W-films: Part 2 – we’re all wild about films

144
Marlon Brando in The Wild One

We’re all wild about films, but which Wild film should you be the wildest about?  The one that people were most wild about once is The Wild One, but I’m afraid this hasn’t worn well.  Much of the story of Marlon Brando’s Johnny and his motorbiking pals now seems risible.  It’s not just the poor back-projections as the gang ride along, it’s more their baffling antics (like the kids in Rebel Without A Cause): it all seems hugely outdated as they take on the squares, daddio, preferring their crazy bebop and their pogo-sticks.  It’s amazing that it was banned in the UK until 1967, fourteen years after its release: nowadays it’s the gang members’ sexual harassment that’s the most shocking.  In a way it’s a variant of the classic Western, with the bad lads riding into town and the law (Robert Keith) so weak that the townsfolk have to organise themselves to resist.  Although Mary Murphy (later in The Desperate Hours) rightly nails Johnny as a fake, their relationship is over-wrought and hard to follow; more in love with him seems to be slurry, funny Lee Marvin (Chino, with his gang of Beetles rivalling the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (which at least gives us the classic dialogue ‘What are you rebelling against?’/’What you got?’)).   Perhaps to counter any contemporary sense of sensational exploitation, the film’s forgotten director László Benedek (who’d earlier done much better with Death of a Salesman, starring Fredric March) prefaces the film with a challenge to ensure that the likes of this never happens again – but the likes of what, exactly?  Most in the wrong would seem to be the bar-owner who seeks to monetise the mass invasion, and reaps the whirlwind.

Wild

I hoped to be wildly impressed by Wild; fresh from bingeing on Jean-Marc Vallée’s wonderful Big Little Lies, I hurried to go back to this earlier film of his which also features Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, but was disappointed.  Based rather too closely on a true story of a woman who walked some of the Pacific Crest Trail to ‘find herself’ after bereavement and a descent into drugs and promiscuity, it reeks of the real: predictable moments such as the timing of the death of the mother (Dern, of whom there really isn’t enough) and Witherspoon puking after drinking are included precisely because that’s what actually happened, rather than because they are dramatically interesting.  Vallée’s characteristically good use of music is there, though, together with his ability to conjure performances out of children (a little boy’s song nearly steals the whole film), and Witherspoon is pretty good (not least, thanks to her looks, in evoking her character at various different ages), but all the men are cut-outs; the whole thing is constrained by the memoir by Cheryl Strayed which the film does little to transcend, despite or because of Nick Hornby’s screenplay.

Wild Bill

What of Wild Bill?  You tend to think most Wild films will be actual Westerns but this isn’t, either; rather it’s a decent enough contemporary British drama.  Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut combines grit and sentimentality reasonably well but on balance, despite the violence, tends to go for the softer option (like the sexy but unconsummated, non-naked sexual encounters).  Charlie Creed-Miles is good as the ex-con discovering his two sons (the plot therefore having very slight similarities with Mona Lisa); Will Poulter is excellent as the elder one; it also features Neil Maskell (always worth watching), nice turns from Liz White (the WPC from Life on Mars), and Iwan Rheon as a white black man; together with Andy Serkis as the Mr Big, and Charlotte Spencer, the voice of Angelina Ballerina.

Wild Tales

Better is Wild Tales, an Argentinian film from what I think of as the whimsical Spanish tradition of the likes of Buñuel and Almodóvar (who produces here) – pointing up by proxy the contrivance of film by presenting delightful, funny but improbable dark deadpan cinema.  Here we get six stories of revenge, kicked off by the passengers discovering the incredible coincidence that they all know the same man, who is now piloting their plane into a couple’s back garden; and on to a road-rage saga that escalates imaginatively, going well beyond shitting on the other guy’s windscreen, rather like the destructive mayhem of Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business; then you fear the worst when the car of Ricardo Darin, a demolition expert, is towed away and he loses wife and daughter and job, and then has his car towed away again – and sure enough he sets up a third towing and blows the car up in the compound, but emerges a hero.  It’s patchy: the murder of a diner isn’t so good, and an attempt to cover up a hit-and-run rather peters out; the longest sequence, where a wedding celebration goes spectacularly wrong in classic EastEnders style when the bride discovers the groom has been unfaithful with one of the guests, is perhaps the least interesting.  There are some nice moments throughout, but inevitably you compare it to a full-length film – or to how short stories are also usually not a patch on proper novels.  In both cases you feel a bit short-changed if they don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts.  Buñuel does this in his great films – they’re even more subversive since they purport to be a continuous whole, and the different scenes do link.  Here, the over-arching theme is simply revenge; is it really a state-of-the-nation thing about a country on the edge of violence?  Let’s hope that director Damián Szifron follows this up with something less fragmentary – on the evidence of this, I’d certainly watch it.

Wild at Heart

Wild at Heart: ah, now you’re talking.  David Lynch’s film is highly entertaining – Nicolas Cage typically deranged; Laura Dern hot (largely in underwear) but child-like; Harry Dean Stanton solid as ever; Willem Dafoe, with Steve Buscemi’s teeth, as Bobby Peru (‘just like the country’) who comes to a sticky end; Sherilyn Fenn off Twin Peaks; and Freddie Jones!  Characteristically for Lynch there’s subtle interplay of sound and vision alongside memorable images, and it’s occasionally hilarious (the superannuated hotel staff; the dog with the severed hand; and, in answer to my quiz question of last time, this is the film with the line ‘I’m going to call it Pace, whether it’s a boy or a girl’).  Utterly over the top, it also has shades of that other, earlier road movie Paris, Texas in the use of red, the mannish Isabella Rossellini, and the late great HDS, of course; Chris Isaak replaces Ry Cooder on the soundtrack.

The Wild Bunch

Predictably, perhaps, my eventual Wild Western is The Wild Bunch.  Peckinpah has a great first reel here in his breakthrough film (though Ride the High Country has many of the seeds).  He builds to a shoot-out which uses his trademark slow-motion but also has genuine power even though you don’t have much of a clue about what’s going on.  Then there’s a lengthy middle section, with one bunch following the other, of the sort that you’d normally expect to lead up to a similar kind of shoot-out, so you expect the finale is going to be even more striking – and the climax is indeed just as good, although it features the bunch against another enemy.  The anti-climax is that the bounty hunters are themselves shot after they claim the corpses shot by others, and one survivor from each bunch throws in their lot with the native guerrillas.

Despite the (differently) stylised violence, there’s a normalising tendency here which demythologizes the genre – the leads are ageing; there are children all over the place, in recognisable villages; the action is situated within a wider geopolitical situation, with complex power relationships that dwarf the usual myth of the strong, self-reliant individual; there’s even a car, and talk of aeroplanes.  But there’s also buckets of blood: realistic, often multiple wounds, the slow deaths of the heroes, the killing of women, the killing by children (adumbrated in the opening in their random cruelty).  So what Peckinpah is doing here is restoring the reality of the West, undermining the cult of the individual and the myth of the quick, deserved or noble death from the single, clean shot.  The opening frames which are frozen into sepia photos emphasise how in traditional westerns this reality is routinely traduced: then Peckinpah re-realises the past into a more naturalistic approach which paved the way for the next generation (directors like Eastwood and Costner, then films like Brokeback Mountain and Django Unchained) after the genre’s swerve into spaghetti.

It’s no wonder that John Wayne said that this film destroyed the myth of the Old West.  There’s a bit too much hysterical laughter in it, but otherwise it’s magnificent.  The nicely mature leads are William Holden (delivering the classic instruction ‘if they move, kill ‘em’), Ernest Borgnine, and feisty old Edmond O’Brien (here a cross between Freddie Jones and Buster Merryfield).  Others in the actual bunch are Warren Oates (looking just like Eric Clapton – it’s the eyes and the cheekbones), and Ben Johnson (looking like an ageing DiCaprio).  Equally old Robert Ryan leads the pursuers.

Wild Strawberries

[See the video at the end of this article.  Interview with Ingmar Bergman on The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries & more, by Melvyn Bragg.]

But I’m wildest about Wild Strawberries.  Don’t sigh, or shrug, as if you know that these Swedish films are supposed to be classics but there’s no way you’re ever going to watch them.  Do, because this is fabulous stuff from Bergman, continually surprising, totally haunting: sparkling images, striking dream and memory sequences, and with the story of the ultimate public honouring of a career set alongside an absence of human feeling caused in part at least by lost young love.

The day in the life of the 78-year-old withdrawn, ‘pedantic’ (nowadays we’d say OCD) Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) begins with his brilliantly realised dream, with its deserted streets, a handless clock and watch, the hanging eyes street-sign (surely picked up by Truffaut in Day for Night in Ferrand’s dream of the hearing-aid shop), and his own corpse spilling from the funeral carriage to begin to pull him down into death.  But it’s not all completely baleful: next up is a comedy argument with his housekeeper.

He decides to drive down to Lund to get his honorary degree (slight shades of Clockwise), and the film becomes less of an unlikely road movie than a trip down memory lane in the company of his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin); she starts off with some home truths about him, to which he’s impervious, but a stop at the chalet where he spent his childhood holidays launches, via the strawberries, genuinely Proustian memories where the past completely supplants the present.  The flashback is itself memorably done, initially with cousin Sara a ghostly superimposed presence, then fully there in the picture, as is the aged Isak.  There’s the fateful self-reconstructed scene in which his brother Sigfrid moves in on Sara as she picks the strawberries, but also comic scenes with the deaf drinker uncle, and the chiming naughty twins.

It’s in this outdoor sequence that we first get stunning black and white images, as in Bergman’s earlier Summer with Monika; but throughout, including many social scenes, there’s a wealth of fabulously composed shots – it’s not just the reflection of people in a puddle in one of the dreams that’s reminiscent of the brilliant cinematography of The Magnificent Ambersons.

And on we go: improbably, three teens hitch a ride with them (the boys in quaint short shorts): the girl is called Sara, Isak revealing that Sigfrid married his Sara; then an unexpected car crash (rescuing and trying to start the VW they hit is like bits of M. Hulot’s Holiday – the towing, the backfiring); they pick up and then throw out a bickering couple before the next phase as they reach another place with memories of a different time in Isak’s life.  Max von Sydow pops up as petrol pump attendant in the area where Isak was a well-loved district doctor; he visits his aged mother who has her memories of her ten children, only Isak of them still living, and she has a handless watch she wants to give to her eldest grandson.

More dreams come as they drive on: Sara saying she’ll marry Sigfrid, making Isak look at himself in a mirror to see what she describes as an anxious old man who will die soon; the impossible public examination, with him declared guilty of guilt, and incompetent as a doctor, and accused of various selfish faults by his dead wife; an observed scene possibly of her infidelity, his magnanimity towards which is basically just coldness; him being sentenced to loneliness.  He describes these dreams as his sleeping self telling him things his waking self won’t – that he is essentially dead while still alive, and the pregnant Marianne reveals his son Evald (the spit of Nicholas le Prevost) is exactly the same (though he seems much more nihilistic) in another hellish marriage.

And yet there’s some fondness here; between Isak and the housekeeper; Evald and Marianne staying together; and Isak and Marianne becoming fond of each other as a result of the journey.  Isak’s recording and recounting the day is also positively marked, unlike the austere and empty ceremony at Lund.  And we get a final fantasy sequence: a pre-sleep memory of Sara leading him to his father and mother during that luminous lost childhood.

It’s hugely accomplished film-making, with utterly serious intent – a joy to watch, although potentially harrowing if one’s 78 years or whatever should all come down to something like this.  The suspicion still nags at me, though, that you might not make this the next thing on your watch-list, so here, as a bonus, are a couple of alternative Wilds.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a nice New Zealand film (Waititi’s next after What We Do in the Shadows): wry, off-beat, quirky – and it keeps up the general amusement level although there are not too many laugh-out-loud moments.  Julian Dennison (who later starred in the differently quirky and highly enjoyable Deadpool 2) is OK here as the real bad egg fostered out to woolly Sam Neill’s wife (Rima Te Wiata); just when you think it’s heart-warming and charming as he adapts, the wife dies and he’s off into the wild to escape Child Welfare (their motto: ‘no child lift behind’); soon he and his uncle are improbably surviving there, in lush scenery, with his dog Tupac.  It turns into a nitional minhunt, with Neill a suspected pervert.  An encounter with a girl leads to a re-run of the Cadbury’s Flake advert, and there’s a sly reference to Lord of the Rings, filmed in that country – but best perhaps is Rhys Darby’s Psycho Sam with his live casserole, his view of the national rugby team (‘they’re not human’), and (when they are located by phone-tracking device Stungray (sic)) his suggestions for a quick escape – a jet pack which he hasn’t got, and a tunnel to an underground bunker which he’s not dug yet.  It peters out somewhat into a Thelma and Louise chase and a soppy ending after the final chapter heading, but it’s been more than diverting throughout.

Benh Zeitlin’s début Beasts of the Southern Wild relies on an astounding performance by six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (for which she was rightly Oscar-nominated) and is a terrific story of a precarious lifestyle in Louisiana, threatened by climate change in general and storms and rising water in particular, and with the heroine’s father dying of alcoholism.  There are some genuinely affecting scenes, reminiscent perhaps of the lovely Into the Wild, and true drama within a very well realised and unusual setting (the semi-humorous bombing of the levee similar to Night Moves (the 2013 film with Jesse Eisenberg, not the 1975 one with Gene Hackman)).  That the poverty here is not grinding goes slightly unexplained, as do certain plot developments, and I wasn’t entirely convinced when the aurochs, initially a good symbol of climate change and imminent danger, became rather more insistent – but overall this is excellent stuff and the world will know that once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.

And finally a three-fold quiz question this time, but surely you’ve a good chance of getting them all?  Identify the W-films from the quotations:

‘We have gone on holiday by mistake.’

‘That’s not a knife?  This is a knife!’

‘Made it Ma!  Top of the world!’

 

Interview with Ingmar Bergman on The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries & more, by Melvyn Bragg.  The Wild Strawberry discussion starts at 13:30, but it’s worth watching all of it.