Funny Games

Funny Games (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 09/26/07

I don’t know why it took me so long to “discover” Michael Haneke, but it’s been quite a revelation. Though I’d caught his 2003 film Time of the Wolf back when I wasn’t working on this film diary, it wasn’t until I saw Caché (2005) that I was so struck by his work.  And watching an interview with him on that DVD, I was further struck by his intelligence and analytic qualities that far outstretch the average filmmaker, even the ones with great breadth of work.  After watching The Piano Teacher (2001), I queued up almost all of his films on my Netflix queue.  So, you’ll be seeing more of them here.

In fact, after having watched his 1997 film Funny Games and the interview with him about it, I have even gone as far as to queue up the films that he listed as his favorite 10 films.

The reason that I put Funny Games at the top was that when seeing Eastern Promises (2007), I saw a trailer for his coming American remake of Funny Games, which will star Tim Roth and Naomi Watts and will hit screens in 2008 apparently.  I thought that I ought to catch the original film.  And now I have.  And now the question I have is much like anyone familiar with his work.  What in the world will the Hollywood remake consist of, ten years on, and specifically how will he make it?  A straight re-make?

Frankly, it’s hard to discuss this film without giving away much of its key elements, so if you look to be surprised, then read no further.

The film is an explicit critique of the use of violence in films, but maybe more so, “justified” violence.

Funny Games is in a sense a thriller, a thriller about a wealthy family trapped in their lake house by two sadistic, sarcastic young killers.  The torture is both physical and psychological, disarming the father by quickly breaking his leg, they go on to humiliate and taunt the mother and the young son as well, upping the violence step by step and betting the family that none of them will survive the next 12 hours.  A promise that they make good on.

But the odd aspect of the film is its breaks in the narrative, in which one of the killers winks and nods at the audience, and then fully addresses them, making them culpable in the violence that is ensuing.  This is utterly Haneke’s point.  In watching both the torture of the family by the sadists and waiting for the violent comeuppance that the killers receive in the typical thriller, that the audience is more than insinuated in the violence, they are the reason that it exists, has been created, and they lap it up.  They cannot decry it later if they are drawn to it.  If they make it to the end, then they are much as the killers.  Of course, this “breaking” of the “third wall” separates the narrative from a sense of realism.

The realism of the family and their emotional, physical plight is played out with meticulous and potent virtuosity by Haneke.  The more than 10 minute single take of the mother and father after the son is killed (see, I told you that I’m giving this all away) is compelling.  The viewer is drawn in and pushed back by Haneke and the killer who controls the narrative and flouts expectation with aplomb and sarcasm.  Is it post-modern?  Is it essentially post-modern?  Is this technique going to be carried out in a high-budget Hollywood film?  And played in cineplexes across the US?

The is striking because a friend of mine has been reacting very passionately against cinematic violence lately, expressing outrage at people who enjoy the violence in films like Eastern Promises and the new Rob Zombie version of Halloween (2007).  Haneke is a master, really.  A master like Hitchcock in a sense.  A manipulator but not an emulator.  He controls the traditional direction of the narrative and the viewer’s expectations and emotional connection, but he criticizes it as well.

Ultimately, I found it perhaps a little passe.  But realizing that this film is 10 years old, it sort of helps to put it in perspective.  This was not my favorite of his films, but I admired the way that he approaches the film and the ideas he works with.  Even his use of music, or the lack of music (he notably doesn’t use soundtrack music), but the contrast of the family listening to classical and opera juxtaposed to the violent, raging music that punctuates the title sequence demonstrates the violent break of the family and the violent break of narrative strategies that we have grown to expect in film.  He’s truly a fascinating director.

Inland Empire

Inland Empire (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 09/24/07

David Lynch has long been one of those divisive directors, not politically, or morally, but really around pretension and comprehension.  From his earliest days with his uber cult film Eraserhead (1977) through to his strange and beautiful Mulholland Dr. (2001), he’s really cultivated a “love him or hate him” persona and body of work.  Maybe there are some in betweeners out there, but I’d have to say, as I think has been said, that Inland Empire is only for those who are on the “love him” side of things.  For people who need closure, need to understand what is going on, need answers to questions, can’t deal with weird rabbits on television, or any number of open-ended images, narrative tropes, and general loose ends, this film is going to be a bit of a challenge.

I think that may be true for some more solid Lynch fans as well.  For me, I think it was pretty brilliant.

Like Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire is also very much about Los Angeles, more specifically Hollywood itself, the film process, the film industry, the whole mechanism of Hollywood, but also its inhabitants.  Also, like Mulholland Dr., it’s a mystery of a narrative, with recurring motifs and imagery, duplicate roles or double identities of actresses like a heavy duty deja vu.  It’s hardly a film that one can take in entirely in one viewing.  And there are aspects of the narrative that, as in Mulholland Dr., people will be scratching their heads and trying to analyze down to an “actual” story, the one that people imagine is beneath the storytelling, the things that really happened, looking for the key to unlock the specifics.  This worked for Mulholland Dr., people were talking about it all the time, trying to figure it out.  This one seems less friendly to that sort of urge for closure.

Interestingly, it ends on an upbeat note.  Is that a spoiler?  Does that happen in David Lynch films?

Since Lost Highway (1997), Lynch has been very interested in doppelgangers or dual personae, the person who is always split between two or more realities (or perhaps two or more dreamworlds).  In Lost Highway, the split splits the film.  Bill Pullman becomes Balthazar Getty for some reason and Patricia Arquette is two people, too.  The split and duplicity in Mulholland Dr., which despite the fact that I keep mentioning it and remembering to have liked it quite well, can’t actually recall enough about the narrative to fully make a comment, the split happened to both Naomi Watts and Laura Harring.  In Inland Empire, it’s Laura Dern’s turn to split and comeback, share roles with previous actors, echo constantly back and forth through narrative turn after narrative turn.

Lynch plays with landscape.  Doors open into new space after new space, they end up in a place they were before that was somewhere else.  The landscape, when not interior to the film set, is Los Angeles, which I read recently is key to the title of the film.  The Inland Empire is, as I have read, an area “east of Los Angeles”, but echoes back within the space of the film.  Maybe a better knowledge of L.A. geography would pay off in this analysis.  The rooms and buildings are of an older time, a period of Hollywood’s heyday but eventually spill out on to the famed crossroad of Hollywood and Vine quite explicitly.  Do I get what is going on here completely?  Hell no.

Shot on digital video, the film has an amazing look.  It’s as if Lynch rediscovered the camera and what it could do.  He uses all sorts of fade-ins and fade-outs, lighting techniques, framings, and controls the aesthetics to a “T”.  It’s quite beautiful, actually.  Very much so.  If there is one film that I regret not having seen on the big screen upon its release in recent years, this one tops the list.

The film contains some of Lynch’s strange asides, humor, and actors.  It’s nice to know that Harry Dean Stanton is still alive.  He started life as an old man.  He looks virtually the same as he did in the early 1970’s.  Kind of like Dick Clark.

I found the film quite stunning.  The cinematography and the flowing, spooky, frightening dream just pulled me along.  I committed to it, wafted along.  I had been afraid to see it for its length (nearly 3 hours) and its pace (slow), but in reality, I was really fairly rapt.  Lynch is a mixed bag for me in some ways, but I think that he’s actually perhaps has made his best film here.  I think he’s brilliant, and while his films are often flawed (to me), his vision is completely unique.  His world, his obsessions, his fascinations are mesmerizing and challenging.  And while I could not decipher the entirety of the narrative here for you even if I wanted to, I have to say, that is not what I necessarily need from a film.

White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

White Light/Black Rain (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Steven Okazaki
viewed: 09/22/07

An earnest documentary about “The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, White Light/Black Rain is a poignant and well-made reminder of the horrors of the atomic bombs and their aftermath in Japan, though mostly focused on the survivors.

It’s a terrible tale.  The power of the bomb was so vast, its effects so beyond brutal, inhuman really, were unknown to both Americans and Japanese before the event.  Their aftermath, the radiation, the continued illness, death, miscarriages, child deformities, social outcasting also something that only time could unfold.  The stories, direct from the mouths and images from the bodies of survivors 60 years on, are chilling, sad, depressing and frightening.

But what has the world really learned?  Director Steven Okazaki, whose name was familiar to me from the 1987 film Living on Tokyo Time, demonstrates through interviews with young people on the streets of contemporary Hiroshima, the shocking fact that they do not know why those dates should live in infamy, in those towns if anywhere in this world.  Maybe this is perhaps the most frightening fact of all, just over the cusp of a new millenium, how quickly WWII and its significance has faded from the sensibility.  Okazaki quotes a fact that 75% of Japanese alive today were born after these events.  Is that stat the same here?

Actually, I think that the powers that be in the US are still obsessed with this huge, global event.  Television, books, and film continue to focus on the war, though perhaps not so much on the bombs, the crescendo of the war, but on other aspects, from military technology to feats of strategy, and of course, the Holocaust.  Interestingly, this weekend sees the launch of director Ken Burns’ latest film, The War (2007) on PBS, broken into 7 segments and I am not sure how many hours.

This film is a good reminder of things that should not be forgotten, not just by us, but by future generations, a tragic tale that is hopefully somehow cautionary.  Hopefully.

Still, this film doesn’t stretch the depth of the subject matter.  There is much more to be gleaned and realized from these bombings, the suffering, from the worlds of before and after that these events led to.  That is not this film, which earns its rights in its specificity, paying homage to the children (because these survivors were largely children) who lived through one of the most brutal man-made tragedies of technology and war.

I hope that I’m not sounding too preponderous here.  But it’s hard not to react to this material with tepid emotion.

Dragon Wars: D-Wars

Dragon Wars (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Hyung-rae Shim
viewed: 09/21/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

When I started seeing trailers for this movie on TV, and I had not begun to have heard of it, I recognized the potential for pure movie badness.  I exclaimed to friends about how seeing Dragon Wars was a top priority for me, despite and because of its potential for awfulness.  It wasn’t until conversing on IM with a friend in Seoul, Korea, that I started to suspect what I might well have realized from the commercials featuring none of the actors, only the dragons, that this was a Korean film.  Well, it’s a Korean film with some Korean and American actors in it and it’s mostly in English.  Apparently, it’s hugely popular back in South Korea, it’s home.

The badness is there.  Big time.  The acting and the script offer many points of hilarity.  The most hilarious of which, oddly enough, is the film’s one intentional joke: when a supernatural guy walks right through a fence, an old lady, upon seeing this tries immediately to do the same and bumps her head.  I don’t know why this is so funny, but it is.

Otherwise, the film is laughable for its lead actor, whose eyes are hidden half the time behind a mop of hair and how he discounts so much of the obviously nonsensical plot as logical and acceptable.  The film does not suffer from an overindulgence of realism.

It’s probably the worst of this kind of thing that I have seen in the theater since The Toxic Avenger (1985), and then The Toxic Avenger was meant to be bad.  The film’s earnestness despite it ridiculousness is perhaps its saving grace.  It is therefore so bad that its laughable, and you are laughing at them, not with them.  That said, it’s not a very fulfilling experience.

3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. James Mangold
viewed: 09/21/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

A big fan of Westerns, I, like many others, have come to deal with the genre as a dying form.  A historical quirk of 20th Century popular culture.  The further and further our culture moves from a time when the worlds of the Western, the expansion across the continent, the “taming” of the West, the history was also a popular fantasy, idealized by culture as a place in which humanity, culture, Americanness all stood for something, character of the people, “when men were men”, when concepts of good and bad could easily be embodied in the narratives.

It was an immensely popular genre.  I think that even those of us of my generation, who grew up with a largely aging, kitschy, or classical sense of the form, barely could comprehend its significance for people growing up forty years earlier, nor could we, until as adults, fully realize the open space in the filmic genre of Westerns for playing with conventions, turning them inside out, modernizing, post-modernizing, and deconstructing the genre became even in the years of our birth and early childhood.  And what became of the genre in the modern years, the last 30 years, it’s become as rare almost, as a ghost town (in modern productions), and though it still resonates for some, it’s hard to imagine that it will ever find the popularity it once had, even if Westerns continue to get made…which I imagine that they will for some time.

So, the real remarkable thing about 3:10 to Yuma, a re-make of a 1957 Delmer Daves film with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, is that it’s been pretty successful as a mainstream Hollywood film of today, featuring two of the better Hollywood actors, Russell Crowe and the always solid Christian Bale.  But it’s also managed to find popularity and resonance, it seems, with contemporary audiences.

Directed by James Mangold whom I have criticized in the past (most recently for Walk the Line (2005) but also for Girl, Interrupted (2001) and Identity (2003)), it’s a surprisingly well-enough put together of a film.  The screenplay seems solid and the two leads really draw together this moderately economical story of a seemingly ruthless bandit being ruthlessly carried to catch a train to a prison for execution by a homesteader and his son and several associates of Southern Pacific railway, who has sought the villain to bring to justice.

The film, in a sense, is the type of morality play that can work in many types of films, drawing together the enigma of defining one man as “evil” and another as “good”, while showing through their development and relationship that oversimplification of such things is deeply wrong.  Nothing new here, really, though a fine enough sentiment.  And Crowe and Bale manage to play this out quite successfully, feeling real and genuine and meaningful.

Westerns tend to reflect the era in which they are made.  Does this one?  Is it not a bit more of a throwback to the traditions of the genre in its heyday?  The attitude toward the railroad is a mixed and unclear one.  The train is central to all the narrative: it is the coming of the railway that endangers Bale’s family’s farm, it is the obvious destination of the posse and their quarry, and they even find transit through the hills being blasted for future rail passageways.  Yet, I don’t sense anything in it really being said.

I think that Bale’s character, a one-legged Civil War veteran, whose allegiance to the North and volunteerism and patriotism are muddled by his deforming and debilitating wounds and the fact, late disclosed that they came from “friendly fire”.  His whole sense of self, re-asserting his masculinity and virility in his personal goodness is a core of the story, echoes back in our present with the moral ambiguity, or at least ambiguity of meaning of our current war, its effects on returning troops, especially by a “friendly fire” incident.  This isn’t played up heavily, but it’s there.

The film is good.  It’s solid and traditional.  And while I have renewed appreciation for Crowe and validated appreciation for Bale, the film’s solidity stops short of uber-significance.  It’s a good and enjoyable thing, and what traditions it recalls, may echo in sentiment in Americanism, both political and cultural, it will be interesting to see it’s context in time.

Eastern Promises

Easter Promises (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. David Cronenberg
viewed: 09/14/07 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX

I didn’t come around to David Cronenberg as early on as I should have.  Don’t ask me why, I don’t really know. Between Dead Ringers (1988), which I didn’t appreciate at the time, Naked Lunch (1991), and Crash (1996), I was thinking that he was really overrated.  And then with some turning point, whatever it was, I started watching his earlier films, Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and Scanners (1991) and came back around to the guy.  He is certainly an auteur, whose whole breadth of work helps to appreciate lesser efforts, and while I don’t know if he truly has anything I would call a masterpiece”, I like many people, thought that his 2005 film A History of Violence was pretty damn good.

And he’s followed it up here, again with Viggo Mortensen in the lead, with a less supernatural, less surreal, more straightforward narrative, a genre flick about crime and the criminal underworld.  It’s an interesting comparative piece to A History of Violence, partially or perhaps namely because of Mortensen as the lead, a man with a past, one heavily imbued with violence.  And violence is really the most powerful segment of this film.

The fight scene in the London bathhouse, with a totally naked Mortensen defending himself against two besuited Chechen thugs, armed with some fierce-looking little knives.  It’s highly brutal, with the audience gasping and then laughing at themselves for enduring such gruesome acts and cuts.  There is something quite primal in it, in Mortensen’s naked body, tousseling, slamming to the floor, being stabbed, thrashed, kicked.  Indeed, it’s a scene that will be talked about, I reckon, for years to come and will be the most pointed to aspect of this film.

Mortensen is very good, as  is Naomi Watts, and the film itself is a pretty solid affair.  I think that it perhaps doesn’t achieve utter brilliance.  There is something less-riveting than one might hope.  But it is a good film, for certain.  And maybe, much like taking the bulk of Cronenberg’s work, themes, and ideas together, this film will be well doubled up with A History of Violence, for its tone and themes, and its usages of violence.  Cronenberg gets a lot out of the gore, a lot more than many other directors would get with much more blood and slicing.  He makes you feel it, but not for a thrill or a scare, but because it has meaning, real or not, it has an inherent quality to the story, and it shocks largely because Cronenberg knows how to throw a punch (or slit a throat, one might say more literally).

Air Guitar Nation

Air Guitar Nation (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Alexandra Lipsitz
viewed: 09/12/07

Documentaries are interesting things.  I’ve been really getting into documentaries lately.  They’ve been on the rise for the past several years, more and more are getting produced.  So much so, that they’ve begun to develop subgenres and style types that can be filtered down on.  And Air Guitar Nation, a totally hilarious film, fits into this genre that I’ve noted since the production of Spellbound (2002).  There are many other films like this, Wordplay (2006) and The King of Kong (2007), which I have been wanting to see.  This genre is about people who obsessively compete in a bizarre and obscure cultural niche, a world that the average person has not accessed before and where the world of these weird cultural segments and their inherent fanaticism leads to a competition for glory.

Air Guitar Nation rocks.  The star by far is David S. Jung (C-Diddy when onstage), who is absolutely hilarious when in his persona.  The film follows him and fellow New Yorker, Dan Crane (Bjorn Turoque) in competitions from New York, Los Angeles, and to Oulo, the Finnish capitol of Air Guitar.  This film is pure cult fun.  So many quotable lines, such a manic fusion of competitiveness and comedy, with a deep heart of seriousness.

The film follows the lives and dreams of both C-Diddy and Bjorn Turoque, their families, their aspirations.  It also delves into the absolute hilarity of the depth of the European spirituality that is seen in the act of Air Guitar performance, called by one, “the last true art form”.  The film shows how the people ride the line between self-conscious parody and outright devotion and belief in the act.  An outsider, like myself, can only laugh.  Respectfully, of course.

The other main thing that this made me think of is the other comedic genre of “mockumentary”, perfected early on in This is Spinal Tap (1984) and carried on with the very funny Waiting for Guffman (1996) and then on rapid descent with the tepid Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003).  While all of these are Christopher Guest films mostly, the genre has been picked up by others.  They parody the exact genre of which Air Guitar Nation fits in, specific niche subcultures and their aspirations and obsessions.

My point here would simply be that a film like Air Guitar Nation is not only the real deal, but is inherently funnier because it is reality itself.  The parody and craziness are not projections of actors and writers, but the actual real world of unusual personal obsessions with artifacts of great obscurity on the world stage.  The film is not necessarily transcendent, though it does make an effort toward political criticism and the dream of world peace.  It’s best heart is in its actual people, their lives, their dreams, their performances.

You’ve got to see C-Diddy.  He is awesome.

The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir. Errol Morris
viewed: 09/11/07

I don’t know how I managed to have never seen this movie earlier in my life, but I’ve become quite a fan of Errol Morris since and had been meaning to get around to seeing it.  The film that really cinched Morris for me was the far more fascinating film Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), which I consider one of the most interesting documentaries that I have ever seen and recommend heartily.

The Thin Blue Line is an odd document now.  The film was made by Morris in the 1980’s in response to his investigation into the case of a wrongly accused man, Randall Adams, who was sitting on death row in Texas.  Compellingly told, unfolding with first-person interviews with most of the key players in the drama, the film does attack the D.A. who drove home the conviction despite a good deal of critical evidence that would lead to the real killer, the much younger David Harris.

The film touches on many points, but no overall issue is hammered home more than the fact that Adams is an innocent man, stated very explicitly by Harris himself in a final taped interview that closes the film.

The film was key to a re-opening of the case which eventually exonerated Adams, who now works as an anti-death penalty advocate.  And its sad commentary on Harris, who was a spiraling criminal from his teens, eventually killed again, went to death row for that murder, and was ultimately executed.  There is a lot of sadness throughout this story of lives randomly destroyed, the blindness of the justice system, and the failure of the law.

It’s interesting because I watch a lot of detective documentary-style television programs, which really only came into popularity at a time after this film was made.  You don’t see this film now as an advocacy.  The issue has been resolved.  It really requires some epilogues.  Still, it’s fascinating.

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
viewed: 09/06/07

This film won last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film (an increasingly myopic perspective for an award, honestly) over Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which was considered by several critics that I’d read to be their surprising yet “correct” choice.  I don’t know, maybe this is due to some aspect of expectation, but I would disagree.  del Toro was robbed.  The Academy did it again.  This in not to say that The Lives of Others is not a good film.  It is a good film, certainly worth watching.  But the other film that came to mind in watching this was Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), which seemed interestingly like a comparison point.  Caché is brilliant, as is Haneke.

The Lives of Others is a fairly straight-forward film about a time in East Germany (when there was an East Germany), 1984, with the poignantly 1984 panoptic government, spying, detailing every little nuance of people’s lives.  Making criminals out of regular people who would speak their minds or try to leave.  And really, it’s the story of a single man, who is an expert in the spy machine who finds his soul in spying on a playwright and his actress wife, who become the subjects of scrutiny due to the slavish lusts of a higher up official who wants the actress for himself, whether it takes rape or persecution.

The spy, Ulrich Mühe, is put off by the fact that he is executing against an unwarranted invasion.  He believes in the state and its right to oust and punish its “enemies”.  But he learns to appreciate the artists, their love for one another, their lack of real crime against the state so much so that when the writer does produce a dangerous inflammatory article about suicide rates in their country, he steps in to protect them, develops and conscience and is ultimately deemed “a good man”.

It’s a sad and yet satisfying story about a cultural period that has only begun to be analyzed in film.  The world behind the Iron Curtain.  The world that Americans imagined, but didn’t really “know”.  Oddly enough, it would be quite good to make a similar film about the CIA tapping in on people with connections to the Weathermen or other radical groups in the United States.  This invasion and total observation and tracking has been done here.  In fact, with the laws enacted post-9/11, we may be more spied upon than ever.  I guess that the main difference is the ability to prosecute people for such things.  Although, I’d be willing to guess that this is not all that different in more ways than the average American would be willing to accept.

The one question you might ask is “why do I compare it to Michael Hanake’s Caché?”  The idea is obscure, perhaps, in my mind, but it deals with observation, the exposure of past crimes, of hidden facts and realities.  This film takes a very straight-forward approach with the content, easy to identify with and to feel moved by the character who achieves redemption and freedom.  Caché is about something far more hidden, far less redeemed, a much more living psychological crisis.  The villain in The Lives of Others is given a face; he is the fat, heinous, irredeemable official who exploited his power and ruined people’s lives.  He receives a small comeuppance, to which he remains smug.  In Caché, the solution is like an open wound.  The healing has yet to happen, if it can ever.  The crisis happened in a more “free” society and is all the more shocking and frightening because of it.

And for Pan’s Labyrinth, utterly different, is just a more fascinating visionary film.  A fantasy, a poem.  Something new.

This is not to discredit The Lives of Others.  It is a good film.  It is worth seeing.  It is just less challenging and problematic than it could have been.

The Omega Man

The Omega Man (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. Boris Sagal
viewed: 09/05/07

Part two of my I am Legend double feature, 1971’s The Omega Man is a film that I grew up with.  I saw it several times as a kid and always found it creepy and depressing.  It’s one of those flicks that played a lot on Saturday afternoons, and what with its eerie hooded villains, it was pretty darn spooky to a kid.  Watching this film right after watching The Last Man on Earth (1964), the Vincent Price version of the filmic narrative, was moderately interesting.  Comparing two re-tellings of a story could actually really be kind of boring, I’ve decided.  At least back-to-back.

This is something that I can appreciate about The Omega Man, that it basically didn’t stick too close to the original idea.  I mean, it’s the same thing, a disease that wipes people out, but instead of vampires and stuff, we’ve got people who are slowly dying in stages of putrification.  Star Charlton Heston is a gun-totin’, bare-chested man of men.  He doesn’t live in suburbia and he doesn’t appear to have lost anyone dear to him.  A self-professed narcissist, with video cameras reflecting his image back to him on his large television screen, he talks to himself in ironic witticisms and kills with gusto.  He’s a much more modern model of an action hero.  Soulless yet quippy.

The narrative has a real strange politicized slant.  The disease comes from chemical/biological warfare, brought down by the civilization and its armies and government, of which Heston’s Robert Neville was a key cog.  The villains are a cult, “The Family” which echoes loud and clear of Charles Manson’s “Family”, but reckons heavily of doomsday cults, anti-civilization types, and fanaticism that was a strong cultural aspect of the period of this film, 1971.  Also, very interestingly, Heston’s character goes to a movie theater to watch Woodstock (1970) the documentary that captured the Woodstock festival in 1969.  Heston’s character is no bleeding heart liberal, but he identifies with the dreamy optimism espoused by one of the interviewees, quoting alongside him, showing that he’s watched this film many times.

Additionally to all this other cultural element are the portrayal of African Americans.  In this film, they all have significant afros, and seem both politicized and yet positive.  Heston’s character has a romantic interlude with Lisa, a hep, infected but still healthy African American female.  There seems a message here, too.  The leader of the villains, the fervent Matthias, instructs his African American companion who refers to Heston’s house as “honky”, that there is no need for racial difference anymore.

As of its time as it is, the group of cloaked zombie-ish folks led by Matthias, are more clearly like some freaky Christian sect than anything.  They are blind Albino Amish who wear cloaks and sunglasses to protect them from light.  But Heston is clearly a Christ figure, twice or thrice posed in crucifixion, and of course, dying to save the others.  At one awkward point, a girl asks him if he is God.  He doesn’t deny it.  He’s a proto NRA guy, blasting his machine gun, and it wouldn’t be too weird to hear him utter the line he made famous, about clinging to his gun and 2nd Amendment rights even to the death; they’ll certainly have to pry his gun “from my cold, dead hands”.

The film isn’t brilliant but it’s entertaining throughout.  It’s got a pretty awful soundtrack with music that doesn’t seem to make sense.  The political message here, I think, is a mixed bag of commentary.  The anti-technologists are villains, but Heston is a moderately progressive Republican who likes modern music and racial equality, but lacks humanity and tolerance for the mentally ill diseased folks.  They are killers too, so who knows?  The irony in Mattheson’s book is that the survivalism and killing that has kept Robert Neville alive, which has diminished his humanity, ultimately turns him into the “legend” of the book’s title.  The diseased community re-surges, itself rife with violence, but he is their anathema.  There is a moral ambiguity.  It seems less so here.

As for the narrative itself, the concept of a killer disease is more and more one of our time.  As in The Invasion (2007) which I recently saw (itself a remake the fourth time over), disease is one of the things that humanity hasn’t properly armed itself, all while arming against other humans.  The new version of this film, I am Legend, starring Will Smith (God help us) will probably take this angle on things.  Who knows?