The Lost Chances and Fleeting Moments of Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds

This is my contribution to The Other Than a Bond Girl Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer and Reelweegiemidget Reviews, which is why this piece on Michelangelo Antonioni’s BEYOND THE CLOUDS starts off with a lengthy preamble (are preambles meant to last as long as the ‘ambles’?) about the appeal and aura of the Bond Girl in cinema.

The role of the ‘Bond Girl’ in the world’s longest running series of cinematic spy thrillers has almost always been a passing, drifting, ephemeral thing. They represent either a passing fancy, or a relatively more meaningful romantic conquest, and such is the cyclical nature of the series, is forgotten about entirely by the time of the next instalment. There have been exceptions – Dr. No‘s Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) reappeared for a cute cameo near the start of the following film, but that was a routine that was abandoned henceforth. Elsewhere, Miss Moneypenny’s consistent presence within the Bond universe is precisely so because she and Bond never sleep together – the fact they don’t is one of the series’ running motifs. When Bond does try to settle down and marry Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or seek fulfilment with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, convention dictates that she must be killed off- after all, if they remain in wedded bliss, there are no more Bond films; at least none that would resemble the kind that had been drawing in millions of audiences. No Time to Die reversed the trend, but only in regards to gender – this time it would be James Bond who would die by the end, in the most extreme instance yet of the series refusing to allow this man of action a chance to have a happy life with someone. Sometimes an actress will return, such as Maud Adams, but in entirely different roles. Adams first appeared as doomed Andrea Anders in The Man with the Golden Gun, and then reappeared in the more fortunate role of Octopussy in the film of the same name. This was an amusingly bizarre habit of the Bond films, with actors reappearing in different roles throughout the series. It’s interesting to think about Bond’s relationships with the women he meets; what happens in-between films when they inevitably part ways? Is it amicable? Is it ugly? There was a fascinating Twitter thread a while back that asked that very kind of question – would Bond revert back to a platonic friendship with the likes of say Melina Havelock? Would he never return Mary Goodnight’s calls? Would Pam Bouvier had not returned his calls?

That’s all left to the imagination of us fans though. The reality is that Bond Girls don’t last long and are are almost entirely doomed to remain passing affairs in the life of the one constant (well, at least until the most recent film) that is James Bond. The Bond films are the most explicit instance of this kind of thing, where Bond will get older (for a while) while his women (for the most part) stay young and fresh and beautiful. You could say that many directors are guilty of the same thing; they remain the constant presence, while their leading ladies stay young. Hitchcock rarely stuck with the same leading lady in his movies, for example. Back to Bond though, and the film that links the series to the film under discussion in this article. 1999’s The World is Not Enough was the third in the series to feature Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, and was a very notable entry because of its villain, who in an unprecedented move for the series, is also the film’s chief romantic interest. Sure, there had been villainous women in the series before – some clearly evil from the start, others more duplicitous and only revealed to be bad down the line – but Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King is the first (and to date last) chief female villain in a Bond outing. Before release, the expectations would be that Robert Carlyle’s terrorist antagonist would be the chief adversary, but ultimately he is under the authority and spell of King, the former kidnap victim turned arch-manipulator and villainous drive of the film. Fascinatingly, she and Bond have genuine chemistry; in a twisted, weird world, they could have had something together. But no, it cannot be, and in a shocking/inevitable turn of events, he kills her because he is unwilling to sacrifice his identity/role in the series – this is the series putting paid to the unacceptable notion of Bond settling down to its most active extreme. Before and after, Bond was at the mercy of other characters, and/or fate, but here he pulls the trigger himself.

Despite featuring what is arguably Brosnan’s strongest performance as Bond, Marceau steals The World is Not Enough from him and everyone else. It’s a flawed movie, crippled by instances of humour that often doesn’t land, as well the oft-ridiculed character of Dr. Jones, as played by Denise Richards, who sadly doesn’t have a fraction of the chemistry with her leading man as he does with Marceau. Marceau may very well be the series’ ultimate femme fatale – cold, beautiful, deadly, fully aware that ‘no one can resist me’ – and played to perfection. She’s a potentially sad character in many ways – kidnapped, tortured, betrayed – can anyone blame her for turning the tables and taking control? But ultimately she’s too far gone and too damned homicidal for her to be redeemed in the series’ eyes. And given this is a series that found a way for Grace Jones’ murderous May Day in A View to a Kill to go out with a heroic bang, that’s saying something.

Now, Bond Girls have always been noted for their glamour, but, and this is a personal thing, what is it with French actresses and Bond movies? There are many, many impossibly glamourous and impossibly beautiful women who have graced the storylines of many an adventure in this series, but as well as Marceau, the likes of Carole Bouquet (For Your Eyes Only), Eva Green (Casino Royale), Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall) and Lea Seydoux (Spectre, No Time to Die) are something else altogether. I think it might have something to do with the films that these actresses appear in outside of their Bond roles, and their public persona too. The fact remains that the European (not just French) actresses that have appeared in prior to their Bond appearances have usually been noted for European films (well, duh) and they’re normally of a different perceived class and style to the CVs of the English and North American actresses who have been in Bond movies. Maybe it’s me as a British viewer who has always found European cinema more intriguing and, well…different to the regularity of English-language mainstream cinema, which is as cosy and familiar to me as that first mug of tea in the morning. All of the actresses listed above are classic examples of the kind of movie stars that have, more than once, been cast as superlatively beautiful women in films directed by men. Not for nothing was Bouquet nothing less than That Obscure Object of Desire – impossible to attain, yet futile to try and resist chasing. The European (and indeed, worldwide) element of Bond films, from the locations to the actors, is what helps give the series their unique flavour and travelogue exoticism, distinguishing them from the run of Hollywood action movies. It may be why some detractors of the brilliant Licence to Kill bemoan the movie, among other reasons; its wholly American setting and distinctly non-European or continental approach does make it feel less obviously Bond-like on the surface, although it compensates for that being exceptionally close to the spirit of Bond on tons of other levels, which is why on the other extreme, it’s a fan favourite for many, myself included. Anyway, back to Sophie Marceau.

Born into a blue-collar family in 1966, and working in her family restaurant from a young age (film critic Seymour Chatman thinks this exposure to a bustling, public environment and workplace likely contributed to Michelangelo Antonioni, the director of Beyond the Clouds, regarding her as possessing a “indolent vitality”), Marceau was asked to star in Claude Pinoteau’s smash hit 1980 teen comedy La Boum after being spotted in a fashion magazine when she was 14. La Boum was such a hit that the leading French production company Gaumont gave her a long-term contract. She won a Most Promising Actress Cesar award in 1983 and continued to work in film throughout the 1980s; by the time of Beyond the Clouds she’d already headlined many films, and had already broke through in the States with a supporting role in Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning Braveheart (as Princess Isabella of France) and would go on to star in the title role in Bernard Rose’s 1997 adaptation of Anna Karenina. Beyond the Clouds boasted a very classy cast, and Marceau was one of the more notable draws. Her role here is, like many of her co-stars, brief, but nevertheless it was the image of her sitting in bed undressed (seen from the shoulders above) and staring off to her left that was used for many of the posters upon release. Not for nothing was Marceau reportedly the winner of a French poll of ‘actresses most men would want to sleep with’. She is almost devastatingly gorgeous in Beyond the Clouds, exuding the kind of seemingly effortless sensuality that she would bring, to less obviously explicit effect, in her future Bond role. You don’t get many Bond women who use their body so confidently or make unexpected references to sex (‘you know what happens when a man is strangled?’ she asks when astride an imprisoned Bond – a fabulously kinky moment) in the series – I remember also Marceau saying that she felt a little constricted when it came to her and Brosnan’s love scene, in that she was pushing for more nudity but was told that such a thing (despite sex being one of the main drives of the Bond films) was not acceptable. Ridiculous, isn’t it? However, despite the impressive cast, it was who was behind the scenes of this film that was the big talking point amongst critics and arthouse cinemagoers.

Even though he would live to the year 2007, and would continue to direct short films after this, Beyond the Clouds was the final feature-length film of Michelangelo Antonioni, the remarkable Italian director whose enigmatic, dreamlike and sensual style of filmmaking was enormously influential. Films like the trilogy that was L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, Red Desert, Blow-Up and The Passenger often rank extraordinarily high in the echelons of Best Films Ever lists, but by the time of 1995 it had been thirteen years since Antonioni’s last film, Identification of a Woman, which was not well received at the time (though retrospective opinion has been kinder towards it) and ten years since the director had suffered a stroke, the debilitating aftereffects of which were still prevalent enough that the insurance required to kickstart the making of Beyond the Clouds was only granted when a secondary director was confirmed to assist the production, on hand to take over from Antonioni should he be unable to continue at any point. That director would be Wim Wenders, whose own, devastatingly romantic, heart-wrenching and longingly moving style of work, including Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, seemed to be a intriguing complement to Antonioni’s approach.

As befitting a film which has the feel of a dream, Beyond the Clouds is narratively fragmented and made up of four stories (his earlier I Vinti from 1953 was also a portmanteau, albeit three stories), with the protagonist of the second story (John Malkovich) also acting as a framing character for the whole movie. These framing scenes would be helmed by Wenders, although Antonioni retains sole credit for directing the film. Characters come and go, desires drift in the ether, conversations and moments exist and then fade away, chances appear and disappear. The Malkovich character, a film director who is wandering through the streets of Italy, is most likely a stand-in for Antonioni (or maybe Wenders, I’m not sure who wrote which parts of the story), and he arrives in Italy to search for inspiration for his next film. His intentions and philosophical ruminations are expressed through Malkovich’s narration, which sounds half-poetic, half- jetlagged, over the ideals of filmmaking, and the relationship between director and film, between poet and poem. From here, we move onto stories that Malkovich has heard about, is actively involved in, or are possibly in his mind for his upcoming movie, and finally, are occurring just outside of his awareness.

For the sake of this article, we’ll concentrate on the segment that features Marceau, but it would be remiss of me to not mention the others, which all deal with love and sex predominantly, but touch upon other themes too. But mostly love and sex. The first sees Silvano (Kim Rossi Stuart) encountering beautiful teacher Carmen (Inés Sastre) whilst looking for a place to stay. They get talking, and it looks like they might spent the night together, but ultimately he refrains from knocking on Carmen’s door and loses his chance to be with her. However, he is reunited with her two years later. They almost consummate their relationship but again he holds back, unable to continue. He then leaves her bedroom and walks away, seemingly forever. Is this meant to be a fear of commitment, or the fear that the reality will never live up to the fantasy? In the third story, we witness a three-year infidelity between Peter Weller and Chiara Caselli (both remain nameless) that leaves the former’s wife Patricia (Fanny Ardant) broken and unhappy. In order to appease her threats of leaving him (‘it’s her or me’) Weller makes love to her, which in turn upsets Caselli when he confesses later that day. They argue but then have sex, and you get the sense that Weller is once again using sex as a means to placate those who are angry with him. It’s an unhappy situation all round. Patricia seeks an apartment to move into and she encounters another betrayed soul in Jean Reno’s Carlo, whose wife has left him for another man and is now renting out their apartment. It seems like the two might find solace with each other, although as Patricia says, that’s what disturbs her. Sex can tear people apart, and it can bring them together it seems. Sex is notable in the fourth chapter however for being absent, with Irene Jacob’s churchgoer innocently pursued by the beguiled Vincent Perez. After following her and engaging her in conversation (which she’s content to partake in, but she’s often walking ahead of him), and hoping that they’ve struck enough of a rapport that he can see her again, she drops the bombshell that she’s joining a convent the very next day. She seems utterly content with her plans, and the idea that she’s transcended the earthly concerns of love and sex makes her totally unattainable.

The second story, the one that features Marceau, focuses on Beyond the Clouds‘ Director character wandering the streets on a grey, overcast day. There’s a dreamy prelude (that I assume is directed by Wenders?) where he attends an abandoned beach and sits on the lonely swings of the playground, looking at a picture postcard of sunnier climates, all the while the gorgeously languid instrumental of Passengers (that’s U2 and Brian Eno)’s ‘Beach Sequence’ ebbs and flows on the soundtrack, perfectly complementing the sand being blown across the beach by the wind. It’s a lovely moment, and then we fade to the town depicted in the postcard, where the Director (is this a memory?) is walking through the cobbled pathways of the fishing village of Portofino in Italy, when Marceau’s ‘Girl’ leaves her house in front of him and walks on ahead. Instantly he is drawn to her. The Girl and her employer (played by Antonioni’s wife, Enrica) open up the seaside clothing boutique where she works, and the Director has followed her there – she sees him looking at her through the shop window, and there’s a connection there. We’re not sure what kind of connection first – is she feeling threatened? Is she attracted? The Director enters the shop, is met by the manager who asks if he needs anything, to which he responds that he’s just browsing. The Girl’s intentions seem to come into focus a little more when she more or less reassures her manager that she can deal with whatever enquiry the Director has come into the shop for. She sees no dangerous threat, although I can see why some might regard The Director’s presence as somewhat creepy. There’s awkward tension in the air of another kind though, and a lot silent staring between the two- predominantly from the Director’s gaze, who, much like Antonioni’s, is unflinching, and it seems to unsettle The Girl. He then leaves, but she follows him to the door, and even waves him off. Later that day, The Girl meets what we assume is a friend, and she seems jolly enough, but when she sees the Director sitting nearby in a café (their proximity here seems coincidental; there’s no way he would have known she’s be in the area, I guess?) her mood instantly shifts. Taking charge, she approaches him and tells him directly that there’s something she needs him to know before anything else happens that he ‘has in mind’.

We discover that The Girl killed her father a year before, having stabbed him twelve times. She was acquitted of the crime after three months in prison, and that’s all we find out. We don’t know why she killed him. It could be that he abused her and she killed him to stop the abuse. Maybe the abuse happened much earlier and it was only years later that she killed him. The acquittal suggests that there was a sense of understanding as to why she did what she did, that it was regarded as a crime of passion rather than anything premeditated. Her job at the clothing boutique (and it seems to be a pretty upmarket kind if her work attire is anything to go by) suggests she is able to function on a social and professional level. But we don’t really know much else about her. In classic Antonioni fashion, she is an enigma. The fact that she’s only ever referred to as The Girl (despite Marceau being an adult 28, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish where women are referred to somewhat condescendingly as ‘girls’) adds to that mystery. She’s not even the only ‘Girl’ in the film – in the final story, the unobtainable Irene Jacob isn’t given a name either. Oh, of course the Malkovich character is referred to in the credits only as ‘The Director’, but that particular brand of anonymity has a greater sense of authority and control that you don’t get from ‘The Girl’, a term which has a history of male objectification and idealisation. The Girl says to the director that she reminds him of someone, but we never find out who. It could be that he reminds her of his father. We the viewer have no one else to go with in regards to her history. The fact that Malkovich is thirteen years older than Marceau does suggest that the someone he reminds her of was indeed an older person. If this is the case, then what to make of their eventual lovemaking scene? The Director may have initiated this to-and-fro between the characters, but The Girl is the one who asks the direct questions regarding whether or not they will sleep together. She does go to touch him but refrains, and he goes to touch her straight afterwards and she refrains herself. This moment happens just before she confesses that she reminds her of someone, and if it is her father, then it’s understandable she might have seconds thoughts in regards to what’s about to happen. Is the sex that follows predominantly an Oedipal exorcism where The Girl sleeps with the ‘father’, confronting and controlling the wrong he had inflicted upon her? You can tell I’m no psychiatrist, can’t you?

Anyway, the sex scene in question is a beautifully shot, erotic encounter – the use of an instrumental version of Van Morrison’s 1989 wedding standard ‘Have I Told You Lately’ now comes off a bit corny and obvious (although I should be thankful the vocal version wasn’t used – Van the Anti-Vaxxer Man’s voice doesn’t really do it for me in an erotic context – see also the clumsy use of his, The Band and Roger Waters’ rendition of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ in The Departed’s love scene), and I’d have preferred more of that blissful Passengers vibe here. Still, this still a hot scene. Both actors are fully nude, but you can tell the camera’s eye is in favour of Marceau. Or is that my eye? A bit of both, I’d say. I mean, it’s Marceau the film stays with after the Director leaves and we see her fully naked and standing before the camera. Yep, one of the things that pervades throughout Beyond the Clouds is sex. Identification of a Woman marked a notable increase in sexual content for the director, with protracted love scenes. Antonioni is an unapologetic depicter of the female form, and Beyond the Clouds takes that to the near limit.

Afterwards, The Girl seems content and shaken (in a good way) over what’s just happened, and they part on good terms, although we can only presume they’ll never see each other again. We then find out that the Director had visited the town to find a character and he’d found a story. He ruminates over the fact that there was 12 stabs, which seems ‘more familiar.. more domestic’. There was ‘everything there had to be in that story, there was truth’ in those twelve stabs. He compares the number of stabs to the number of equivalent blows he may or may not include in the final edit of a similarly filmed scene. These things are important – what we show and what we don’t. An edit here, an addition there – they can change everything in regards to what we take from a film. They may not be what the director intended, but it is the fuel that we feed from. Interestingly, the Director feels no need to stay in the town after that. The Girl’s look when he first saw her has stayed with him – the memory. He doesn’t need to stay there now. The effect has touched him, so now he works from that. Likewise, the film itself offers up a run of memorably potent images that stay with us long after we’ve watched it, be they lovely location shots, images of gorgeous actors distilled in their youthful beauty for all time, or even the observation of existing artwork, such as paintings or photographs. It’s a reflective experience overall, where the structure, so rooted in told stories, memories, fragmented narrative and serenely melancholic summation.

Beyond the Clouds is an often beautiful, powerful film. It has scenes of great beauty, of great pain (Ardant’s cheated wife in the third story is a devastating standout) and great charm, such as the Wenders-directed scene where Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, who’d both starred in Antonioni’s La Notte 34 years before, reunite for a brief, sweet moment where the latter’s painter makes a case for copying from the greats in the hope of maybe catching some of their genius, like lightning in a bottle. Maybe that’s Wenders talking about his own position in the echelons of cinema history compared to Antonioni. Indeed, Wenders is nowadays as much as a adored and respected filmmaker as Antonioni was and is, and despite some creative differences and disagreements that ignited between the two, it’s a seamless, successful collaboration. By the time the white-on-blue credits roll, set to the almost painfully lovely strains of Passengers’ ‘Your Blue Room’, and the knowledge that this would be Antonioni’s final film, the sense of poignancy is potent, and in the moment just before that, with the camera temporarily leaving the Director and going on to scan the exterior of the hotel he’s staying in, we see glimpses of other people through the open windows, going about their existence, their own stories potentials for other films, maybe. Life goes on.

“Intense Depiction of Very Bad Weather” – Twister and the 90s Return of the Disaster Movie

This is my contribution to The Second Disaster Blog-a-thon, hosted by Dubsism and Pale Writer – I was on holiday abroad during submission time for the blog, which is why this is being published a little later than I anticipated…

If, like me, you were born in the early 1980s, then the disaster movie was already something of a quaint relic, definitely from an earlier time – for sure, they weren’t to be seen among the new releases at your local four-screen, which was precisely the place where they would have been pulling in the masses ten years earlier. No, they were the stuff of Bank Holiday Monday television screenings, with the family all bunched up on the sofa, and maybe the youngest (like me) on the floor as close as they could be to the box, gripped at the spectacle before them. These films would often feature the stars of yesteryear, and maybe an blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from a future star in waiting. They were at once cosy but also somewhat disturbing viewing to young viewers like me, as they often featured death, and plenty of it, with a cast of dozens at the mercy of the elements, or the animal kingdom in full force. You’d witness human nature at its most heroic, and its most selfish. You’d see terror in the face of the natural elements, as well as resourcefulness, teamwork and noble sacrifice. It was where I’d witness Gene Hackman’s priest fall to a fiery death in The Poseidon Adventure so that he could guarantee the safety of the remaining survivors, who were desperately trying to get to the top (or should I say the bottom) of the capsized luxury liner. It was where I’d see Richard Chamberlain’s utterly loathsome cad callously push other people to their deaths atop The Towering Inferno in an attempt to save his own skin, only to fall to his own demise shortly afterwards, a demise that was one of the first I ever remember cheering on at the start of my life-long love of movies. Along with the James Bond films, disaster movies were some of the earliest instances of being exposed to death as spectacular entertainment, albeit neatly confined within the safe boundaries of the PG-certified movie. This kind of morbid entertainment was as scary as it was fun, and it was awe-inspiring, even in small-screen, pan-and-scan form, thanks to the sheer wallop of the concepts – be it the unstoppable force of the ocean, the destructive beauty of fire, the cataclysmic impact of an earthquake, the unavoidable presence of a meteor, the hubris of supposedly state-of-the-art technology failing to work, or even the animal kingdom demanding it be head of the food chain, the disaster movie was catnip to audiences who imagined what it would be like to be caught up in such horrifying scenarios. The equivalent of rollercoaster rides (indeed, you could even argue that 1977’s Rollercoaster, despite being essentially a thriller about a mad bomber, was nevertheless a disaster movie in that it made us wonder what it would be like if those rides went out of control) that left us with white knuckles and a refreshed appreciation for how small we are in the scheme of things, disaster movies were inevitably going to crash and burn after a while when the concepts started to get sillier, the scripts got lazier, the performances became OTT, and audiences felt jaded. For the 1980s, the disaster movie slipped away.

Yet with the advent of CGI, which by the mid-nineties was becoming more and more prevalent, putting behind the days of practical, in-camera effects and back projection, it felt like there was a new opportunity for another wave of disaster movies, ones that could offer up destruction on a hitherto undreamed scale. Although there had been true-life movies like Frank Marshall’s Alive (1993) and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), or fictional, big-budget spectaculars like the pyromaniac thriller Backdraft (1991, also Ron Howard), the mad bomber actioner Speed (1994, Jan de Bont) and the pandemic nightmare Outbreak (1995), that all faintly recalled those earlier days of disaster movies to varying degrees, it wasn’t until 1996 that the genre in its big, fictional (and let’s be honest, ridiculous) form came back. In fact, it was a banner year for such things, with two colossal movies that contributed to that summer being one of the biggest of all time. Alongside other, non-disaster blockbusters like The Rock and Mission: Impossible (which in turn consolidated a new era of enormous action movies following James Cameron’s T2 and True Lies), Independence Day and Twister promised to be event movies in the old style, albeit with very new special effects at their disposal. I guess viewers like me, who’d only ever seen disaster movies on TV and on VHS, were developing their own hunger for a new wave of large-scale destruction, and the success of these two movies kickstarted a whole wave of disaster movies, a new era that commercially peaked with James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which ended up being the most successful film ever made and kept that record for over a decade. Twister was all set to be a proper event movie – it was even backed by two major film studios, which recalled the glory days of Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox being both behind the mighty force of The Towering Inferno, although this time it was Universal Pictures alongside Warners, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. This was a movie where the concept and the effects were the star, not the, er…actual stars, although the 90s disaster movies were arguably even less concerned with bagging the A-listers, with Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton more recognisable to casual cinemagoers as character actors. Personally, I really dug that these two were the leads – I’d already seen Hunt in the excellent 1992 drama The Waterdance (and I rather fancied her in that too), and as for Paxton…well, he was pretty much my favourite character actor of all time at this stage. Ever since I’d first seen him as panicky marine Hudson in Aliens, and then in Predator 2, Tombstone, True Lies, Apollo 13, Weird Science and Near Dark (especially Near Dark) …even those little appearances in The Terminator and Commando. Even when he was playing a total jerk, coward or dickhead, he was just so watchable, so funny, so irresistible. And now he was the goddamn co-lead? Yes please! 

My anticipation for Twister was so high that it even surpassed my excitement for Independence Day, which was the summer blockbuster that everybody wanted to watch at the time (and everybody did, ending up being the #1 movie of 1996 ), thanks to that incredible trailer – even when the reviews for Twister came out and they weren’t as strong as that for Emmerich’s film, I didn’t care. Independence Day might have had a lot of things, but it didn’t have Bill Paxton. It had Bill Pullman, admittedly, but not Paxton. It also had Jan de Bont in the director’s chair, and I was more excited about a new film from the director of the awesome Speed than I was one from the director of the good-but-not-great Stargate. Had my appreciation of cinematographers been more pronounced back then, I would have had more fuel to fire my de Bont admiration as this was the guy who shot Black Rain, Die Hard and Basic Instinct to name but three.

Unfortunately, Twister marked the first ever instance of me missing the start of the movie on a big screen thanks to the lateness of my fellow cinemagoers (all is forgiven). Now if Twister had offered up the usual roster of opening credits, I would have missed less on-screen action, but this was one of those movies that got down to business as soon as the main title had literally been blown off the screen, and this meant that I missed the entirety of the prologue! Luckily, as I was already an avid reader of Empire magazine, I knew that the stuff I missed had involved the death of the father of our main protagonist. It’s weird settling into a movie once it’s already began – with almost every film I see, there are always latecomers, and I don’t know how they remain comfortable with it, if they are. I find it super disorienting – I need the build-up of the ads and the trailers, of the BBFC title card, of the movie starting proper. It’s a shame I did miss the start of Twister, as right from the beginning it kicks off in style, with the opening logo emerging from the ominous clouds. In the US, this was the Warners logo, but over here in the UK (as I’d find out when I saw it on video), it was the Universal ident instead. They both work fine, but the Warner one feels more appropriate given that it’s normally up in the skies in the first place. 

At only 107 minutes (excluding credits), Twister is refreshingly free of bloat, and it doesn’t fatigue the viewer either – the storms are, appropriately enough, increasingly spectacular. At the time there had been nothing like them, or at least nothing I’d ever seen before. This was before your Volcanos, Dante’s Peaks, Armageddons, Deep Impacts and even Independence Days (Twister came out shortly before it); it was bigger than anything I’d seen on the big screen. Add to that the immense sound effects, and Twister was, frankly, pure sensation cinema. The CGI has, for the most part, dated well. I’d say it’s about 90% convincing these days, which is pretty damned good for a movie that’s coming up to being thirty years old. In fact, only two effects stood out to me as being pretty clunky on my most recent viewing – the satellite orbiting Earth after the prologue, and a rogue tree trunk that shoots down the road towards Jo and Bill’s truck during the final storm. Apart from that, this stuff still looks great. The unforgettable absurdity of that flying cow (as seen during the third storm) still looks amazing, and it was as close to this film got to an iconic visual that matched Independence Day‘s still extraordinary ‘nuke the White House’ shot. Wisely, the storms get worse and worse (read ‘better and better’), with each one more awesome than the last. 

The first one, set during the 1969 prologue, we don’t even really see, except for what we can witness from the storm shelter, as poor Jo and her mum watch helplessly as daddy is sucked into a twister along with the rickety shelter door. It’s this tragedy that fuels the obsessive drive of the adult Jo (Helen Hunt) in the present day as she and her team of storm chasers try to get as close as they can to an active twister. This is so they can use a device nicknamed Dorothy (there are a fair few Wizard of Oz references in this movie) that will release a load of weather sensors into it which, if they work and their data obtained, will be used to better predict future storms so that locals will have more time to evacuate their homes. Of course, the act of actually getting up close to a twister is no easy feat – in fact, it’s exceptionally dangerous, and you get the sense that Jo would have been killed early on in the movie thanks to her recklessness, but her estranged husband Bill (Bill Paxton), who invented Dorothy and later left Jo and the storm chasing team for a life of stability, is back on the scene as he needs her to fill out their divorce papers, an act which Jo seems to have been putting off. Maybe she still loves him? Maybe she doesn’t. What do you think? No more time for procrastination though, as Bill has found someone new, and he needs the papers finalised so that he can marry her. The new lady in question is Melissa (Jami Gertz), a ‘reproductive therapist’ who, as is the way in films like this, is pretty much the opposite of Jo, all the better for dramatic contrast. I’m not sure if the film itself is as condescending towards therapy as Jo is, or as ashamed of it as Bill is, but maybe a little of it would have helped Jo, who has become dangerously obsessed with storms ever since her traumatic childhood experience. Melissa schtick, mostly played for laughs, means embarrassing sex talk and perceived psychobabble versus the real world of hard science and physical labour. Compared to the all-talk Melissa, Jo is all-action, a characteristic enforced by the costume choice of a white vest that can’t help but recall Die Hard‘s John McLane. She’s a flawed, but nevertheless strong heroine and the clear protagonist (Bill may carry the movie at the start after the prologue, but it’s Jo’s journey overall), and never once is she a damsel in distress. She may be forced to confront the fact that she’s become obsessed – borderline Moby Dick levels – but the fact is that her drive and courageousness, along with Bill’s, saves the day. They do say confront your fears, after all, and I imagine that after the events of this movie, Jo will be alright. 

Poor Melissa on the other hand is doomed to be the character who is introduced into the movie only to lose. As soon as Bill sees Jo again, and gets a taste of the old, storm chasing life, we know it’s just a matter of time. There’s a nice chemistry between Bill and Melissa, but he and Jo were clearly made for each other, with lots of awkward, accidental brushes up against each other and so on. To be honest, it’s nice that Melissa is not painted as a harridan or nasty character that we want to see lose, and she’s not killed off either (that would have felt ugly) – she’s genuinely nice and it’s a shame what happens to her. She and Bill’s inevitable break-up at the end of act two is relatively neat and tidy in the scheme of things (she says she’s not too broken up about everything), but the last time we see her she’s clearly unhappy, and the film doesn’t try to sugar coat that. Or maybe it’s just not interested. She wasn’t cut out for this film, bless her. This much is obvious when they visit Jo’s aunt Meg’s house and she’s clearly put off by all the intense camaraderie and a communal dinner made up of sloppy steaks, mashed potato, gravy and eggs. Interestingly, she may have found a kindred spirit in de Bont, who as a vegetarian, was not keen on filming this scene. But to be honest, I don’t blame Melissa for getting a bit overwhelmed – these guys are pretty overbearing company. She’s, for the most part, our grounded character, our way in, our link to these crazy characters who risk their lives constantly, and whose recklessness could prove alienating to some viewers.

As the film progresses, and with Jo and Bill’s attempts to get one of their four Dorothy machines in a twister keep failing, the film is akin to a roadshow or a tour, with the ‘band’ that is the storm chasers moving from gig to gig, or storm to storm, pumped up with adrenaline, often scoring their own escapades with their choice of music (Deep Purple, Van Halen, Rossini, Oklahoma!) that blare out from their customised loudspeakers. There are some fabulously foreboding skies that are almost like the opening music to the main shows. However, although there are some dramatic moments, and scenes of visceral carnage during the vivid storms (remember, this was rated PG-13 in the States for ‘Intense Depiction of Very Bad Weather’), Twister never loses sight of what it is – a blockbuster ride. The storms are ultimately thrilling. The drive-in set-piece, where The Shining is playing on the big screen (had the twister not arrived, the second film would have been Psycho) is awesomely destructive and maybe quite frightening for some viewers, but it really emphasises that what we’re watching is a big show – nothing more, nothing less, and at the time, I found it totally irresistible. I’m not blind to the film’s limitations: but it gets the job done – the script is mostly a functional affair – funny moments, effectively dramatic moments, charming moments, but nothing special – but what’s important is that it’s nevertheless delivered with gusto by its cast, and that’s what matters.  but while they’re not much more than soap opera, they join the dots more than efficiently, and the cast are all fun to watch, and sell the excitement and terror of a storm very well indeed. The former is most memorably exemplified by a lively Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his earliest roles, and there’s other recognisable faces in the form of Alan Ruck (currently starring as one of Logan Roy’s loathsome offspring in the stunning Succession), Sean Whalen (memorable as one of The People Under the Stairs) and Jeremy Davies (the lead in David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey)

By the end of it all, we’re dodging falling tractors, driving through a house (fabulous moment, this) and then literally end up in the middle of a twister. And yet, you’d think there’d be more casualties in a film like this. However, the 90s wave of disaster movies seemed more reluctant to kill people off left, right and centre compared to the earlier generation. In fact, aside from Jo’s father, none of the good guys die in Twister. In fact, apart from that opening death, only two people are killed – the odious rival scientist Jonas (Cary Elwes) and his unfortunate driver. Death is only a presence in the movie in that it haunts Jo throughout. Speaking of Jonas, he is of course the boo-hiss villain we need in a film like this, and he’s a mildly objectionable git who gleefully accepts corporate sponsorship and is ‘in it for the money, not the science’, a selfish bastard who stole Bill’s idea for Dorothy, and who doesn’t help our heroes when they’re abandoned on the road. He’s not in the upper league of disaster bastards (he’s a jerk, but not quite horrible enough, and he’s not really in the film enough to present a legitimate rivalry), but we’re not sorry when he does buy the farm either.

Like all natural disaster movies, the antagonistic force can never be truly defeated – Jo and Bill don’t triumph over the storm, they merely survive it. They can’t stop nature, it’s impossible. It moves on, they survive, and all they have left is the hope that Dorothy’s findings will help them in the future against future storms. The end credits, backed by Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s moody ‘Respect the Wind’, is less triumphant than it is strangely foreboding and quietly calm, before the next storm, although we’re denied a ‘keep watching the skies’ or ‘next time we might not be so lucky’ ending – ultimately, Twister has little to say about nature except you can’t win against it. In effect, it’s the kind of movie that, appropriately, breezes past, and is likely to be left behind, but while it’s on screen, it’s tremendous fun, and this accounts for why it was the #2 movie of 1996. I infinitely prefer it to Independence Day, which definitely felt like the more blatantly zeitgeist movie at the time, and one whose sheer impact was strong enough that I even went to see it a second time when I realised it was still playing at my local many months after its summer debut, but is now I find way less appealing, with its scenes of destruction coming off now as so much empty razzle-dazzle. Admittedly, hollow spectacle is a charge that was also levelled at Twister at the time, but I’m way more persuaded by its quicker, faster and speedier charms. Plus, did I say that it stars Bill Paxton?

PS: Appropriately, Twister was the first ever film to be released on DVD – all the better to show off the kind of sound wallop that reportedly blew out speakers during its original theatrical run.

The Once, Present and Future Classic – John Boorman’s epic Excalibur

This is my contribution to The Bustles and Bonnets: Costume Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer and Silver Screen Classics Blogcheck out their blogs for lots more great writing!

When it comes to all-time great fantasy films, Excalibur is one of the greatest. It was a phenomenal return to form for director John Boorman, who for many had lost his way big-time with the double-whammy of 1974’s Zardoz (a film I like) and 1978’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (a deeply flawed work, but not entirely without merit) – it’s a bold, bravura and brilliant epic retelling of Britain’s most enduring myth – the birth, life, death and expected return of King Arthur.

The legend of Arthur is so complex and has been subject to so many retellings, homages, parodies, inversions, critiques and subversions across a myriad of mediums that to try and take them all in requires almost scholarly dedication. Whether or not Arthur was real (the overwhelming consensus is that he wasn’t) is now beside the point – his life and legacy has become a world of fascination for researchers, readers, viewers, listeners and gamers of all ages and all generations. As far back as I can remember, elements of the Arthur myth have always been there in my life, be it in the abridged versions of children’s literature I read, or a viewing of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, and even in the countless stories that in some way or another, have borrowed many a classic narrative from one part or another of Arthurian myth without explicitly referring to it. Arthur was supposed to have existed in some time in The Dark Ages (the latter half of the first millennium after the birth of Christ) and was a ruler who brought together the majority of Britain as one (‘one ruler, one land’, to quote the words of Arthur’s father in this film) after defeating the Saxons in battle – over the next 500 years the building blocks of what became the Arthurian myth were set in motion, be it through the works of the British cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth and the French poet Chretien de Troyes in the 12th century or, and this was the most substantial influence on Boorman’s film, the epic poem Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) which built on or fully established much of what we recognise about the legend today – it is this text that Boorman and co-writer Rospo Pallenberg used as their main source of inspiration for Excalibur.

It is from Malory that the majority of Arthuriana was encapsulated – Arthur’s birth and upbringing, the sword in the stone, the wizard Merlin, the adventures of Arthur’s most trusted and heroic knight Lancelot, as well as the doomed, adulterous romances of both Lancelot and Arthur’s queen Guinevere and similarly the tragedy of Cornish prince Tristan and the queen Isolde. The round table – that emblem of equality between all of Camelot’s knights, the search for the Holy Grail, the rivalry between Lancelot and fellow knight Gawain, the treachery of Arthur’s half-sister (the sorceress Morgan le Fay), as well as that of usurper Mordred, and Arthur’s eventual death, after which his body is set sail to the island of Avalon. L’Morte d’Arthur wasn’t the final word on the matter, far from it; as the centuries passed, yet more adaptations of the myth were created as popularity and fascination of all things Arthurian ebbed and flowed over the course of time. The 20th century and beyond have produced more examples of Arthurian art than any other time before it, mainly thanks to the widening range of mediums to work within, including of course, film.

Boorman’s film was one of many to focus on Arthurian legend, and while it doesn’t cover everything in Le Morte d’Arthur, Excalibur essentially begins at the beginning and ends at the ending. Or at least, that’s what I’ve read; I haven’t read Malory’s poem myself. I’m a very early starter in all things Arthurian, and about as laughably far from an authority than anyone who’s tried to write about this film. Therefore my focus will remain predominantly on the film itself, and only on what’s around it when necessary. Now, given the sheer depth and breadth of the Arthurian legend (and Malory’s poem), it’s easy to assume that a 140 minute film is not long enough to do it justice. You could extrapolate at least a dozen different films from what’s included here (and many have), and the stuff that isn’t included would make up for a couple of dozen more. There have been many films that have focused purely on the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, or the removal of the sword in the stone, or the side quests that individual knights of the round table have embarked upon. Because it is all of these things and not specifically, or in detail, one of them, Excalibur isn’t intimate in a small scale sense – the experience is akin to reading a long-form tapestry. It’s a run of truly spectacular images and visions held together by the plot. It is often truly sensational, often breathtakingly brilliant. It is flawed though. I think the film is too ambitious by trying to cover so much ground. But this is the kind of ambition that reaches so far for the skies that the sights it takes in along the way make it a masterpiece anyway.

I don’t think I understood or appreciated all the details in Boorman’s film on first viewing, and yet the plot hurtles forward with such a rush of passionate energy that paper over the cracks in its admittedly episodic form that it didn’t really matter to me, I guess. The essentials are all there to grasp, but the intricacies might have gone over my head – some of this might have had to do with the film’s refusal to establish how much time has passed between major events, or even within major events – you might miss the line where the wicked Morgana reveals that the quest for the grail has taken ten years. You might miss the mention of the knight Gawain during said sequence, for it is his dead body that sits slumped on a horse passing by. Speaking of Gawain – this major figure in the Arthurian myth, who had stories, poems and whole films (including the recent The Green Knight) dedicated to him is very much a minor presence here – he doesn’t really make any impression until he is manipulated by Morgana into calling out Lancelot’s suspected adultery with Guinevere, which leads to their trial by combat. After that, he’s mostly out of the picture until we see him dead.

Anyway, let’s get back to the start, as is the way of all legends. The first fifteen minutes of Excalibur set the stage amazingly well – after that, we’re rolling. It opens with the simple kind of impact that’s ultimately thrilling – Wagner’s “Siegfried’s Funeral March”, from his opera Götterdämmerung, lingers over the soundtrack as the Orion/Warner logo fades in and out, and with no further cast/crew/production credits to speak of, we head straight into the opening text:

The music and the crash-cut to the title is utterly thrilling – Boorman’s done it. He’s got us hooked. We then see the violent climax of King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne)’s victory over the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) in the thick of darkness and mist. This opening battle is swift, violent, clumsy and lit to perfection, with the fire being held by the knights illuminating the forest, and the breath of horses and the chill mist of night adding atmosphere. This is not a battle of glory – when the magician Merlin appears on the scene, he seems more sad than anything. It’s a sequence that’s at once thrilling, yet tempered with a forlorn inevitability at man’s violence towards man. The music shifts between the two moods, with Merlin’s desire for peace at odds with the bravado of Uther with his loud, brash calls of ‘I am the strongest! – Uther demands ownership of Excalibur, the sword that will bring the land together. Merlin senses its inevitable abuse at the hands of its prospective new owner. It’s to be used ‘to heal, not to hack‘, he urges. This is scoffed at with Uther’s dismissive ‘talk is for lovers!’ Merlin visits the Lady of the Lake and lo and behold, Excalibur, illuminated in glorious, otherworldly emerald green, emerges spectacularly from the beauty of the water and released by the bejewelled hand of the Lady – we’re not even five minutes into the movie and one already feels swept along by Boorman’s verve and vision. The sword, “forged when the world was young and bird and beast and flower were one with man and death was but a dream” is the symbol of life, and for a brief idyllic moment (about ten seconds of screen time), it looks as though harmony may exist across the land.

However that all falls apart when lust rears its ugly head, with the new-found peace between Uther and Cornwall crumbling to pieces as soon as the latter shows off his wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman, John’s daughter) at their celebratory feast. She begins an erotic dance that seems to spellbind everyone in court, and none more so than Uther, who in an instant throws away all that both sides have fought and died for, re-declaring war on Cornwall and even laying siege to his castle just to get to Igrayne. Merlin, despite seemingly being above and beyond the demands of other men, nevertheless agrees to use his magic to change Uther’s appearance into that of the Duke’s, so that he can infiltrate the castle and have his wicked way with Igrayne. One catch – Merlin will be owed whatever springs forth from this act of lust. There is this sense of Merlin being two steps ahead for the most part, accepting and partaking in acts of unpleasantness in order to lay the ground for a better future. Merlin is, I suppose, akin to a political and spiritual adviser. You wonder how much he knows about the future, that all these things – the things he gives to Uther – are merely necessary evils to pave way for the future king, the real king – Arthur. The future has taken root in the present, after Igryane has been impregnated, Merlin says. Poor, mistreated Igrayne, and even the seemingly mighty Uther, are merely pawns in this larger scheme. Uther’s transformation into Cornwall is further successfully enabled by Merlin expending most of his strength and power into conjuring the ‘Dragon’s Breath’, an immense mist that links Uther’s army to Cornwall’s castle, over which Uther is able to ride his horse upon, having been promised by Merlin in vivid terms that ‘your lust will hold you up’ – and indeed it does, his armour (that helmet comes across as pretty goddamn aggressively sexual in those close-ups) changing appearance mid-ride. As he enters the castle, the real Cornwall is mortally injured in battle, his imminent death instantly sensed by his daughter Morgana, who declares him dead in front of her mother, only to be reassured that her father is alive… look, he’s right there. Only we know who that really is, although Morgana catches a glimpse of the man behind mask as he ravishes Igrayne in front of her. For Igrayne, this is a night of passion with her husband. For the rest of us, we are witnessing a foul act of manipulation, trickery and rape. Intercut with shots of Cornwall dying, not to mention the truly bizarre sight of Uther in full armour on top of Igrayne, and Trevor Jones’ music reaching peaks of delirious, hallucinatory madness, this extraordinarily perverse moment closes Excalibur‘s full-throttle opening ambush upon the viewer of intensified, physical, violent, maddening and wild mythology. It’s really quite breathtaking.

With Cornwall confirmed dead, we move to the birth of Igrayne and Uther’s son nine months later, with the latter has established himself as dominant ruler. Merlin returns from his nine moons of rest (the Dragon’s Breath stunt takes a lot out of one) to take possession of what is owed to him – newborn Arthur. Uther tries to renege on the deal but is ambushed by vengeful soldiers of Cornwall and mortally wounded. He does make one decisive action before his death though – plunging Excalibur into a stone, which can only be freed from its place by whoever is the true rightful king. Skip twenty years later and young Arthur (Nigel Terry), totally unaware of his royal heritage, frees Excalibur and within seconds is faced with enormous and terrifying responsibility. His goodness and bravery, despite – maybe even because of the fact that he was raised outside of such expectations – astounds his future subjects and even Merlin himself, who reappears to inform and guide him of his destiny. So begins a new era, where Arthur falls in love with Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi), marries her, almost destroys the future of his land during a moment of misguided fury, forms the Round Table, witnesses the adultery between Lancelot and his queen, falls victim to the treachery of his vengeful half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren), when she uses magic to seduce him and produce a son between them, the decaying of the land and Arthur himself, which brings about the quest for the Grail which can restore health to both, and the final battle between Arthur and his own son Mordred. Phew. That’s a lot.

Spanning 140 minutes, we are witness to life and death, passionate love and ugly lust, nature and nurture, hasty mistakes and second chances, glory and tragedy…. the whole gamut. There are the codes of chivalry, including the feted trial by combat, where accusations of, say adultery, are proved true or false by battle between accuser and the accused’s champion, with God granting success towards the innocent and true. There’s the rules that come with royalty, with Arthur bound to the law that states he must be king before he can be a husband and therefore cannot champion his wife when she is accused of having Lancelot as a lover, much to Guinevere’s disappointment. There’s the land’s lifeforce dependent on the wellbeing of the king (and Excalibur itself), which becomes massively important on various occasions – Arthur’s heartbreak over Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair results in him stabbing the ground between them with Excalibur (an incident lifted from Tristan and Isolde), which results in the land being cursed to decay. He and the land are as one. Also, the wielder of Excalibur must remain pure of heart – when Arthur’s anger takes over and he calls on the sword’s power to unjustly defeat Lancelot during their first, conflicted encounter, it is broken, but given that all humans make mistakes, he is miraculously given a second chance (and a repaired sword) by the Lady of the Lake, and from then on he seeks to bring glory and honour to Camelot and his country. It’s a man’s world for the most part, it must be said. Morgana is the film’s predominant villain and remains outside of society, but unlike Merlin, with whom she shares many powers and skills as a fellow practitioner of magic, her desire for revenge over what happened to her father so many years back curses her to follow the dark side. Guinevere is irrevocably shamed over her affair with Lancelot, and it is only after years of self-exile in a nunnery that she is granted forgiveness and peace of mind. Elsewhere, Igrayne is arguably the tale’s most mistreated character.

Arthur is the lead character by default, but this is just as much Merlin’s film, or Lancelot’s, or even Perceval’s. As Arthur himself admits, other people have lived through him, fighting his battles, personifying his sins, or his guilt. They’re all players in this enormous game, the outcome of which only Merlin seems to be half-aware of, and seemingly powerless to change. The narrative scope and execution of Excalibur seems to be the element that detractors of the film have the biggest issue with; indeed, critical reception to Excalibur was somewhat divided – Variety spared no time in regarding Boorman’s film as ‘exquisite’, whereas Roger Ebert’s review memorably began with ‘What a wondrous vision Excalibur is! And what a mess’. It’s fair to assume that the film itself assumes we have at least a cursory knowledge of the legend. It’s easy to get lost sometimes in this world. This may have been the reason I didn’t exactly love the film on first, or even second viewing. It’s odd; Excalibur is on many levels a very approachable film. Its wild eccentricities and rapturous artistry is delivered with such heroic sweep that while on some levels it’s surprising that it was a hit film (it has cult written all over it), on other levels it’s easy to see why it struck a chord. This was one of the first post-Star Wars films to take that movie’s fantasy streak and keep it earthbound, and not in a galaxy far, far away. The astonishing wave of fantasy films that emerged in the early to mid-eighties proved that there was a hunger for this sort of thing. That, and of course, the ever-present desire and fascination with all things Arthurian. Excalibur‘s most immediate contemporary was the BBC’s own attempt to bind together the Arthurian legend – The Legend of King Arthur was a most enjoyable mini-series (8 half-hour episodes) that told the same story but not in the same way – Arthur and Mordred’s births is not the product of wicked magical deception, it’s the untainted, perfect Galahad (not present in Boorman’s film) who finds the Grail, and Merlin is closer to the kind of old-man wizard we’d come to associate with the character (interestingly, he’s played by Robert Eddison, who would go on to play the knight at the end of another Grail-fixated adventure, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) – given the relative low-budget of Andrew Davies’ made-for-television adaptation, the overall effect is less rapturously cinematic and rather stagey in the old mini-serial tradition. It’s a lot smaller in execution, but not in terms of length – at four hours, it has far more time to take in the details. Yet it’s very much of its time – it’s the kind of slightly clunky approach that the likes of The Black Adder would parody mercilessly in the years to come. By comparison, Excalibur is immense, expensive, lush and strangely timeless – the special effects are judiciously used and weren’t so cutting edge as to stand out too much, the sets still feel naturally opulent and the use of many natural, outdoor locations give it an elemental, perennial feel. Another factor for the film’s undated approach lies in its music – whereas a fair few fantasy films of the time would pay heed to contemporary trends by including a synthesised soundtrack (Ladyhawke, the US cut of Legend, The Keep, Hawk the Slayer), Excalibur‘s soundtrack is phenomenally well utilised, be it through the use of existing classical music or Trevor Jones’ own original score, which feels traditional and fresh. It’s a testament to the latter that it blends so well with the former. The majority of the classical music is supplied by Wagner, although the film’s most famous usage of music is surely Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, aka The Music That People Thought Was in The Omen But Wasn’t – this piece, although inadvertently synonymous with all things Satanic (Only Fools and Horses, with its Damien subplot, was a big contributor to this too) or dark (it’s used in Oliver Stone’s The Doors when Jim Morrison gets his mojo back after drinking some blood in a pagan ritual with his mistress), it’s also fabulous battle music, and is deployed no less than three times in this film.

The film’s forest look and fantastical dreamlike/nightmarish ambience must have surely been an influence on the director Neil Jordan when he made his own foray into the fantasy genre with 1984’s Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves; after all, Jordan was on the set of Excalibur as a creative associate, as was also shooting a making-of documentary which is sadly very difficult to find these days – portions of it can be found in the more recent retrospective documentary from 2013 Behind the Sword in the Stone but I’d love to see the original feature in full. Likewise, Excalibur‘s cinematographer Alex Thomson would go on to weave more visual magic when he shot the extraordinary Legend for Ridley Scott in 1985. For those two films alone, Thomson’s legacy remains one of the greatest.

Of course, in a story like this, it’s the costumes that are so important in contributing to the atmosphere, and yet because Excalibur is a film with only occasional and tenuous connections to reality, Boorman could afford to play fast and loose with the wardrobe for the sake of dramatic effect. The most obvious anachronism is that many of these styles of costumes simply didn’t exist back in the Dark Ages – indeed, we’re talking hundreds upon hundreds of years ahead of their time. Still, this is a myth, and when a certain costume can convey a sensation, a certain kind of physicality and a certain form of expression better than what these people would have literally been wearing at the time, then what the hell. Besides, when enough time has passed, it’s more accepting to see such wild playing around with codes and conventions in a film set so long ago than say, a film featuring similar costume changes that’s set in the 20th century. The armour, and stunningly silver, resplendent armour it is too, glimmers and shines before the camera. Guinevere’s wedding dress is a marvel of sparkling beauty. Yet the glamourous, beguiling nature of these costumes can sometimes be only surface deep – the most spectacular example of such finery belongs to the film’s most damned character, that of Mordred, the incestuous offspring of Arthur and Morgana – his astonishing gold armour only serves to reflect the ugly vanity of such glittering spectacle. Morgana’s own armour, a spectacular breastplate, is wildly sexualised, and a symbol of one of her greatest weapons – her ability to seduce. In the end though, all this splendour means little – Perceval, the most common-bred yet noblest and bravest of knights, is forced to remove his armour when trapped underwater just before he finally acquires the grail that will save his king’s life – it’s like that armour was the final obstacle that was needed to be removed, so that he could strip himself down to his purest essence and discover the ultimate realisation of what is most important in life.

The acquisition of the grail paves the way towards the conclusion, where broken ties are mended, forgiveness asked for and accepted, and the weight of the past overcome. It leads to a climax that’s interesting for how it was cited as a classic example of how not to write an ending, by none other than screenwriting guru William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. It goes like this; Arthur and Mordred have just enacted fatal wounds upon each other; as he lays dying, Arthur instructs Perceval to take Excalibur and return it to the lake from whence it came. Perceval arrives at the lake, but cannot relinquish the sword that means so much to the land and the country. So he returns to Arthur, admitting his failure of strength. Arthur says it must be returned; when it is needed once more, it will come back to the land. So Perceval heads all the way back to the lake, and this time he throws Excalibur through the sky and into the hand of the Lady of the Lake, who pulls it back down underneath the water. Perceval returns to the battlefield, but the already-dead Arthur is being sailed on his way to what we only presume is the resting place of Avalon. The film ends. Sad, but kind of beautiful, and hopeful too. The once and future king, indeed. It’s a magnificent moment, but Goldman felt that the initial, failed first attempt was a colossal mistake, ruining the film’s pacing. I get what he means, in theory. To attempt one thing, only to not do it, but then ultimately do it mere moments after is probably a no-no in screenwriting lore – but without that initial weakness of character, the eventual return of Excalibur to the lake wouldn’t have been as powerful. Maybe if Boorman was going for an all-out triumphant ending, then yes – the first time probably should have been the only time. But this is not a triumphant ending – with the death of Arthur and the farewell to Excalibur, this is the end of an era, and one that, understandably, some might not be willing to let go. For Perceval, the most humble and purest of knights (and the only one worthy of the grail, lest we forget) to disobey his king. Maybe this is the sort of ending that probably only rubs up writers and scholars of the film writing process the wrong way, maybe?

Other, more common criticisms of Excalibur has been to focus on the lead performances, specifically those of Nigel Terry and Cherie Lunghi. While Lunghi is arguably underserved by the script, Terry’s humble, down-to-earth approach serves the forever struggling character of Arthur well, and I find his performance effective and moving. Many of the cast members were unknowns at the time of filming, and maybe it’s their apparent lack of existing star quality that underwhelmed critics at the time, although Boorman selected most of his cast with the idea that big name stars shouldn’t feature so as to detract from the power of the legend. It probably doesn’t help that the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot is arguably one of the more underdeveloped elements of the film – the emotion is there in visual form for sure, with the beauty of their love scene, shot in the chill of moonlight and the natural loveliness of the forest, a gorgeous highlight of the film. But really, you could have spent a whole film’s worth of time on this affair alone, and indeed, it’s been done. But then the focus of Excalibur is not so much in the small details but the grand gestures, which is why the film feels even more than the sum of its parts. The love affair between these two doomed characters might not seem as fleshed out as it could be, but as part of the bigger tapestry (and what a tapestry it is!) it works.

Performances elsewhere – from Clay as the handsome, tortured and passionate Lancelot, Mirren in vivacious, vengeful form as Morgana, Byrne delivering a fiery and awesome screen debut as Uther, and Paul Geoffrey’s touching turn as the haunted, tested and noble Perceval – are vivid and striking, but none are more so than Nicol Williamson as Merlin, who is just glorious. From his very first appearance, to the way he says ‘behold, the sword of power’ at the start, to his final moments of vengeance (his ‘oh, that’s just grand‘ to a fatally fooled Morgana is a delight) He’s magnificent – hilarious, eccentric and dignified. His approach to the film is appropriately very different to everyone else’s – given that Merlin is centuries old – he refers to the very adult Uther as a child – his weariness of the world, resignation to his impending obsolescence, sense of humour (you could argue that he’s the only character with one) and loneliness in his lot makes him the most arresting character, and by extension the most arresting performance, by far. Merlin sees the future but can’t do a thing about it – he warns Arthur of the “beloved friend who will betray you” but nothing can stop it from happening. It’s fate. The once, future and present, all existing at the same time. Lancelot’s desire for Guinevere, when realised, cannot be denied – maybe it can be delayed, or cast aside, but it will happen. Such is the way of things. There’s an incredible moment when Lancelot, in an attempt to purge himself of his love for Guinevere, duels with himself and winds up perforated by his own sword. In an astonishing example of practical effects, he removes the sword from himself. But the wound remains, and the desire reappears soon enough. There is a tragic sense of inevitability to Excalibur. After all; we know how it will all end, as per the legend, so all we can do is sit back and watch everything unfurl. The film is not perfect for sure, but it contains so many moments of spellbinding wonder, such grandeur, such incredible combinations of sound and vision to deliver cinema at its most dynamic and exciting, that it is nothing less than a true pleasure to experience. The sequence of the search for the Grail for example is a mini-miracle of surreal cinema – frightening, awesome, grisly, despondent and ultimately, wearily triumphant. Again, you could have made a extended out of this part of the movie on its own.

There is no real definitive Arthurian work of art – that’s the beauty of the seemingly eternal ongoing fascination it inspires in those who create more of it – but Excalibur is about as definitive an Arthurian film as can be, and one of those reasons is because it feels genuinely magical. It’s only a film, but it often seems to be far more than that – it is a rich, sumptuous and addictive experience, infinitely rewatchable.

Flying High with The Rocketeer (and Loving Timothy Dalton as a Villain)

This is my contribution to You Knew My Name: The Bond Not Bond Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer and Reelweegiemidget Reviews. Check out their blogs for lots more pieces on films starring James Bond actors that aren’t James Bond films!

The summer of 1991 in cinematic terms was arguably dominated by two titans of popular culture – Robin Hood and The T-101 (or T-800). The latter, as seen in James Cameron’s awesome Terminator 2: Judgement Day, obliterated the action spectacle competition with its state of the art special effects, exhilarating action and compelling elaboration of the original’s universe. It’s still regarded as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner’s mammoth Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves might have played fast and loose with English geography, accents and historical accuracy, but its crowd-pleasing theatrics, fabulous villainy (Alan Rickman, managing to add another classic baddie to his roster after his already-phenomenal achievement in Die Hard) and a Bryan Adams song so ubiquitous it stayed at the top of the UK charts for SIXTEEN weeks all added up to a damned good time at the movies. I was too young to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger get tangled amongst all that liquid metal madness, but I did get to watch Robin Hood, as the BBFC had cut enough of it to secure a PG rating (nevertheless, it was still heavily complained about at the time by concerned parents), and I was enthralled by it. It’s imperfect when I watch it today, but at the time it left me feeling ecstatic. Yet there was another slice of irresistible escapism that summer that I was similarly knocked out by, even if it didn’t conquer cinemas in the same way – its domestic box office was approximately $46 million to Robin‘s $165 million – I’m talking about Joe Johnston’s tremendously entertaining The Rocketeer. Thanks to a magnificent but sadly unsuccessful marketing campaign that emphasised the 1940s art deco leanings of the time over its stars, which included new kid on the block Bill Campbell, knockout starlet Jennifer Connelly and the main focus of this piece – Timothy Dalton – The Rocketeer struggled to find an audience, which is a shame, as it was and still is a great, affectionate and exciting comic book adventure. And Timothy Dalton’s in it. Did I mention that?

Based on Dave Stevens’ 1982 comic strip, The Rocketeer is an affectionate throwback to Hollywood’s golden age of movie serial adventures; set in Los Angeles in 1938, and with the threat of a new world war looming, both the US government and the Nazis are hell bent on obtaining a remarkable invention that could change the face of aerial combat forever. Not that its creator – Howard Hughes himself – ever wanted his state-of-the-art jetpack to be used as a weapon. The one and only prototype was in the hands of mobsters, but after a hair-raising pursuit and a hasty decision to hide it in the garage of a nearby airfield, it ends up discovered by young pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his mechanic buddy Peevy (Alan Arkin), who have no idea how important this thing is and start testing it to see what its capable of, and maybe get a career out of its spectacular capabilities, if only for a while until they can afford to replace their beloved plane that was recently destroyed.

The plot’s wild card is Neville Sinclair, a Hollywood star who also wants the rocket for reasons unknown. He wants it real bad though; he’s even willing to double his original reward to the mob for obtaining it, and then not refusing when they demand it be tripled. Sinclair, as played by Mr. Timothy Dalton himself, is the archetypal matinee idol of that era, complete with his perfect moustache and dashing, handsome good looks. He’s the star of swashbuckling epics such as The Laughing Bandit, featuring the kind of hero who he remains a mystery to all the other characters until he removes his sackcloth mask (the kind Zorro wears) and suddenly everyone’s amazed that it was none other than Sir Reginald all along. Once he discovers that Cliff has the rocket, and that Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is an extra on the set of his film, he uses his wily, persuasive charms on her over dinner (she’s currently heartbroken over Cliff’s insensitive attitude to towards her thespian ambitions) at the city’s most glamourous nightspot to try and find out where it is…

Sinclair’s true motives remain a mystery for the most part, although there’s a rather sinister moment when the actor playing The Laughing Bandit’s nemesis is revealed to have been stabbed during the filming of the climactic action scene. As a child, I always wondered – did Sinclair do this on purpose, or was it an accident? If it was intended, maybe it was because he thought the other actor was, to quote the injured performer, ‘stealing the scene’? This bit is never referred to again, but it does make one even more suspicious as to how nefarious this extremely popular movie star really is. And of course, he really is a bad one. Like, real bad. Yep, he’s a Nazi.

We don’t find out this until the final half hour, but it’s the perfect revelation for a character who is built upon lie upon lie upon lie, although, as Sinclair himself would have it, ‘it wasn’t lies…it was acting’. Dalton playing an actor who is also a Nazi pretending to be a matinee idol – although he genuinely is one thanks to his success (the number 3 draw in Hollywood, lest we forget) – and this makes him a deliciously, dastardly villain. It’s true, the mob could pull out the thumb screws to get all the info they need out of Jenny to obtain the rocket, but Sinclair prefers the more insidious, pleasurable option of seduction. He pulls out all the stops at the South Seas nightclub, laying on the charm with Jenny during a dance (they’re the first ones on the floor and soon the whole place is full of couples) and as a concerned listener when she talks about her problems with Cliff. Just watching this total rat smile with phoney warmth as she talks about Cliff being ‘the sweetest guy in the world’ or taking in all the seemingly innocuous information she’s unwittingly providing him with the eyes and ears of a spy and saboteur, and being very annoyed when this is being interrupted by Cliff posing undercover as a waiter, is fabulously enjoyable stuff. Of course, seeing Dalton play someone trained in deception is not new – after all, we’ve already see him play James Bond in two films, and Bond’s use of manipulation in both The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill are essential driving forces to the plot.

In The Living Daylights, Bond pretends to be a close friend of one of the film’s villains – phoney defector Georgi Koskov – in order to win the trust of Koskov’s girlfriend Kara (Maryam D’Abo). Their relationship is based on lies on Bond’s part, although there is a genuine warmth between the two. Plus, it helps that Koskov himself turns out be an even more wicked liar to Kara, having set her-up to be killed – by Bond – near the start. It’s only Bond’s reluctance to kill what he recognises as an unprofessional that stops him from doing so. So yeah, Bond is a liar, but he has a code. The lesser of two evils for Kara in this case. In Licence to Kill, the lies start off in typical Bond style – pretending to be someone interested in acquiring a shark in order to gain access to a deputy bad guy’s aquarium hideout, for instance – but around the halfway mark they become spectacularly complex. Seeking out chief villain Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) to avenge the brutal injuries enacted upon his friend Felix and the murder (as well as implied rape) of Felix’s bride Della, Bond pretends to be a potential new recruit for Sanchez’s loyalty-based inner sanctum of mercenaries and business partners, declaring himself to be a ‘problem eliminator’ who can be utterly trusted. This is all an elaborate means to scan the surrounding area so that he can work out the best way to anonymously kill him from across the street in an abandoned building. The eventual assassination goes badly wrong, but in the fallout of the bungled murder attempt, Bond finds himself entrusted even further within Sanchez’s world, and it’s here that he starts sowing the seeds of doubt within his enemy’s paranoid mind that leads to the successful killing of a (in this case innocent) deputy, access to the all-important villain’s lair and eventually, putting an end to Sanchez’s reign of violence in a final, brutal act of fiery vengeance. I hadn’t seen either Bond film before watching The Rocketeer, but watching both of Dalton’s 007 entries afterwards I was already comfortable with the actor’s ability to play liars. Interestingly, The Rocketeer was released during that limbo period where Dalton was still officially James Bond, but wouldn’t end up playing the role again – at the time this was have been a fascinating detour for the actor in-between his (or so we hoped) appearances as 007. After this, Dalton would also deliver a superb performance as a morally ambivalent criminal in the television adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s Framed for ITV, which only added more weight to the thought that – as superb as he was as Bond, he could have been just as brilliant playing a Bond villain too. Yet that’s why he’s so good as Bond – the dark side that comes out fully in his bad guy roles is always there when playing the hero, simmering under the surface, which is why he was so believable as a truly dangerous 007.

Back to the film in question; after having kidnapped her, Sinclair says to Jenny he is an unwilling part of this scheme, he’s being blackmailed by the mob and that he is a ‘victim’ too, but these are more lies. Shortly after he tries to convince Jenny of his love for her, but she exposes his bullshit when she recognises his words as the exact same things he said to Greta Garbo and Carole Lombard in his own movies. The guy just can’t be genuine if he tried. And yet, it’s a testament to how well Dalton plays Sinclair that he’s one of those villains we just love to hate – he’s so devilishly funny in his timing (love the way he says ‘desperately…’ when Jenny offers to try on one of the dresses he has in his home) and so winningly pompous throughout. When we discover the fascist truth about Sinclair, it becomes even easier to cheer on his inevitable demise, which takes place aboard a good-old fashioned zeppelin. This is where Dalton has nothing left to hide, so we can just enjoy him revel in pure, unadulterated villainy, complete with him barking orders in German, proudly claiming that ‘he does his own stunts’ when fighting Cliff (a nice reference to Dalton doing plenty of his own stunts when playing Bond), leaving the heroes to die in flames (what a rotter) and taking violent objection to being called a mere ‘actor’ by a fellow Nazi…he’s just amazing.

Taking its cues from the first and third Indiana Jones movies, the Nazi threat here is at once appropriately comic-book but also, as encapsulated in the pastiche of animated Third Reich propaganda that’s smuggled out of Germany, pretty damned chilling. Sinclair being a Nazi also plays heavily into the unfounded rumours that Errol Flynn was a Fascist sympathiser – those rumours only came about in 1980 thanks to Charles Higham’s controversial Flynn biography, and the waves of those accusations were still clearly being felt around the time of The Rocketeer‘s release. Was The Rocketeer rather cruelly adding more fuel to the fire by clearly referencing these rumours? Maybe, but like it or not, it definitely adds a fascinating frisson to the plot. That Sinclair’s true identity is never revealed to the public is interesting, as you can imagine that the real story could end up being a conspiracy theory of its own in the film’s own universe decades later. Sinclair’s demise may not be as spectacular as being turned to liquid goo or aging hundreds of years in the space of seconds like in Indiana Jones, but he nevertheless gets a classic send-off – blown to bits as he flies off to intended freedom with the rocket on his back, unaware that it’s leaking fuel everywhere, fuel that become an inferno after the pack’s been turned on. At least he gets a fantastic demented bout of cackling followed by screaming in his last moments, which is what all the best bad guys should have. Cheerio Dalton, you played a proper shit bag, and you were magnificent. And it’s not like Sinclair didn’t have a shred of humanity – he clearly loved his Rondo Hatton-inspired henchman Lothar, didn’t he?

The Rocketeer is fantastic entertainment; it looks very stylish, filmed in warm colours, and the action is very handsomely staged. The special effects were at once totally fine for their time but when compared to Terminator 2‘s unparalleled spectacle, it was already looking like a relic of the past. Which is appropriate I suppose, given that it’s a film set in the past. In fact, the FX are just right for the retro-leanings of the story, the atmosphere and the PG-friendly hard-boiled dialogue; this is the kind of film where the profanity does get any higher than ‘lousy feds’, and the threats are on the level of ‘you’ll be eating soft food for a month!’, that sort of thing. I love it. Campbell and Connelly are very attractive leads – Campbell has the boyish, floppy haired and bright young charm down well, although you could see why some critics thought he was somewhat bland. I think that’s missing the point though – his earnest, everyday, boy next door demeanour is precisely right. The breathtaking Connelly meanwhile, first seen putting on her stockings in a loving tracking shot and after that a constant, total sight to behold with her immaculate hair and unsmudgeable lipstick (inspired by Bettie Page to the point where that was her character’s name in the comics) is a paragon of innocence and sweet sexiness – as a ten year old watching this at the cinema, she was one of my first cine-crushes. Alan Arkin leads a mighty fine supporting cast of familiar faces, there’s James Horner’s triumphant, stirring score and that loving period detail that felt truly escapist to a young boy living in early 90s Greater London. It has great heroes, great heroines, and of course, a great, great villain. What more could I want?

PS: There’s an amusing link to Licence to Kill during the finale in that both Sanchez and Sinclair have to put up with increasingly complaining deputy villains who end up being too mouthy for their own good, with both stressed accountant Truman Lodge in LTK and that Goebbels look-a-like here getting shot for their troubles. Both main villains also get in a good one-liner too, with Sinclair’s ‘For the Fatherland!’ – in reference to the failing Zeppelin’s need to lose weight and gain altitude having just been solved – an absolute zinger.

Great Title Sequences in Horror: Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal)

40 years old tonight, the title sequence to one of the all-time great slasher sequels proves that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Although I guess you can embellish it a bit, though; that’s okay.

Of course, it’s the compositional splendour of the title sequence to John Carpenter’s original 1978 masterpiece Halloween that absolutely everyone rightly remembers; that lit pumpkin with its eerie grin on the left side of the screen that we slowly crawl towards until all we see of it is one of its illuminated, hollowed-out eyes and its nose, with the orange-on-black credits on the right side of the picture, backed by one of the greatest main themes ever to haunt the horror genre…it sets the scene with chilling, elegant, striking simplicity. For Halloween II, released three years after the original but set directly after it, Carpenter might have left the director’s chair (although he would direct some scenes uncredited in an attempt to spice up a film he regarded ‘as scary as an episode of Quincy‘) but he and Debra Hill would remain on board as producers and writers, while actors Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Charles Cyphers and Nancy Stephens came back to reprise their roles (even Nancy Kyes/Loomis would return to play the corpse of poor Annie), and Dean Cundey also returned to deliver more of that incredible widescreen cinematography.

It may not be as good as its predecessor, (very few people would argue that, I imagine) but Halloween II sure does feel like it’s cut from the same cloth, exuding that irresistibly frightening, quintessential Halloween atmosphere, albeit with a nastier, grimmer tone in keeping with the wave of bloodier, meaner slasher movies that came out in the wake of Carpenter’s original. Having its credit sequence play out in the same vein as before also kept that old vibe going – following a slightly altered repeat showing of the first film’s ending and a new bit where Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis runs off in search of the still-alive Myers, we cut to black and those immediately recognisable orange credits start up, with the main Halloween theme once more accompanying the visuals, with another pumpkin staring back at us from the left side of the frame. However, it’s obvious that things are different; the music sounds….well, sickly. Diseased. Evil. Much of this has to do with the fact that, whereas the original performance of the theme was a seamless blending of acoustic piano and waves of synth, this time it’s nothing but synths, all bleeding into each other until it approximates the ghastly, queasy hangover to what was at one time a deceptively simple melody. The sepulchral, gothic, church organ ambience truly emphasises the more ghoulish, apocalyptic and overtly supernatural approach of this sequel – the first film had plenty of scenes set during the day, but until the epilogue which arrives with the rising sun of November 1st, Halloween II is set entirely at night, and with that comes a more claustrophobic, inescapable sense of doom. The almost hellish overtones – grislier, more sadistic deaths, much more gore, the further emphasis that Michael Myers is pure evil incarnate (although he is simultaneously made more mundane with the film’s controversial family revelation halfway through) all add up to a much more oppressive atmosphere than before, and this is all perfectly encapsulated with this title sequence. It also lasts a minute longer than before (there’s a lot more main cast members to credit this time), which really extends that ominous vibe. As before, we move closer and closer towards the pumpkin, but unlike last time, the pumpkin now starts to split at the centre to reveal a ghastly skull etched inside – the music has by this point increased in intensity to the point where it sounds totally atonal for a brief second, the synth going off-key to horrendous effect.

Then we pare down the music to its core, repetitive main riff, with amazingly creepy washes of synth warning us that what’s to come will not be pretty. Set predominantly in a curiously understaffed and underpopulated hospital, with plenty of innocent victims laid to waste in horrendously cruel fashion by a near-indestructible Myers (whose visage has never looked so scary thanks to the original mask having perished and warped in appearance in the three years since Halloween), all set to reworkings of the original film’s musical themes that overall don’t have the same exquisite creepiness of their old takes but are still awesomely effective, Halloween II is a stylish, very handsomely shot follow-up that I would love to see on the big screen, where I imagine its creepy ambience would be maximised to amazing effect. I mean, this title sequence must look and sound utterly amazing in a cinema. Is it a better title sequence than the first one’s? No, but I can say with certainty that it’s the perfect title sequence for this film, that’s for sure. Happy Halloween, peeps.