Sorcerer (1977)

Sorcerer (1977) movie poster

director William Friedkin
viewed: 01/20/2017

I really don’t know what I have to add to the litany of words of praise and commentary on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. While Sorcerer is not a re-make of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fantastic 1953 film The Wages of Fear, it does tackle the Georges Arnaud novel from which it was adapted. Friedkin pulled off one of the great challenges in film, to rework a great film and come up with something new, fresh, and potentially as brilliant as the original.

More than 20 years after Clouzot’s film, Sorcerer ups the ante on scale and challenge, shooting a more global story in more rough and isolated locations, building set pieces of greater height and danger.

I’ve been working my way through Friedkin’s heyday films because he’s someone that I have not given enough attention to over the years. If anything, Sorcerer underscores his prowess as a filmmaker, an auteur in the 1970’s American Hollywood explosion of excellent, ambitious and inventive film production. It’s great that Friedkin was able to get a fresh print of Sorcerer made because it absolutely solidifies and emphasizes his reputation as one of the greats of the era. And thus of any era.

Cruising (1980)

Cruising (1980) movie poster

director William Friedkin
viewed: 11/12/2016

After re-watching William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist (1974) earlier this year, I was interested in seeking out other film’s of his that I’d never seen.  The notorious 1980 thriller Cruising hadn’t exactly interested me, but it seemed like a significant omission from my viewing history.

There is something of the Exploitation film about it.  Cruising is a crime flick in which a youngish cop (Al Pacino) goes under deep cover into New York City’s gay leather scene to hunt a serial killer targeting gay men.  It isn’t pure Exploitation, there is an aspect of sympathy toward the gay scene, though it’s fistfuls of titillation in the gay bars.

There are aspects of time and place and representation that are somewhat powerful.  I particularly have been interested in the New York of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the grittier pre-Giuliani New York.  I don’t know how many of the extras were locals of the scene or just actors, especially since the controversy around the film and its depictions of gay life even in the days of its production.  But there is something here, something of a time and place and people that is no more.

As a thriller, its effects are somewhat muted.  I’ve always had a problem with Pacino, though he’s quite low-key here.  The edginess of the question of his character’s “descent” into gay life seems the most continuingly problematic aspect of the film.  It’s also kind of bizarre that they just picked a guy to do deep cover because he “fit the look” rather than he had any skills and abilities to blend in or had psychological preparation for the work.

I guess it is curious to wonder how the film would have been with its excised 40 minutes of additional footage of the interior of the leather bar that were cut to escape an X rating.  I think that could have cemented the film one more significantly one way or another.

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973) movie poster

director William Friedkin
viewed: 10/22/2016 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

“I’ve seen The Exorcist about 167 TIMES, AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT!” – Beetlejuice

Okay, I’m not quite up there with Herr Beetlejuice, but I’m with him in spirit.

I actually had probably only seen it once before this, decades ago.  So the opportunity to see it on the big screen and share that with my kids was prime.

I grew up in the generation over which this movie loomed.  “The scariest movie ever made” to many, many people.  And I think that it’s important to keep that in the context of its time.  Because it is a very well-made and well-acted movie and features some iconic moments and effects, things that were absolutely shocking in 1973.

But “scary” is an ever-evolving thing.  And once it’s out there, it quickly become appropriated, subsumed, regurgitated (even projectile-regurgitated), and effects and technology change the movie game as well.  The effects are pretty great, but they are also kind of comic as well.  In fact, the whole thing plays much more to the comedic and absurd than terrifying.  My son thought it was hilarious.  My daughter was nonplussed.

One thing that put her off was the pacing.  It’s a slow build-up, creating the mood of normalcy that is about to go awry, the pressure on Jason Miller’s Father Damien.  And then even when things cut loose, it’s one crazy possession scene cutting back to slower, quieter narrative moments.  And I’d say that it’s not that this is bad, but rather that it’s an unusual tempo in comparison to a lot of things.

It’s a pretty brilliant movie, in my mind, whether scary or side-splittingly funny.  It doesn’t get a whole lot more iconic in modern horror.  And let us not forget that all this intense visual imagery from the projectile vomit, the levitation, the spider-walk, or the head spin, this was all brand-new, fresh, original shit.  Hence copied, aped, paid homage to, culturally referenced into banality almost.

Killer Joe (2011)

Killer Joe (2011) movie poster

director William Friedkin
viewed: 04/14/2013

Director William Friedkin (The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973)) scored a relative amount of attention in his 2011 film, Killer Joe, mainly because it rated an NC-17 for sex and nudity, among other things.  It’s the second film he has made of late with writer Tracy Letts, who, as in 2006’s Bug, adapted one of his plays to a screenplay for The Exorcist director.

This one is a chicken-fried black comedy, with a harsh reality center.  It features Matthew McConaughey as the title killer, a Texas cop who sidelines as an assassin for hire.  He is hired by a trailer park family who decides to have an ex axed for insurance money.  The family consists of Thomas Haden Church (loser dad), Emile Hirsch (loser son), Gina Gershon (looser step-mother), and Juno Temple (sweet little young thing sister).  Joe takes a liking to the Dottie the virgin and accepts her as his “retainer”.  Of course, with a family this dumb and low, things are not going to work out the way they planned.  It’s bound to get ugly.

Unlike Bug, which bugged me because it felt so much like a play, Killer Joe manages to break away from that trap that films adapted from plays often have.  That is feeling like a filmed staged thing rather than a “movie”.  It’s a personal issue.  Don’t mind me.

Juno Temple (daughter of director Julien Temple) does a pretty good job with the naif waif Dottie.  At times she really looks and seems a teenager.  At other times, she seems a bit older, no doubt her actual age, casting a glint of maturity which contrasts starkly with the role.

There is a moderate amount of nudity.  Not that much sex.  Notoriously there is a sex scene involving a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is where the film caught the MPAA.

Frankly, this struck me while watching season one of Game of Thrones, but almost all of the popular pay-cable television dramas feature tons and tons of sex and nudity.  They are virtually defined by that fact.  Movies used to have a lot more of it in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  How much is adequate or too much is not at issue here.  But because movies are rated by the MPAA and wind up with severe marketing and sales penalties if rated NC-17, meaning that they can’t be sold in WalMart or distributed or shown in X number of venues reduces their marketability and thusly has them almost always edited down to what the MPAA considers an R.

Has a film ever been given an NC-17 purely for violence?  Nope.  It’s sex.  And the while one might come to think from studying movies over the past fifty years that American cinema has become far more prudish and far more violent.  Maybe you would even think that people don’t want to see nudity and sex in films and media.  But those pay cable shows prove that is utterly, utterly the opposite.  Those programs don’t get limited in their distribution, though they arguably are by definition.  But they are also not limited in their content choices, be it cursing, fucking, or beheading.  There is a double standard in media at the moment that is extreme and pronounced.  Films are much more “self-censored” than cable television.

It’s pretty freaking ridiculous.  I mean, the MPAA has never been a standard of consistency or intelligence.  When you count the number of times the word “fuck” is uttered in a film to determine its acceptability (like a threshold exists), but allow for endless amounts of evisceration, it’s stupid.  I believe that rating systems do have value but the level between R and NC-17 creates a greater problem for making something with freedom.

This is nothing new.  It’s been a decade almost since This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), in which filmmaker Kirby Dick tried to dig into what the arbitrary reality was of the rating system.  But it just struck me while watching all the titillating sex on Game of Thrones and True Blood that this dichotomy is extremely unfair to film.

You never know what is going to strike you when you sit down to watch a movie.  Or at least I don’t.  But for Killer Joe, which I thought was decent, not great,…this is what it was.

Bug

Bug (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. William Friedkin
viewed: 10/11/07

I’m not exactly why a film about drugged-out, hyper-paranoid people who think that their bodies are crawling with bugs sounded like something that I would want to queue up exactly.  Maybe it’s all part of the make-up of my character, but the latest film from director William Friedkin (The French Connection (1971) & The Exorcist (1973)) did appeal to me, enough that I had considered seeing it in the theaters and enough that I had it highly queued up.  Starring Ashley Judd, one of the Hollywood actresses that I find intensely attractive physically though I don’t go out of my way to see her films, and having gotten decent reviews, the only thing that really turned me off at all was that this was based on a play and adapted for the screen by the playwright Tracy Letts.

This has nothing to do with Letts.  I have never been a fan of theater really, and I actually have not liked films that have been overly theatrical.  They feel confined and artificial to me, not cinematic.  And it tends to be a problem for me.  It is so here, too.

Actually, I think I could attribute most of my problem with this film to that very thing.  Staged almost entirely in a hotel room, the home to the highly drugged Judd, the shots of the interior feel entirely that of a set, even when we are given the exteriors of the hotel, placed in the middle of a desert off of a lonely road.  Theater is limited by sets, single points of location.  And it limits this film, too, in its ability to deliver reality.

Reality is a big aspect of this film because it is about the unreality of the paranoid schizophrenic and drug addict, who move from cautious oddness and quirks to full-blown psychosis in the span of an hour and forty minutes.  The film reaches crescendo too quickly for my liking, too.  Why Judd would suddenly take on the shared psychosis in this short period of time unless she showed some of it more early on is also difficult to take.  And the drama, the climax, also in a sense has a predictability to it too.

Strangely, this criticism arises in me more, the more I think about it.  Part of the film pulled me in initially, the paranoias and tics, the worrisome tensions built on unreliable characters.  The difference in this is that the audience is wondering (only to an extent) if these people are crazy, whereas these things sometimes work better when you aren’t sure if they are or they aren’t.  The only part of the film that plays into that is the visit of the crack-smoking psychiatrist towards the end.  He’s almost like something out of the X-Files.

I don’t know.  It did make me feel a bit itchy.  And there were aspects of potential, where you weren’t sure where things were going to go.  But in the end it’s pretty frickin’ silly.

The French Connection

The French Connection (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. William Friedkin
viewed: 04/16/07

Hard to find fault with this gritty, action-packed policier, which has a well-earned reputation as a top-quality cop flick.  I’d never seen the film.  Another one of those movies that “everybody” has seen.  Now I am in that category.

So much has been written about this film and its car chase sequence is super solid and understandably oft-imitated.  The glimpse of New York City circa 1970 is interesting, the culture, the landscape.  The film doesn’t try to sell a hip stylishness, but the tougher parts of the city, the undersides of elevated trains, back alleys, etc.  Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.  Gene Hackman is fucking great.

The main thing that stuck out to me was the treatment of racism in the character of Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, who utters several slurs, but particularly in the shake-downs of the African-American bar at which his informer hangs out.  The depiction is sort of face-value, I think, trying to reflect some aspect of reality perhaps, not necessarily supporting the rough, racist treatment of the bar’s patrons.  I guess it’s depressing to realize how probably realistic that portrayal would have been at that time (not to say that it isn’t still like that today in places).  Doyle certainly wouldn’t have gone into a bar primarily habituated by Caucasians and pushed everyone around, violating their civil rights, cowing them in ways that shows that this is a common experience for both.  It’s strange how much these two scenes struck me and how small a portion of the narrative those segments were, but yet that is what struck me.  I don’t know all of what I think about  it exactly, but there you go.

Yeah, and this movie is quality.