Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Warriors

Walter Hill, 1979, USA

The first thing that you find when starting in on Walter’s Hill’s ‘ultimate’ version of "The Warriors" is that it is far from the incendiary, brutally realistic depiction of gang violence that its original riot-causing reputation might lead you to believe. The (online) sources tell a tale of extra security paid for by the film company to supervise theatre screenings, of outbreaks of gang violence at the cinema. Genuine gangs liked it, but apparently couldn’t stand sitting next to rivals to watch it. But this is hardly gritty, terrifying realism; it is probably not even as provocative as "A Clockwork Orange". What it is is far closer to "Sin City", "Creepshow" and "The Hulk" (Ang Lee) than "Romper Stomper", or "Gomorrah". The film freezes and becomes artwork; the artwork pulls back to reveal comic-book panels of scenes; there are wipes and titles that say "Meanwhile" that carry the narrative along. It is conceived as a comic-book come to life, and it is set in the near future. Sol Yurick’s source novel is apparently truly interested in exploring the desperate environment that creates gangs, but Hill moved onto something more fantastic when the studio would not consent to an all black and Hispanic cast. It is this, he believes, that induced him to make "The Warriors" futuristic which, like "A Clockwork Orange", makes more sense of all the crazy dressing up. The superficial details are not sci-fi, so it feels more like a variant New York reality.

It has considerable cult cool, generated by a hip soundtrack that is both sinister synths (much like John Carpenter, courtesy of Barry De Vorzon) and funky soul cuts. It is hip from the variety and outrageousness of the gang costumes and tribal identities, courtesy of great work by costume designers Mary Ann Winston and Bobbie Mannix. It is hip from the smooth, unfussy direction and broody atmosphere, from the constant threat of trial-by-violence. Much of "The Warriors" longevity comes, like all good cult films, from its successful creation of an alternate reality with details that speak far beyond the immediate action. All those gangs, costumes and their history can be imagined and expanded upon by the audience. This is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, you can try out Rockstar Games’ 2005 tie-in beat-em-up role-player for "The Warriors", which is full of expanded character backstories - and a far more brutal, amoral and provocative experience than the original film. The gangland is the seemingly barren and endlessly nocturnal city, overwritten with graffiti and alleviated only by blocks of coloured neon reflections stretching down shiny asphalt. It is both flamboyant and noir-ish. Even when the sun comes up, it’s still possible to imagine as a place where shadows house silent gangs ready to take you down. Somewhere else in the city, where the police are presumably less brutal and loathsome, you might envision John Carpenter’s "Assault on Precinct 13" taking place.

Hill almost starts with what ought to be the grand finale, with all the gangs gathering in one place for a gigantic meeting of rivals. This pays great dividends: once The Warriors have been framed for the murder of Cyrus - (Roger Hill) a warlord who is trying to bring all the gangs together to run the city like some big funky "Can you dig it?!" kingpin (the common enemy: police & authority) - we can look forward with curiosity as to which oddball gang they will run into next. There is a similar trick, or possible influence, in Richard’s Price’s novel "The Wanderers" (1974), where on page two there is a list of gangs, all of which have defining characteristics (Wongs, Pharaohs, Del-Bombers, etc.) and all promising some nasty encounters. It is a novel that William Burroughs called "A deeply moving account of confused and spiritually underprivileged youth"*; and although "The Warriors" is not that film nor "Rebel Without A Cause", it doesn’t forget to shade its colourful characters with a little desperation and deprivation. The most celebrated touch is when the encounter between the beat-up Warriors and tagalong gang girl Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) and a group of bright white preppies becomes a silent bid for dignity.

In enemy territory and with the whole city out for their blood, The Warriors try to make their way back to the beaches of Coney Island. This owes everything to the Greek tale of Anabasis, just as so many of the character names allude to all things classical and mythical. The structure is stripped down but carefully paced: after the opening show-piece, it’s the best part of an hour before the first real gang-on-gang punch-out occurs. Aside from confrontational Ajax (James Remar) and bare-chest outfits, The Warriors aren’t macho poseurs or pit-fighting lunkheads: rather, there is plenty of barely repressed anxiety and vulnerability on display, quietly played out between them, which evokes their need of gang identity for survival in a harsh urban wasteland. And then, come the end, Swan (Michael Beck) looks out across his home with unconcealed disdain. Walter Hill even sidesteps a showdown with The Rogues, even though they have raced to Coney Island especially to take down The Warriors. Rather, he allows the drama to round itself off without unnecessary grandstanding. It is a fine demonstration of how satisfying closure can be dramatically achieved without recourse to the standard punch-up felt needed to resolve so many action films.

Sleek, sparse and atmospheric, "The Warriors" has been adopted by the hip-hop community and outwards, and has generated its own long-term cult. An action film that manages to circumnavigate much of the obvious genre pitfalls, but at the same time still offers skinheads, post-Russ Meyer Siren-like lesbian crews, martial arts clans and baseball bat baddies. Moody, smart enough and thoroughly enjoyable.

* This William Burroughs quote taken from the back cover of: Richard Price, "The Wanderers" (Bloomsbury Classic Reads; 2004 edition).

Sunday, 17 May 2009


Bad ma ra khahad bord

Abbas Kiarostami - 1999 - Iran/France

Although it relies upon natural action rather than dramatic narrative, Kiarostomai's film allows easy-going pace, simple situations and scenery to draw in the viewer. The lengthy shots allow space for magnificent vistas to take the breath away (the opposite of the claustrophobic single-setting of his "Ten"). The takes never seem prolonged in order to discover a spiritual world like Tarkovsky, for they feel organic rather that ceremonious. Neither do they go beyond prolonged, as in Bela Tarr, to discover a metaphysical world somewhat freed of spirituality, leaving only what you see and the elements around you. Rather, Kauristami allows his shots and scenes to linger just enough for the scenery and authentic rhythms of the local life to rise to the surface.

Our protagonist is a filmmaker who makes himself part of the daily routine of the town; there is casual generosity all round and despite his somewhat bullish nature, he is successful in befriending several townsfolk. Slowly, he finds himself interested in their gossip; the days are full of casual greetings, the search for milk, wandering livestock, driving… lots of driving in Kiarostami films … Slowly the truth comes: he leads a film crew, but this just creates new questions. The mystery is underplayed but it’s there from the start: why is this small group of filmmakers pretending to be engineers, or treasure hunters? Why does the director keep asking about the health of a local woman who appears to be on her deathbed? What is it that they want from this remote town? But now he is partially embedded in the culture and a crisis of conscious is felt, his mean streak and arrogance surfaces from frustration and the idle pace of the town gets to the increasingly impatient crew. His natural goodwill reasserts itself, but by then it seems to late (in particular, his relationship with his young guide suffers and he doesn't have the time to repair it properly).

So there is humour and mystery, and a genuine plot to be had, despite the impression that we are simply watching a incidental life as it happens. The humour is slight but colours the scenes where an old couple argue gender at the tea shop, or in our filmmaking protagonist constantly dashing great distances to find high ground to take his mobile calls. The repetitions yield rewards and truths: here is the local daily routine; what the filmmaker is told one day, he forgets the next. The careful shots that follow the characters give us a tour and, through that repetition, the geography of the place becomes clear. This topographical attention is a rare reward, for so many films fail to take the time to establish the geography of their locations, which can often hold the key to so much information and suspense. The village itself becomes the main character. The faint grades of shade and sunlight become key indicators of time of day, cast against the sandy walls of the buildings and possessing an unforced beauty. A film to calm you, to force you to ease up, relax and soak in its leisure, pleasures and casual surrealism. Ultimately life-affirming, rational and greatly humanitarian.


Mick Garris - USA - 2006

The first half is fair enough, with the demonic sheriff rounding up random people who just happen to be passing through his middle-of-nowhere town called Desperation, jailing them for some undoubtedly demonic purpose.. Once the victims are out of the jail, the whole thing comes to a screeching halt for an old man to spout exposition, then for an tediously evangelical and pious child to gush born-again Stephen Kingisms. King has said that horror is conservative because it is about the fight between Good and Evil. Actually, the fight between Good and Evil is the Conservative view of horror which takes for granted the existence of such polar forces. Usually this involves the most banal evocation of horror, the kind fully on display in "Desperation": unholy portals, possession, random prophetic visions, possessed people acting in hammy fashion and using pop-culture references in that punning post-Jack Torence, post-Freddy Kruger manner. Evil also uses spiders and snakes and big cats and wisecracking Hellboys (yes, Ron Perlman). God uses visions of angelic dead girls and back-story conveyed in the style of old silent-movies (complete with title cards and tight editing) to pass on visions to the prophet-boy. Later, He will use personal, shameful memories served up as bad war movies. And God also sends divine soap to aid escape plans (rather than, you know, simply opening cell doors). King’s conservative vision of horror does not accommodate the far more complex, painful and truthful horror of post-Vietnam genre films such as "Night of the Living Dead", "Last House on the Left", "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"… the list is well known. To top off how this incorporates all the worst traits of King’s screenplays, the hero with the spiritual dilemma is yet again a writer.

All that matters is what God wants, says the kid at one point. In such a weak offering, does King really think he has a message to spin? It’s a mess, it’s badly paced, weakly played and unimaginatively rendered, especially come the second half. If you are to look for a far more disturbing investigation of the temptation of Evil, look to another King mini-series, "Storm of the Century". It is everything that this effort is not: carefully paced and a sturdy allegory and not just a little disturbing.


George A. Romero - USA - 1973

Romero’s less grisly but disturbing variation/development of the themes of "Night Of The Living Dead" perhaps owes more to disaster films of the Seventies than low budget horror. It’s ambitions are admirable, far-reaching on scale and generally successful, but here the rough edges arguably do not enhance the aesthetic (as it did with "Living Dead"). The chief weakness is the soundtrack which is often tinny and sharp to the ear, punctuated by unsubtle machine-gun military drumming and folkish songs. Romero’s intention is clear and steady when demonstrating that during times of disaster, although the initial threat may be, say, biological weapons, the ongoing peril is military incompetence, bureaucracy and people going insane. It's barely allegory. The military red tape causes more harm than good, soldiers mistreat and steal from those they are meant to protect, people that are hysterical are barely distinguishable from those infected with the plague of violence, a violence that is barely suppressed within old ladies by knitting.

There is a classic Romero opening, one which most of his films benefit from. First he introduces a horror that is make-believe, then he pulls back to make it real. The brother tells Barbara that the shambling man in the graveyard of "The Living Dead" is a zombie, and then it turns out that he really is. The father throws away the false horrors of the "Creepshow" comic, only for the boy to find that the corpse-like Creep is real. And so on. It is a methodology that always proves a winner. "The Crazies" opens with a young boy designs to scare his little sister before bedtime, only to see the shadow of his father going berserk and wrecking the house. It is another great, chilling opening that throws the viewer right in the deep end, setting out and stirring up false and real terrors. Later, as happens frequently in Romero, the view pulls back further to reveal that the truest horror is how we react to catastrophe and fear. "The Crazies" may not be considered essential Romero, but it is thick with his disillusion and black humour and shows that Romero was already creating zombie variations long before that was trendy. Rarely has a director so consistently conveyed and balanced fantastic and real horrors and their relationship to one another so successfully.