Electronic Film Editing

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A Final Cut Pro editing screen

The New Jump Cut

By David Ansen and Ray Sawhill

In the past four years a quiet revolution has occurred in the world of Hollywood filmmaking: the advent of digital editing on computers. Not since the Moviola arrived, in the mid-1920s, has a machine so radically transformed the way movies are assembled –for both good and ill — or broadened the definition of film editing itself. And it has altered, in ways both painful and salutary, the lives of the men and women who make movies.

The revolution has come swiftly. In 1992 editor Rob Kobrin cut an entire feature, the thriller “Needful Things,” on an Avid computer. It was only one of four films edited that year on digital systems. Today roughly 80 percent of Hollywood movies are edited on either Avid or its rival system, Lightworks. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Kobrin, 40, a self-appointed cheerleader for a technology that not everyone has welcomed. “If computer editing is hell, then I’m Satan,” he boasts.

Traditional film editing was always a funky, hands-on proposition: reeling and unreeling spools of film, cutting and gluing pieces of celluloid together, working amid a sea of film that sometimes got trampled underfoot. All that has changed, and the advantages are obvious. In the weightless world of digital information, 150 miles of film can be stored on hard drives, and an editor with the press of a key or the click of a mouse can instantly access any visual or audio moment in the film. Infinite variations of a scene can be stored and called up for review and comparison. Want to create a dissolve, a fade, a wipe? Instead of shipping the film out to an optical shop, and waiting days for it to come back, an editor can create these transitions instantly on his computer, and just as easily lay in a temporary music score, a bomb explosion, a title.

In this brave new world the line between editing and special effects has blurred, the jobs of editing film and sound have started to merge, and it’s sometimes hard to know where editing begins and cinematography and production design leave off. In the current family movie “Alaska,” editor Kobrin, working with director Fraser Heston, literally moved mountains. The town the characters lived in was on the Canadian coast, but the mountains on view in the background were shot in Valdez, Alaska, and electronically laid into the image. “Traditionally the art of film editing was the juxtaposition of frames,” Kobrin explains. “I’m now editing within the frame.” A crowd of a hundred extras can be multiplied into a horde of thousands. You could say that in the digital universe all live-action films have the potential to become animation.

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Moviolas went into general use in the 1920s

In the first 100 years of moviemaking, the editing room was a noisy, collaborative workplace where an assistant would sit beside the editor and get a hands-on demonstration of the art. Now, when you walk into the old house in Greenwich, Conn., where Ron Howard is putting together his big fall thriller, “Ransom,” there’s a ghostly quiet. All you hear is the voices coming from the computer screens — where Mel Gibson, as an airline magnate, learns his son has been kidnapped — and the clicking of the keyboard. Howard is working with the two editors who won Oscars for “Apollo 13,” Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, but this is the director’s first venture onto digital. Each editor works in a separate room; the assistants are in the basement, where they convert the film to video, digitize it and painstakingly catalog the footage. “I find it thrilling,” says Howard. “You don’t have to tear the movie completely down and put it back together. It’s everything I ever hoped editing could be.”

But not everyone is rejoicing. For most editors the blade of revolution has a double edge. As Walter Murch, the legendary sound editor of “Apocalypse Now,” puts it, “If God wants to punish you, he gives you what you want.” Almost unanimously, editors rave about their new machines — and complain that the quality of their lives, and of the work, has gone to hell. It’s the much touted speed of these new machines that has led to problems. The studios, naturally, want a bottom-line return for the hundreds of thousands they’ve spent on their digital systems. Since time is huge money in Hollywood, executives figure that the time spent in post-production can now be cut in half. “Editors are terribly upset about what’s going on,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts Martin Scorsese’s films. “Computers do save time to an extent, but not as much as producers thought.”

To make the opening dates determined by the marketing departments, teams of editors frequently come in to “gang bang” a movie. “The vision goes,” explains editor Tom Roll (“Heat”). “Editors have different styles, so the movie becomes a hodgepodge.” Richard Marks, who edited “Assassins” last year in a rushed seven weeks, says, “It’s insane. It’s the thinking process that makes the movie, not the speed at which you use the tools.”

“The digital revolution is digging a big hole for all of us,” moans editor Carol Littleton (“The Big Chill”). “You do the impossible and that becomes the norm. You can’t explore anything.” Another reason the process isn’t that much quicker is that action directors, emboldened by the limitless options of their Avids and Lightworks, are shooting much more film — instead of boiling 800,000 feet down to a 12,000-foot movie, the editors might have to contend with a million feet of film. “We always worked terrible hours, and it’s worse now,” says Schoonmaker. “Everyone’s personal life and health is suffering. Everyone has to calm down and use the technology for the greatness of it and not get hysterical.”

It isn’t just the workers who are getting hysterical — so are the films. Several people cite the hyperactive “The Rock” — cut by four editors on five Avids — as an example of the new emphasis on kinetic impact over coherence. But is the technology driving the style, or is the style a response to an audience conditioned to a faster pace?

Roll and his colleagues warn that the facility of the new tools can seduce filmmakers into cutting too much, and too quickly. A new generation of directors, schooled in MTV esthetics, is so used to editing on a computer screen that they can misjudge the impact of their images when they’re amplified on a huge screen. Michael Bay, “The Rock’s” 32-year-old director, realized, when he finally saw a car chase projected on film, that he’d cut it too fast for the eye to absorb. He had to “de-cut.” The next generation may magnify this dilemma. “The real problem is with very young directors who have never edited on film,” says Warner Bros. head of post-production Marc Solomon. “They don’t want to look at film dailies, they’re happy to look at videotapes, and they lack a sense of proportion.”

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A Steenbeck flatbed editing table — high tech in the 1970s

The spirit of collaboration is disappearing, too. “The goal of electronic editing is ‘one brain, one screen, one machine’,” explains Murch. “But is working by yourself the best thing for the most collaborative art form there is?” Assistants, relegated to their bookkeeping chores in distant rooms, now have no shoulders to peer over — no way of learning their craft. They may know computers, but nothing about how editing creates drama and emotion. “I’m worried about how training is going to occur,” says Hank Schloss of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. “Everybody wants to get their end of it done today, and to hell with tomorrow.”

But there is no going back. The digital revolution is pointed in one clear direction: the all-electronic cinema Francis Coppola envisioned almost 20 years ago. Within the next five to 10 years, digital images will begin to match the subtlety and richness of film. Then, movies will be shot on digital cameras, fed directly into computers and beamed — somehow — electronically into theaters. Look, Ma! No hands! There will be no scratches on these movies, no faded colors and missing frames. There will be visions and effects and explosions the likes of which we’ve never seen. Will they be movies any of us want to see? That will have little to do with the machines, and everything to do with the people at the controls: the artists, craftsmen, executives and moneymen who will, rest assured, still be duking it out well into the 21st century. Some things don’t change.

David Ansen is Newsweek’s film critic. He wrote this piece; I had the idea for it and did the reporting.

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Eroticism in Movies

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The Tantric Moviegoer

By Ray Sawhill

In a long, charged sequence in “Dirty Dancing,” the working-class hunk Johnny (Patrick Swayze) is teaching the pampered teenager Baby (Jennifer Grey) how to dance.

At one point he’s behind her and, with one hand on her bare belly, he uses the other to raise her arm up behind his head in a passionately nuzzling posture. Then he releases her arm and lets his free hand trail down her side, tracing her underarm and the outside curve of her breast. Baby bursts into laughter. Every time he attempts the move, the squirmy, eager girl gets the giggles. She just can’t contain herself.

Finally, after a few stern, almost disgusted looks from Johnny, Baby manages to keep a straight face. Her eyes twinkle softly, and her movements and breathing slow down — Baby has found her groove. Only now can the dance lesson proceed.

“Dirty Dancing” is the movie equivalent of a dopey juvenile novel, but it has a number of such primal scenes, and when it opened in 1987 it quickly became a surprise hit. Theaters were jammed with beaming, liquefying women of all ages, many of whom saw the movie over and over. What excited and pleased them wasn’t just images of great pecs, fab butts and poppin’ energy. It was the movie’s portrayal of a young woman opening up to her deep sensations of lust and desire (and perhaps also the fantasy that she could come into her own, sexually, in a matter of weeks).

These days I think the culture of moviegoing has developed an incurable case of Baby’s giggles. Too often when at the movies, I feel the way I feel when I look at the local magazine stand — blinded by overbrightness, as though the whole world has gone on Prozac.

All this sexiness and so little eroticism. What happened? Eroticism has always been a wonderful motor force for moviegoers and moviemakers. Older readers will remember the sultriness in movies from the teens through the ’80s. Silent-era stars such as Theda Bara and Clara Bow had it — Bow’s most famous movie was called “It,” and erotic allure and vivacity was what “it” referred to.

Clark Gable radiated a gloating dangerousness; Cary Grant embodied, in Pauline Kael’s words, “the perfect date.” Marlene Dietrich made her very first appearance in an American movie, the 1930 Josef Von Sternberg film “Morocco,” dressed in a man’s suit, showing off exotic cheekbones and singing a slow, insinuating song. She kissed a female customer on the mouth, tipped her hat rakishly and disappeared into the shadows, leaving audiences to look forward to what ambiguous delights she might purvey next. It was a moment of Mayan/deco splendor the equal of the ornate movie theaters of that era.

Even jungle fantasies did their best to give eroticism form. In 1932’s “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” Johnny Weismuller’s build and swimming prowess are still impressive. In his loincloth, and with his hairless chest, this Tarzan is a genuine hunk. He has a heavy-lidded, sexily coiffed beauty, and his command of the animal kingdom has its allure.

Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane is ladylike and practical. When she’s kidnapped, she’s pawed, poked and hauled around by the ape man and his animal friends; her dishevelment and wet-eyed looks of distress are very suggestive. She and Tarzan grow comfortable with each other when they horse around together in a river. She’s never felt so physically at ease as she does with this man-beast; for a moment, she bobs there in his arms, amused and aroused that he can’t understand a word she says.

There’s a dissolve, and the next time we see Jane, she’s lying on a branch above a stream. Her hair is askew, her hands weave the air and water idly, and she’s comfortable in her hips in a new kind of way. The image has a comic dreaminess — it’s one of the best movie images of post-coital satisfaction. Everything about Jane is smiley and relaxed; everything about her says, “So that’s what it’s all about.”

The way black-and-white photography stylizes movie action may help explain why so many movies of the ’30s have the quality of erotic reverie. But even in the 1950s, when color grew commonplace, directors and cinematographers knew how to use magazine layout-like compositions and designer-kitchen colors to stamp the eyeball in ravishing ways.

Hitchcock’s 1954 “Rear Window” is full of images worthy of being isolated and turned into movie posters. Grace Kelly, with perfect blond hair and red lips, wears black and white chiffon and, later, a memorable mint-colored suit; she spends the whole movie trying to seduce James Stewart.

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Skeptical at first that anything’s amiss across the courtyard, she’s resourceful and twinkly once her imagination is touched, and almost impossible to shock. She’s like an enchanting child whose sweetness leads you to believe that she’s an innocent — yet, moments later, you stumble in on her playing sex games with a neighbor boy. The boundary between the innocent and the dirty simply doesn’t exist for her. She’s socially proper and privately amoral at the same time, as though that were perfectly natural; she’s as open to the pleasure of illicit thoughts as the biggest lecher, and has a secret pride in that fact.

At one point she brings over to Stewart’s apartment a tiny suitcase and announces that she’s going to spend the weekend. When she pops the suitcase open, revealing a fluffy pile of silky and satiny nothings — you can almost smell the gentle perfume she’s sprinkled on them — she gives Stewart a softly quizzical look. It’s the slyest, most charming image of a woman (boldly and demurely, proudly yet shyly) revealing her pussy to a man that I know of.

European stars such as Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni introduced several generations of Americans to the seductiveness of the downbeat and the fatalistic. The 1960s can also boast Anna Karina and Angie Dickinson, Federico Fellini and Claude Chabrol. And then there’s 1967 and the moment near the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway realize they’re surrounded by the law; they manage to give each other a “you’ve been the world to me, baby” look the instant before the bullets begin to tear them apart.

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The 1970s were almost dementedly full of movie sex: 1971’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” was suffused with a sultry, opium-filled mood; the obvious and classic “Deep Throat” (1972) and “Last Tango in Paris” (1973) are a few other examples. In 1978, “Saturday Night Fever” showed how sexy working-class disco dancing could be, and how frustrated young men could get in the back seats of their cars.

Even the bad old Reagan/Bush 1980s and early 1990s yielded a generous, potent crop of erotic movies: David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” for instance, as well as Mike Figgis’ “Internal Affairs,” and Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons.”

In the Clinton years, for whatever reasons, movie eroticism has become scarce. This is a peculiar moviegoing time. There have been a few pictures that have made a point of capturing and purveying eroticism — Taylor Hackford’s “Devil’s Advocate,” for example, had a reckless, overheated extravagance (and also helped introduce two promising young blonds, Charlize Theron and Connie Nielsen). The French have come through with some movies that have a shimmer: examples include “Mon Homme,” “Un Coeur en Hiver” and “Romance.” The straight-to-video underground still delivers the occasional treat. The Italian vampire movie “Cemetery Man,” for example, is worth digging up for its trash poeticism and zanily morbid fervor.

But what’s sold to us now and praised as sophisticated often couldn’t be more anti-erotic. “American Beauty”? I appreciated the voyeurism and teen nudity, but could have done without the anti-suburbia scolding. “Boys Don’t Cry” did deliver Chloë Sevigny bare breasted and trembling for a minute or two, but made you pay a high price — you spend the entire movie dreading the final rape/beating/murder. “Exotica” was “Showgirls” for high-minded depressives. Neil LaBute’s specialty seems to be taking the joy out of everything, in a corrosive, NC-17 kind of way.

Has there been a recent movie you’ve wanted to attend primarily in the hope of encountering some intriguing eroticism? Examples such as “Eyes Wide Shut” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” — effective or not — haven’t been numerous.

Another puzzle of recent years is: Why have the movie critics been treating movie sex and eroticism so flippantly? Can eroticism really be of so little importance to them? What, for heaven’s sake, do they go to the movies for? But perhaps they really aren’t all that interested, or perhaps their editors don’t want them to go on about the subject.

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Or perhaps I’m an exception. If it weren’t for movie eroticism, I might well be an average suburbanite, and an occasional moviegoer. Because of movie eroticism, I’ve been a dedicated moviegoer for 30 years. I can enjoy an action/adventure pic, or an indie, or a comedy. OK, seldom an indie. (And, God knows, never a Chinese film.) But I’m always, always hoping to stumble across some resonant sexiness. I’m fascinated by the way certain shots and situations work, whether for me or for other people.

I’m amazed and tickled at how much mental energy I can spend wondering about such questions as, What happened to Debra Winger’s special lustiness? And what became of the inkily perverse Jenny (“Near Dark”) Wright? Ever since seeing last year’s surprise Ashley Judd hit, “Double Jeopardy,” I’ve been thinking more than anyone ought to about that movie’s couple of moments of female nudity. The picture is a suspense number for McCall’s subscribers, the equivalent of a Mary Higgins Clark novel.

Yet women generally are turned off by nudity — as a movie executive once said to me, “Men will drive 10 miles out of their way to watch a woman take her clothes off. Women are more interested in how a man wears his clothes than in how he looks without them.” So how did “Double Jeopardy” deliver some nudity without alienating the middle-class women in its audience? Does nudity become acceptable when the rest of the movie caters expertly to their preferences? Did they take it as a bit of enjoyable spiciness? I simply don’t know.

I do know that heterosexual men and boys, given a camera, will within minutes start to plot ways of shooting women getting undressed. For all the propaganda encouraging us to believe that women can look at men in the same way men eye women — of course they can, but do they in practice? — I know of only a couple of movies where a female filmmaker looks at men with this kind of insistent gusto: Leni Riefenstahl in “Olympiad” and Kathryn Bigelow in “Point Break.” My theory is that most women tend to enjoy imagining themselves as the star who reveals herself to the camera, while most men tend to enjoy imagining pointing the lens.

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Is there a better way to explain why the covers of both men’s magazines and women’s magazines so often feature beautiful women? An underseen movie that takes some of this into account is Karen Arthur’s 1987 (those ’80s!) “Lady Beware,” starring Diane Lane. A reworking of Hitchcock from a woman’s point of view, it isn’t a triumph as a thriller — have you noticed that women generally don’t show the same passion for the mechanical and the suspenseful that men often do? But it’s full of unusual moments of feminine bodily self-awareneness. The beauty, vulnerability and sensuality that Arthur and Lane put onscreen is a convincing display of female power. Why haven’t feminist movie critics made more of this film?

If I remain an eager moviegoer after all these years, it’s largely because of my pleasure in watching female performers. I sometimes fall in love with them a little; I develop imaginary relationships with them, and wonder about their careers and their acting choices. I’m exasperated by, yet fond of, the way some actresses will protect themselves in big commercial movies, yet will give their all for art. At the moment, I’m taken by (among others) Judd. I enjoy her talent, her beauty and her several personas — she’s part down-to-earth regular gal, part I’ll-do-anything starlet, part serious-artist wannabe.

In “Normal Life,” Judd played a crazy working-class woman — a frigid cock-tease — and spent a good part of the movie naked. Has her “Double Jeopardy” audience seen “Normal Life”? Unlikely. And how would they react?

I adore Joely Richardson above all current actresses, and pray for the day when the version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that she filmed under Ken Russell’s direction becomes available in the States. Until then, memories of her angular eccentricity, her wit and her flesh from “Drowning by Numbers” will have to do.

Patricia Arquette, another current favorite, didn’t get naked onscreen until Lynch’s truly awful 1997 “Lost Highway.” Was it the Lynch mystique that persuaded her? In the film’s one scene of loony genius, a thug holds a gun to Arquette’s head as she stands before a repulsive Mafia chief. Without a word, she understands what’s expected, and slowly disrobes; at first she’s fearful and resentful, then she starts liking it. The scene is like a creepy embodiment of what the director-actress or audience-actress relationship can sometimes seem to be all about, and a touching reminder of how actresses sometimes triumph over the prying eyes of the men around them, and over their own self-consciousness, too.

Arquette wore her hair blond in “Lost Highway” — do actresses feel more comfortable doing nude scenes as blonds? Do directors prefer to put blond hair on their naked actresses? Mulling over such questions, my head spins; I’m happy.

Perhaps one explanation for the current near-absence of what we might call traditional movie eroticism is the preeminence of TV, video and the Web as media forms. TV used to aspire to be like the movies. Now the effort is going in the opposite direction, into making movies more like TV, ads, rock videos and Web sites. There’s a big difference between new-media sexiness and movie eroticism.

Video tends to make everything literal and raucous. Tasty bits aren’t just brought to the surface, they’re made ultrabrite, and actively go after your nerve endings. This is sex as special effects and packaging, all tweaked and Photoshopped. It’s sex for kids, the kind of sex you run out of energy for at about the age of 30 — around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, many people lose interest in new pop music. (Has anyone yet made a movie that has intriguing sensual qualities using this new pumped-up, one-blast-after-another, nonlinear language? Some would say “Fight Club,” others have made a case for “Run Lola Run.” I’d argue for “The Matrix.” Whatever the case, there haven’t been many.)

As it’s generally used and encountered, video is either in “sell” mode (snazziness and production values = you’re being sold) or “reality” mode (no professionalism = truth), interrupted by the occasional blast of ESPN2-style nutcase edginess: ahh, “excitement!” Your nerves get a jangling, but you may wind up feeling like a figure from one of those out-of-focus, dysfunctional-life-in-the-‘burbs literary book jackets: a flattened, wispy creature romping wanly in a backyard somewhere, recalling — too late! — the bliss of not growing up.

No wonder younger people sometimes say they feel like oversated, over-focus-grouped consumers before they feel like anything else. During a water-cooler conversation with a lively young co-worker the other day, I made a passing reference to “adult pleasures.” “Such as what?” she said challengingly.

If media sexiness tends to be like a Big Gulp, movie eroticism can sometimes be like wine; it can have layers and depth. At its best, it’s about seduction and invitation, and it coaxes responses out of you, even if (occasionally) brutally. It’s almost embarrassing how basic some of the reasons for this are — so basic we often forget what they are.

For instance: Movies have beginnings and ends, while the many channels of video just go on and on. Within delimited movie space and time, structured experiences can be created that are comprehensible and discussable — you don’t need to banter with friends to get oriented, or to hold what you’re watching at a distance. Languorousness, so important to mood, takes on meaning in movies; in video it seems like an absence of pace. Just as basic is the fact that the movie image is far more detailed and denser than the video image. There’s simply more to take in — and because there is, you’re more likely to enter into its world.

The ritual of moviegoing contributes to the qualities we think of as cinematic. You go to a theater at a specific time. You haven’t just sat down with the remote. You’re in the movie’s home, not your own, and when a movie works, you rise up into it. You submit in order to discover, and the experience can be like exploring both the world and your own imagination. You’re doing this in the dark, of course, half in private and half among other people: Who needs Plato’s Retreat?

The limitations movies impose — the schedules, the frames around the image, the beginnings and endings, everything that stands between them and virtual reality — can contribute to experiences that may reach you on a deep level even when a movie isn’t very good. Exceptions do abound, but video sexiness is generally about effects (and suggests masturbation), while movie eroticism suggests a way of experiencing, and interacting with, all of life. (Is it only me or do other people sometimes feel as though they’re surrounded by only two classes of Americans these days: happy masturbators and unhappy masturbators?)

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that sex conceived of as excitement-that-aims-for-nothing-but-to-become-faster-and-noisier always lets us down. Had I been less startled, what I might have said to that young co-worker is that some adults discover a larger world of sensation when they view eroticism not as a restless search for arousal, but as a matter of sinking into the moment, whatever that happens to be, and exploring what’s there. Moviegoing can be approached in that spirit, and when it is, it can become an occasion for reverie and poetry, for lust, sadness and discovery — and for probably much else.

Let’s first clear our palates of a few common assumptions, the main one being that sex must always have to do with feeling bright, energized and cheerful — with feeling good. That’s an assumption best left to sugar addicts, Jolt fanatics, the crude and the very young.

The other is that pretension, absurdity and silliness are anti-erotic. A strength of Americans may be their lack of pretension. But rote anti-pretentiousness can cut you off from experiences you might enjoy — almost the entire French film tradition, for instance.

It may be that Americans would be better off if they were able to find pretension erotically amusing. Those French actors up there carrying on about anguish, sex and philosophy? It’s all make-believe, just light on a screen. French characters on the movie screen become what they always should have been, our playthings. What’s more absurd than what turns us on and our pursuit of that? We need to see the humor in our pursuit of erotic experience, and to learn that giddiness and sexiness can enhance each other.

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Think of the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse “Girl Hunt” dance sequence in “The Band Wagon”; it’s nothing but a stylish, swingin’ parody of Mickey Spillane novels, yet my mind has returned to it regularly and with intense erotic pleasure ever since I first saw it several decades ago. Charisse wears an impassive expression, a black Louise Brooks hairdo, and a huge, fluffy coat, which she sheds as though whisking the cover off the signature dish at Lutèce. She stands forth in a bright-green mini-dress, its skirt made of fabric slats. Each one is a frame for her life-of-their-own legs, and Astaire’s reaction to her is a witty piece of calligraphy. Then the comic tango of lust and seduction begins. The sequence might have been conceived of by the writers at Mad magazine, yet, as choreographed by Michael Kidd and shot in MGM’s best rubies-and-emeralds colors, it has its own straight-faced heat.

There are many things about movies that almost force us to take them erotically. The detail and size of the image, the proximity we feel to the performers, the intensification of the situations through dramatic means, the kinesthetics of movement and scene changes, for instance. I’ll use a couple of familiar movies for illustration, “Basic Instinct” and “Chasing Amy.” Each features a blond, lesbianism and lots of dirty talk, yet they have strikingly different feels. A sommelier might ask you to focus on a wine’s color, its nose, its palate and finish. I suggest that if you ask yourself the following questions the next time you watch a movie, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself experiencing that movie more erotically. No money-back guarantee, but you can flame me if you’re disappointed.

What is the movie’s mood or tone?

Not because there’s any right or wrong answer, but because making the effort at putting some answer, any answer, into words is a way of opening your mind to the movie — you’ll begin to mix your thoughts and responses with the matter of the movie.

“Chasing Amy” is known for its raunchy dialogue and humor, but the film’s tone is full of regret — about losing friends, about realizing that hopes and possibilities have passed you by, about what can’t be unmade and how, like it or not, you finally have to live with that. It’s an unusual mix of the touchingly melancholy and the explosively rude.

“Basic Instinct” is flamboyantly melodramatic, hard-charging and intense, “adult” in an almost comically determined way. Its world is one of fantasy, antagonism and danger. It brings together the coarse and the glamorous; it’s the movie equivalent of a leather-faced old roué who comes on too hard, yet still has a few good tricks left to peddle. It’s like supercharged porn, square yet evil.

How does the movie engage your imagination?

“Chasing Amy” relies on its offbeat setting, and on unusual types — comic book artists and Jersey semi-hipsters. Its blond embodies a flaw in the script; you never really know what she’s up to. Yet that works because you keep hoping to find out. And with her big Martina Hingis smile, her downtown jewelry, her broad, flat, Slavic-style face, she’s a whore/madonna who seems to exist only to fascinate Catholic boys, then make them feel inadequate. She’s a phantom, yet enticing.

“Basic Instinct,” on the other hand, uses voyeurism. We’re always trying to get a peek — we’re like the sweaty, overawed guys in the interrogation room who watch Sharon Stone uncross her legs. If the movie works for you, you may find that it hammers its way crudely into some of your dirtiest desires; it puts you in the position of peeping on your own fantasies. The sex shocks keep us off balance. We don’t know from moment to moment how far the movie’s going to go.

The icy, willful blond who’s probably up to no good is an image of mystery and eroticism from far back in movie history, and it was canny of writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven to use this image in a sexed-up thriller. As Verhoeven uses her, and as Stone portrays her, the Catherine Trammell character never loses her luster despite all the nudity. She’s seen with near-pornographic explicitness; we see the Stone beaver, yet she and her character remain mysterious.

This is a rare accomplishment, and it raises a question: Once everything you could ever want is not only made available but is pushed at you, how does erotic reverie flourish? It’s not just that nudity and explicit language can overwhelm reserve. It’s also a matter of what surrounds the movies today — the reports on movie grosses, the regular behind-the-scenes and how-they-did-it articles in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly and the Sunday supplements, and the confessional interviews. It’s too much. What remains to be found out?

How does the movie engage your senses?

Movies are, empirically speaking, made up only of image and sound — how absurd to talk about them engaging the other senses. Yet when, say, you eat a Moroccan dinner, it isn’t just your senses of taste, smell and touch that are tickled. In your mind, you see things (the Casbah!) and you hear things (belly-dancing music!). A note to the politically anxious: Fantasies seem to operate in terms of stereotypes and archetypes, and if they’re to be explored and enjoyed we mustn’t be too censorious.

“Chasing Amy” is full of cigarettes, beer bottles, old sofas, Army-surplus slacker clothes, Jersey parks and nothing-special chilly days. The first big emotional scene is set — movie convention! — during a rainstorm, but the argument takes place on a random industrial block, in front of a heap of stray cardboard cartons. In the midst of the film is the image of Joey Lauren Adams, her eyes and teeth wet, her face glossy with makeup and a little sweat, wearing a net shirt and smooching with a girl. She and the environment set each other off. The film’s writer/director, Kevin Smith, has sub-rudimentary camera skills, yet that works here — you fill in the camerawork yourself.

“Basic Instinct” is shot in Douglas Sirk-goes-insane colors that make you feel a prickle — hot sun on your skin, perhaps, or cocaine in your nose. The fast cars, the ice picks, the tanned flesh of Stone — it’s all luxurious to the point of repulsiveness, yet delicious, too.

What is your relationship with the performers?

Performers are nearly always the focus of our fantasies and speculations. Watching “Chasing Amy,” I find myself wondering and musing about Adams. That gesture she makes with her hands indicating fist-fucking — how did she feel doing that? Mischievous? Shy? Did the director have to overcome any resistance on her part?

Watching “Basic Instinct,” I remember that I’d been following Stone for years. I’d noticed that she’d learned something about acting since her performances in “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Irreconcilable Differences,” and that she’d developed some emotional daring. I remember too that shortly before doing “Basic Instinct” she’d done a photo spread in Playboy. Did an agent persuade her that it was now or never? Did a boyfriend? Did she decide on her own? Did she need drugs and champagne to get her through some of these scenes?

One could go on and on. And, watching a movie, one generally does. For men, speculation about actresses almost always boils down to two questions: What would she be like to fuck? And, what’s she like when she comes? But why stop there? Why not also wonder: What’s it like for her to know that so many people watching are having imaginary relationships with her? If I were her boyfriend and saw this movie, how would I feel about her performance? How would I feel about the way she has revealed herself? What kind of sex would we have after the screening?

Women’s erotic conjectures may tend to go off in other directions. I once overheard some female colleagues raving about the sexiness of the movie “Ethan Frome.” When I expressed surprise about their enthusiasm, they laughed and said, “You wouldn’t understand. It’s all about buildup.”

Such private and semiprivate speculations and fantasies are unavoidable parts of moviegoing. My feeling is that, since we’re going to have them anyway, we might as well indulge and relish them. Some filmmakers have been able to weave our thoughts and fantasies about performers into their films. The results have been such glories as “Trouble in Paradise” and “Tales of Ordinary Madness.” And “The Band Wagon,” come to think of it.

If you’ve seen “Chasing Amy” and/or “Basic Instinct,” I’m hoping that you were comparing your impressions and memories to mine. Perhaps you had a moment when you were annoyed, or pleased. Perhaps you pulled back and gave your own memories and sensations a little musing attention.

It’s a pity these moments aren’t recognized and discussed more widely, because they can mean so much. When you’re in that state, it can seem as if space is being made available inside you for savoring; it can feel as if you’ve let go the day-to-day and dropped into something more essential and succulent; it can seem as if your mental focus has melted into the object or sensation of its attention. Everything stands in high relief, and seems available in a way it doesn’t in our usual lives. These falling-into-sensation-and-feeling moments can be terribly elusive. We don’t know how or why we get there. Often when we notice them, they vanish. But you can find your way back, over and over again. You can linger, extend, explore. You can — hint, hint — have sex while in this state. You can also watch and discuss movies while in it. Movies themselves can help us find and grow familiar with these states.

I’m as annoyed by the idea that movie-watching can be an art form as by the M.F.K. Fisher argument that eating can be an art form — moviemaking and cooking, yes, but not watching or eating. Still, movie-watching can certainly become a more adventurous, mysterious thing than it usually is. If you’re so inclined, the whole world of art, movies and literature can become an erotic playground.

If you do watch most movies on videotape, may I suggest one final trick? Imagine while you’re watching a movie on TV that you’re at the movies. The screen is so tiny not because it’s in your living room or at the foot of your bed, but because you’re in the last row of a crowded theater. It’s dark, you’re beside your sweetie, and otherwise among strangers. You aren’t talking and there’s no need to wiseacre — you’ll compare impressions, crack jokes and swap confessions later, over coffee or cognac. For now, the moment is all about steeping in the mood, and about observing, now and then, the stirrings of your senses and your imagination. Not to worry: The observing won’t kill the sensations, at least not if you view sampling them as part of the moment. You’re a divided soul, you might wail. How true — yet perhaps there are better things to do with such feelings than to fight them.

As Jennifer Grey’s Baby learned in “Dirty Dancing,” it’s a lot more rewarding to enter the game than it is to stand outside and giggle helplessly.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

Biopics about Composers

moviemusic01_copying beethoven

Movie Music

By Ray Sawhill

Of all the many different film genres, the composer biopic is one of the scroungiest. The tones of these films range all over the map, from the show-bizzy extroversion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (George M. Cohan) to the hambone fruitiness of “Two Loves Had I …Puccini” to the many-layered high intellectualism of “Harvest of Sorrow” (Rachmaninoff and exile).

Despite this, one of the most remarkable aspects of the genre is how specific the expectations that we bring to these films are. Will the composer’s first professional triumph happen before or after he finds true love? And when will his long-suffering Significant Other finally lace into the composer for caring more about his music than he does about, y’know, people?

But perhaps the first question that tends to arise when we slip one of these films into the DVD player is the matter of factual accuracy. Simple moviegoing experience suggests that being “respectful of the facts” can sometimes translate into soporific viewing, while “completely untrustworthy” might very well go hand in hand with “devilishly entertaining.”

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From “Night and Day”

This is a truism well illustrated by Hollywood’s two biopics about Cole Porter. 1946’s “Night and Day” is a glossy lie that features Cary Grant at his heartiest and most hetero-seeming, while the 2004 “De-Lovely” is admirably true to the gay realities of Porter’s life. Yet “Night and Day” is a confident and enjoyable Technicolor fantasy, while “De-Lovely” is a droopy misfire.

It also needs to be said that there’s more than one way to deliver solid facts. George MacDonald Fraser makes an important point in “The Hollywood History of the World”: however untrustworthy the narratives they tell often are, history-based films nearly always supply visuals that are informative and well researched. If our modern minds are well stocked with images of what the Strauss family’s Vienna looked like and how people dressed when attending an opening at La Scala, it’s because moviemakers have created these pictures for us. Visuals are facts, too.

As with the movies of any genre, a big part of the fun of watching composer biopics is taking note of how the filmmakers are playing the genre’s game. If a romantic comedy needs to give its “meet cute” plot-point some charm, and if a gangster movie needs to make something tense out of the moment when the ambitious anti-hero declares his independence from his mentor, composer biopics need to address their own set of requirements. Here are some of them:

What is the container for the film’s incidents going to be?

Most lives don’t have dramatic arcs built into them, after all, and this is perhaps especially the case with the lives of creative types who spend a lot of time alone. To engage us and deliver some rounded-off satisfaction, feature-length biopics will almost always do some intensifying and heightening. It has to be said that, in this area, filmmakers in the field of composer biopics could show a little more invention than they often do. From “Mahler” to “The Double Life of Franz Schubert,” biopics of classical composers too often begin and end with the composer ill or dying and reviewing the events of his life.

To what extent should the filmmakers connect the composer’s creations with the events of his life?

It would be silly to pretend that unfortunate life-episodes always result in sad music, or that upbeat times always find expression in happy compositions. Yet if no connection can be made at all between a composer’s life-events and his music, what’s the point of the picture? Perhaps this conundrum helps explain why we haven’t yet seen a notable biopic about that unstoppable workhorse Haydn. Cheerful or gloomy, he seldom failed to crank out his expected allotment of music. Where’s the drama in that?

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From “Amadeus”

How to people the supporting cast?

Mothers, lovers, rivals and managers turn up with regularity, fathers and children rather less often. An admirer or rival can be useful as a point of entry for the audience. “Amadeus” — nothing if not an effective piece of audience engineering — provides the classic example of this, with Salieri (in real life an excellent and successful composer) used as a striving nothing for us fellow nothings to identify with as we gaze upon the bewildering wonder that is Mozart. “I am the patron saint of mediocrity!” Salieri cries, in case we’re so mediocre that we’ve failed to grasp the role he’s been assigned in the drama.

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From “Immortal Beloved”

How to portray the creative process?

This question cuts to the heart of the genre. We don’t generally explore biographies of creative people simply because we’re curious about their lives; we’re often hoping to cozy up to Creativity itself. Films about Beethoven are especially frank about this motivation: getting to know Beethoven is portrayed as getting closer to God. Bernard Rose lays the divinity stuff on very thick in his Kubrick-influenced (and sexily enjoyable) 1994 “Immortal Beloved.” Lightning flashes, revulsions and raptures, funny shivers felt by female fans … God in all his incomprehensibility is manifesting Himself through the music of this cloddish, inspired peasant.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the genre is the way these films so often make a point of distinguishing between music in the abstract and popular tune-making — and do so not as a practical matter but as a big deal. Music in the abstract is inevitably understood to involve suffering, and to represent a Statement About Life. As a striking recent Norwegian biopic asks straight out in its title: “Edvard Grieg: What Price Immortality?” Audience-pleasing, by contrast, is regularly presented as mere entertainment, and as shoddy and transient. In a 1972 British miniseries about the Strauss family, even the busy, prolific and rich Johann Jr. finds time to mope about his lack of gravitas and dignity. “I sometimes wonder what I might have made of my talents had the music not come so easily,” he confides morosely to a visiting Brahms, who receives this confession with a skeptical, indeed disbelieving, look.

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From “A Song to Remember”

Just as marked in the genre is the near-omnipresence of the Romantic point of view. You almost never get away from it — and, like the art-versus-entertainment theme, it can get to be a bit much. Romantic myths are of course highly picturesque and dramatic; they also have their practical uses. In his book “Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography” (2005), John C. Tibbetts confesses that what cemented his interest in classical music as a boy was a moment in the colorful Chopin biopic “A Song to Remember.” The tubercular Chopin hunches over the piano and gives a cough. “A spot of blood spatters onto the keyboard” — and with that image, another music fan was born. It’s just that one can tire of the whole Genius/Divinity/Immortali­ty value-set. More power, then, to directors Straub and Huillet for their resolutely dispassionate and avant-garde “Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach,” with Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian, piously devoting himself to the daily grind of his musical duties. But we could also use a few mainstream films that spotlight Classical, Baroque or folk points of view.

Rather surprisingly, the genre has a couple of specialists. The form’s grand old man is British director Ken Russell. He has a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance that sometimes obscures some major virtues: no matter how controversial they often are, all of his composer biopics are informed by a genuine understanding of music, as well as by a sympathetic (if often bitchy) appreciation of the souls of artists.

My favorite of Russell’s films is an uncharacteristically small and sober early example — a seventy-three-minute-long TV drama about Frederick Delius called “Song of Summer” (available as disc 3 of the Ken Russell at the BBC DVD package). Russell wrote the script in collaboration with Eric Fenby, who as a young man had worked as Delius’s amanuensis, and it’s an honest, indeed sometimes painful, portrayal of both a difficult character — Delius was far from the most lovable of men — and the heartbreaks and rewards of a creative life. A very moving, if bittersweet, classic, the film also addresses very directly one of the most basic of questions that making a biopic raises: do you try to cover the entirety of your subject’s life or try to nail his or her character by focusing on one well-defined episode? By dealing only with Fenby’s time with Delius, “Song of Summer” demonstrates how much can be extracted from the more modest approach.

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From “The Music Lovers”

Of Russell’s big-budget, sweeping and sensationalistic extravaganzas, the most successful is “The Music Lovers,” a 1970 feature about Tchaikovsky. It’s a gossipy and catty bash that’s full of the bursting-out-of-the-closet spirits of the ’70s. Where earlier film treatments of the Tchaikovsky story had sidestepped the question of the composer’s sexuality and instability, Russell and his star, Richard Chamberlain, dive right in. They give us a Tchaikovsky who’s a queeny hysteric, a morally reprehensible narcissist and a sponge. Right from the film’s first scene — an all-male romp in the snow — this Piotr is a lusty but fragile, hyper-gifted but overeager, anxiety-ridden train wreck waiting to happen.

Much of the film concerns his mad attempt to construct a heterosexual life for himself. These passages are harsh, ungenerous and probably unfair, but they’re also intense, funny and very entertaining. Antonina Miliukova, the woman who married Tchaikovsky, is portrayed as a money-hungry liar and climber with less than no interest in music. Their disastrous honeymoon is one of movie history’s more memorable nightmare sequences. When Antonina (Glenda Jackson) bares first her breasts and then her pubic hair to Piotr in an attempt to stir his lust, the poor man’s horror merges with the rocking of the train compartment the newlyweds are sharing into a gaudy image of erotic nausea. Russell delivers an unexpectedly vivid character in Antonina’s mother, wickedly conceived of as a Dickensian cockney so amoral that she cheerfully pimps out her own daughter. And the client roster the women service! “I’m quite famous, you know,” Antonina murmurs as one man nuzzles her neck. “Nearly as famous as you are, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.” Not long after, Mom ushers in a horny Alexander Borodin.

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From “Lisztomania”

Russell went even farther with his campier instincts in his ultra-flamboyant, notorious 1975 “Lisztomania,” which proposes Liszt as a bare-chested glitter-rock icon. I didn’t enjoy it as much as “The Music Lovers,” but it’s certainly worth searching out. Full of nudity, disco-ready renditions of Liszt’s music and S&M fantasy sequences, the film comes — for better and worse — as close to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as any composer-biopic ever has. It’s also true to the general outlines of Liszt’s life, as well as amazingly shrewd about the nature of tabloid stardom.

moviemusic08_england my england

The genre’s other specialist is another Englishman, the less well-known Tony Palmer. Palmer has his own kind of cinematic daring, and he has made as many pictures about composers as Ken Russell has. But he’s a far more intellectual figure; a typical Palmer film is a mélange of staged material, research scraps and New York Review of Books-style musings. Though his work is so reflective that it often puts me right to sleep, it still deserves to be sampled. My suggestion is to start with either “Testimony,” his engrossing and complex treatment of Shostakovich’s battles with Stalin, or “England, My England,” his movie about Henry Purcell. I liked the latter film somewhat better. It makes the Restoration era visually unforgettable; it portrays the composer as a robust and politically capable man of his era; and it takes the trouble to clearly lay out the options (court, church, theater) that a professional composer had at that time and in that place. Purcell’s lovely, proud music — supervised here by John Eliot Gardiner — is an ear-clearing pleasure.

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From “Impromptu”

Of the genre’s other major pleasures, let me urge you not to overlook:

  • James Lapine and Sarah Kernochan’s 1991 “Impromptu,” a lighthearted, poignant caprice about the French novelist George Sand’s infatuation with Chopin. Judy Davis is at her comically overdramatic best as the scandal-courting Sand.
  • “Elgar’sTenth Muse,” a beautifully sad two-hander about an infatuation between the elderly composer and a young violinist. James Fox and Selma Alispahic portray the conflicts between reserve and yearning, age and youth touchingly and trenchantly.
  • Renato Castellani’s eleven-hour (or eight-hour, depending on the version you get hold of) long Italian production “The Life of Verdi.” Beautifully mounted and shot, as solid and responsible as any birth-to-death biography, it features a many-sided and fully felt portrayal of Verdi by English actor Ronald Pickup, and vocal performances by Callas, Nilsson and Pavarotti. One lesson to be learned from this beauty: if you’re going to take the all-inclusive approach to telling a composer’s life, it’s perhaps best to do it at the length of a miniseries.
  • Abel Gance’s 1937 “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.” Yet another variant on the Immortal Beloved theme, this stirring absurdity is enjoyable for its unbridled myth-making. Gance — famous for his barn-burning silent film “Napoleon” — delivers a virtuoso directorial performance. The film is full of poetic closeups and brilliant editing flurries; the legendary French actor Harry Baur gives a towering performance; and the passages conveying the composer’s growing deafness are as heartbreaking as can be.
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From “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven”

But why talk so much about quality? Let’s admit flat-out that it’s impossible to sustain an interest in any movie genre if you haven’t learned how to relish its stinkers too. God knows that the composer-biopic genre has delivered no shortage of these. Two casting goofs to be marveled at:

  • The arch and languorous Dirk Bogarde was a peculiar choice to play that outgoing whirlwind Liszt in 1960’s “Song Without End.” Bogarde spends the film looking as if he’d rather be making elegantly weary, poisonous remarks about some Countess’s fashion choices than delivering himself body and soul to his hordes of sweaty and salivating lady-fans.
  • What was Agnieszka Holland thinking when she chose Ed Harris to star in her film “Copying Beethoven”? God knows you can’t criticize Harris for failing to give the role his all — but he is what he is, and this is surely the only Beethoven in movie history who comes across like a beer-swigging, iron-pumping ol’ Austin cowboy-hippie.

A special award for all-around badness beyond the call of duty has to be reserved for “Song of Norway,” a 1970 tribute to the life of Grieg made in the dirndls-and-clog-dancing style of “The Sound of Music.” This isn’t just the worst composer-biopic of all time, it’s one of the most terrifyingly wholesome movies ever made. With Grieg’s not-very-catchy songs presented as though he intended them to be sunny Broadway showstoppers, and featuring innumerable montages of buttercups, seagulls and waterfalls, “Song of Norway” may qualify both as essential Bad Movie viewing and as an all-time camp classic. May it be issued on DVD soon.

All of these movies deliver their share of pleasures, whether of the intended or unintended sort, and I look forward to many further entries in the field. There’s so much material yet to be explored, after all. William Byrd? Why not? Let’s hope someone takes on Leiber and Stoller. And is anyone else as eager as I am for “The Anton Webern Story”?

©2009 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

“Disclosure,” directed by Barry Levinson

disclosure

By Ray Sawhill

“Disclosure,” from Michael Crichton’s potboiler, is a facsimile of an absorbing movie. It’s a humanoid with a heart of silicon that has been sheathed alluringly and made to perform some fluid dance steps. The crisis-in-the-workplace atmosphere is what’s most original about the movie. You’re drawn to notice the way a secretary avoids her boss’s eyes when she knows something she doesn’t want to tell him. You wonder what that group down by the elevator could have been meeting about at this time of day.

The director, Barry Levinson, has fitted the film out with an oil-rubbed, yuppie opulence — weathered wood and time-worn brick, lush Pacific Northwest greenery. Ennio Morricone’s score supplies a suave version of old-fashioned movie-music warmth and grandeur. “Disclosure” may be for audiences that ask only for something a little more movielike — bigger, more adult — than the TV they usually watch. But it’s a handsome, professional job.

Demi Moore is Meredith, a lustrous package of calves, thighs, greed and cleavage, wrapped in a power suit. Michael Douglas is Tom, a roll-up-your-sleeves family man. Both are employees of a Seattle computer firm. They had an affair back when Tom was single; now she gets the promotion he was hoping for, and she becomes his boss. She invites him to a meeting in her new office. “You’ve kept in good shape, Tom,” she says with throaty appreciation; then she comes on to him mercilessly. From there on out, it’s dueling accusations, and Tom’s struggle to keep his job and protect his family. No, not just that, but to establish the truth, goddammit.

We know Tom deserves his righteousness because we’re shown his kids, his matronly wife, and his iconic home: fireplace, cushions, warm lights, comforters. We know Meredith is evil because she works out on a Stairmaster, and because we never see her at home. All she has in her fridge, we’re told, is an orange and some champagne.

The company’s building (designed by Neil Spisak) is the film’s central showpiece and metaphor. It’s a matter of PC networks, black steel and leather, slipped into an arches-and-fluted-columns, renovated industrial space, with an atrium that’s like a small opera hall. It’s a stylish beehive, a pull-off-your-tie workplace. It’s also sliced up by panels of glass, and it’s unnervingly well-wired — i.e., watch your back. The audience murmurs when Tom starts receiving mysterious e-mails, and when, after a career of keeping his office open, he begins swinging his glass door shut.

Friends tell me they enjoy Crichton’s overcaffeinated-but-not-too-gonzo pacing, and the enthusiasm in the press for his current TV series, “ER,” has focused on its pace. “It’s an adrenaline rush of velocity, trauma, pathos and heroism,” wrote Rick Marin in Newsweek. “It’s like channel surfing without having to hit the remote.”

Information overload isn’t my idea of entertainment — I get enough of it at work — but I also have other problems with Crichton. He has zero sensuality and no descriptive powers. He has a way with pop hooks, but the novels seem to consist of nothing but research, coincidences, and downtime. In his novel “Congo,” the loopiest of the bunch (to be released in movie form this summer), he piles on the jaw-droppers — he subjects his jungle-explorer heroes to a political revolution, cannibals, killer gorillas, angry hippos, and a volcano that’s ready to blow. It’s a high-tech “Tarzan,” minus campiness and sexiness.

A mixture of technocrat and Dr. Frankenstein, Crichton projects the mechanical onto the organic; he’s fascinated by people hooked up to life-support systems. Where does the person end and the machine begin, and vice versa? If he has a theme, that’s it. The central image of his work is an ID card being run through a slot, and providing ingress to a fancy lab.

I’ve sped through a number of his books, but the only two I’ve sped through happily are the most recent, “Rising Sun” and “Disclosure.” In them he’s gone from futuristic cautionary claptrap to torn-from-the-headlines cautionary claptrap, and he’s become an angry man, an op-ed novelist. The topicality and fire give filmmakers something to contend with. The director of “Rising Sun,” Philip Kaufman, did a lot of script tweaking and creative casting, and made a film that was a hip, off-hand comedy about multiculturalism, as well as an essay about the dissolution of the movie image.

Barry Levinson works more broadly, and in square, showbusiness terms; his work has gone into making things smooth and acceptable. It’s a creamy example of contemporary Hollywood retrofitting. Levinson and his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, have made the film more balanced than the book. In the novel, for instance, Tom’s wife is a feminist shrew who leaves town with the kids for the duration of the brouhaha; in the movie she sticks around to witness, suffer, and be loyal.

But, like Kaufman, Levinson is also writing an essay, in his case about what movies have become. It’s a joke about how work-obsessed the country is that, as for the homey but high-tech Seattle, all we get — aside from some cityscapes and a little time on the ferries — is a single sequence. The company’s CEO (Donald Sutherland) is driving Douglas to a hearing, and is trying to con him into a deal. We see the city reflected in the car’s windows.

Michael Douglas’ peevishness and flabby sarcasm don’t put off the audience. Moore’s lack of stature and tenacity don’t either. You could criticize the film by saying that no sparks fly between Douglas and Moore, even in their operatic near-coitus scene, but Douglas doesn’t lose face playing the anguished virgin. A man who waits until after the cock-sucking and panty-ripping to pull himself away from a woman should be a joke, and some members of the audience do giggle. But they don’t give up on the film. Moore and Douglas have been in hits and on the covers of magazines, thus they’re stars, and thus they have sex appeal.

Levinson seems aware that Douglas and Moore are simulacra. (Most of the rest of the cast is loose and funny.) They’re what we build films around today, he’s saying, as we build films around Crichton’s flow-chart plots. The filmmaker’s role is to customize these elements to the audience’s preference, to dress the robot. (In fact, you read Moore’s character by her clothes: is it charcoal miniskirts and stiletto heels today, or a severe pantsuit?) Levinson is half going along with this, and half taking note of it.

It’s heartening that almost no one in the press has gotten worked up about the reversal on the usual sex-harassment pattern. No one except The New York Times’ Caryn (Dial-a-Theme-Piece) James, that is. She argues that the film unconsciously expresses men’s fear of powerful women, and she includes the inevitable reference to Anita Hill. Her editors obligingly ran a photo of Hill taking the oath.

It’s one of the funnier assumptions many writers on pop culture make, that a (for instance) committee-created artifact costing tens of millions of dollars is likely to express much of anything unconsciously. The fact is that no one leaves the theater after “Disclosure” discussing, or arguing about, sexual harassment. (What they talk about is how sweaty the “C’mon, let’s do it!” “No, I mustn’t!” scene is.) Women in the audience have no trouble hissing Meredith, Demi Moore’s character. You’d think Caryn James would be happy that it’s now OK for a woman to be the powerful villain. But then, Caryn James — quick to use feminist ideology as a substitute for thinking and responding — is the Meredith of film reviewers.

When, in earlier movies, the hero entered deeper realms — entrails — in search of truth, he usually found himself in caves, basements, abandoned factories, a sewer system. Here, he enters a virtual-reality database. The populist feelings the movie targets concern jobs, computers and bosses — especially anger at the way jobs are taking up more of our lives, yet are becoming more unstable. The film’s glamour and suspense have to do with our sense that we’re sacrificing our time and our personalities to the exciting, mysterious microchip god.

Like “Fatal Attraction,” “Disclosure” does one of those things pop movies are supposed to do, but do rarely, which is give us something recognizable that we don’t get from more serious work. In “Fatal Attraction,” it was the archetype of the dangerously-crazy, 45ish, unattached career woman. In “Disclosure,” it’s a sense of the way the boundaries between our personal lives and our jobs are eroding, and how much we resent that. The film’s limitation is that Tom, the hands-on guy we identify with, is involved in making computers, and there’s no irony about his complicity in making machines that will distance us from direct experience yet one more step.

Meredith, alluring and ruthless, yet empty, is one of those automatons Crichton finds sexy yet warns us against. If Crichton were an artist rather than a moralist-entertainer, he’d admit that Meredith isn’t just his enemy — she’s also his muse.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Death Becomes Her,” directed by Robert Zemeckis

death becomes her

By Ray Sawhill

Meryl Streep’s performance in Robert Zemeckis’ new movie “Death Becomes Her” doesn’t wipe out memories of the hours of classy boredom she’s inflicted — instead, it makes amusing use of them. As a dragon-lady star of stage and screen, Streep scrawls nasty things on “Meryl Streep,” the A-student. (In all fairness, it must be admitted that for several pictures — “She-Devil,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Defending Your Life” — she has been trying to subvert her image.) An immaculate performer, she doesn’t have the messiness or the subterranean qualities that true popular stars have. Here, her performance is like a Mad magazine parody of a Streep performance, only she’s giving it herself — and she has edge and dirt. You can finally see what people who saw her on stage have always said they saw — a sense of fun. She may be constitutionally incapable of cutting loose; even her yowls and hisses are impeccably modulated. But her control is part of the joke, and she seems wise to it.

“Death Becomes Her” is a striking horror comedy about glamour and the desire for eternal youth — an enjoyably malicious Hollywood act of self-desecration. Streep is the aging star; Goldie Hawn is the dormouse best friend, whose fiancés Streep keeps stealing. They play female drag queens, scrapping to the death over a guy who isn’t worth it (and who knows he isn’t worth it) — a plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis. Isabella Rossellini, in a low-slung sarong and Salomé necklaces, is a siren with an elixir that defies time and aging. Her presence, with its echoes of cosmetic ads and of her mother, kicks the movie into fantasyland.

The screenwriters, David Koepp and Martin Donovan, have described their script as “Night of the Living Dead as Noel Coward would have done it” — it’s pure camp ghoulishness and bitchiness. Robert Zemeckis’ direction is all boyish exuberance and technological hi-jinks. Zemeckis, who is known for his mock-heroic, Moebius-strip action comedies such as “Used Cars” and the “Back to the Future” series, goes for debonair comic poise. But the film still has its rambunctiousness — it’s like an Ealing comedy as the young Steven Spielberg might have directed it.

As a failure who’s out of his league, half-boozed and skidding around corners, Willis doesn’t just play against type. He creates a convincingly small man with ordinary failings and wholesome goals; he’d like to live out a Capra film but he’s caught up in a Puccini opera. Goldie’s a joy in her scenes with Meryl when they’ve made up after their feuds — they’re girls together again, finishing each other’s sentences. And when Goldie’s weight balloons in misery — itself a joke on the actress’s obvious fanaticism about her figure — she seems inspired. If she’s not as successful in her other scenes, this isn’t just because her own features have clearly gotten some surgical tune-ups but because she hasn’t figured out a Phyllis Diller-like way of acknowledging and enjoying the improvement. On some level she’s still hoping we won’t notice.

Zemeckis plays with elements straight out of horror films: turrets, mirrors, shadows, fireplaces, arches, thunder and lightning. It’s “Kane” and it’s “Frankenstein,” with the iconography used not for depth and resonance (however pseudo), but cartoonishly. (And the special effects are used for L.A.-gothic shivers.) Zemeckis, the misanthropic puppet-master — the filmmaker as mad-scientist/cartoonist — is too cold-hearted to achieve beauty, but he gives the film a spooky, layered, visual splendiferousness. He wraps the action in oversized marble staircases and columns that are a parody of Hollywood postmodern/baronial luxe. They’re meant to contrast with the characters’ pettiness and narcissism. This epic décor is a joke about how the glamour factory is also a horror factory where people try to turn themselves into monuments to themselves. The composer Alan Silvestri partners Zemeckis, heightening the already-overdone Hollywood thing and making it even more absurdly grand.

Zemeckis has the soul of a mid-American media-junkie kid. He’s frankly in love with speed and cheapness, over-the-top-ness, camera hysteria, genre clichés — with the vulgarity of film, and with the ways movies can overstimulate us. His style expresses the uncontrollable enthusiasm of a small boy turned on by the huge movie image and engulfing music.

But the film’s combination of wit and physicality unnerves some people, as though you ought to be allowed only one or the other. These people find Zemeckis’ perversity and excitement an assault; they want to be asked to care for the characters on screen. Zemeckis never asks you to believe in what he’s showing you; in his films, human values exist only to be mocked.

Zemeckis excites us, then needles our responsiveness to the movie image — not for an art effect, but strictly for our entertainment. He’s a companionable sadist. Like Joe Dante and Brian De Palma, Zemeckis can seem crude, dumb and childish to Europeans, and to people who cling to European-style notions about art and seriousness. He’s the opposite of an art movie-maker; the tradition he’s working in is of overbright commercial entertainment. Yet in “Used Cars” and “Death Becomes Her,” he provokes some of the same responses Buñuel sometimes did. (It’s another sign of how well-digested “revolutionary” as an aesthetic criterion has become that people who have learned to appreciate surrealism and to talk with approval of its revolutionary intent get riled by “Death Becomes Her.”)

Zemeckis gives viewers no moral vision to hang onto; putting over his cartoon effects is his only morality. Streep’s noggin gets bopped and her neck breaks and hinges over backwards, leaving her head hanging upside down between her shoulder blades. Goldie Hawn rises from being shot, angry as hell and with a hole a foot wide in her gut. It’s cheerfully gruesome and macabre — pop Buñuel.

“Death Becomes Her” is such a rowdy hunk of polished malevolence that it made American media people fret and freak when it was released this summer. It’s a kick watching the hypersensitivities erupt — adults grow touchy about the things they threw darts at as kids. Variety’s scorecard of critics’ reactions showed 14 negative and only five positive reviews. David Denby proclaimed from on high, or least in New York magazine, that it was all he could do to refrain from calling the film the worst big-budget movie he’d ever seen: “anxiety, loathing and self-hatred gush from its pores,” he thundered. (When evil needs crushing Denby’s your man.) Even the people who devised the publicity campaign felt it necessary for the ads to spell out that the film is a black comedy.

Perhaps just raising the topic of women and aging is enough to put some people in the mood not to laugh, and to make them find a film cruel to its women characters. It’s probably no use pointing out that the film is cruel to everyone, and that’s the fun — pleasure in amoral vindictiveness is not the kind of fun these people want from a movie. Of course Zemeckis sees his women as monsters. But he’s also tickled by their overblown crass vitality and their cut-throat determination to have things their way. The plastic surgeon, who wants to live out a normal lifespan and redeem himself with humane works, is cackled at. He’s a sucker, a softie who wants to do good — he’s like the people in the audience who are horrified by the film.

Zemeckis apparently lacks the desire to do anything elevated in tone. (He’s an anti-do-gooder.) But it may be that his mean-spiritedness is what gives him staying power and keeps his work enjoyable. He has made a few films some of us have regarded as duds (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future II”); he has asked us to care about his characters a few times (“Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future”); and this film has some glitches of logic. But throughout the whole of his career (it began in 1978 with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), he has never once romanticized his feelings, not even his feelings about movies.

Cheerfully lowbrow, Zemeckis’ pictures can be wonderfully complicated and suggestive. “Death Becomes Her” may get you thinking about how the overlapping themes of time-travel and of bringing the dead back to life are among the most potent themes of pop movies. And, like all his films, it’s full of screens, reflections, frames and projections. You could set a team of grad students to work on such topics as “Zemeckis’ use of blue-screen effects,” or “the foreground/background joke,” or “contraptions, toys and models as metaphors for the filmmaking process,” or “old movie cannibalization and the new movie image,” and keep them busy for years. But Zemeckis doesn’t get poetic; he gets the giggles. His hall of mirrors is located at the suburban multiplex.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Misson to Mars,” directed by Brian De Palma

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Space Rhapsody

By Ray Sawhill

Last Saturday, after a week of media-free living in Mexico, my wife and I walked into a San Diego movie theater, where we watched a new science fiction picture in the company of a modest crowd. At first I was intrigued by its quiet tone. Some awkward moments made me worry that the film might lose its audience, but the crowd remained attentive. Then some passages of extraordinary beauty and daring took me another step in. By the film’s end I was quite moved. I spent the rest of the evening happily babbling about what the movie had made me feel and think.

The movie was Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” and only when we arrived in New York and I tuned back into the media did I learn what readers who follow the press’s coverage of movies already know — that “Mission to Mars” got the year’s worst reviews, a spanking almost as severe as that received by an earlier De Palma film, “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Friends told me of press screenings where viewers jeered the film, and after a first weekend of strong business, audiences for the film are growing sparse. The reviewers’ criticisms? The movie is slow, it’s unconvincing, it’s preposterous, it’s over-solemn. Rumor has it that De Palma was so humiliated by his notices that he canceled all his publicity dates after the reviews came out. “Mission to Mars,” the world seems to have concluded, just doesn’t work.

Beg to differ: it sure worked for me. I’d like to suggest that it might work for some other viewers too — at least if you don’t go to it expecting a big corporate space jam. Instead, it’s introverted and reflective, less a conventional clash-of-conflicting-desires drama than a mournful, sweet ballad on the themes of fate, adventure, and near misses. It’s narrative poetry in the guise of an outer-space adventure — not such a strange combination, if you think of something like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

It has to be admitted that De Palma’s movies are a special case. He has never had much gift for conventional persuasiveness. The acting in his movies can look college-production awkward, and, although he has featured such actors as Robert De Niro and John Travolta early in their careers, he sometimes makes bumbling casting mistakes. (Here, Armin Muehler-Stahl is as heavy-spirited and hammy as ever.) De Palma has always struck me as a born avant-gardist, a Donald Barthelme or Godard type who has applied himself conscientiously to the making of conventional pop movies. Perhaps he appeals most to people for whom art is a game anyway, and who don’t need a lot of persuading in order to join in.

For those who do find his wavelength, “Mission to Mars” offers a jaunty and gallant Tim Robbins; Don Cheadle doing a good job of suggesting mental horsepower and technical expertise; and a real find in Connie Nielsen, a poised Swedish beauty who suggests Isabella Rossellini with a couple of advanced degrees. There are some beautifully done stretches where De Palma takes you inside the kinds of mental states you might experience during moments of panic, as well as unusual moments when you’re drawn into a character’s cerebrations. Gary Sinise, playing a hurtin’ astronaut who feels he has nothing to lose, may not be the ideal actor for this role — he’s gloomy where he needs to be warm — but he comes through at his best here. The movie also offers some silent-movie style visual poetry, corny, obvious images that are transcended by feeling and audacity.

It also offers genuine thought and reflection — and not the usual art-and-entertainment-world, gender/power/class/race crapola. De Palma is genuinely a science-idea-driven filmmaker. When I interviewed him some years ago, I found him guarded and perverse. Then I ventured the thought that I was convinced his thriller “The Fury” — like “Mission to Mars,” occasionally preposterous on the surface but brilliant underneath — was really all about cybernetics (a science that studies feedback and control, and that has been of intense interest to people in computers and neuroscience), and riffed on how the film’s themes, organization and staging suggested circuitry and feedback loops of both the electronic and organic type.

He brightened up and told me he’d written a thesis in college on cybernetics, and from then on the interview went swimmingly. (The Times the other day ran a story about some scientists who have proposed that a meteorite shower millions of years ago perhaps seeded the earth — an idea not far from one of the major ideas in the film.) “Mission to Mars” could be said to be about the human cost of our involvement in our ideas and adventures, and about how that cost makes us ask ourselves some of the big questions: Why, for instance, are we forever getting ourselves into these predicaments? And what are the sources of our drives?

Here are some tips about what to watch for in the film. Look for circles and spirals, the way circles are always morphing into spirals, and the ways De Palma associates these shapes with dance and rhythm: the pulsing double helixes, the twister that swallows the crew in the first act, the way blood and soda spiral around in weightlessness — images that made me, for one, gasp at their beauty. Even the film’s telescoping narrative suggests a spiral — it begins in great circling camera moves set to swirling Louisiana music, moves through several apparent protagonists, and ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.

Watch for the use of toys, models and rehearsals. An early emergency occurs when a micrometeorite breaks through a touch-screen the astronauts are using to prepare for dealing with emergencies. Suddenly they’re contending with an emergency they had no way of anticipating.

The film begins with a visual joke — a rocket blastoff that turns out to be a toy rocket. By the final blastoff, real lives are at stake. De Palma is talking about the way we seem to be moving from an industrial culture that demands certitude and explanation to an information culture, where everything is a matter of probability and we try to comprehend the world by making models of it. Kubrick, our only other truly intellectual feature-filmmaker, got the respect for his brains (even for “Eyes Wide Shut” !) that De Palma has never gotten — perhaps because the later Kubrick always maintained a magisterial, Euro-serious manner. De Palma is more American and boyish; he at least tries to deliver the pop goods.

You’ve never seen a movie where so much of it is upside down, circular, or rotating. De Palma swoops in, right through windows and other barriers, on his space-suited characters as they float about, or walk around in circles. He’s suggesting the fun and fact of weightlessness, of course, but also the giddiness of that domain we’re all getting to know called cyberspace, and perhaps the experience of thought itself. Watch also for the way the number three keeps recurring, and let yourself play with its resonances and suggestions: mother/father/child, the three acts of conventional drama, the three main parts of the human body, the three orders of classical architecture. The Christian Trinity, also: De Palma makes a point of always having someone say, when experiencing terror or surprise, “Jesus,” or “My God.”

There’s a real vision here — of life as a game that, whether we want it to or not, will always get serious on us; an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together; of art and religion as the outs that our fate occasionally permits us. And it’s a vision of the place of ideas and belief in our lives. The film might be said to be a meditation on origins and destinies, couplehood and death, and the fate of pictorial storytelling in the age of the computer — motifs and themes that are braided through the film with a complexity that suggests two great late Chris Marker films, “Sans Soleil” and “The Last Bolshevik.”

Why did the press come down so heavily on “Mission to Mars”? On a surface level, the film certainly isn’t as convincing or dynamic as it perhaps ought to be. But there’s plenty of high-quality urgent realism to be had these days — “Law and Order,” for instance, is on TV nearly every night. Why insist on it from every work of dramatic entertainment? Some reviewers complained that when emergencies occurred, the astronauts remained too poker-faced. But many people enter a deliberate, calm state during emergencies. Do we really need the usual flashing red lights, and extras rushing about as though supplying background action for “E.R.”? The film is certainly unusual — internalized, yet played out as spectacle. But at least some reviewers are familiar with the likes of Tarkovsky’s legendary “Solaris,” the winner of no one’s awards for plausibility or peppy editing. And is the film’s much-ridiculed dialog really worse than the dialog in “2001” or “Aliens”? Really? The film was even mocked for its space creature — but she struck me as a witty fusion of the Roswell alien and a Cambodian Buddha, along with suggestions of E.T.; in a nice touch, her frog eyes echo Sinise’s.

Is it unfair of me to wonder aloud whether, at a time when ironic or edgy media gloating is the preferred tone, the film’s combination of intellectuality and emotional straightforwardness was hard for reviewers to process? But perhaps they really just didn’t enjoy the film. Too bad — there’s much there to love. Here’s my tip for those who know and respond to some of De Palma’s work: “Mission to Mars” is one of his tender, personal films, like “Blow Out” and “Casualties of War.” For those who have never tuned in to his movies, this isn’t the one that will win you over, though I don’t think even on a surface level it’s as bad as it’s been made out to be.

For everyone else: Why not try “Mission to Mars”? If you don’t mind forgiving some surface gaffes and letting the film’s deeper structures go to work on you, you might find yourself enjoying some unusual visions. Late in the film, Sinise is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid. In a panic, he holds his breath until he can’t hold it anymore. The air finally bursts out of him — but then he finds he can get oxygen from the fluid. Is he a baby in a womb or a living exhibit? Is he dying or in ecstasy? In any case, this questing, melancholy searcher is finally going home. “Mission to Mars” is a nerd’s rhapsody.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“The Black Stallion,” directed by Carroll Ballard

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Taking the Plunge

By Ray Sawhill

The opening titles of Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion,” in a cursive script that suggests Islamic calligraphy, appear over what seem to be sand dunes. The image is harsh yet jewel-like. A wind whips the sand, reshaping it, and a fierce golden light illuminates it. We register that the sand grains are big — that these are miniature dunes. As the sand is moved away, we see what it has been burying: a small, darkened-bronze horse that has the look of art from ancient Mediterranean cultures, from what we tend to picture as the cradle of civilization. The sculpture is realistic and not-realistic; it’s like Egyptian hieroglyphics, a symbol that happens (as if coincidentally) to look like what it symbolizes. Ballard’s film is based on the “Black Stallion” series of novels by Walter Farley; the script is credited to Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William Witliff. In the film, erotic nature poetry pours through the framework of a children’s story.

Sponsored for five years by Francis Coppola, Ballard made a film, his first feature, that is at once a children’s classic on a par with “The Wizard of Oz” and a realization of many avant-garde ideals — it may be the best children’s film ever made. (Coppola and Ballard had attended UCLA’s film school together in the early 1960s. Coppola devised a deal with United Artists to let Ballard make the film as he saw fit; when the executives didn’t like the finished work, Coppola interceded to obtain it a showing at the New York Film Festival and a theatrical opening.) As much as Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II,” Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and Altman’s “Nashville,” “The Black Stallion” is an embodiment of the ardor and euphoria of a period in the 1970s when artists briefly transformed American feature filmmaking. And like these other filmmakers, Ballard achieved something akin to visual music not by denying the commercial and storytelling aspects of film but by treating them as abstract properties and incorporating them into his film’s texture.

The opening section takes place mostly onboard ship. Alec (Kelly Reno), a boy of about ten, is on a sea voyage with his poker-playing dad. Wandering around the ship, the boy sees a magnificent black stallion fighting its Arab handlers, who wrestle it into a stall. As Ballard directs it, there’s a sense of latency about this passage. Everything is muffled, held in abeyance, contained. The skies are overcast, the features of the Arabs barely visible under their robes, the stallion roped down. Even the ocean beyond has something like a skin on it. There are indistinct yet vivid onboard-ship sounds, such as the changing timbre and source directions of the noise of the engine, which seems to irradiate the ship.

In the chopped-up spaces inside, Ballard uses rich golden lighting — everything is subdued but heavily sensual: old money and jewels, leather, aged skin, brass. This helps us understand the boy’s sense that things he doesn’t understand are going on all around him, and may remind you of the kind of wondering you did as a child about what existed before your birth. (Alec is only beginning to develop an idea of linear time and of cause and effect: of the properties of story.)

There’s nothing theoretical or programmatic about Ballard’s work; he sets up these associations and feelings and lets them register — he lets us take them in. When Alec leans over the edge of the ship to feel the wind and watch the sea rush by, Ballard shows us the long arc of the ship’s rim, a wedge of metallic water, and Alec’s body turned away from us. The image has similarities to various kinds of narrative-seeming Eastern art, and is a reminder of how much Japanese prints suggest illustrations to stories we’re not being told, and that might not make sense to us anyway.

Ballard is working with the conventions of a children’s adventure novel — exotic characters, Arabs, the tethered-down horse, the piles of loot on the poker table, an unexplained sea voyage — to create a storybook atmosphere of enchantment. He’s bringing together and setting alight interconnected feelings and memories: about childhood, moviegoing, the enchanted East, and the art we love as children. The boy enjoys and takes advantage of his ability to go unnoticed. While the Arabs look away, he places sugar cubes on the edge of the stallion’s stall; there’s an amazing shot of the stallion’s lips, seen in profile, reaching out, after some hesitation, to take the sugar. The arc shapes Ballard uses suggest the curves of linear art, yet from the center of these twists can be coaxed out the richly-modeled, Giotto-like face of the horse.

When the father (Hoyt Axton) returns from his card-playing to the cabin, he spills out his winnings — jewels, coins, marvels — and gives two prizes to his son: a penknife, and the toy horse we saw under the titles. The father explains that it’s a sculpture of Bucephalos, the horse Philip II was going to destroy — because no one could ride it — until Alexander, his son, mounted the horse and rode away. (Axton tells this story with gentle, sweet bravado.)

At the end of this section, the boy lies in his berth looking at the tiny sculpture, which is on a shelf. The camera closes in on the bronze, the golden light grows deeper, reddish, and the angle on the toy becomes cockeyed. As moviegoers we understand that the toy has set the boy to drowsy daydreaming — about his father, the stallion, about adventure and the magic of representation. Then we realize that the reddish light is from fire: the ship is on fire. There has never been a director so gifted at representing the way our perceptions and what they’re perceiving can grow confused. (He gets at how we have to learn how to perceive and interpret our mental processes, and at how you may never feel totally secure in your ability to do so.) As the boy’s father rushes him to the deck, the boy can’t help taking in the special qualities (and even the beauty) of the danger, and of his own fear. Alec opens the door of the stallion’s stall — the horse breaks free and leaps into the ocean — and fights the hubbub on deck. And then he’s in the water too.

Many of us probably aren’t aware of how often at the movies we’ve seen characters hit the water. Ballard gives this unfamiliar/familiar trope real resonance. (He has, in fact, made two great plunk-into-the-water scenes: the other is in his second feature, “Never Cry Wolf,” when the ecologist, walking across what seems to be an utterly barren, snow-covered field, pauses, hearing what might be scattered rifle shots from all directions, and then he’s through the ice, falling toward the bottom of the frozen lake it turns out he’s been crossing.) The ship and the ocean are as patently a model and a tank as they might be in a Fellini picture, but Ballard uses the artificiality for immediacy: they help sustain the storybook atmosphere, to keep us in tune with the child and to heighten the sense of mythic danger; things can seem unreal when you’re in peril. Whoosh, and Alec’s lost in a domain where everything moves in smooth, slow motion, where the light is still golden but diffuse, where the dark has a new density, and where things not only fall, they rise. Then the ship’s stern swings by and the propeller almost chews him up. The imagery seems to occur right at the edge of consciousness, like the images you may get of stairwells and escalators — are they the end of thought or the beginning of dream? — as you fall into sleep.

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The horse struggles by, and swims off with the boy clutching a rope trailing from its neck. In the film’s second act, Alec awakens on a desert island. Exploring it, he finds the horse in its bridles and straps, caught among rocks. The boy cuts the animal free and sets about learning how to survive on the island, using his knife to spear fish and make fire. One morning he’s threatened by a cobra, and is saved when the stallion tramples it. The boy and horse make contact when he offers it some food. They grow to be fast friends, the boy learning to ride, the horse learning to accept a rider.

What Ballard held down in the first section he releases on the island. Colors and natural sounds rush in, and the child moves to the center. I was once hit by a car — tossed up into the night air — as I crossed a city street. During the moment between the collision and my landing on the sidewalk amid broken glass, I saw lights spinning around me, realized what had happened, and decided to take in the flavor of the sensations. I was bedazzled. This section of the movie has the submitting-to-rapture quality that instant had for me. It feels blown clear of caution and routine; you stand on a promontory, facing the wind and watching the weather take form miles away. The rocks and beaches, the strand, the sea beyond, the horse’s mane and tail like proud banners — we’re seeing nature in ecstasy.

The outlines are sinuous, Tiffany-like; the surfaces a swirl of pebble, mother-of-pearl, and silk; the tints the colors of semiprecious stones — peacock colors. The sound spectrum shifts too, from muffled to triumphant: crashing ocean, the drumming hooves of a horse running free. (Carmine Coppola’s music — much of it for winds, plucked strings, and simple drums — contributes a Near Eastern flavor.) When Ballard shows us the horse in nature as the child sees it, the creature has an aristocratic grandeur and wildness; it’s a beast from a more untamed world. (These images of the horse leading its own life in the wild are in the tradition of “White Mane,” and of the shots of horses in “Ecstasy.”) One image includes the horse toy, which the boy has placed on a rock, and, far behind it, galloping by the ocean’s edge, the stallion. We may register that the boy feels as though the toy is what his father bequeathed him.

Ballard gives you the gift of seeing into and beyond the expected; this corresponds to the way the boy’s senses are shaken into intense life by the magnitude of what has happened to him, and of what surrounds him. As Ballard (and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) film them, waves running up the sand are veils of overlapping color stroking a beaded ground, an image as transfixing as the sight of the sea bottom seen tens of feet below you from the edge of a boat. He maintains a precise respect for the framework, giving attention to Alec’s hunger, chills, sunburn and painful, bare feet. And he delivers the easy-to-anticipate story points — the exchange of rescues, the horse’s and boy’s acknowledgement of each other as allies, the making of contact — with an inspired ingenuity and pictorial grandeur that allows an adult to share a child viewer’s surprise. When Alec awakens to see the cobra rising and unfolding before him, the snake has the hyperrealism and the intricate patterned beauty of a pen-and-ink-and-watercolor monster. It seems to rise out of dream; it’s the monster you always expected to find under your bed, the one that would destroy sleep forever.

One passage is set to a waltz-like oboe, flute, and piano theme. We watch the boy and horse in the sea, goofing by the shore; the camera is underwater. We watch the horse’s proud, gauche, side-to-side motions, and the boy’s darting and weightlessness: a pas de deux for two unlikely dancers. It comes to an end with a flurry of bubbles and a cut to the boy astride the horse, which gallops through the shallow surf; the boy has mounted the horse for the first time. As Alec learns to ride and the horse adapts to a rider, we get images in slow motion, images from a camera that corkscrews and rises far overhead. The horse gallops through shallow water; Alec falls off the horse and into the surf, and tries again.

Ballard achieves the illusion of nature and the imagination merging, the world perceived ecstatically, while he speaks the language of the commercial cinema. Like the marketplace storyteller of the Near East, he’s aware that the market is its own language, and that he is speaking through that language. Yet he brings to this children’s movie an awareness of other centers and traditions, other cultures and formal possibilities. When the boy finds the stallion trapped among rocks, its bridles holding it down, Ballard’s composition of angles and sounds puts the scene, as a representation of blindness, power, and struggle, on a level with D.H. Lawrence’s image in “St. Mawr” of the reared-back horse, fallen over, its legs pawing the sky, and with Picasso’s image of a gored horse rising up on its front legs and protesting its death. (Alan Splet, who did the soundtrack, had a member of his team spend three weeks living with her tape recorder among horses. He shows here — as he does in his work with David Lynch — his gift for keeping us aware of sounds as mental events, happening inside our heads.)

Ballard is working into his film our experience of childhood, the art we remember from childhood, from the childhood of the medium, and from the childhood of the civilization that eventually produced the medium. The kids’ adventure-book landmarks are all mixed up with ways of seeing that we remember from children’s movies, silent movies, and Near Eastern art. (The horse has some of the sexiness of European “Orientalist” fantasies about slave markets and pashas, but with much more force behind it.)

When you think about the film artists whose work Ballard evokes, you realize how aware they were of developing and speaking a conventional language. In movies like “National Velvet” and “Thief of Bagdad,” themes are announced and played out. “I … believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly,” Velvet is told by her mother, and that entire film is laid out as crisply as her pronouncement. Most of “National Velvet” takes place in the studio; Clarence Brown, the director, uses the actual outdoors very selectively, mostly to heighten the wind-through-your-hair feeling of the riding sequences. He uses the studio stylization to help assemble a protected world in which a girl’s fervor could reach a culmination, and in which it makes sense that she might get to ride her horse in the Grand National. “Thief of Bagdad” is all about set design. Everything is made artificial. The film’s central symbol is a life-size toy horse that is assembled in parts, then wound up with a key. Whirrrr, click, and it becomes something better than a real horse, because it can gallop across the skies. The movie itself is a put-together toy that flies.

Using new technology and the current industry conditions, Ballard went out and found (or developed) in nature the kinds of effects, settings, and atmospheres that earlier directors developed in the studio and with special effects. In the animals on ancient coins, bulk, movement, and potential are all suggested by a few curving lines. Ballard uses movie conventions as ancient artists used these lines. They indicate to us the way into another realm. They’re chutes, the arcs we trace as we pass from one state into another — they’re beckonings, as well as, later, records of our passage. Ballard plunges into the forms created by earlier filmmakers and takes his style from what he drags with him as he moves below.

Ballard is showing that in the boy’s mind, a developing center of consciousness — a marketplace of feelings and ideas — is taking form. The apparatus of the seashore — the beach, the shipwreck, the island, the strand — corresponds to the emergence of conscious awareness, of a place to stand to see the Other (in this case, the animal Other). This passage on the island has to do with the first sense you get of your own consciousness jelling, an experience that we may, as adults, relive when our ideas begin to take on a life of their own. The imagery and sounds of the adventure book conventions (waking on the sand, wooing the horse, learning to fish) have been sweetened and perfumed, as though brought to us by travelers from lands we’ve never visited. The sparkle of the surfaces, the brocaded sand and lapis skies, the slow-motion that suggests an oral-storyteller’s favorite passage: Ballard’s goal is to create and sustain a moment of apprehension. We enter the once-crusted-over thing and wind up inside looking out. Then the boy and the horse are rescued by fishermen.

black stallion 2

What happens rhythmically and emotionally in the third act is a pause, and then a building-back-up. As it begins, the boy is home with his mother (Teri Garr). The horse, kept for a night in their back yard and terrified by the early-morning noises of a suburb waking up, breaks free and races away. After a search, the boy finds it again, on the farm of a one-time horse trainer named Henry (Mickey Rooney). Henry agrees to give the horse a stall, and to train the boy and horse — accustoming the horse to the bridle and the boy to more formal race riding. He shows the pair off to a buddy, a celebrated racing announcer, who’s impressed enough to set up a match race between the stallion and the country’s fastest thoroughbreds.

The way Ballard presents this movement, he gets us seeing the action as standing for the reintroduction of the independent imagination into the conditions of shared life, and for what has to be gone through in order to present beauty to the world. The suburb’s small houses stand on tiny plots of land; with curbs and intersections, and the noise of cars and families, the area is almost as chopped-up and confining as shipboard. (We have reemerged back into movie conventionality.) The horse, spooked by the sound of garbage being collected, gallops off for someplace freer, cleaner. It passes by a factory, its chimneys spilling pollutants into the air, before finding its way to the countryside — the horse’s reactions are the reactions of our imagination to the congestion of this life. Ballard gets us seeing such passages abstractly: here, as confinement, revulsion, and a blind burst into something more agreeable. We might be observing the workings of glands and valves. Ballard presents the boy’s pursuit of the horse as a lightly-comic variation on B’rer Rabbit, or on Grimm. An ancient man on a cart, smoke, a night spent under the eaves of a run-down warehouse: it’s like a trek through a fairy tale’s scary forest.

This movement takes its tone from the interaction of the characters and actors; they’re the ground the horse stands out against. The boy has a depth and an obstinacy that his now-widowed mother can’t understand and that he can’t explain; he has had to learn guardedness. Teri Garr’s professionalism and pragmatism jibe well with her character’s amazement and disbelief, her realizing how serious the boy is about racing his horse. She’s settled and fleshly; she’s the den mother of this tidy world. She situates us back in the real world after our minutes aloft with the boy and horse.

Henry the horse-trainer comes on mean and defiant — he wants to keep the horse for himself. Snooping around Henry’s barn, the boy finds his way into a dusty old room full of jockey trophies and memorabilia — again, life before he was born: a past, something he’s only beginning to understand. (This scene is a reminder of one in “National Velvet”; Velvet and her mother explore their attic and look over the mother’s old athletic awards.) When Henry sees how well the horse and kid get on, he’s won over and brought out of himself. He understands and adores the horse’s strength and reluctance. He doesn’t want to tame and master it — he and Alec simply try to channel the beast’s energy, to guide it a little. “You don’t have to pump him,” Henry tells Alec about riding the horse flat-out. “Throw it away. He’ll be makin’ that rhythm.”

It’s rainy the night the race announcer visits the track for a demonstration of the horse’s abilities; he doesn’t even emerge from his car when he sees the boy atop the horse. Rooney is wonderful at suggesting his character’s attitude of “I’m not kidding! This is really gonna be something!” We stay with the grown-ups as the horse circles the track. They can’t see the horse, and with them we listen through the rain, the dark, the sounds of windshield wipers and idling car engines, for indications of it. Galloping hoofbeats come out of one direction for a bit, then out of another; these sounds could be the symptoms of an impossible-to-identify condition we carry in ourselves. When Henry pulls Alec off the stallion, the kid is unconscious. What hasn’t been shown has been made visible to us.

The match race itself is a merging of nature poetry and conventional movie form. Without doing anything cerebral or Eisensteinian, Ballard turns the hurtling horses into semi-abstract qualities and forces; they’re all reach and stretch, nostrils, flanks and gulping breaths. As an image of speed and power surging within confines, this passage is in a class with the greatest Futurist paintings. The track is an oval — society has cleared out a space for these demonstrations. The pageantry — all harlequin colors and heraldic music — is like guidelines and directional signals (they go well with the blinders put on the horses); Ballard makes us register the contrast with the shimmying visual rhythms of the island passage. The race is tense. Where the camera rose up and flew over the boy and horse on the island (it seemed to want to include the curvature of the horizon), here it crouches over, down low, at times skimming the dirt beneath the inside fence, which tilts toward the track; the camera wears blinders. At other times it’s wedged between the horses, or sweeping wide behind all of them as they take a curve, the sounds of the crowd driving it along.

This act is full of images and passages that you remember as you might private moments from your own childhood: Teri Garr’s flower-print dresses, earrings, and bewildered face; the trophy room, dusty yet neat; Mickey Rooney using a bale of hay as a horse to teach the boy how to use a saddle; Alec searching through a bureau for something to protect his hands and finding his father’s watches and ties (furniture and its capacity for delight and treachery); Henry and Alec listening to an old, wood-bodied radio.

Part of what’s funny about the film is the boy’s acceptance of the unlikely adventures that befall him. Kelly Reno shows the clarity of the boy’s determination, his wariness and hiddenness, and the openness of his empathy with the horse; he manages to express the tenacity and strength of the boy’s love of the imagination. Alec’s skin seems transparent to us even while we understand that he’s learning how to conceal things from other people.

Mickey Rooney as the mentor is tender and intuitive. As the character he plays is reawakened by the horse and the boy’s love for it, Rooney seems reawakened as an actor. He sets the old trouper/dynamo we know him to be aside, like the character’s crustiness. (Rooney could be making amends for his over-hearty performance in “National Velvet.”) He’s not consciously showing us what he can do; he’s relating simply to a child and a horse. Living totally within the terms of the movie, he brings a respect for the sacred into his performance. As the ex-trainer shows the boy how to ride on a saddle, as he tries to accustom the horse to saddle and reins, he becomes like an acting teacher working with his greatest student; it’s as though he knows that what he’s dealing with is what he himself has always lived for, and that it’s present here before him in its most beautiful incarnation. He gets high on the action too.

The horse itself has movie glamour and the stature of a mythical beast. (Ballard and his horse trainer, Corky Randall, used primarily two horses, but altogether at least fourteen, to create the onscreen horse.) In one shot, the horse stands in its stall looking out at an overcast day, and its profile has the melancholy of Olivier’s Heathcliff. The eloquence of its balkiness — the way its raw talent, danger, and beastliness are barely held in check — is worthy of Brando. But Ballard is scrupulous about not anthropomorphizing the horse; his stallion isn’t a parody of a man, or of a man’s ideas about a horse. As he creates it, the stallion seems to live in connection with unfamiliar dimensions, and with regions of the universe that don’t normally find expression here on earth. When the horse rears in confusion and rage at the beginning of the match race, it makes sense. This is no domesticated creature; this is a special case.

When the whole world has been colonized and categorized, where does mystery remain? Or, at least, how can we manage to see a horse without its being neutered by the images and ideas of “horse” that we already have in our minds? Ballard seems to believe that you get back to a child’s freshness of response only during moments when you’re passing from one state into another — when you’re bewildered, and aren’t really sure what’s going on. In “The Black Stallion” (and in his later ballet film “Nutcracker”), he creates such moments, finding his way back into given forms until they release and permit a free fall. Ballard finds his way to and then works out of those moments when you don’t yet realize what’s happening to you; he works from what is generally considered to be what escapes us.

black stallion rooney

The three-movement presentation is an expression of this: the conventional movie that this film is at the end is very different — it seems to have been aerated — from the conventional movie it was at the beginning. The section on the island, with its tumbled-up, twinkling feel, is the passage. The clear-eyed apprehension of the world while categories and labels are off: Ballard gives us the illusion on the island that that’s what we’re seeing and hearing. It corresponds to a child’s way of seeing things, to an early man’s, and it corresponds to the force of the horse itself.

The toy horse is the fetish that draws us into and through the movie. The father gives the son a toy horse; the father dies and the toy horse gives rise to a real horse. Guilt and sorrow are built into the toy. The symbol becomes what it symbolizes: toy horse/real horse, child/parent, movie/life. This play with proportion has to do with the way a child (and perhaps a grownup’s imagination) is constantly shifting in relation to the world. Really great toys seem to have built into them the process you go through when you lose yourself in play with them. (Getting this right is what the “Nutcracker” toymaker agonizes over.)

“The Black Stallion” is a fusion of an interest in toys and symbols, and a desire to get back to the pristine. As a filmmaker, Ballard can’t represent anything to us except through technology, yet he seems to feel with his whole soul that man and his instruments are the essential polluters — that the instruments of man’s vision are maybe the original polluters. How can you represent the pristine when the instrument of representation is a despoiler? (Travel writers must worry about this too.) We always come equipped with our concepts, our stories, our technology, and signs. In this movie, Ballard finds his way to the pristine by entering into constructs that we usually picture as the conventional signs of filmmaking for children and treating them as artifacts and symbols, working back through the accumulated pop-culture debris. He feels that this material — which we often feel superior to and often callously manipulate — has grown out of someplace deeper than we tend to admit. He treats conventional forms as the products of processes that reach back into prehistory, into mystery and myth.

Formally, what Ballard has done is to interweave a parable about the birth of one’s awareness of the imagination with the landmarks of a children’s story. As he has made it, the movie is like paintings or poems that have frames built into them as part of the image, the dreamer dreaming himself into existence, the shape of thought encircling and giving birth to the image. In the stallion, Ballard has managed to create in the language of feature films as conscious and potent a symbol as Woolf’s waves or lighthouse, yet the stallion also has a distinctive tumescence, like the pressure of water at a springhead. You’re right there at the instant when the horse chooses to accept a gift of seaweed from the boy, nourishment from beneath the waves.

At the end of the film, after the race, there’s a flashback to the boy romping with the stallion on the island’s beach, but it isn’t a shot we’ve seen before. In it, the boy and horse are at play beneath a spectacular rainbow, and this rainbow — a natural arc suggesting infinity — is the film’s recapitulation. It’s the scimitar shape of calligraphy made real. As the closing credits roll, we see the movie from the outside, but it wears a pulsing, calm flush. We have been given the illusion of entering and moving through a region of pure form and surfacing back into clear waters. In the movies, beauty has never run so rampant or so free.

© 1985 by Ray Sawhill