Movies for the Resistance: 1984

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

 

Starring: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton,  Cyril Cusack and Gregor Fisher
Directed by: Michael Radford
Running time: 110 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1984

 

(Note: parts of this write-up come from an earlier review, which is no longer available.)

I was going to run with another movie in this slot and save 1984 for a later date. But considering how fast the hammer has fallen with our new regime; considering that sales of George Orwell’s more-indispensible-than-even novel have skyrocketed; and considering that star John Hurt passed away just this Friday, it seems more appropriate to go with this one. Multiple versions of 1984 have been filmed, but this – the version from the titular year itself – feels the most indispensible, not only because of the circumstances under which it was filmed, but because of Hurt’s powerful central performance as an anonymous man utterly destroyed by tyranny.

The filming circumstances were unique and unrepeatable. Director Michael Radford shot on location in England during the spring of 1984, the very months the book was supposed to have taken place. He found the grimiest corners of the country to portray a Britain in the grip of absolute totalitarianism: a government that exists solely to control every moment of its citizens’ lives. Radford didn’t want jackbooted stromtroopers in gleaming uniforms or towering architectural edifices dominating the skyline. His world is so… mundane. Sad. Covered in dirt and falling apart. Nothing works except the surveillance apparatus of the state. Humanity’s strength has been harnessed in the service of its own misery.

Orwell knew what that state looked like, but he also knew that such oppression didn’t constitute its greatest horror. That distinction falls to humanity’s own indifference to it all: the way everyone onscreen just accepts it as business as usual. The strength of Orwell’s scenario lay in its finality, where only the feeblest sparks of the human spirit survive and then only for brief periods before being snuffed out. In Radford’s hands, it feels more plausible than ever: steeped in despair and processed through bloodless bureaucracy rather than showy flashes or gestures.

Richard Burton proves a godsend in that regard (his turn as Winston Smith’s nemesis O’Brien proved to be his last onscreen performance).  But it’s Hurt who contributes the perfect piece to that puzzle. His eyes hold the sadness of the world in them, the ruined gentleness of a soul trampled into utter obedience. He’s not a soldier or a fighter, just a hapless cog glumly continuing the perversion of the human spirit. In exchange, he gains only the vain, desperate hope that his blood won’t oil the gears of this monstrous machine. When they bark orders at him, he squeaks and falls into line. When they shame him for his thoughts, he feels it burn into his soul. This is no defiant rebel. This is a man who just wants to be left alone in his misery and who will diligently contribute to the state’s subjugation to do it.

His “crime” is solely a personal one: he falls in love, putting personal ambitions above Big Brother’s purpose for him. For that, he earns something far worse than a death sentence: an execution of the soul. For as O’Brien reminds him, the state wants more than his obedience. It wants him to accept the reality it presents to him. Only then will its control be complete. Only then will he become the “human tractor” (to quote another dystopian story) it wants him to be. And it ultimately succeeds: snuffing out even the smallest act of defiance as efficiently as it might assemble a rifle.

No one but Hurt could portray such shattering devastation so completely. No one could show us, with a single look, how heavy the toll for living in fear can be.

Radford’s movie adopts a respectful tone towards Orwell’s work, finding the despair at the expense of the rage. You could sense the author’s anger dripping beneath the surface of the book: the feeling that this has happened more than once, and the stain on our collective humanity for allowing it. The movie loses that spark a bit, which makes it a profoundly sobering experience. It does its job too well in many ways, and I actually hesitated to discuss it in part because of that. We need hope and strength right now, not nihilism.

But like the book, 1984 understands that forgetting these lessons puts us a step closer to the unthinkable. We’re too close to that now as it stands. Again we hear those echoes. Again that insistent voice rises with terrible purpose. “You didn’t see what you just saw.” “Human beings aren’t really human beings.” “Why can’t you just accept the way things are?” If you need an answer to that question, look for it in Hurt’s haunted face staring back from the screen. This is where it ends, it tells us. This is the only logical conclusion to the madness we have embarked upon. Orwell intended it as a cautionary example: a way of rallying us against the horrific abuses that could engulf us at the drop of a hat. The movie’s greatest strength is preserving that instinct in no uncertain terms… so that it would always be there when we needed it.

RIP John Hurt. 1940-2017.

Today in Movie History: January 27

At the top of today’s list Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, released in 1956. It stands as a high point of Kaye’s career, both for the marvelous way he sends up Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling (complete with Basil Rathbone as the villain) and for the marvelous wordplay of the script (“the pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true”).

Speaking up sending up previous images, Pierce Brosnan scored a winner with The Matador, one of my favorite films of recent years and released today in 2006. He plays a hitman coming apart at the seams whose chance encounter with a grieving salesman (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexico City hotel provides him with the human connection he so desperately needs. Writer-director Richard Shepard hit this one out of the park, and helped Brosnan turn a middling stint as James Bond into a quietly impressive post-Bond career.

Finally, four years ago Joe Carnahan’s The Grey was released in theaters. It earned a fair amount of heat at the time for its portrayal of wolves: a charge I failed to see in the movie itself, which makes for a brilliant (if reasonably brutal) variation on Jack London-style survival stories. Also, Liam Neeson fights a wolf with a smashed mini-liquor bottle. Tell me you wouldn’t pay money to see that.

Meet the Hero

In The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell posited two poles of human perception. At one end sits waking, conscious life, which is mainly taken up by the necessities of existence: jobs, bills, children, family, chores. At the other sits deep sleep – sleep without dreams – in which we commune with whatever cosmic forces lie beyond this level of existence. We do not know what we are shown in that state – we don’t get to look behind the curtain when we’re awake – but we lie blissfully and at absolute peace while we do so.

In between those two extremes sit our dreams, our fantasies and our expressions of creativity. Dreams are our way of interpreting what we perceive in deep sleep. They come from the source of all stories, all music, all paintings, all art. They’re messages from that cosmic wellspring, whether you want to call it God, Allah, the Force or whatever term feels right for you. The exaggeration brought by our imagination – the distortion and extremities that define creative expression – are attempts to raise those messages above the mundane trivialities of living. It lets us identify them more readily when the light fails and the path becomes unclear. That’s why we learn them first as children – via fairy tales, comic books, and stories of monsters and magic – when we’re more open to their truths.

The messages are never hateful. They are never cruel. They speak to a moral life: to making this world a better place for everyone. And they never diminish. They’ve been with us since we told stories by firelight in caves and they’ll be with us as long as our species continues its struggle.

That’s why tyrants try to stifle free expression. That’s why creativity and the arts are the first to be attacked when oppressors seek power for its own sake. They want those lessons to be silenced… and because they cannot challenge the forces that send them to us, they tell us to forget them or relegate them to unimportance. They want you to feel ashamed of them. They want you to think you’re an infant for believing in them. That you’re deluded. That you’re not worth listening to.

We sometimes help them with that vile task without even thinking about it. As we grow up, we lose sight of the lessons or worse: dismiss them as childish. We focus on the surface details of the stories we loved and use that to obfuscate the wisdom we should be striving to embody in our world. Silly costumes. Super powers. Spaceships, aliens, monsters, kung fu.

It’s not about any of those things. Those are just trappings to draw our eye. The philosophies beneath them are as real as the headlines, and apply to us every time we walk out our front doors. Strip away the superhero capes and the lightsabers and the licenses to kill, and the struggle is no different. The stakes are no less important. And our strengths are no less amazing when we channel them to defend the things worth protecting.

People sometimes ask why I love the movies so much. There are a lot of reasons, but it boils down to this: they are dreams brought to life. They are lightning in a bottle. They capture the messages from our subconscious and display them for all the world to see. They let us share those messages with others, to experience those profound and vital signals as a community instead of isolated individuals.

We are the heroes of our own lives. The demons we face are no less frightening than the monsters who terrorized us from the pages of a book or the screen of a movie theater. But our ability to stand against them is no less powerful. We know how to perceive right and wrong in the starkest possible terms and to defend what matters with power that can astonish.

Our heroes live in us. In you. In me. In everyone. Every day. All we have to do is listen to what they’re saying.

I believe you are capable of wonders.

Now more than ever.

When times are dark.

When too many of our fellows choose the quick and easy path.

When tyrants order us to deny what the universe tells us every night as we sleep.

And if you ever struggle to remember that – if you ever question your own eyes, or labor under the burdens of resistance, or forget those hidden lessons that make life worth fighting for – help is just a “once upon a time” away.

(Thanks to CLS Videos for the inspiring montage.)

Movies for the Resistance: Escape from New York

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton
Directed by: John Carpenter
Running time: 99 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1981

 

Resistance starts with iconoclasm: the belief that the people in power don’t have your best interests at heart. Hollywood loves to lionize the lone hero, the gunslinger, and the guy who doesn’t play by the rules. But studios have a tendency to waver when the crunch comes: finding ways for the outsider to join the collective, save the world and finally be validated for his or her principles. It’s easy. Just stop the evil businessman, vanquish the corrupt leaders, and enjoy a bright new dawn.

John Carpenter carries far more philosophical conviction in his films than most studio wonks, and he understands that happy endings don’t always apply when The Man calls the shots. His works remain defiantly iconoclastic in part because they view the entire system as corrupt, and that uprooting that corruption may be impossible. He delivers heroes who don’t necessarily want to change anything. They merely speak the truth to those who would hide from it. “Check those who think they have the final word,” they tell us. “Make them feel the pain and the misery that they’ve inflicted on the world. And don’t let them tell you that everything’s all right when your eyes and ears scream how wrong it all is.”

This notion appears in almost all of his films, even those that don’t feel overtly rebellious. Consider movies like Halloween or Christine, whose protagonists are defined – and to a large extent saved – simply because they’re more aware of their surroundings than those around them. Laurie Strode spots that weird guy hanging out behind the hedge. Leigh Cabot thinks there’s something odd about her boyfriend’s car. Stevie Wayne does NOT like the look of that piece of driftwood. Those heroes who don’t fit that mold (Jack Burton, we’re looking at you) are quietly mocked for their ignorance, and Carpenter makes sure we know they triumph in spite of their ignorance, not because of it.

Which brings us to S.D. “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell), one of the director’s favorite creations and the only one he consented to helm a sequel for. No other figure expresses such clear contempt for the levers of power. No other protagonist so cheerfully spits in the eye of those who hide their venal corruption behind precedent and apathy. He starts out a part of the system he comes to despise: a soldier in some retro-future war who casts his uniform aside when he comes home and takes up robbing banks.

That makes him part of the problem, or so he’s told. Not the corrupt figures overseeing his country’s descent into dystopia. Not the faceless “United States Police Force” guarding a Manhattan Island transformed into the nation’s only maximum security prison. Not the soft, corrupt President (Donald Pleasence) mouthing empty platitudes to hide the barbarism in his heart. Snake, and those like him, are the losers: pawns turned victims turned criminals turned supposed pawns again.

Plissken stands out from the faceless hordes herded into New York only because TPTB find him useful. When Air Force One goes down in Manhattan Island, they tag him to find the President and bring him back. They plant explosives in his neck with a 24-hour fuse and promise him a pardon if he does the job in time: secure in the knowledge that he’ll dance to their tune so long as they keep him on a tight leash.

Needless to say, he has a few surprises for them.

The remarkable thing about Plissken is his complete lack of principles. This is no tough guy with a heart of gold, no noble outlaw fighting for some piece of the American Dream. He lives only for his own survival: an anti-hero in the purest sense of the word. (“I don’t give a fuck about your war,” he snarls at Lee Van Cleef’s tough-guy warden. “Or your President.”) Carpenter pokes a little fun at his bravado, aided by Russell’s tongue-in-cheek Clint Eastwood impersonation, but it’s clear that this man holds nothing in his heart deserving of our sympathy.

At least at first. But as the movie goes on and we get a good look at the savagery around him, one admirable feature emerges: his honesty. Like many of Carpenter’s protagonists, he notices what others can’t or won’t. He doesn’t pretend that the monkeys outside the cage are any better than the monkeys inside. He doesn’t ignore inconvenient facts just because they make his life harder. And he actually keeps a tally of the human lives lost in his little escapade… even the ones he didn’t like. The response he receives when he reminds those in charge of that fact tells us everything we need to know about the reality the rest of this world is happy to deny.

And that honesty gives him strength… not to build something better or right any wrong, but just to stick it to some people who dearly need to be stuck. You don’t get to look away from this, you sons of bitches, he tells them. You don’t get to throw blood in my face and pretend your hands are clean.

He never wavers from that. He never breaks. And he’s happy to bring the heavens down around him if it means forcing those in charge to confront their own hypocrisy. In a world this compromised, it’s the only virtue worth celebrating. Power corrupts. Truth is the antidote. And if the masters of the universe don’t like that, it only takes one nasty bastard in the right place at the right time to correct them.

The eyepatch is optional.

Today in Movie History: January 20

Show of hands: who wants to watch a bracing 104 minutes of Soviet-era propaganda? I knew you would! Sergei Eisenstein’s October opened today in 1928: generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of Soviet cinema and granting its director license to expound upon numerous cinematic theories — like montage — that today have become standard practi-

You in the back, quit falling asleep! DON’T MAKE ME GET MY AIR HORN!

Oh all right. Here’s some movies featuring Kate Beckinsale in tight black pleather: Underworld: Evolution was released today in 2006 and Underworld: Awakening hit theaters today in 2012. Neither of them have improved with age, but you get to watch Kate blow large holes in people while sashaying through a Gothic-Punk landscape in stylized bondage gear. Also Derek Jacobi slumming like few have slummed before.

Somewhere between those two extremes sits The Tomb of Ligeia, the final entry in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, which was released today in 1965. Vincent Price — Corman’s go-to man for Poe-based Awesome — stars as a man tormented by the spirit of his dead wife. It’s a fun slice of AIP cheese, made a heck of a lot better thanks to its leading man.

And while we’re at it, let’s throw in The Invisible Ray: a minor but notable entry in Universal’s horror cycle, featuring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi getting their creepy on. It was released today in 1936.