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The Weekend Hobby Thread | Main | Saturday Overnight Open Thread (6/3/23)
June 03, 2023

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 06/03/2023 [TheJamesMadison]

A Quick Note
Before we begin, I have published a new novel, Colonial Nightmare, and if you decided to buy copies for all of your friends and family, I wouldn't be mad about it. Now, on with the show!

John Boorman


There was a time when John Boorman was the toast of the film school student. That time was the late sixties and early seventies, mostly on the strength of his second film, the Lee Marvin starring adaptation of a Richard Stark novel Point Blank. Borderline experimental while also existing firmly in the realm of the crime movie, it did some really interesting things in terms of editing, tone, and performance that were unlike anything else at the time. His importance was along the lines of Jean-Pierre Melville, another non-American filmmaker who specialized in crime films that excited film students. Current filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh were so caught up in how Boorman broke certain cinematic grammatical rules that he become obsessed with the film. He even interviews Boorman on the commentary track for the film's home video release, talking about how much he stole from Boorman's techniques in the film.

That passion for Boorman expanded in fits and starts (no one remembers Leo the Last), peaking with Deliverance for which he received his first Oscar nomination for Best Director (losing to Bob Fosse for Cabaret), hitting his nadir with his bonkers sequel to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic, and clawing himself back up with Excalibur and Hope and Glory (for which he earned his second Best Director nomination). It's Hope and Glory where any serious knowledge of his work ends, though. Maybe you can put up a flag for The Tailor of Panama 14 years later, but that has less to do with Boorman than the film being the first major post-Bond work by Pierce Brosnan.

What is it about his earlier work that so largely caught the attention of film fans and even the larger culture that his later work doesn't? What changed? Are the earlier works better than the later works?


The Heart of Darkness and the Modern World


First of all, yes, the earlier works are better than the later works. I'll get to those later works in a bit, but the earlier works are defined by some fairly specific ideas that become less prominent in the final stages of his career. There's also an ambition around how Boorman tries to tell stories, giving most of them a certain mythic feel that the other films don't share. That combination of experimentalism, mythic feel, and large ideas was appealing in a very particular way to the point where even something like the narrative disaster Exorcist II: The Heretic has some intellectual appeal hidden away. And that's where the two complimentary ideas that Boorman plays with most consistently are: the heart of darkness in men, and the dehumanizing effect of the modern world.

Deliverance is the best example of the heart of darkness idea as four buddies take a canoe trip down a northern Georgia river as a weekend getaway from their busy lives in Atlanta. In it, they encounter a couple of mountain men who may or may not be running a moonshine still who decide to rape Ned Beatty (the famous "squeal piggy" scene), leading to the need to kill the mountain men just to survive. The reality of murdering someone is lingered on for a surprisingly long time as the four men argue about what to do and what it all means. On the one hand you have Burt Reynolds talking about how its necessary and natural, and on the other you have Ronny Cox calling it murder and the need for police to investigate. Removing themselves from the safety of the modern world, a place that Reynold's describes as numbing, leading to the need for regular vacations away from it in order to keep in touch with your humanity, they discover the darkness at the heart of their humanity, how dangerous humanity can really be.

Perhaps the most potent flip of that, the focus on the dehumanizing effect of technology, would be Zardoz. Now, Zardoz has this reputation of being an insane, drug-fueled trip into sort of science fiction complete with Sean Connery running around the whole thing in a red diaper, save the brief moment he's in a wedding dress, and it's all true. However, Boorman is an intelligent man, and even when he's being less than successful narratively and absolutely insane (just read his script for The Lord of the Rings), he brings something to the table to chew on, and the ideas at play in Zardoz revolve around how technology outpaces humanity. In the film, a group of immortal people called The Eternals live in bubbles called the Vortex. Their lives are nothing but pleasures and only the most basic of work to feed themselves, everything else being taken care of for them, to the point that some of them have simply stopped moving. Unable to die, they just stand in the same place and stare off. They don't even have sex, and when Sean Connery's Brutal named Zed breaks into the Vortex, they desire to study him, to see what's going on outside the Vortex (murder and death), and have a particular emphasis on studying the sexual life of him. Technology, in Boorman's vision of the future, robbed humanity of the desire for procreation, advancement, or even human connection (there are heavy, shall we say, parallels to H.G. Wells Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine). Sure, it may not be the most original thought in the world, but there is a thought there, and that packaging is just...fascinatingly weird.

These two ideas get bandied around a lot in Boorman's career from 1965's Catch Us If You Can until 1990's Where the Heart Is. In Hell in the Pacific, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, opposing participants in a WWII naval battle, find themselves alone on a deserted island in the Pacific, far from civilization and any technology other than what they can craft out of bamboo and leaves, who need to get past the barriers of survival to connect as people. It's when they find civilization again, leaving the island to find the remnants of a battle, that they begin to dissolve their friendship (watch the original ending version, it's much better). In Excalibur, the pure hearted Arthur is the only one able to wield the sword of legend when he remains pure. When human nature takes over, like when he cheats in a duel against Lancelot, Excalibur rejects him and England suffers, leading the entire country into a period of war and destruction, forcing it all to face the heart of darkness. In Exorcist II: The Heretic, a modern piece of technology connects Richard Burton with the demon inside Linda Blair (taking humanity too far), leading to a chase into the wilds of Africa to find the truth where the demon came from before finding Linda Blair.

These two ideas, the heart of darkness in man that comes out in the wilds of the world and the dehumanizing nature of technology that leaves humanity behind, seemed to consume him for about twenty-five years. 1990 is the year of the last movie he made of this vein, the much maligned Where the Heart Is (I like it). There's a five year gap, and then starts with his more political movies with Beyond Rangoon that shares some of the motifs that Boorman had been playing with, but is definitely in some new direction.

Family Politics

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I don't normally dig into personal lives of directors, but I did decide to watch My Dad and Me, a forty-five-minute documentary that his daughter, Katrine, made in 2012 (it's on YouTube in four parts). In it, she gives an interesting piece of information that I hadn't really noticed before that Boorman and his first wife of thirty-four years, Christel, divorced in 1990. The documentary ends with a big dinner for the family where, it seems, John and Christel see each other for the first time since the divorce, and it's obvious that neither of them can stand each other anymore. Katrine and her sister Daisy hypothesize that by the time of the divorce, John wanted to sow his oats elsewhere, but 1990 was well beyond the height of his power and influence in the movie making world. He was definitely on the tail end of things in terms of that stuff. I'm not here to hypothesize about the "real" reason John Boorman decided to divorce his wife, but the timing at 1990, followed by a material change in what his movies were about starting with his next film in 1995, seems to imply to me that he was experiencing a change in worldview somehow.

That being said, starting with Beyond Rangoon in 1995 and all the way through Queen and Country in 2014 (I bet you didn't know he made a movie in 2014), his movies dealt much more fully with contemporary political situations either in Ireland (his adopted home) or in far flung places like Burma or South Africa, except for Queen and Country which is something of its own individual beast in his filmography but does touch on the changing politics of England in 1950 in explicit ways that his earlier films never did. There's also a change in thematic focus. You can still pick out the heart of darkness stuff here and there, but it becomes more work to do and less obvious, while the technology aspect pretty much falls away completely. Instead, what replaces it all is this balance of truth versus lies in creating or destroying connections between people.

This is most manifest in The Tailor of Panama, the adaptation of the novel by John le Carre, inspired by the book and film of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, about the titular tailor who invents a network of underground resistance against the post-Noriega regime in Panama that leads to a disgraced MI6 agent to pay him off for the bad intelligence that he knows is bad intelligence because it's so absurd, including the idea that China and Taiwan are coming together to purchase the Panama Canal. It's a series of lies that are just too juicy to ignore from the home office, especially since a trusted source, their MI6 agent, is telling it to them. On top of that, there are lies in the tailor's past that he has hidden from his wife whose preservation help drive him to participate in the agent's plot. The lies obfuscate, and the truth ends up making things better.

This extends into the other films, of course. Beyond Rangoon is something of a transitional film about coming over trauma through...surviving anti-democratic purges in a real place (the movie isn't very good), but it starts earnestly with The General, a story about the Irish robber and criminal Martin Cahill (in Brendan Gleeson's breakout performance) that turns him into a metaphor for the degradation of the Irish character through the 60s. In My Country is all about an Afrikaner reporter covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa where the truth of the crimes of the past of apartheid, along with the reporter having an affair with an African-American reporter from the Washington Post...which she has to reveal to her husband at the end to provide healing (it's a serious drag on the film). The Tiger's Tail is about lying to yourself about what you want where a wealthy real estate developer discovers that he has a doppelganger, his long lost twin, and they end up switching places because they have different wants and needs (it's interesting, though not really successful).

This late stage of Boorman's career is obviously much more grounded than his earlier films, and it's just not as good. There is really interesting stuff going on, though, that I admire. I can't hate it, but I have little desire to revisit any of them ever again. Boorman really strikes me as an intelligent man with interesting things to say, but he simply doesn't have the screenwriting chops to package them properly in a film on his own. He really needed cowriters, which he had on all of his best films except Hope and Glory, his autobiographical film. Most of the films that he did write were overstuffed with ideas that never quite connected right. Interesting ideas, filled with promise, well-filmed and well-performed, but never really fitting together in dramatically satisfactory ways.

Hope and Queen and Glory and Country

As I've noted, Boorman made two explicitly autobiographical films, Hope and Glory, for which he was nominated for Best Director, and Queen and Country almost thirty years later for the BBC. The characters aren't named after himself or his family, but ask him about them and he'll say that they're his family (just like Spielberg and The Fabelmans). What I found interesting about them is that even though they feel like they should disassociate from the rest of his filmography, they don't. Hope and Glory is as much about looking into the heart of darkness and the dehumanizing power of technology as Zardoz or Deliverance. The focus, though, is Queen and Country.

Queen and Country is his final film, and it feels like a final film. It's sedate, like a lot of older filmmakers, introspective, and it reflects pretty much the entirety of his thematic obsessions in one package one last time. I watched a Q&A of Boorman a few years after the film came out (this video after a screening of Hell in the Pacific) where he's asked if he'll make another film (he is still alive), and he says, "Not if I can help it." He also says in that My Dad and Me documentary that making films is a horrible job (I've heard that more than once from directors). Queen and Country feels like a final statement from Boorman not because it's his final film, but because he obviously made it to be his final film. It's a goodbye to everything he loved about the movies he made, and it helps that it ends up being his most successful movie in almost thirty years.

Goodbye, you crazy, insane, and talented man

John Boorman stopped fulfilling his early promise by the 1990s. His wildly ambitious, almost always messy, mythic in feel, scope, and implication, but also interesting films gave way to smaller, more political fare with a tighter focus on more grounded interpersonal relationships. He also worked less frequently with co-writers who could mold his ideas into dramatic wholes, leaving a second half of his career that is simply not up to par with the first. He's never less than interesting, though, and there are things to pick from those later films.

However, the real meat is in the first half. Stuff like Excalibur, Deliverance, Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific (his best film, in my opinion), and even the crazier stuff like Zardoz or even Exorcist II: The Heretic (which, don't get me wrong, is a terrible, terrible film) are just fascinating to watch for their occasionally blind and sometimes misdirected ambition. He was a singular voice who managed to keep that voice in the commercial world of film for an impressively long time. He made a surprising mark for making a good number of his films right around his house in Ireland, and I'm glad I went through his work.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

The Boogeyman

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Hell in the Pacific (Rating 4/4) Full Review "The sparseness of the narrative allows great focus on the characters while providing a large space for implication and even subtlety in this tale of the loss of civilization, the rise of cooperation and friendship, and it all coming crashing down again." [Personal Collection]

Deliverance (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "If you've ever wanted to make a movie where a handful of guys wander around the woods for most of the runtime, I'm not sure you could find a better model than John Boorman's Deliverance, based on the book and script by James Dickey." [Library]

Zardoz (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "However, I'm kind of surprised it works as well as it does, but it can't quite come together completely. Maybe if Boorman had set aside the cocaine for a few days during scripting, he could have ironed this stuff out." [Personal Collection]

The Emerald Forest (Rating 2/4) Full Review "Boorman brings his normal filmmaking skills to the affair, but his inability to settle on ideas bites him once again." [Library]

Hope and Glory (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "It's also a testament to how a distinct storyteller can make any story his own, bending it to his thematic obsessions. That it's entertaining is all the better." [Library]

The General (Rating 3/4) Full Review "This isn't one of Boorman's great films. I think it needed to make the rise of Cahill more infectiously entertaining to help make the downfall more impactful, but it's a well-managed, well-acted, and well-put together production that makes its point well." [Library]

The Tailor of Panama (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "Is the film good? Not really. I think a tighter second act could have pushed it up there, but that second act just flags and drains so much tension and excitement out of the film. Is it bad? I wouldn't go that far. Boorman has definitely made worse, and he's too in command here for the film to descend into badness." [Library]

Ben-Hur (Rating 4/4) Full Review "In the hands of Wyler, he brings genuine earnestness to the affair while balancing ideas without getting preachy and integrating everything in a beautiful film filled with grand sets and marvelous performances." [Library]

Contact

Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

My next post will be on 6/24, and it will talk about a special subject of great importance.

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