house go up in flames. As for the next generation, they can pray to a dead tree. Just keep the faith.

Ran (1985)

*. In my mostly gushing notes on Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 King Lear I remarked on how he made the war into a part of the landscape as well as a vital backdrop to the story, with the characters swept along by its power. I also drew a comparison to The Lord of the Rings in the way the different scales — the human and the historical or mythic — played off against each other.
*. Those comments are even more applicable to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. You have to remind yourself while watching it that Shakespeare’s King Lear isn’t a war story, the scales have been so completely flipped. Kurosawa is painting on a broad canvas, with landscape and armies reducing human figures to insect size. We have to wait a long time before we get anything like a close-up, forcing the characters to perform in a very physical manner, with mask-like make-up, just to read them on screen. This may relate to the fact that Kurosawa was going blind, but I think it has a deeper meaning as well.

*. As Roger Ebert observed, the tragedy of this Lear, Ichimonji Hidetora, almost seems to be pushed to the side, unimportant to the sweep of events he plays no part in. “King Lear has the old man at its center. In Ran we sometimes get the impression that life is hurtling past Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wanders from one tragedy to another, pushing in from the margins, bewildered.”
*. Then there is that connection to Lord of the Rings I mentioned. This mainly came to mind because the sulfuric landscape (much of the film was shot around Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano) recalled not hell so much as Mordor. That sense of violent forces bursting forth in fiery destruction is a visual theme that’s worked throughout, from the burning castle at the end of the first big battle scene looking like an erupting volcano to the squads of harquebuses spitting their demonic fire in the ambush scene, leaving the banners of the old order trailing in the dust.

*. But I wouldn’t take the Lord of the Rings comparison much further. Those aren’t CGI armies sweeping across the battlefield but extras decked out in 1,400 handmade outfits. It took three years to do the costumes, which won an Academy Award. And that whole sequence of the castle being stormed is such a brilliant expression of total film, with a perfect use of sound and score, editing, choreography, colour, and everything else, that it makes you stop and appreciate how you’re actually watching great art, and not just some animated CGI lightshow.
*. You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the performances. I find them hard to rate, both because of the foreign language but also because of what I’ve said about their distant and stylized quality. Mieko Harada is convincing as the evil demon fox Lady Kaede, but is anything as remarkable about her part as her painterly end? Now that’s a highlight arterial spray!

*. So this is a different sort of Lear. Much of the story is the same, with many of the roles gender-swapped (three sons instead of daughters, and Lady Kaede being the Edmund role), but it’s not as much a human drama. Or rather it’s a movie that’s about the generic human condition. I think this is what Pauline Kael meant when she called it “perhaps the biggest piece of conceptual art ever made.” It’s not a movie about people so much as ideas.
*. That said, it is a humanistic movie, and indeed one of the great passion projects in movie history given how Kurosawa identified with Hidetora. Most directors, indeed most artists, get duller and less interesting as they get older. Perhaps because Kurosawa had been largely frozen out of the industry by this point he was able to paradoxically make what was then the most expensive Japanese film in history such a personal statement.

*. Gorgeous to look at throughout. Tōru Takemitsu’s mostly understated score is utilized expertly. The things I did find to carp about were mostly minor. The castle battle is so good it makes the second big battle scene seem less impressive. There’s no storm on the heath but just the wind picking up a bit. The real storm is that of war. The Kent and Fool characters from the play get pretty short shrift and I thought might have been cut. The religious meaning felt obscure. Has God (or the gods) deserted us, or have we lost our connection to the divine? If chaos (ran) is hell, is any order preferable to it? Note that if Lady Kaede is a demon, she’s one that Hidetora in his prime as a warlord summoned.
*. If not great Shakespeare, it is a great and original interpretation of Shakespeare, and a movie that can be appreciated on many levels. It may not be a favourite movie of mine, but that’s only because of the kind of movie it is, or more exactly the direction it takes. I think it’s a great film and brilliantly expresses Kurosawa’s vision in the boldest and most memorable of strokes.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

*. On the DVD commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell (who are obviously having a lot of fun reminiscing about the good ol’ days) mention how the movie had great test screenings but tanked at the box office, in large part (they felt) because of a poor effort at advertising and then having to go head-to-head with Aliens. It took later audiences to discover Big Trouble on glorious VHS, which (I think) is where I first saw it.
*. But VHS felt and still feels right for it. It’s a movie packed with ’80s cheesiness that belongs on a cassette, like some old albums need to play on vinyl. VHS even fits perfectly with its Hollywood version of Chinatown, which is all studio sets dressed up like a strip-mall Chinese restaurant. It’s hard to think the fate of the world is at stake when your climax takes place in the Temple of the Neon Skull, which you get to by going down a corridor lined with fat Buddha statues.
*. Russell’s Jack Burton definitely belongs in the ’80s. He has hockey hair to go with his fetching ensemble: a wifebeater with some cheap print on it, faded jeans, and knee-high moccasins. And then as a kicker you get an actual theme song, “Big Trouble in Little China” by The Coupe De Villes (John Carpenter singing back-up), played over the closing credits. Whatever happened to theme songs?
*. I wouldn’t argue that this is a great movie, but it is a great little movie with buckets of charm and no interest in taking itself seriously. Russell is perfect as the tough-talking but sadly underperforming leading man. Or leading man who is really a sidekick, as the joke is that Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi is the more conventional hero. Jack Burton gets all the usual action-hero tag-lines, but he’s all talk. Except he does come through in a pinch and he is a hit with Kim Cattrall, who looks sensational here and plays very bright and funny coming off Porky’s and Police Academy. In contrast, Wang Chi’s love interest Miao Yin doesn’t even have any lines, at least that I can recall.
*. Throw in James Hong and Victor Wong as dueling good and evil sorcerers and you’ve got a great cast that knew just how to play this material. Carpenter keeps things moving — literally, he loves to have his characters run from scene to scene — and as an added bonus the fact that this is an ’80s flick means you get some fun practical effects instead of a lot of crappy CGI. Of course the Wild-Man orangutan looks ridiculous, but I’d still take him ahead of a digital demon any day.
*. So this is one of those movies where everything came together. Even the lipstick that Gracie smears all over Jack’s mouth was a happy accident that came up during filming. Sometimes things just work out, and aside from the box office that’s what happened here.
*. But of course, box office is what matters. Over the years there’s been a lot of talk about a remake or sequel, but so far fans have had to make do with a series of comics. And maybe that’s for the best. \what happened in the ’80s should stay in the ’80s. It’s better that way.

Tron (1982)

*. In the forty-plus years since it was released Tron has become a sort of talisman, for some good reasons and others that are distortions of perspective.
*. As an example of the latter, Tron is often touted as one of the first CGI movies, but computer generated animation was quite limited at the time and there’s little of it in the movie. It’s mainly a product of more traditional techniques mixed in with backlit animation that gives everything a warm and fuzzy glow (and makes the actors look like silent film stars). This gives the movie a visual texture that’s very different from any CGI as we know it today. That’s not a bad thing, as I’d rather look at the animation here than at the lightshow at the end of The Abyss, a real CGI milestone from later in the decade. But this is more a movie about computers, or how we imagined their inner lives in 1982, than one made by or on computers, as they are today.
*. In other words, the look of the film is a throwback rather than anything prophetic. Where Tron did open a door on things to come had more to do with its basic premise of someone being sucked into a virtual or alternate reality video game. I don’t think this plot had ever been introduced before (in part because being stuck inside Space Invaders wouldn’t have looked like anything special), but it would go on to be the backbone of such books and films as Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy. And The Matrix franchise would pretty much be the same thing, except reversed, where the virtual reality turns out to be the real one.
*. But it’s a plot that is a throwback too, in that it’s basically a recycling of The Wizard of Oz. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is swept away by a digital-processing tornado and ends up in Oz, where he meets various friends and enemies who are played by the same actors we’ve already met in the real world (Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner, Barnard Hughes) on his way to the Emerald City and the mighty Oz himself, or Master Control Program (MCP). There’s even a cute little non-verbal tagalong creature named Clu to be Flynn’s Toto.
*. At the time it came out I was definitely in the target audience, pounding pocketfuls of quarters into the machines at various downtown arcades, and I remember being keen to see it. I also remember being disappointed by it, though not as disappointed as I’d be by the video game. This wasn’t because the visuals underwhelmed, but because the story was so weak. There was nothing to cheer about, and I think even as a teenager I realized the whole thing was just a flimsy excuse to showcase a lot of hard work being done by the animation team. Sure it looked good, and the design elements here — from the tanks and lightcycles to the uniforms and the modular terrain — were first rate. But none of the characters seemed real, either as people or avatars, and the plot was just the usual weary quest.
*. Sticking with this theme of looking forward and back, here’s how Roger Ebert signed off his review back in 1982: “It’s brilliant at what it does, and in a technical way maybe it’s breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be the background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities. All things are possible.” Oh, Roger. Possible? Sure. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

Caddyshack (1980)

*. Even at the time (not while it was in theatres, but on VHS a few years later) I didn’t “get” Caddyshack. A lot of my peers did, and they watched it endlessly while memorizing half the script. But I can’t remember finding anything about it funny then and today it plays even worse. And yet it’s fondly remembered by many, a book was even written about its production, and it was named by ESPN as “perhaps the funniest sports movie ever made.” I think that “perhaps” is being asked to do a lot of work.
*. There’s no real plot, but rather just some shenanigans at a posh golf club. The basic framework is stooge comedy, of the kind writer-director Harold Ramis would specialize in. He’d written Animal House and Meatballs, and this would be his directorial debut, before having a hand in Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Ghostbusters. Along with some recurring playmates like Bill Murray, these movies were all based on the idea of snobs vs. slobs (a tag-line from the ads for Caddyshack). Spoiler alert: the slobs win. Things really are that simple.

*. So the regular kid Danny (Michael O’Keefe) is a caddy wanting to get ahead in the world by kissing the asses of rich old people. But, and this is important, snobs and slobs aren’t defined by their wealth because we have Rodney Dangerfield as a super-rich party crasher and Chevy Chase as more of what we’d recognize today as a cool rich dude. Poor Ted Knight has to carry the banner for Old Money elites, and he is seriously mocked and degraded. A slob sinks his yacht. A slob sleeps with his niece. A slob hits him in the nuts with a wayward drive. This latter insult was the only time I laughed in the whole movie, which tells you how unfunny the rest of it is and also reinforces that I think this kind of thing is hilarious.

*. Bill Murray plays Elmer Fudd chasing a gopher that is digging up the fairways. It’s a truly awful performance, though he does have one good line about receiving a blessing from the Dalai Lama. Rodney Dangerfield steals all there is to steal of a show with his usual shtick (which wasn’t that well known at the time). Chevy Chase is weirdly subdued and frankly hard to read.
*. As per usual for films of this type and at this time there’s drug humour, and scatological humour (a chocolate bar dropped in a pool is mistaken for a turd, or “doody”), and gratuitous nudity. So gratuitous that Cindy Morgan objected to it, but the producer told her she had to do it or she’d never work again.
*. I know I’m getting grumpier as I get older, which is why I started off by saying that I didn’t think there was anything funny about Caddyshack even when I was a teenager. The fact that it hasn’t dated well while it’s stature as a comedy classic has only grown can I think be attributed mainly to nostalgia among those who grew up with it. They don’t make movies like this anymore, and that’s something that some people regret. I don’t see it as good or bad, but only dismiss Caddyshack as being the kind of thing that was really popular once. That popularity now only seems a historical curiosity. The slobs won and became the new snobs. Then they got old.

The Cherry Orchard (1981)

*. The Cherry Orchard has been a popular play both in its own day and our own (I think I saw two student productions when I was at university) but it’s always  been dogged by a question of the proper tone to take with it. And when I say “always” I mean right from the start. Its first production, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski (he of the Method), was presented as a tragedy, which upset Chekhov who insisted on subtitling it a comedy.
*. People have been arguing ever since about whether it is tragedy, comedy, tragi-comedy, or just some different kind of tragedy or comedy than what we’re used to. A lot depends on (1) how sympathetically you view the old landed gentry falling into a state of shabby gentility, and (2) what you think of the rising man Lopakhin. Is he a realist climbing the ranks through intelligence and hard work, or a cruel opportunist who only cares about the bottom line?

*. I think this BBC television production directed by Richard Eyre doesn’t come down firmly on either side. We feel for Judi Dench as Lyuba, who while misty-eyed is no idiot. And Bill Paterson’s Lopakhin (set apart from the others by his broad Scottish accent, climaxing in his big “Loook at me nooo!” speech) isn’t mean-spirited so much as exasperated at the idiots he’s trying to help.
*. For what it’s worth, Chekhov seems to have thought of Lopakhin as the hero of the piece, while the gentry are a collection of freaks and mental cripples. They are, in fact, clowns. Gayev plays air billiards. Trofimov is the eternal servant who even takes a pratfall after his big renunciation of Lyuba. Yepikhodov (a young Timothy Spall) is the walking accident. And the servants aren’t much better. Firs has one-and-a-half feet in the grave, and Yasha is a cartoon bounder who even gets a blowjob from Dunyasha in Act Two, a bawdy bit of interpretation from Eyre that makes a lot out of how nice it is to smoke a cigar . . . with a pretty girl’s head in your lap.

*. You have to laugh at all these people. And feel a little sorry for some of them. But you don’t laugh at Lopakhin or Varya (Harriet Walter). And I think the best part of the play is the final scene between these two, which leaves everything unsaid in addressing the question of why Lopakhin doesn’t propose to Varya.
*. Leading up to this it seems as though Lopakhin is actually more attracted, and I mean that in a sexual sense, to Lyuba. Judi Dench has such a reputation as a sort of Angela Lansbury figure who has always been everyone’s mom or grandmother that it’s nice to see her here in a role where you can see her running off to Paris with her lover. She’s a cougar with some teeth yet (she played Anya, Lyuba’s daughter, in a 1962 BBC production. if you can track it down). But Lyuba is obviously angling for Lopakhin to marry Varya and everybody seems on board . . . until they aren’t. What happens? Well, nothing happens. And it’s such a great scene watching the two of them give up on the idea of marriage without ever addressing it directly. It was all just talk between them, and now they’ve talked enough.
*. As you’d expect for a television film from this period it looks muddy as hell, but I actually thought that went with the sepia-toned feel of the piece. Which is good, because I doubt it’s possible to clean it up to make it look any better. Shot on video. there’s nothing to be restored. So what you’re getting here is a studio-bound filmed play. There aren’t even any location establishing shots. But everybody does their job and I came away from it at least thinking that I’d seen a good . . . play.

Strange Brew (1983)

*. What a flashback for me. Or does it qualify as nostalgia? It’s been so long.
*. The characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) were not a big part of my childhood, but they were memorable. I watched them on SCTV. I didn’t have their comedy album but I heard it enough times. I can remember watching Strange Brew with people who knew all the lines.
*. I don’t think I’ve seen Strange Brew since then. That is, in over thirty years. To my surprise I enjoyed seeing it again. But the decades may have helped. Not that the humour has aged well, but because at the time the Great White North shtick was wearing thin and getting tired. Not having heard it, or even about it, for so long made it less annoying.
*. The set-up is pure stooge comedy. Bob and Doug are the classic dumb and dumber pairing, Bill & Ted before Bill & Ted, and Wayne and Garth before Wayne and Garth. That said, I also find this to be a very weird movie, but in a good way. It’s not just unrestrained in its bending of reality and slapstick (especially at the end), but surreal. The weirdest part is the way the crazy people who have been drugged with a special beer are made to play violent hockey games while being controlled by organ music. That’s strange. Not particularly funny, but hard to forget.

*. Another weird thing is the Hamlet parallel. Apparently Dave Thomas wanted the story to be based on Hamlet, but then asked to open things up more when the first draft of the script was too faithful to the play. My question is what the point of all this was anyway. So the brewery is called Elsinore and the guy who owns it is killed by his brother, who then marries his widow and takes over the beer-making business. The murdered owner then appears to his daughter as an electronic ghost. This might have been interesting, but nothing is done with any of it and the character of the uncle and especially the mother are wholly disposable. The real villain is Max von Sydow’s Brewmeister Smith.
*. Bob and Doug hear the following sermon while touring the new, fully-automated brewery: “Welcome to 1984. The age of automation and unemployment. The rise of the machine and the fall of man. The end of the human era.” We laughed at that in the early ’80s. Oh, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
*. Overall, it’s still cute. There are a few hits and a lot of misses. The romance between Rosie and Pam never shows the faintest spark. Max von Sydow doesn’t get to do anything interesting. Really, the movie only works, when it works at all, when the boys are on screen. The rest is just padding. Still, it moves pretty well even when it’s not going anywhere and remains an essential bit of Canadiana. Thirty years from now I suspect it will still have an audience. Or cult. Yes, it’s very much a movie of its time, but the weirdness has endured.

Dune (1984)

*. David Lynch’s Dune is widely regarded, correctly I believe, as an epic failure. Lynch doesn’t like to talk about it now, aside from considering it a film he never should have gotten involved with in the first place, describing the process of making it as “a slow dying-the-death, and a terrible, terrible experience.” And yet it was Lynch’s most successful movie, at least in terms of the box office on its initial theatrical run.
*. It’s not credited as Frank Herbert’s Dune, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Stephen King’s It. It’s been years since I’ve read Dune, so I’m not sure how faithful an adaptation it is. I reckon a lot of it came out of Lynch’s imagination. When he was first contacted by Raffaella De Laurentiis to direct he hadn’t even heard of the book. But these freestyling elements may be the best parts. The pug? The Holstein cow they’re cutting up? Paul’s weird little sister, who seems to have wandered into things from the red room? The really unhappy looking cat, taped to a rat, that Thufir Hawat is supposed to milk?

*. As for Sting’s Art Deco Speedo, that was serendipity. He was supposed to be nude but at the last minute they had to give him something to cover up. I’d say they did pretty well. It goes with his troll-doll look and the way the whole House of Harkonnen are played way, way over the top.

*. Given that this movie is, as I say, an epic fail, let’s start off with highlights like these, and the fact that this movie has such a wonderful look. The art design here is terrific: we wouldn’t see anything approaching this kind of originality in a big-budget SF movie again until The Fifth Element. They could have gone with a more traditional swords-and-lasers look, as Denis Villeneuve would nearly forty years later, but instead mixed in a bunch of 1920s and ’30s costumes and décor. Ridley Scott was originally tabbed to direct and I think he would have done a great job but I like a lot of what Lynch brought to the table.
*. Alas, when I say I love the look of the film what I mean are the sets (of which there were eighty, built on sixteen soundstages), costumes, and props. The effects have dated badly. Overall, I think the personal combat shields still look cool and the sandworms hold up pretty well, though the business of the Fremen riding them at the end is laughable, especially with their shouting out the ki-yahs! and pew-pews! as they imbue their weapons with words of power. Furthermore, all of the space scenes are awful and the blue screen work very much of its time. The scenes where the giant slug opens the portals for interstellar travel are just garbage. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. Though the slug in the tank at the beginning was great.
*. And there are many other problems. Instead of breaking the movie into two parts, as Scott intended and Villeneuve would do, Lynch had to bring it all in at just over a couple of hours (which was an hour shaved from his director’s cut). Good luck with that. Given the amount of information that has to be introduced it seems like almost every other scene is given over to expository dialogue (“explain the stillsuit, please”). That still more of this is added by way of irritating voiceovers only makes a bad situation worse. Then there is the fact that Lynch isn’t a great action director, and none of the big action scenes feels connected to the rest of the plot. They just feel dropped in as a way of maybe waking people up.
*. The credits had great promise. Lynch is a genius. Freddie Francis shot the movie. Music by Toto and Brian Eno (well, it was 1984). A cast filled with scene-stealers. But none of it works because all of these people feel like they’re in the wrong place (except maybe for Sting, and Siân Phillips as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam). I mean, Patrick Stewart (apparently not the Patrick Stewart they wanted), Max von Sydow, José Ferrer, Brad Dourif (here comes the crazy!), Dean Stockwell, Sean Young . . . they just don’t work. Perhaps no one could have pulled their characters off given how overwhelmed they were by the script and the production, but they all feel totally out of place. And Kyle MacLachlan just isn’t Paul. Even Timothée Chalamet did better in the part, and I was not impressed by Chalamet’s performance one bit.
*. In sum, this Dune is something terrible, but it’s not the total disaster it might have been. Lynch makes something of it, especially in the early going. But the difficulties they were having with the material are glaringly obvious, the ending is way too rushed, and the sandworm assault is a colossal joke.
*. Such a debacle, combined with the failure of Jodorowsky’s project to get off the ground, branded Dune as unfilmable for decades. In fact, there were only a couple of developments necessary to make it happen. Once they got them figured out, blockbusterdom would be automatic. Though the results would not be as inspired. I don’t really see this as a cult film so much as a very silly one, but all the same I wonder if it might end up being the Dune that lasts.

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?

Altered States (1980)

*. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Altered States. I remember when I was in grade school I wrote an SF short story making use of the isolation tank I’d seen in the commercials (I didn’t see the movie on its initial release). Something about that image got to me.
*. But I don’t think it’s just a quirky, personal response. I honestly think it’s a good movie, and one that holds up remarkably well.
*. I say “remarkably” for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it’s a movie that was just a bit behind its own time already in 1980, with Edward Jessup (William Hurt in his big screen debut) tripping into altered states of consciousness being very much a product of the drug culture of the previous decade. John Lilly or Timothy Leary (possible models for Jessup) and the psychedelic Star Gate from 2001 were relics of the ’60s. Actually, Ken Russell’s career seemed pretty much over by 1980 as well. And yet it’s a movie that seems fresher than ever today.

*. The other reason I find it remarkable it’s so good has to do with its troubled production. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (whose own novel he was adapting) withdrew from the project after fighting with Russell, and even went so far as to have his full name removed from the credits (he appears as Sidney Aaron). Apparently he was upset his lines weren’t being delivered with the respect they deserved, which is a novice screenwriter’s complaint. It’s also unfair, as almost every review of the film praised Russell for having the dialogue delivered quickly or with overlapping voices to make it seem more natural (or cover up how bad it was). Danny Peary, no fan of Russell, is scathing on this point: “It’s more than likely [Chayefsky] came out publicly against Russell because he realized early on that that no faithful adaptation of his book could result in a good film. He needed a scapegoat in order to keep his own reputation intact. But if you don’t like Altered States, blame Chayefsky.”
*. Whoever’s side you take, these disputes usually bode ill. Pauline Kael thought Altered States “an aggressively silly head-horror movie” primarily for being “the misalliance of two wildly different hyperbolic talents.” “Creative conflict” is mostly a myth. When people who are supposed to be working together on set don’t get along bad things usually happen. But not here. Also, movies this far-fetched and messy rarely come together, but that’s again not what happened. Altered States is visually chaotic, but it doesn’t fall apart.
*. Take Jessup’s visions. They are all over the map in terms of their content, but they still manage to have a weird coherence. The thing is, since they represent a dive into the collective unconscious and prehistory of the species, literally anything can be found down there. As with dreams, if they made sense they wouldn’t make sense.

*. I think there’s a point here also that bears on a criticism I’ve heard made of Jessup’s transformation. Instead of having the lead actor turn into the Primal Man, as is traditional in transformation scenes in Jekyll-and-Hyde and Werewolf movies, they have an entirely different person playing the “monster.” In this case it’s Miguel Godreau, a much smaller man than Hurt. This is hard to figure just on a physical level (how does Jessup shrink so much?), but I don’t have any problem with it. The thing is, the Primal Man doesn’t represent Jessup’s Mr. Hyde, or unleashed id. He is the physical embodiment of our common genetic ancestry. He is us. Of course you could then say that homo sapiens, or even “life” itself, has no genetic memory of the Big Bang or the beginning of the universe either, but that would be examining what is a crazy premise anyway too carefully.
*. What I do think you can criticize the movie for is the ending, which is both incredibly abrupt and overly sentimental. To have come so far only to be told that love conquers all is disappointing. And it’s not even that believable, since Jessup has been presented as such a self-centered jerk throughout the movie, his final transformation registers as his least likely yet.
*. The score was by John Corigliano and I find it both ahead of its time and very effective. The effects were underbudgeted, but still look good to me. Those bladders under the skin work every time, and while nothing dates faster than CGI, the hallway scene here holds up a lot better than similar scenes in more recent films.
*. One thing I don’t think the film gets enough credit for is how scary it is. Well, really there’s only the one scary sequence, when the Primal Man gets loose in the building’s basement. But I remember that part of the movie scaring the heck out of me the first time I saw it and I thought it worked just as well today. There’s always something especially frightening about a face suddenly appearing in a window you’re looking through. Something about it being extremely close, but with an invisible barrier between us and the danger. That gets me every time.
*. I’m glad this one has held on with a cult following, though I don’t know how popular it is today. I think it’s really very well done. Everyone in the cast works well (Blair Brown as the love interest, and Bob Balaban and Charles Haid as the concerned friends), the music and sound are top drawer, the effects are always interesting, Russell’s direction is imaginative and under control (I love how he works the hallway-as-birth canal motif), and the story is both bizarre and involving. Yes, it’s a movie that for whatever reason I’ve always felt a personal connection to, but it’s also one I don’t hesitate to recommend to friends. You can certainly call it silly, but it’s a good movie that’s lasted forty years now. And it may last even longer.