Immersions: John Huston Ch5

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Immersions: John Huston Ch5
Current mood: exhausted

“It was the best time to be a racist English Imperialist” But that is FAR from all there is to it, in John Huston’s cinematic adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, “The Man Who Would Be King”. What an absolutely wry and crazy picture! An absolute delight! This is top form Huston, a great piece of literature to adapt, Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the leads, and all OVER the place are the themes that noone does better than Huston: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it and find it somewhat….lacking.” Great on location work, anytime Huston can get out into some godforsaken part of the world to tell his story he is in hog heaven. Lauren Bacall once said that John Huston had left his friends bodies strewn from one side of the Earth to the other. The story is of two ex-British soldiers who loved war and soldiering and masculine comraderie, even preferring it to “strong drink, or entanglements with women-red,brown, black, or white” until Sean Connery is made KING of “Kaffiristan”, basically North Afghanistan. Their plan is simple, they tell fellow freemason Rudyard Kipling (a newspaper reporter at this point in his life supposedly). “We shall put every penny we have into rifles and smuggle them across the borders to Kaffiristan. There we will apply as Army trainers to the first warlord we come across, train his army, conquer his enemies and make him king, and then subvert the throne, and loot the country from top to bottom.” Gun smuggling is no new thing to them, they also assure the staid Kipling, aghast at their audacity and ambitions. One hell of a cross country journey then occurs, at the end of which, pretty much everything goes according to plan, and soon they are kings. And then it gets complicated…. Connery becomes King and Caine the head of the Army, the natives hail Connery as a God, which both guarantees and dooms him. It is a blasphemy but that aspect is NOT emphasized, what IS emphasized is his blasphemy against THEIR religion, and ultimately, things go very, very badly for The Greatest Scot Actor. This is also a medititation on the ease and limitations of the Imperial mind. Yes it is easy to knock over a king or a warlord with modern technology, but then you have to stay there, and you can NOT win the peace without coming to peace with their culture and beliefs. The parallels between this fictional adventure in Afghanistan and our own current REAL LIFE adventures in Afghanistan are way more than uncanny they are fucking surreal. We sent a small number(11,000) of troops to Afghanistan, adopted the Northern Alliance warlords, kicked the Taliban back into the hills, and then subverted the Northern Alliance and installed UNOCAL executive Hamid Karzai as our puppet leader. But now he has to live there, and so do we. Thank god for NATO and the Canadians and Australians up there, but the Taliban is back, strong as ever or more, now launching direct frontal assaults on our bases there. So the story parallels just get fucking wierd. The difference is that nobody on our leadership can hold a candle to Sean Connery OR Michael Caine as a presence or as a man (or woman Condi). It is absolutely beautifully shot, with really well done and subtle special effects (watch for the miraculous avalanche!), the dialogue is priceless: “He asks, Are you Gods?” “Tell him we are not Gods, we are Englishmen, which is the very next best thing!” among other gems. Just terrific. The portrayal of the Afghans is of an almost one dimensional mob, a force of savage nature solely able to be focused by religion. 10 years ago we could have denounced this as an assured racist observation, 5 years of having to deal with and live in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban (who we trained and equipped for over 10 years, and then by proxy through Pakistan’s ISI), that vision of a people is now perhaps too close to true not to be embarrassing. Then again, 50% of their population is under 15 years old, and young adolescent men are easily inflamed and savage in their responses. Overall, this film is one hell of a good yarn, a good moral to it, a great looking flick and a sterling adaptation of the flavor of Kipling – Imperialist yet sensitive, un-PC yet compassionate, tough yet sentimental, fantastic acting performances by Connery and Caine, wonderful locations, a solid gold winner that will keep you arguing and talking for days!

Wise Blood is wierd as hell, there is no two ways about it. This IS, though, I think, one hell of a ballsy picture. Brad Dourif is a returning soldier who was wounded (he got the purple heart), but “[doesn’t want anyone] to know where” and here I strongly suspect we are drawing again on “Let there be light” because Brad Dourif is crazier than a shithouse rat and goes downhill from there. This is a movie about faith, about losing that faith, about absolutely crushing guilt, abandonment, con artists, religion and dogma, and rural American society. It is offbeat, and taken from a book by Flannery O’Connor, another Irishman. I don’t know really how to describe the plot other than to say that the plot itself is not that important, it is a character piece through and through, and almost adheres to the rules of Absurdist theater (all characters are already in conflict). This is all about Man versus HIMSELF. It is heroic journey gone horribly wrong, what happens to all those who set out on a heroic journey and fail? Once again we have the themes that make it a Huston picture, characters searching for “the stuff that dreams are made of”, a collection of damaged, tragic, loser characters, and the horrible reality of finding the lie in the things you most aspire to and believe in. Classic attitudes in veterans of the Second World War. We just never lived up to thier hopes, and the sixties generation of self-indulgent fucks must have been even more particularly painful for those who had seen the price of peace paid with their friend’s flesh scattered over Italy, blown out of the skies of the Pacific, or burned in the ovens. With such a payment made on a Peace, and with what was done with it……. Well, it’s easy to see how Huston would understand where Flannery was coming from when he put it on paper. A young damaged veteran looking for something to believe in, desperately, while equally desperately screaming his belief in nothing. His “Church of Christ without Christ”, his paranoia, his oedipal complexes, and his inability to have any real intimacy outside of acts of extreme wierdness, make Dourif’s character riveting and confusing to watch. You just never know what the hell he is going to do next, but you are pretty sure it is going to be pretty crazy and he seldom disappoints. When he DOES disappoint, it’s fucking funny. Good movie, VERY wierd, and very RAW, previsions David Lynch I would say it would be fair to say. This is 1979 (made in 1978) and the Elephant Man comes out in 1980, Eraserhead (his Student film in Philadelphia) came out in 1977, but I would venture it would be a pretty big longshot that Huston had been exposed to Lynch. I would say that Lynch had definitely been exposed to Huston though. I mean, specifically, in my comparison with Lynch, Lynch’s period from Blue Velvet to The Straight Story (his best period I think, but I am not really a fan of his and I fucking HATE Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, but that is another Blog). Anyways, some of you nerds can have fun making those comparisons in more detail.

Prizzi’s Honor is fun. Straight up, well written, crackingly paced, sexy, flirty, dangerous, FUN. It kicked all kinds of Oscar ass and it is immediately obvious why. Huston shoots it closer to a fairytale than a gangster movie, yet it never shirks from realistic(to semi-realistic) portrayals of violence, even if unseen (such as the execution in the garage) or gory (Knife in throat). The story is a cross/double cross story of a Mob made guy (Jack Nicholson – GREAT FUCKING GREAT IN THIS!Oscar nomination(loss) for Best Actor), his jilted romance (Angelica Huston – FANTASTIC!! HOT! Noone shoots her more beautifully than her father and she won the picture’s only Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), his new flame and professional hitter (Kathleen Turner), his Dad(John Randolph), his jilted romance’s Dad and Boss-Capo (Lee Richardson), and the ringleader of the whole circus, Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey, nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Nominations without victory went to John Huston for Best Director, Best Picture (longtime Huston producer John Foreman), Best Editing, Best Costume, Best Writing.

THIS IS THE ORIGINAL Mr. And Mrs. Smith(Pitt-Jolie). They both get contracts to hit the other. Charlie Pontana(Nicholson) is stuck between Turner, Huston and Don Corrado, and of course the code of Prizzi Honor, which is ultimately the all deciding factor. Once again characters dreams come true and turn sour, once again Huston  has his meat and potatos in theme and the visuals are exquisite. It must be said, especially as we approach “The Dead”, that Huston adheres to the old-school school of thought that the Director’s job was focused on getting the script right, getting the performances, and then putting the camera in the right place for the DP to make the picture look great. Preminger, Wyler, Hathaway, are of this school. It is not the place of the Director to be a visual stylist, it is the job to be a storyteller who prevents style from interfering with the story. It is sort of the Style-without-style style. Perfectly valid. That is not to say that Huston doesn’t have it in him, he Does, and he flexes those muscles every once in a while, but it is NOT his emphasis. He is too clever for grandstanding ala Godard, Greenaway, or Lang. He prefers to weave his spell with LOTS of dialogue, most of it brilliant, a literary sensibility, and really deep characters. Most of his best movies are adapted from Novels. This style, however, lets the DP’s SHINE! And that is why Huston’s work always fits so perfectly into the era it is created in, and frequently the place as well. In Italy he looked more Neo-Realist than the Italians. In Britain, he was the quintessential British parlor mystery master. His Irish films are passionate, saturated affairs, his Noir is the least refined expressionism with the highest quotient of GRIT. He even out-new-waves many of the Nouvelle Vague in the last place you would think to Look (Red Badge of Courage). Huston knows how to hire the right DP for a job. Casting the crew of a picture is as important or even more important than casting the right actors.

Prizzi’s Honor has plenty of plot twists, and finds Huston in a fatherly mood. Clearly the most compassionate (even as he orders murders) character in the place is Don Corrado (look for him later as a pet shop owner in “My Blue Heaven”-Herbert Ross). Clearly Huston, at this late point in his life, is driven as much in his desire to make Anjelica a star (and he does), as he is by the sheer joy of making movies. They say that he was on his death bed three times, and every time it was the hiring to do a picture that lifted him back to the world of the living.He was a man of great depth of passion, of love for his comrades, of massive love for his children, and for his many wives, but most of all, for the act of Directing Motion Pictures and MAKING ART. Prizzi’s Honor bounces along to the strains of Rossini, and if Huston ever grandstanded, this would be the picture that he did it. There is such joy in every camera movement, in every cut, it sings out – I want to have FUN! I want to LIVE! even if that means pulling the trigger ultimately on those you love. Ironic. Amazing. Joyous, and mercillesly clever in it’s plot twists, and character’s agonies. Only someone as smart as Huston could make Warped Humor as fun as this, and only a cinema Master could sew such a perfectly balanced tapestry. This was Huston’s 2nd to last picture.

And then, the end.

All his life, John Huston loved James Joyce. He often said that his reading of a smuggled copy of the then banned book “Ulysses” was the singlest greatest changing point in his life. The Dead, is an adaptation by Huston’s son of James Joyce’s tale “The Dubliners”, and he recieved an Oscar nomination for screenplay for the work. It is challenging. It is deep. It is a simple quiet unhurried and immensley personal portrayal of a Christmas dinner at the upper class home of the Dublin family Conroy. Anjelica plays the lead, and Donall McCann her husband. It is poignant without being maudlin, paced without dragging, penetrating on a par with Bergman’s best. There is no plot at all. There is characters who discover through reminiscence and discussion the difference between the living and LIVING, between the dead always being with us and the Dead living through us. This is a very short picture actually, 83 minutes, it gets in and gets out leaving us sort of hanging  which could not be more appropriate. It is jarring, and we understand to a tiny degree, the sensation of hanging between the screen world and the real world, perhaps between the world of the living and of the Dead. It is absolutely BEAUTIFUL, getting also an Oscar Nomination for Best Costume. You sort of slip into the world, it makes you LIVE with these people, in that sense it could be an extension of that theme from The Man Who Would Be King, but told from the perspective of an insider, of an Irish diaspora who knew the Irish in his bones and knew Joyce too, as opposed to the confused racist moral pragmatism of an English Army sergeant. In short, this movie is one hell of a swan song for one of the greatest American Directors, and one of the greatest directors in the whole of the world.

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