Reflections of the Third Eye
9 August 2013
Figures In A Landscape (1970)
Now Playing: Fox on RD Records
Topic: F

Although a very strong period for cinema, the early 1970s had its share of smaller movies that time has allowed to fall through the cracks of public amnesia. Despite its forgotten status today, FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970) displays no shortage of strong 'names', directed as it was by the renowned Joseph Losey and with the powerful screen presences of Robert Shaw and Malcom McDowell in a double protagonist set-up.

The movie could be construed as an action feature with certain parallels to Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) and Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971), as the swiftly moving camera follows the two men on a seemingly endless escape through an unidentified country in what looks like Northwestern South America. People are killed, including an entire army garrison and some unlucky passers-by, as 'Mac' (Shaw) and 'Ansell' (McDowell) fight their way towards survival on the other side of a snowy mountain range. Always on their heels is an ominous black helicopter, and soon also a large army posse. The two leads walk, run, crawl, limp, swim and climb their way towards freedom, while eating canned food and bickering about their next move. The ending needn't be revealed here as it's a movie worth seeing, which can be discussed without this knowledge.

However, I believe better milage is drawn from Figures In A Landscape if one approaches it as a character study of two strong-willed individuals in duress rather than a thriller. There is a certain undertone of experimental '60s theatre in the script (written by Shaw from a novel, incidentally), even with the abundance of beautiful, sweeping location shots of equatorial valleys, prairies and mountains*. Unlike a conventional thriller the viewer is never informed of the background for the opening premise of the two men on the run, and their individual stories remain opaque for the bulk of the movie. Shaw's older and slightly eccentric character slowly begins to reveal his past marriage in the form of well-rounded anecdotes which point forward to his unforgettable appearance in Jaws. There are some interesting similarities between 'Mac' and Jaws' 'Quint', which raises the question if maybe Spielberg had this movie in mind when he perfectly cast Shaw as his shark-hating sea captain.

McDowell's 'Ansell' remains more enigmatic simply because he has much fewer lines to work with, but the impression of an upper middle class boy from Swinging London comes across; clearly closer to his role in the preceding If... than the succeeding A Clockwork Orange. Losey makes good use of McDowell's cat-like appearance and gives his body language a smooth grace completely lacking from Shaw's rural rough-neck. The two leads never really 'click' on the screen in the way familiar from modern buddy movies, but each delivers a fine performance under shooting conditions which must have been quite harsh at times.

While not quite an action movie, Figures In A Landscape does not take its symbolic and archetypal potential very far; as an example it's not like the Darwinistic survival showcase found in The Edge (1997; script by David Mamet), nor does it invoke Beckett-ish problems of communication and identity otherwise in vogue in European '60s drama. Unfortunately, the dialogue and psychological interplay is not sharp enough to work as pure '70s naturalism, and except for the excellent helicopter shots the action scenes aren't impressive if using a pure thriller label. Ultimately it becomes a rare case where the viewer might wish for a more pretentious undertone; either that, or a purification of the dual fugitives theme, which undoubtedly is how the material would have been handled in modern Hollywood.

This odd bird in Losey's oeuvre was nevertheless enjoyable; good casting, plenty of outstanding panorama shots of a uniquely varied landscape, and a backbone of experienced movie crafting made for 90 minutes well spent. 7 of 10

*This must have been a fairly early movie to employ the front-mounted helicopter camera technique used in almost every action movie today; these shots look like fully modern cinematography.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:45 PM MEST
Updated: 9 August 2013 10:20 PM MEST
14 May 2013
Full Metal Jacket's Gomer Pyle reconsidered
Now Playing: Paul Page "The Reef Is Calling"
Topic: F

This is it. After years of self-deception, I'm finally throwing in the towel. It just doesn't work, or doesn't make sense, no matter how  much I would like it to.

What am I talking about? Well, in short, this:

I have gone on record many times calling Full Metal Jacket one of my favorite movies from one of my favorite directors. Unlike most of Kubrick's works it is very realistic in tone and look, which is one reason I've rated it so highly. I was there when the Usenet Kubrick forum carved out the standard 101 analysis of the movie, chipping in with a thought or two but generally remaining on the sidelines while the expertise flowed back and forth. This high-brow group had earlier improved my understanding of The Shining in several useful ways.

For example: It is not true that Jack Nicholson makes a poor portrayal of a drunk in the bar scene with 'Lloyd', because he is not actually drunk; he is a man going insane who imitates a drunk, as part of the ghostly drama evolving inside and around him. In other words, Jack plays a nutcase pretending to be drunk. I admired the ingeniousness of this viewpoint, but after a while I realized that it was probably true. I had erred in not fully understanding the context of the scene, mistaken multilayered personas for weak acting.

Following this crash course in Kubrickiana, I became rather cautious in voicing any detailed opinions on his movies except on a general note of (usually) appreciation. The fact that these works seemed to get better with each repeat viewing confirmed the soundness of this approach. Applying this on Full Metal Jacket, I concluded that it was one of Kubrick's very best; flawlessly executed as always, but also gaining an edge from its strong anchoring in actual events, i e: US marines in Vietnam.

Now, every once in a while during the half-dozen times I've watched it, a little voice of dissent would clear its throat and question whether Vincent d'Onofrios characterization of Leonard aka 'Gomer Pyle' really needed to be so radically broad, given the realistic tone and look of the rest of the movie. But the lesson I had learned from debating Nicholson's performance in The Shining would bear down on this polite little dissident, and insist that d'Onofrio's performance was right on the money, it was simply a case of me failing to understand how the larger bolts of the narrative machine came together. Besides, with time the whole thing would surely look appropriate and maybe even prophetic. This was, after all, Kubrick.

So I went with this self-editing and professed my love for Full Metal Jacket and how its three parts were brilliantly juxtaposed etc etc & blah-blah. The case of Gomer Pyle was simply above suspicion, but there was always a nagging feeling that I wasn't done with the movie. So when recently Full Metal Jacket came on TV, I figured I'd take another round with it as I had nothing better to do. This improvised screening meant eschewing the ritual of selecting the DVD from the shelf and placing it in the player, which may have contributed to the more critical mindset I brought to this viewing. Or maybe the time had simply come for a new perspective.

Rather than sort of blanking out the scenes where it looked like d'Onofrio's performance was way off the wall, I watched them closely to try and figure out the motivation behind them. Because it's not Vincent d'Onofrio (a very good actor in my opinion) we are watching, but rather Stanley Kubrick's instructions to Vincent d'Onofrio. Any Kubrickian knows that the Master wouldn't commit a single shrug or nosepick to celluloid without thinking it through, and so whatever d'Onofrio had his character do, it was what the omniscient director wanted. And given my general respect/awe for Kubrick, I figured there was some justification or logic in there that I simply didn't understand, just like in The Shining. Right.

Except that this time, the rationalization didn't work. I saw nothing but an actor doing a decent job 90% of the time, then skid off the road during the remaining 10%. After being portrayed as a slightly dimwitted and undisciplined grunt among others not much superior, Leonard unexpectedly goes 'full retard' in a scene where Matthew Modine's 'Joker' shows him how to tie his shoelaces. Not only is the basic scene questionable, but the exaggerated look of childlike adoration on Leonard's face jars badly with the apathetic loser we've seen so far, and with the brutal world of adult men that is the world of Full Metal Jacket's first act. It's an embarrassing, cringeworthy scene, not so much because of the acting but because it doesn't make sense in the context of the movie. What does the movie gain from this? If anything, our sympathy for the underdog is diminished rather than heightened, and, most of all, the harsh naturalism that is one of the strongest assets is suddenly undermined.

Towards the end of the Parris Island sequence, we are told that Leonard aka Gomer Pyle 'can't hack it anymore'. It is an unnecessary piece of dialogue because d'Onofrio portrays Leonard's breakdown by going over the top in a way that leaves little room for misinterpretation. Instead of being Joker's starry-eyed protagonist he has turned into a psychotic war machine living in symbiosis with his rifle. As the freshly baked marines gather to receive their combat assignments, Leonard gives off a blank psycho gaze while his fellow soldiers cheer and laugh. What he shows is in fact the Kubrick Stare, familiar from earlier movies such as 2001, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. In the Kubrick Stare, the protagonist is looking straight into the camera from beneath a prominent forehead and eyebrows, giving off an arresting look of predatory concentration. If this was the peak of d'Onofrio's 'psychotic' interpretation of Leonard it would have been a fitting signal as well as a thought-provoking reference to Kubrick's earlier fims.

But of course, this is not the case, because the grand finale of Act 1 takes place in the Head (so branded with a sign on the door) and finds a Leonard more psychotic than anything psychotic you've ever seen before, except maybe in bad Psychotronic features. The Kubrick Stare has been augmented with a crazy smile to create a truly unsettling appearance which, unfortunately, looks quite incredulous and, once more, clashes badly with the realistic tone of the preceding scenes and indeed the entire work. Not only does he look like something from a comic book, but his voice has become completely altered as well, from mild-mannered sad-sack to a devilish sneer. The inevitable logic of the actual events that transpire in the Head needn't be dwelled upon, and the interesting question here is again: what does this scene, and the whole Parris Island segment, gain from the highly theatrical performance delivered by d'Onofrio during the climactic scenes? As pointed out above, there is nothing random or unplanned in a Kubrick movie: d'Onofrio portrays Leonard this way because Kubrick has encouraged him to do so. But why did the director want this?

25 years have passed since Full Metal Jacket premiered. The idea that time would reveal the meaning of elements that seemed dubious on early viewings may apply to some aspects of the work, but as far as I can tell, d'Onofrio's overacting still looks like overacting in 2013, and these scenes stick out like a handful of clumsy, inexplicable brush strokes on an otherwise beautifully realized painting.

This most recent viewing of Full Metal Jacket also helped clarify a couple of aspects to the middle act that have troubled me somewhat. Again, I was helped by the excellent critical 'walk-throughs' compiled by the Kubrick fans on the internet.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:46 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:45 AM MEST
3 April 2013
The Fury (1978)
Topic: F
One of Brian De Palma's lesser known works, at least around where I live, I recently watched The Fury for the first time in 25 years. I had forgotten that I had actually seen it before, but as the movie progressed, I began recognizing certain scenes, while a lot of the rest seemed completely unfamiliar.

This is I think typical of this movie, and a lot of De Palma's films -- there will be long sequences with dull dialogue where you wonder why they weren't edited down, and some dubious acting and bizarre plot twists, and then suddenly there will be a sequence of 5 or 10 minutes that is just dazzling. De Palma here had a finalized story-line to work with (from a novel), and didn't script himself, which is good news for those familiar with some of his auteur derailments.

At the same time, the script of The Fury shows some of the director's typical weaknesses (lack of logic, inconsistent characters, etc), and it's too bad that a third party wasn't brought in to tighten up the narrative flow, strengthen the logic, and remove weak dialogue. So, ultimately, it looks very much like a typical De Palma work, a B-movie with some dazzling cinematography and a few quite powerful scenes.

The good news is that the basic premise of the story is pretty interesting and at least to me in 2007, one of the assets of the movie. The notion of the two young psychics, both victims rather than masters of their powers, is an arresting idea, and while the terrorist angle is unnecessary, I could imagine someone turning The Fury into a pretty good movie today.

The second asset is, to my mild surprise, Amy Irving, who delivers a terrific performance, and actually seems a little too good for this occasionally hokey movie. She's believable, convincing, and often moving. I read some snide comment about her over-preparing for B-movies, but for The Fury at least, I am grateful for this commitment. Her shock at her own uncontrollable powers is brilliantly performed, and makes for those sudden jumps in your attention, when the movie has dragged on for too long. Very nice work.

The other actors seem to work on routine; Kirk Douglas acts as if he's in a B-movie about spies, and has some bad dialogue to deal with. Andrew Stevens looks right for the part, and while not a convincing actor, his creepy hunk presence seems appropriate, especially towards the end of the movie. Cassavetes is OK, but not more, and looks somewhat uncomfortable with his black suit and busted-up arm.

Some of the camera-work is excellent, and as always with De Palma, there are a few show-off pieces where he goes into long complex montages that aren't really motivated by the context or narrative development, but are nevertheless exciting too watch. The feeling is, as often, that a lot of the other stuff in the movie he doesn't really care for, as long as he can deliver these 5-minute masterpieces of cinema craft here and there.

Ultimately, thanks to the arresting basic premise, the occasionally masterful direction, and the performance of Amy Irving, I enjoyed The Fury a little more than I expected to. I can see how it may appear ludicrous or bizarre to others, but that wide range of responses is what you get most of the time when the director is Mr De Palma. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:02 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:35 AM MEST

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