Quiz the thirty-fourth: Men in pyjamas (Part one)

Well, I always call them pyjamas anyway. Though apparently the American spelling is pajamas. Also known as PJs, jimmies, jimjams, or jammies, they have been disappearing from our silver screens, just as, one assumes, they have been disappering from our bedrooms. I don’t know why. I think they can be both comfortable and classy. In any event, as with our quizzes involving newspaper headlines and phone booths, here’s yet another trip down memory lane to look at the way we used to live.

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The Terror (1963)

*. The Terror is a movie that fell into the public domain because the copyright notice was left out of the credits. I doubt at the time that anyone would even have considered that an oversight, but today it has a certain cachet primarily because of those credits and the story of its making, leading it to enjoy a second life on DVD. When I first saw it, however, it was on a really awful print that was almost unwatchable. Did this impact my reaction to it? Probably.
*. Still, going back over my notes from that earlier viewing I seem to have liked The Terror better back then. I just recently saw it again in a restored version that looked much improved but I came away thinking it wasn’t as good as I remembered. Maybe, I thought, it’s like one of those albums that you needed to listen to on vinyl to get all the hiss and pop as part of the experience. Or maybe I was in a grumpier mood the second time. Or maybe it really isn’t a very good movie.
*. Well, it certainly isn’t a very good movie, even though it is kind of interesting. Basically it’s a movie that Roger Corman pulled out of his ass trying to make use of the sets from The Raven before they were torn down. He apparently shot most of it in four days, with a script that he seems to have been partly making up as he went along. Some scenes had to be added later just to try to make sense of what was going on.
*. As far as the interesting credits go, there’s Jack Nicholson looking all of 18 years old and hopelessly miscast as a French cavalry officer. And rumour has it that both Nicholson and credited producer Francis Coppola spent some time behind the camera, along with “half the young filmmakers in Hollywood” in Corman’s own remembering.
*. The story opens with a couple of scenes involving Nicholson’s character falling asleep or passing out, which adds to the dream-like sense of whimsy the whole thing has. There’s also a bit of a literary air to it in the stilted dramatic dialogue, making it feel like it should be an adaptation of Poe (which is what it is usually lumped in with among the other vaguely Poe-derived productions Corman was busy with at the time).
*. Ultimately though the whole thing swallows its own tail. There’s something about it that I don’t think makes sense, but I can’t muster the strength now to unwind the plot to the point where I think it falls apart. Is Ilsa mad at Eric? Is she working together with Katrina, or at cross-purposes? I can’t figure it out.
*. I’ll grant it’s a bit of fun. Say what you will about Corman but he was a competent filmmaker even under the most extreme conditions. I just don’t think he had any upper range. So, sure, this is all kind of silly but at least it’s a decently told joke.

The Man with the Iron Fists 2 (2015)

*. I really didn’t like The Man with the Iron Fists, but I held out a small sliver of hope for this sequel. Why? Because a lot of the time sequels to superhero action movies are more fun because they don’t get all bogged down in having to develop an origin story. Also, this film wasn’t going to be directed by star RZA (or The RZA, which he pronounces “The Rizza”). I figured that could only be a good thing.
*. I was wrong.
*. The story here is pretty basic. Thaddeus the blacksmith (he of the iron fists) is “on a path to Buddha.” This means he is renouncing violence in an attempt to “replenish [his] soul.” On his way to Nirvana (or the Wu Chi Temple, home of the fabulous Golden Nectar) he is swept downriver to a town ruled by a brutal overlord named Master Ho who runs the town’s silver mine with the backing of the Beetle clan. The miners, who are not slaves but serfs (or “bastard maggots of whoring mongrel dogs” in the words of Master Ho), are chafing at their bondage. Led by spirited family man Li Kung they begin to fight back, and Thaddeus is drawn to their cause.
*. I just finished typing that summary and I’m already wondering why I bothered. I don’t know why I’m bothering with any of this. Or, for that matter, why I even bothered to watch this in the first place.
*. Most of these martial arts movies are just excuses for the fight scenes, but despite not being hamstrung by the first film’s cast of less-mobile all-stars (Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista) the fights here are dull and unconvincing bursts of rapid editing meant to conceal the fact that there’s little choreography.
*. There’s also none of the comic-book spirit of the original, which had a bunch of heroes gifted with special powers or weapons. Here there’s just Thaddeus and his iron mittens, and some awkward metal booties at the end.
*. RZA has to be one of the most unlikely action heroes in all of film history. He doesn’t have a commanding on-screen presence and, for a martial artist, doesn’t move well. And then there is his voice, which (and I’m being charitable) may be characterized as marble-mouthed. His “r”s come out as “w”s and the “th” sound as an “f.” Without trying to be snarky, I think he has the worst English of anyone in the cast. At least it’s the hardest to understand.
*. Luckily, the movie isn’t entirely about him. In fact, he disappears for a long period at the beginning as the power dynamics in the village are set up. I say this is fortunate because the main characters here, Dustin Nguyen as Li Kung and Carl Ng as Master Ho, are both pretty good. Ng in particular gets a lot of campy, over-the-top villainous lines. It was a shame to see him dispatched so quickly at the end.

*. Yes, Master Ho was so named because he has a harem of hos. Get it?
*. I wonder why they bothered playing Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” over the final battle in the village. Sure it’s a great piece of music, but how does it fit here?
*. How could journeyman director Roel Reiné have thought that having a kung-fu fight underwater was a good idea? He says on the commentary that he’d never seen it done before. Did he ask himself why he hadn’t seen it done before?
*. The locations and sets in Thailand are picturesque. Thailand is a place that always looks great on film. I’ve never been, but I’m told it isn’t as nice a place to visit. I don’t like heat and I hear it’s very hot.
*. Apparently the filming took place around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, which is where that soccer team was trapped in a cave in 2018. I don’t know why I made that connection. Maybe because of all the time spent in caves here.
*. I just don’t get the sense that anyone cared a whole lot about this one. It was a direct-to-video release, which is usually not a good sign. More telling is the fact that on the DVD commentary track with RZA and Reiné, RZA simply walks out at around the hour mark, saying that he has to go work on some music. Left on his own, Reiné talks about things like how he had to shoot the movie in 20 days but then didn’t stick around to work on it in post-production because he had to go shoot another movie in Denmark. This all suggests a certain level of disengagement, if not indifference, to the finished product.
*. Well, my time may be worth a lot less but I too have other things to do. I actually didn’t hate this movie. It has a couple of cheesy-fun moments. But even if that’s your thing I don’t think they’re enough.

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

*. I was actually looking forward to this one. Big mistake.
*. What a disappointment. Especially given how I’m a big fan of the Shaw Brothers chopsocky epics of the 1970s, which this film is an almost slavish homage to. Where did they go wrong?
*. I think most of the blame has to be layed at the feet of writer-director-star RZA. Yes, RZA is his professional name. To give you some idea of how old and out of touch I am, I had never heard of him before. Apparently he was the leader of a hip-hop band called The Wu-Tang Clan, which I had heard of but whose music I’m unfamiliar with.
*. Whatever his musical accomplishments, RZA is no filmmaker. Even with what I’m assuming was a lot of help this is an unforgiveably dull martial arts film. Right from the pre-credit fisticuffs I knew I was in trouble, as the fight scenes just don’t work at all. RZA needed to up his game. And he is also no actor, joining a long list of pop stars who have tried to make the leap to the big screen and failed. He can’t even poke fun at himself. Which means what we have here is a sort-of amateur vanity project that isn’t amateur enough for its own good.
*. The story is actually OK. Despite the script being years in development, what they ended up with was a pretty decent tribute to Shaw Brothers kung-foolishness. There’s a caravan of the Emperor’s gold that’s being eyeballed by around a dozen masters of various martial arts styles, each identified by their distinct choice of weapon (poison darts, a mechanical knife, a coat of knives, a body that turns to brass). In other words, it’s a superhero movie, drawing on traditions going back before the advent of MarvelCrap. It could have been fun.
*. Despite the story being more than adequate, the script itself just isn’t clever enough. Russell Crowe seems to want to ham things up, but he has no good lines (and obviously can’t fight). RZA’s blacksmith looks like he’s falling asleep, and he doesn’t have any good moves either. The fact that neither of the two leads can fight, a rather large drawback, has to then be concealed with camerawork and other stunts like split screens and tons of edits. The only person who really seems to be enjoying himself is Byron Mann as Silver Lion, but he’s all on his own.
*. I think they tried to make it too much of a throwback. There’s actually very little here that doesn’t look like it belongs in the 1970s. Despite being filmed in China it’s a studio-bound production. About the only nod to being made in the twenty-first century is the gore, but it’s dull gore. Mostly just CGI arterial sprays.
*. I really shouldn’t have been surprised I disliked it so much. It is, in some ways, a sort of spiritual sequel to Tarantino’s own homage to the same genre: Kill Bill. In fact, it was while RZA was doing the soundtrack for Kill Bill that development on The Man with the Iron Fists got started, and the original cut was supposedly four hours long, so RZA wanted to release it in two parts, just like Kill Bill. Since I hated Kill Bill, this should have put me on my guard.
*. I suppose if you’re not familiar with the tradition it comes out of then it would be possible to like this more. But then, if you’re not a fan I don’t know why you’d bother with it in the first place. Meanwhile, even though I appreciate the spirit in which it was made, I came away from it feeling let down.

Walker (1987)

*. Then, and then, and now. 1855: William Walker’s conquest of Nicaragua; 1987: Alex Cox’s film Walker; 2007: the recording of the Criterion Collection’s commentary track for the film, featuring Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer.
*. And here’s what the two had to say about then (when the film was made) and now (2007). Cox: “I think people were more inclined to be activists in those days. I mean these guys, these actors came down to Nicaragua because they wanted to make a statement, they wanted to say we’re behind the people of Nicaragua and we’re not behind our government.” Wurlitzer: “That’s true, and there was still a residue of Vietnam too, you know, that was lingering in the collective consciousness in those days. This is like the tail end of the Vietnam disaster.”
*. The next generation would be determined to rid the collective consciousness of this residue of Vietnam, kicking what was called the “Vietnam syndrome” (defined as a nervousness about getting involved in foreign wars that might turn into quagmires). Then, as Cox explains, it was precisely because this generation had forgotten Vietnam that they recreated it in Iraq.
*. William Walker, meanwhile, was a name known to only a handful of historians in 1987. And, despite the notoriety of this film, I don’t suppose many more people have heard of him today. Selective amnesia is a constant in any culture.

*. The military had learned its lesson too. Just as they controlled the media coverage of the 9/11 wars to a far greater extent than in Vietnam they also knew the value of bringing Hollywood on board. If you were going to make a war movie about Iraq (or wherever) you were probably going to need some help from the army to do it. Good luck being critical of the military when you’re that compromised.
*. But all that was still to come. In 1987 Hollywood could still make an anti-war film. Or just barely. Both Cox and Wurlitzer were outcasts at the time, and Walker wasn’t going to get them back into anyone’s good graces.
*. That said, I had a hard time believing it was a movie that met with as much opposition on its release as they make out on the commentary. At least that’s the way I felt until I dug up Roger Ebert’s contemporary review, in which he gave it one of his no-star ratings. I guess the anachronisms really did bother people. Ebert called it a “travesty” (twice!) and said that if it was meant as a satire he didn’t know what the target of the satire was. Really? Not one of your finer moments, Rog.

*. Another way of looking at then vs. now is in the way war is filmed. Walker‘s battle scenes are very much in the Peckinpah tradition, with the spins and twists of bodies dancing to bullets in slow motion. Today the language of battle is borrowed entirely from video games, where everything seems to move much faster than in real life. In today’s war films death is something anonymous and abrupt. The enemy are only a score of kills to be tallied.
*. I like how Cox consistently works the margins. Walker’s wife (played by Marlee Matlin) literally has no voice and can only sign her contempt for the businessmen in the smoke-filled room (a contempt that Walker deliberately mistranslates). Later we’ll see something similar in the way the Nicaraguans have their real feelings for Walker put into subtitles (“this is no ordinary asshole”). Hornsby (Sy Richardson) is a central character but is someone pushed increasingly to the margin as the film proceeds, his big scenes often playing like moments just out of frame. His criticism of Walker becomes mere sniping from the shadows, and he is finally disposed of in what seems like an afterthought.

*. Ed Harris’s Walker is a fascinating creation. After the death of his wife the brakes come off his monomania, the sense he carries with him of his own greatness. He is less the poster boy for American imperialism (as Wurlitzer calls him) than its embodiment. He is the grey-eyed man of destiny but selfless. “Walker’s goals involve a higher purpose than the vulgar pursuit of personal power.” He says so himself.
*. His referring to himself in the third person prefigures the annoying habit of today’s celebrities to do the same and suggests the same pathological dissociation. For what is such a creature of destiny but a tool of that same destiny, a vehicle for the spread of American ideology? As Walker recognizes, and tells the people in the church at the end, he may die but more Americans will come. He is only a drop in the tide.
*. It’s correct to have Walker deliver his final speech in a church from a pulpit. Manifest destiny is an article of faith, and at the end of the day Walker is a political fanatic, sustained by his sense of the rectitude of his cause. Not necessarily his own rectitude, mind you, but that of his mission.

*. Harris’s performance I think nicely captures this. He has the blank look of an android or alien and his actions underline the paradoxical passivity of such a hero. Since he is only a representative of a larger, inevitable historical force he allows himself to be swept onward by fate, walking through battles indifferent to his own safety. In much the same way he can casually dispose of principles like being against slavery if that is what the situation requires. He is not leading but being led by larger forces. He cannot be compromised because he is only embracing fate.
*. After its poorly-received initial run Walker has gone on to gain a bit of a cult following, despite being a film that runs against the various currents, political and artistic, that I’ve mentioned. The main reason being that it’s a well made movie, but also because it’s political message has stayed relevant. The final CIA airlift was meant to recall the fall of Saigon, but on the commentary track Cox insists that “this is Fallujah.” Walker’s sermon on the inevitability of America’s expansionary destiny is still a message for our time, whether you think of it as a warning or a promise.

Gaslight (1944)

*. This is the second adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light, which had been previously filmed in 1940 by Thorold Dickinson. Apparently MGM tried to destroy all the prints and even the negative of that earlier film but weren’t successful.
*. Believe it or not, at the time this tawdry melodrama was considered a prestige picture, and it went on to be nominated for a raft of Academy Awards, with Ingrid Bergman winning for Best Actress.
*. I’ve already said in my notes on the 1940 version that I prefer it in almost every way. This movie is too long and filled with extraneous stuff. Why bother with all the back story of Boyer romancing Bergman when he’s too smooth to be trusted for a second anyway? And, despite adding so much, I still didn’t think the husband’s plot made any sense.
*. David Thomson thought Cotten’s character “a sham and a waste of everyone’s time.” That said, I doubt Thomson’s preferred way of handling things, which would be to have Bergman solve her own problems without the help of an interested third party, was in the cards at the time.
*. This was Angela Lansbury’s debut, playing the slatternly cockney housemaid who is either a red herring or just an awkward fit in the plot. Lansbury was only 17 and had to be accompanied by a social worker on set. But she’s an actress who has always seemed to be years older than her actual age and she looks like she’s about 30 here. Which kind of gets rid of the sense of something really taboo going on between her and the master of the house (a slightly kinky relationship that was made more explicit in the 1940 film).
*. This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s very much a studio production of its time and I think it does suffer in comparison with Thorold Dickinson’s film. Still, this is the kind of thing audiences wanted, and it’s what a lot of people still want to see when they re-visit Hollywood’s golden age.

Gaslight (1940)

*. I’d never had much interest in Gaslight, either this film or the better known 1944 version, until I started hearing so many references to “gaslighting” as a way of characterizing the messaging of the Trump administration. Before Trump I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word used before, at least that I can remember. Since Trump it has become common parlance. So I decided to go back to the source.
*. The original source is a 1938 play by the British playwright Patrick Hamilton titled Gas Light (two words), which premiered on Broadway as Angel Street in 1941 (with Vincent Price playing the wicked husband). This film is closer to the play than MGM’s 1944 production, but it almost disappeared because when MGM bought the rights they wanted all of the prints and even the negative destroyed. This is something studios did, back in the day.
*. Cinephiles like to debate the respective merits of the two films. I’ll say up front that I prefer this version. For starters, it’s 30 minutes shorter. I don’t think less is always better, but the 1944 film feels awkwardly padded while this one is much tighter and has some real snap to it. Just look at that opening scene as the thief tosses the house: the frantic cuts, wipes, and dissolves, the odd angles and shadow play, the violent stabbing of the furniture and rifling of drawers, all to a score vibrating with tense strings. There’s nothing like that in the MGM production. Hell, Boyer even wears gloves when he tears the attic apart. The jewel thief here has no time for gloves.
*. Then there is the cast. In 1944 MGM managed to get a bunch of stars in alignment (and it wasn’t easy), but I prefer Anton Walbrook to Charles Boyer. Walbrook is a more believable and altogether nastier piece of work. His creepy voice has an unnerving way of making his lines sound a bit like perverted baby-talk. And while it will be accounted heresy by some, I think Diana Wynyard is more convincing in the role of the bride coming unglued than the always composed Ingrid Bergman. Wynyard has the haunted, neurotic look of Véra Clouzot in Les Diaboliques, or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Finally, the amateur sleuth/hostler Frank Pettingell is a lot more fun than Joseph Cotten (“Saucy shirt, isn’t it?”), and Cathleen Cordell is a more erotic housemaid than Angela Lansbury, without having to try so hard. There’s some real heat generated between her and her louche master.
*. Apparently it’s a play that’s long been popular on stage, even up to the present day, but does the story make any sense? Could Paul have come up with a more complicated plan as subterfuge for continuing his search for the rubies? What good does it do to drive his wife insane? In later examples of “gaslighting” like Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte and the Hammer psychothriller Nightmare (both 1964) there was a practical point to what the villains were doing. Here, not so much.
*. Thorold Dickinson doesn’t take a back seat to George Cukor in the directing department either. There’s nothing in the later version that matches the pan here that follows the discovery of the jewels. In a single shot we see the triggering of Paul’s own madness, culminating in his tossing the chair.
*. Well, if you’re curious about the origin of the expression “gaslight,” or if you just want to enjoy an atmospheric thriller from the golden age then I would recommend this film ahead of Cukor’s. If you just want to do some star-watching though, fast forward to 1944.

Long Weekend (1978)

*. Long Weekend is usually considered an example of the Ozploitation genre, if that is a genre. All the label means is that it’s an Australian exploitation film from the ’70s. However, I do think they did things a little differently in the Antipodes. Long Weekend is a curious mix of themes and genres that combine to make it a different and memorable — if not, in the end, a great — movie.
*. In the first place it’s a man vs. nature flick, which is itself close kin to the eco-horror that was big at the time. And yet does nature ever really go on the attack aside from the one dive-bombing eagle and the angry possum (who seems to have been provoked)?
*. This was deliberate. Writer Everett De Roche (who also scripted the even better known Ozploitation classic Patrick, which came out the same year) just wanted to show the natural world rejecting the insufferable Peter and Marcia like an autoimmune system protecting against cancer cells. He sought to avoid “a Jaws-like critter film” and instead make the “beasties to all be benign-looking and not overtly aggressive.”
*. On that same point, I love how nature’s first “attack” takes the form of the mundane (but equally threatening and disgusting) mold that grows on their frozen “chucky” (chicken). They’re more likely to die from salmonella than a wombat bite!
*. Another theme being mined is that of the urban dwellers who take a wrong turn and end up somewhere off the main road. Here the young couple do arrive at their intended destination but only after being led through forthrights and meanders that make it clear they’re effectively lost. And all that expensive camping equipment isn’t going to help them in a real struggle to survive.
*. I wonder if it’s just the Australian background that also made me think of Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). Are the messages, in this one respect, all that different?
*. Then there is the domestic breakdown angle. This is actually quite interesting for a couple of reasons.
*. In the first place it’s surprisingly graphic. Peter tells Marcia to go fuck herself and the next time we see her she’s in bed reading one of her “dirty books” (at least that’s what Peter calls it) and masturbating. That was not something you saw a lot of outside of porn in the ’70s. Or today, for that matter. Self-love is a bit of a no-go zone for movies. Later Peter will pick up a copy of Playboy but be interrupted before getting to enjoy himself.
*. I can’t help but add another note here. In the trivia section of the IMDb entry for Long Weekend there’s a note telling us that the book Marcia is reading is The Inheritors (1955) by William Golding, which is a story about a tribe of neanderthals being wiped out by homo sapiens. Not sexy stuff! Alas for whoever came up with that gem (which I did get a laugh out of), the book she is reading is The Inheritors (1969) by Harold Robbins, which is more of a one-handed read.
*. The second thing that makes the story of the doomed couple interesting is that they are both so completely dislikeable. Every time you think they’re about to be redeemed they throw our sympathy away and we’re left to feel they deserve each other and their own little weekend in hell. The only one I felt sorry for was the dog, who I hope someone eventually found and let out of the jeep.
*. I like how Marcia throws the “grotty symbolism” of her smashing the eagle’s egg in Peter’s face (he had suggested it represented her having had an abortion). I guess if a movie is going to go in for grotty symbolism it’s good to show you’re aware of it. And could any symbolism be grottier than that truck heading to the slaughterhouse providing a rendezvous with destiny at the end?
*. Overlaying (or I suppose underlying) all of this is a sense of abiding oddness. What is up with that sea cow? What are all those weird noises on the soundtrack? What’s that dark shape in the water when Peter is out swimming? What happened to the people in the van? Strange things happen when you get lost in the woods.
*. It was remade, not well, in 2008 because that’s the kind of thing that happened in 2008. I began by saying this version isn’t great, but I think that’s mainly because of limitations that made the animal attack scenes all look ridiculous. The leads both perform well and while there’s nothing suspenseful going on it does hold one’s interest most of the time and is hard to entirely forget.