Thursday, August 19, 2010



The Writer

Stanley Kubrick; based on the novel by Anthony Burgess

Why It's Here

With A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick becomes the first screenwriter to make a second appearance on the Zombie's screenplay countdown. Like his earlier listed title, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick's Orange is a sci-fi-tinged, philosophically ambitious tale of possible futures inspired by the work of a great English-language author...but in many ways, that's where the similarities between the two films end. 2001 is a grand-scale epic, featuring staggering set design and groundbreaking visual effects. By comparison, A Clockwork Orange was relatively low-budget (Kubrick shot the film in less than a year, an unprecedentedly short time for the notoriously perfectionist director), shot almost entirely on locations and featuring, as arguably its most ambitious special effect, a not-all-that-realistic back-screen projection shot of young hoodlums out for a joyride. Also, the characters of 2001 are so bloodless and robotic that the audience's strongest emotional response is to the death throes of a computer being shut down, while A Clockwork Orange foregrounds the most exuberant and lively character in all of Kubrick's work, a dapper chap named Alex (Malcolm McDowell, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) who favors a walking stick, bowler hat, and false eyelashes. Of course, Alex's other interests are rape, robbery, stealing cars and cash, joining his similarly attired fellow "droogs" for a brutal dust-up with a rival gang...oh, and Beethoven. "Lovely, lovely Ludwig Van." A Clockwork Orange is one of the screen's definitive portraits of sociopathology, as well as a trenchant examination of the cost to society when the "cure" for such deviance becomes as potentially damaging, to both the individual mind and to the public, as the behavior itself.

Kubrick's first act plunges us with virtually no setup into Alex's nightly routine. We see he and his buddies getting crocked on drugged milk at a local bar, beating up a harmless old drunken hobo (Paul Farrell), and interrupting a rival gang's rape of a young girl in an old theater for a bloody rumble. Then, they head out to the country in a stolen sports car for "a little of the old 'surprise visit'"...the surprise part being their assault and violent rape of the wife (Adrienne Corri) of a middle-aged writer of subversive, anti-government literature (Patrick Magee), Alex all the while favoring his victim with his lusty rendition of "Singin' in the Rain" (the use of this song was apparently an improvisation on the part of McDowell, who, when asked to provide a song for the scene, could only recall the lyrics to that one). Much of this action is narrated by Alex in a curious hybrid language, invented by the novel's author, Anthony Burgess, and loaded with futuristic slang. The rival gang's would-be rape victim is a "devotchka", and he threatens to kick his enemy gangsters in the "yarbles" ("If you have any yarbles!"). In interviews, Kubrick expressed concerns that the large number of invented futuristic words in the dialogue might turn off the film's potential audience, but he is wise to always use these unfamiliar expressions in a context that makes them perfectly understandable and readily recalled when they appear again. So right off the bat, Kubrick clubs us over the head with a protagonist who speaks an uncommon tongue, engaged in behavior that is abhorrent at best. To make matters worse, he is clearly the character onscreen with whom we are meant to identify; he narrates the film (frequently confiding in us, chummily, as "your friend and humble narrator"), is the leader of the gang, and is clearly the focal point of every scene he's in. However, Kubrick is smart enough to give Alex, amidst this first-act chaos, one shining focal point of humanity. Back at the milk bar after their evening of crime, Alex is pleased to find a female patron favoring her friends with a vocal rendition of Beethoven's exultant "Ode to Joy", from the fourth movement of his ninth symphony. Alex, you see, has a weakness for the classics (as does the film itself; like 2001, A Clockwork Orange is scored with the likes of Beethoven, Rossini, and Elgar), so much so that when his fellow droog, the thick-skulled Dim (Warren Clarke), blows a razzberry at the singer, Alex clouts him across the knees with his cane before raising his milk glass to the singer as a toast. Outlaw critic Vern, in his book Seagalogy (a book-length analysis, believe it or not, of the films of Steven Seagal), discusses his "theory of badass juxtaposition", in which a tough-guy character is paradoxically made tougher by the inclusion of a sensitive character trait or unexpected artistic proclivity. This idea, however, did not originate with Vern or Seagal, and Alex's love of Beethoven is a textbook application of the concept. Granted, Alex mainly enjoys Beethoven because it fills his mind with images of perversity and murder, but at least he's connecting with true artistic genius and beauty, however dubiously. Nevertheless, Kubrick, in the first act of A Clockwork Orange, throws down the gauntlet, hard. He seems to be almost challenging his audience not to run from this hooligan, to stick around and see what he's got in store for Alex. So confident is Kubrick's writing, and so demonically self-assured McDowell's performance, that we're hurled, helplessly, along for the ride.

When Alex returns home following his evening of debauchery, we see the first indications that all is not well in Alex's universe, and that his criminality may be merely a symptom of a larger systemic problem. He lives with his parents in a horrible, brutalist office block, the lobby and courtyard choked with garbage and befouled with obscene graffiti (nothing in the film indicates that all this waste and blasphemy is Alex's doing alone). His parents are clinically detached drones who pay Alex the most cursory attention imaginable before heading off to work, ominously, at "the factory"...literal cogs in a horrific machine whose true depths Kubrick will plumb later in the film. Alex is visited by a truant officer, Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), who, with his sniveling manner and clutching hands, seems less interested in molding Alex's character than in getting his fingers into the boy's BVDs. The only potential authority figures in Alex's life are thus revealed as ineffectual, seized with heinous ulterior motives, or absent altogether (we hear that Alex is truant, but we never see him in school). We've seen Alex's life of rebellion. Now we know what he's rebelling against. But in the world of A Clockwork Orange, there is dishonor even among thieves, as Alex is presented by Dim and fellow droog Georgie (James Marcus) with the opportunity for a "man-sized crast", a potentially lucrative robbery score against the owner of a health farm who lives on the sprawling grounds alone with her cats. In the process of ripping off the place, Alex attacks and accidentally kills the cat lady (Miriam Karlin), and when the police arrive, Dim and Georgie shatter a milk bottle across Alex's face and leave him to face the jackals alone. It's a classic example of the evildoer being hoisted by his own petard...but that's just the beginning of the injustices that will be heaped on Alex in the remainder of the film.

In prison, Alex is presented by the chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) with the opportunity to cut his sentence substantially by participating in an experimental criminal cure: the Ludovico treatment. This process, a form of extreme aversion therapy, sees a straitjacketed Alex getting his eyes pinned open while he is forced to watch films of rape, murder, torture and other atrocities. The process seems to work well for a time, with Alex at first enthusiastically "viddying" these "horrorshow" images but soon finding himself physically sickened by the never-ending onslaught of brutality and darkness. Then, on the final day of treatment, a film of concentration-camp footage is accompanied by Alex's beloved Ludwig Van, the very same Ode to Joy he saluted in the milk bar. The result is that not only is Alex now made nauseous to the point of paralysis by the notion of committing the evil acts he used to relish, but he is also prostrated with illness by the sound of the one pure, beautiful thing that had managed to penetrate his damaged mind (in a great ironic use of language, Alex declares scoring Hitler's crimes with Beethoven to be "a sin", as if nothing else he had witnessed on all these films would be considered such). The treatment's originator, Dr. Brodsky (Carl Duering), declares it to be a side effect completely beyond their control ("Here's the punishment element, perhaps," he muses), but it is, interestingly, the same chaplain who suggested Alex for the experiment who fully grasps its darker implications. Not only has Alex senselessly been deprived of the one decent joy of his existence, but he has not even truly been rehabilitated, as all of his anti-violence impulses are completely devoid of free will; he has "ceased to be a creature capable of moral choice," and acts merely on instinctual aversion to the physical discomfort his condition now causes. In politics, as opposed to religion, however, the end clearly justifies the means, as the government minister (Anthony Sharp) who supervises the experiment declares it a success: "We are not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime...Reclamation! Joy before the angels of God! The point is that it works!" Alex has been molded into the fascist's dream, a docile puppet afraid to do anything that smacks of true consciousness. A mechanized organic mass. A clockwork orange.

Alex is released from prison, and the third act reveals the potential horrors of a life robbed of free will. The victimizer has become the consummate victim, unable to strike any blow in his own defense, no matter how justified. He doubles up in anguish after threatening to take a punch at the lodger (Clive Francis) who has usurped his room at his parents' house, and he is unable to raise a hand to defend himself when the tramp he once attacked sets upon him with a gang of fellow indigents. He is rescued, or so he thinks, by two policemen...Georgie and Dim, and the presence of Alex's once-gleeful accomplices in uniform reminds us again of the ends-justify-the-means philosophy of fascist thinking. They too beat up Alex, nearly drowning him in a horse trough, and the only place he can turn to for succor is a country house...the same house, it turns out, where Alex raped the writer's wife to death before his incarceration. The writer, now in a wheelchair and accompanied everywhere by a hulking bodyguard, at first recognizes Alex only as the victim of the oppressive government's awful "crime cure", and plans to exploit him as a symbol of the abominations of the system he has dedicated his life to destroying. But Alex exposes his true identity by belting out "Singin' In the Rain" while soaking in a bath, and the writer, now perfectly willing to exploit the unfortunate side effects of his hated Ludovico treatment for his own ends, locks the young criminal in an attic room and tortures him by blasting Beethoven's Ninth through the walls. Desperate to free himself, Alex leaps from a high window and winds up in traction. And the hypocrisy just gets deeper and deeper, as Alex's parents appear at his bedside with contrite faces and offers to take him back in. Meanwhile, the minister who damaged Alex's psyche and cast him out helpless into the world comes to the boy with a proposal for them to join forces, Alex as a political symbol of the goodness of the government. But little does the minister know that Alex's recent "tortures of the damned" have brought him back to his old self. We see glimmers of this when Alex, performing a free-association exercise with a psychiatrist (Pauline Taylor), begins utilizing his old slang, and his regression becomes full-blown when the minister presents him with a gift from the government: a huge stereo playing Beethoven. As Alex's face warps into a twisted leer, his mind fills with his beloved old images of "the old 'in-out, in-out'", and the voice-over narration informs us, "I was cured, all right." Cue "Singin' in the Rain". Heh heh heh.

Some might knock the structural convenience of the rehabilitated Alex encountering primarily people whom he had somehow wronged upon his release, but the presence of these characters is necessary to allow Kubrick to illustrate the deep systemic hypocrisy that infects the society of A Clockwork Orange from the government on down. The system is willing to decimate the mind of an uncooperative hoodlum like Alex, but is content to coddle the like-minded behavior of Georgie and Dim, as long as they play ball. Likewise, the government-hating "subversive" writer is perfectly willing to embrace the government's dubious methods when it suits his own personal ends. Hypocrisy at the highest levels is a social reality hard to ignore in this day and age, and Kubrick's screenplay masterfully anatomizes it as a deep-rooted problem far from the power of individuals to influence. This does not, however, get him entirely off the hook for the darker implications of his film's philosophy. Indeed, it is hard for me to think of a film that more effectively argues a philosophical position with which I find it difficult to agree. Granted, free will is the greatest gift mankind possesses. It is what keeps us from all being trapped into lockstep, socially circumscribed boxes, what allows us to be free and to dream our dreams. It allows me to write these film critiques, and it allows you to read them, and to disagree with my points if you choose to. But what do you do when an individual's choices are all morally suspect, if not flat-out evil? True, Alex may be the product of a negligent system that has left him with few options or outlets for his better self. But that does not change the fact that no one put the club in his hand or the drugged milk into his bloodstream. He has chosen a life of rape, pillage and murder, a life that actively harms others who only want to be left alone, a life that he has taken to, it must never be forgotten, with outright joy. Even his interaction with his beloved Ludwig Van stirs in him only thoughts of further horrors to inflict. Certainly a young man of this type cannot be permitted to simply do whatever he pleases, regardless of the consequences to his fellow man or his own soul. But if we privilege the free will of one person over that of another, aren't we playing God? Isn't every soul a valuable and precious one, even a soul as twisted and violent as Alex's? One thing you can always say about Kubrick is that he never makes it easy on his audience, and A Clockwork Orange is inarguably his most troubling and complex philosophical statement.

Of course, a film laden with such provocative thematic material and imagery is bound to cause controversy, and A Clockwork Orange caused more than most. Kubrick and his family received death threats following the release of the film, and after several copycat crimes (including the 1973 gang rape of a young girl by men crooning "Singin' In the Rain"), the filmmaker himself withdrew the picture from circulation in his adopted UK homeland. Many, admittedly, have taken precisely the wrong message from A Clockwork Orange, viewing it, like many erroneously view Brian DePalma's Scarface, as an apologia for and glorification of criminality. In both cases, however, those acolytes fail to recognize the terrible punishments inflicted upon the film's criminal protagonists. Of course, the condemnation is more explicit for Scarface's Tony Montana, who winds up floating face-down in a swimming pool, riddled with bullets, while Alex finds himself with a cushy government job and the renewed freedom to indulge his every evil impulse. A Clockwork Orange is unquestionably more ambivalent in its vision of criminality... which would explain why it, and not Scarface, found itself listed as one of Premiere Magazine's "25 Most Dangerous Films of All Time". That fact, along with the film's still-relevant messages about the morality of extreme law-and-order countermeasures and the place of torture in the toolbox of a "civilized" government, have made Orange a picture that people still debate today, nearly forty years after its original release.

By positioning A Clockwork Orange as a complex philosophical treatise, I fear I have perhaps discounted the other reason the film has lasted for so long: it's more fun than any other Kubrick picture. While McDowell's high-kicking performance at times undercuts the message of Kubrick's screenplay (it's hard to buy Alex as totally rehabilitated when McDowell's every word drips with oily insincerity), it nevertheless works in concert with the writing and direction to achieve the impossible by making this monster watchable for 137 minutes. Not only watchable, but likable, as every other character in the film is a dimwit, a pervert, a hypocrite, or a fellow thug without even Alex's saving grace of charm and sly wit. No other Kubrick film, even Dr. Strangelove, delivers more consistent, albeit extremely perverse, laughs, whether Alex is kicking stomachs in time to "Singin' in the Rain" or enjoying his Beethoven under the watchful eyes of a plaster statue of four kick-dancing naked Christs. (This is to say nothing of a fast-motion orgy scene, set to a rollicking rendition of the "William Tell Overture", that is, in my opinion, the funniest thing Kubrick ever put on film.) As tremendous as 2001: A Space Odyssey may be, it's a film I can only watch on special occasions, when I'm in a meditative, thoughtful mood and I need a film to complement that. By contrast, I could watch A Clockwork Orange again right now, and have a high old time doing it. It is arguably Kubrick's greatest single piece of entertainment, and the fact that I believe this makes me do exactly what Kubrick wanted me to do when I watched the film in the first place. It makes me think, long and hard, about myself.

AWARD NOMINATIONS: Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; BAFTA Award, Best Screenplay; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Adapted Drama Screenplay

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A recent mini-trend in Hollywood cinema has been the resurrection of the "men on a mission" film, that brawny sub-class of the action genre in which a team of tough guys, each with their own macho-destructo specialty, join forces to defeat the evil dictator, save the indigenous people, rescue the damsel in distress, etc. Last spring's The Losers updated this genre with a winking pop-comics sensibility, and June gave us The A-Team, an over-the-top redo of a hairy-chested '80s TV classic. Now comes the biggest, burliest, and most explosive of the bunch, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables, and what sets this picture apart from those others is that, true to its maker's sensibility, it doesn't have an ironic bone in its pumped-up, heavily muscled body. Rather than using its hyperbolic gun battles, bone-crushing fights and testosterone-drenched cast as a cheeky goof on action films, Stallone has chosen to do what, in these postmodern days, counts as an act of true filmmaking heroism. He gives it to us straight. Stallone's film is not commenting on '80s action cinema, on old-school machismo, indeed even on his own career. Instead, he is celebrating all three by serving up the biggest, grandest action spectacle he can muster. The Expendables is a film that, with virtually no tweaking, could very easily have been released at the height of Stallone's mid-'80s career. And as a child of the '80s who was weaned on the collected works of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and their vein-popping brethren, I can say without hesitation that The Expendables was the most fun I've had in a theater all year, and the best pure action film I've seen in a long time.

Stallone, who in addition to directing the film co-wrote the screenplay with Doom's David Callaham, stars as Barney Ross, grizzled leader of a band of multi-talented guns for hire. These brothers in arms are bonded by their complementary combat skills and the age-old credo of teamwork, but after some bad craziness during a raid on a Somalian pirate ship, it's clear that the old gang is feeling the weight of their lives of violence. When Ross is approached by the mysterious, agency-connected Mr. Church (Bruce Willis in a crowd-pleasing cameo) about a new job checking out the troubles on an island down in the Caribbean, he's reluctant. But once he and his right-hand man, the knife-throwing Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), visit the island, which is being crushed under the iron fist of a psychotic Noriega-style dictator (David Zayas), it's not too long before the Expendables are ready to strap on the guns and bring the pain. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Ross forges a connection with the dictator's daughter (Giselle Itie), a beautiful firebrand sworn to bring down her father...or that the reputation of America itself is on the line, as the general's in cahoots with a rogue CIA operative (Eric Roberts) who's using the new regime to back his own covert cocaine empire.

Plotwise, The Expendables is '80s-action textbook, providing a suitable framework for violent set pieces that's neither too simplistic for a feature nor too convoluted to slow down the fireworks. Some critics have blasted the film's story as threadbare, but really, who goes to a Stallone picture for plot? If you queue up for a film like The Expendables, you're there for star power and action, and on both counts, Stallone delivers. For months prior to its release, the film made headlines as a sort of summit of action stars past, present and future. Speculative buzz built around planned cameos by action superstars, some accurate (Willis), some misinformation (despite the talk, Steven Seagal is nowhere to be found, and though Jean-Claude Van Damme was offered a role, he declined). Still, even with a few names missing, The Expendables is a veritable who's who of action beefcake. In classic men-on-a-mission style, each member of the team is given his own quirks and combat specialties, and the characters are embodied by the cast with all the presence and strength that has made them genre luminaries.

Stallone, of course, is the anchor, his rugged stoicism providing the strong center every great action team needs. Of course, it doesn't hurt that, at 64 years of age, he's still in damned impressive shape, steroids or no, and he handles himself in the action scenes with aplomb (in one great moment, he changes pistol magazines in the blink of an eye). Some have seen Stallone's pairing with Statham here as a sort of passing of the action-hero torch, and while a better case might be made for others being the true current mantle-bearers of the genre (truth be told, in their sly wit, Statham's action performances have always reminded me more of Willis than Stallone), the two of them make an excellent on-screen team, Statham's football-hooligan gruffness sparking nicely off Stallone's more mature authority. Statham is also given a nice showcase action moment, an apropos-of-nothing scene in which he takes on an entire basketball game in hand-to-hand combat. Also along for the ride is mammoth Scandinavian Dolph Lundgren, who memorably battled Stallone as the hulking Russian Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Here, he's a drugged-out, wild-card Expendable who sells his team out to Roberts's villain, and it is great fun seeing this near-cartoonish behemoth plying his trade on the big screen again. UFC world champion Randy Couture, who I had never seen in anything prior to this, has a few funny moments as Toll Road, who counters his combat prowess with extreme neuroses (he's always trying to talk the other members of the team into going to therapy sessions with him), and Terry Crews, who handles both action and comedy with impressive ease, is a beautifully snarly presence as Hale Caesar, the team's resident ordnance expert. Of the main cast, perhaps only Jet Li is somewhat short-changed. The screenplay makes a few attempts to give him some interesting wrinkles, as when it turns out his constant demands for more money are largely due to his diminutive stature (he feels he deserves a bigger share of their scores because when they're running, it's harder for him to cover the ground), and he does deliver impressively in his few displays of high-kicking martial arts prowess, but somehow he, alone among the cast, seems a little lost amidst the cacophony of mayhem.

Of course, a great action film needs a great villain, and fortunately, The Expendables boasts several. By now, Eric Roberts can play these sorts of duplicitous company men in his sleep...but that doesn't mean he does so, and here he relishes his character's violent ways and sharp dialogue (in the film's best line, he dismisses the antagonistic relationship between the general and his daughter as "bad Shakespeare"). Zayas is surprisingly commanding as the general, proving himself in the end to be more than Roberts's pawn. Former WWE superstar Steve Austin is impressively menacing as the CIA spook's henchman, and, in arguably the film's best bit of "hey, it's that guy!" casting, direct-to-video kickboxing legend Gary Daniels turns up as another of Roberts's thugs. Naturally, in a cinematic pissing contest like The Expendables, the ladies of the cast are bound to get short-changed, and while Itie brings true conviction to her role, her character is nothing more than a device to get the boys back into action. Angel's Charisma Carpenter is even more extraneous to the plot, her checkered relationship with Statham serving mainly to set up that basketball-court smackdown. Also more or less inessential to the story, but absolutely crucial to the film's theme and overall effect, is Mickey Rourke. A fellow relic of the '80s who has experienced a Stallone-like late-career resurgence, Rourke portrays Tool, a former Expendable who now runs the tattoo parlor that serves as the team's de facto headquarters. Rourke commands the screen in his few scenes with effortless movie-star panache, and his big showcase, a teary-eyed monologue in which he recalls his personal experiences of the horrors of war, serve to fill in the backstory for pretty much the entire Expendables team with a minimum of fuss. Rourke reminds us of the serious psychological cost for men who do violence for a living, something that has often been a buried sub-theme of Stallone's films, and the actor's contributions help to keep The Expendables from being just a mindless action-fest.

But when it's time for that action, holy smokes. The Expendables boasts some of the toughest and most furious set pieces I've seen in a movie in years. An opening shootout on the Somali pirate freighter left my ears ringing, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The film features a spectacular aerial escape in which Statham lays waste with machine guns to an island dockside, a car-chase crunchfest with Stallone behind the wheel of a vintage pickup and Li raining bullets from the flatbed, and, in one of the most literally explosive climactic battles of all time, a raid on the Caribbean general's hideout that must set a record for sheer number of explosions per minute of screen time. Every character gets their moment in the action spotlight, and the actors all step up admirably. In addition to Statham's basketball-battle showcase, Li has a well-staged beatdown that pits him, cleverly, against the gargantuan Lundgren. Couture, inevitably, goes toe to to toe with Austin in a skirmish that shows why they call it ultimate fighting. Crews, in a moment that got some of the biggest cheers I heard in a theater all year, saves his boys' bacon with liberal application of lead from the loudest goddamn gun I've ever heard. And of course, it comes down to a three-way Mexican standoff between Stallone's gun, Statham's blade, and Roberts's ego.

As a product of '70s and '80s action cinema, Stallone understands the basic pleasures of the genre, and while the film does boast some dubiously realistic computer-generated blood sprays, The Expendables is, for the most part, a salute to old-school classic action. The film is packed with crushing hand-to-hand combat, beautifully performed by a phalanx of skilled stuntmen. There's no wire fu here, no CGI stunts, just men bashing men while the crowd goes wild. Call me a meathead, but I personally am a sucker for a good old-fashioned well-staged shootout, and The Expendables's finale serves up one of the best I've seen in a while, a symphony of blazing gunfire that literally shook the seats. Some have complained about a possible excess of shaky-cam close-ups during the film's combat and fights, and while there are perhaps more jittery hand-held shots that I normally like here, the action is so crisply lit by cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball and so skillfully edited by Ken Blackwell and Paul Harb that the film never descends into sheer incoherence in the manner of last fall's near-unwatchable Ninja Assassin. Also deserving of major kudos are composer Brian Tyler, who provides a stirring and muscular action score, and the film's talented team of sound designers, who made me feel the crack of every punch and the bang of every bullet in arguably the loudest film I've ever seen in a theater.

Stallone is seldom given the credit he deserves as a filmmaker with truly strong populist instincts. That gift failed him for a time in the '90s, when his straightforward, might-makes-right cinematic philosophy was unable to properly adapt to the Age of Irony, but when Stallone is firing on all cylinders, there are few filmmakers in Hollywood who can so deftly tap into an audience's most basic cinematic desires and just flat-out deliver. He did it in the Rocky pictures, which started out as feel-good paeans to American can-do spirit in a post-Vietnam era when the country sorely needed a boost, and he did it again with the Rambo films, allowing Americans to vicariously resolve the Vietnam conflict. It should come as no surprise, then, that in another traumatic age in which Americans again find themselves wondering who they are and what it all means, Stallone has come back to the forefront as a maker of films that revisit those themes in a darker, more mature way. 2006's Rocky Balboa was an examination of an American hero's sad, lonely twilight, and 2008's Rambo was a raw, ugly look at the true mental cost of war. While The Expendables is not freighted with nearly that kind of thematic baggage, it nevertheless serves as a reclamation of pride in America's warrior spirit, while still acknowledging, in the character of the corrupt CIA agent, that in many ways, the war truly begins at home. But all of this is secondary to the fact that at his best, Stallone can flat-out please a crowd like nobody's business. As a director, he knows exactly what his audience has come to see and he delivers, from the brawny star-power performances to the explosive action, not to mention a showstopping cameo by the Governator, his first onscreen appearance in six years. (When Willis asks Stallone what Schwarzenegger's problem is, Stallone's answer got the biggest cheer in the movie.) There seemed to be a bit of skepticism within the industry about whether Stallone's film would connect with today's videogame-raised action crowd. But the crowds did come, giving The Expendables a $35 million opening weekend, the biggest of Stallone's career. If you build it, they will come. And Stallone has built the best pure entertainment of 2010.

Monday, August 9, 2010


MALCOLM X (1992)

The Writers

Spike Lee and Arnold Perl; based on the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

Why It's Here

The merits of Spike Lee's landmark 1992 biopic Malcolm X were in many ways swallowed up by the tumultuous circumstances surrounding its production. Decades in development, the film was originally slated to be directed by Norman Jewison, a long-standing member of Hollywood's liberal elite whose directorial credits include such black-themed films as 1984's A Soldier's Story (co-starring Denzel Washington, who would subsequently play Malcolm in this film and go on to receive an Oscar nomination, under Jewison's direction, for 1999's The Hurricane) and In the Heat of the Night, which received the Academy Award as 1967's Best Picture. Upon hearing of Jewison's involvement, Lee, at that time America's most prominent black filmmaker and a provocateur par excellence, began making press statements suggesting that only a black man could properly present Malcolm's story onscreen. Jewison was eventually convinced of this and stepped down from the project, but the controversy didn't end there. Lee overran his $28 million budget (the highest ever given to a black-directed film at that time, but admittedly minuscule for a project of this ambition) and contributed most of his own salary to the production, but the powers at Warner Bros. nevertheless shut down post-production, and it wasn't until Lee solicited contributions from prominent black cultural figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby that he was able to regain control of his embattled project. Then, to cap off the media frenzy, Lee suggested that young African-Americans should cut school on the day of Malcolm X's release to attend a screening, claiming they would learn more from his film than they would in a day of studies (interestingly, no one who criticized Lee's statement bothered to ever suggest that the filmmaker might have been right). All of this hullabaloo more or less overwhelmed the film itself. Malcolm X grossed a modest $48 million, enough to recoup its budget but hardly qualifying it as a hit, and it only received two Academy Awards nominations, for Washington and for Ruth E. Carter's evocative period costumes. What was lost amidst all of this is the simple fact that Malcolm X is one of the finest biopics ever produced in America, and a large reason for the film's creative success is its screenplay, a virtual textbook on how to transfer a great man's life to the silver screen.

Malcolm X was looked upon as potential fodder for a film virtually from the moment of his assassination in 1965. Producer Marvin Worth acquired the rights to Malcolm's life story in 1967, and five years later released an Oscar-winning documentary feature named, like Lee's film, after its subject. Over the years, Worth also commissioned several screenplays for narrative features, and when Lee came on board as director, he was granted access to all of Worth's commissioned scripts. Lee particularly responded to two of these, one written by Arnold Perl (also a credited writer on Worth's documentary) and one by the great African-American novelist James Baldwin. Lee synthesized elements of these two screenplays into his own draft, eventually credited to Lee and Perl; Baldwin had requested that his name be left off of any film produced from his work. As is the case with many such screenplays, it is difficult to discern precisely whose narrative voice predominates within the finished film (though since Lee is also the film's director, co-producer and co-star, it's hard not to assume his vision would be primary), but what is undeniable is that the film itself tells Malcolm's story with a richness of detail and comprehensive sweep rare in biographical cinema.

Biopics have been traditionally hamstrung by the fact that most individuals' lives neither fall into a traditional three-act cinematic structure nor are small enough in scope that they can be reasonably contained within a feature-length motion picture. In Malcolm X, however, the writers found a man whose life, amazingly, more or less corresponded to the standard three-act Hollywood format. Also, Malcolm's tragically abbreviated lifespan (he was only 39 when he was gunned down at New York's Audubon Ballroom) allowed the writers to cover the entire sweep of Malcolm's years in a way almost unheard of in biographical film. Even a three-hour-plus biopic like Gandhi must often omit details and excise entire portions of their subjects' lives (when that film begins, Gandhi is already a prosperous Indian lawyer at work in South Africa), but Malcolm X is able to cover the complete spectrum of its subject time on this earth in its 201-minute running time. This is indeed not a short film, but this sort of running time for an epic-scale Hollywood biopic is practically par for the course, and Malcolm X uses that running time far more skillfully than most films of its type.

Malcolm X does not start at the very beginning of Malcolm's life, but instead at a point when it might as well have been over before it even really got started in the first place. When we first meet Malcolm Little, he's a Boston street tough getting his very first "conk", a hair-straightening treatment involving the application of a painful mixture of potatoes, water and lye. From this very first image, the writers deftly illustrate the pain inflicted on black Americans by white society, and the self-loathing that results and that causes otherwise sensible people to inflict even more pain on themselves just to attempt to assimilate into a culture that will never truly accept them anyway (Malcolm, upon seeing the results of his conk, declares, "Looks white, don't it?"). Throughout the film's first hour, which chronicles Malcolm's early career as a petty criminal in Boston and later New York City, the screenplay frequently reminds us just what Malcolm, and indeed all of black America, was up against in the first half of the twentieth century. We see razor-sharp images of Malcolm's childhood, which plays like a chronicle of indignity at the hands of white society. Klansmen burn down Malcolm's childhood home as revenge against the black-self-love preaching of his father, Earl Little (Tommy Hollis); Earl is later killed by these same men, his head bashed in with a hammer and run over by a streetcar in what the courts rule, ridiculously, to be an act of suicide. Throughout Malcolm's boyhood, he encounters "well-meaning" white people who nevertheless cause him harm. After the Littles' life insurance company denies payments to Malcolm's mother (Lonette McKee), the family is split up and Malcolm sent to a boys' home. While in school, he excels in his classes and even gets elected class president, but when he expresses ambitions to be a lawyer, his teacher, a prime practitioner of "the soft bigotry of low expectations", tells him, bluntly, that the law is no realistic career goal for "a nigger"(yes, the teacher actually says this word to the boy), and that he should consider looking into finding work as a manual laborer. Everything in Malcolm's boyhood was calculated to deliver one message: you are inferior. Even his own mother married a dark-skinned black man out of hatred for her own light complexion; her mother was impregnated after being raped by a white man, which might have also accounted for Malcolm's own light eyes and red hair.

The young Malcolm seems more than willing to meet society's low expectations of him. He runs numbers for West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a dapper criminal who Malcolm declares might have been "a mathematical genius" had he lived in a country that would have given him a chance. He does some time as a Pullman porter, where his shuck-and-jiving belies his secret fantasies of smashing his condescending customers' faces with the food he serves them. He courts a decent, church-loving girl (Theresa Randle), but finds himself pulling away from her when her chastity, indeed perhaps her very goodness, proves too much for him. He finds a woman much more his style in Sophia (Kate Vernon), a decadent white woman with a taste for "colored stud". Malcolm declares in the narration that white women were often looked upon as the black man's prize, and that taking one away from the white man was a singular triumph...but Malcolm's relationship with Sophia seems to only fuel his conflicted feelings about his own identity and self-worth, exemplified in a tremendous scene where Malcolm makes Sophia kiss his feet and feed him breakfast, all the while asking when she's going to "wake up and holler rape". Back in Boston after a planned double-cross of Archie goes sour, Malcolm has been reduced to "animal" status; he's strung out on drugs and reduced to fencing burgled goods to make ends meet. His assimilationist drive comes full circle when, after the plumbing is turned off in their apartment, he's forced to wash off his burning conk treatment with toilet water...and it's with his head in this toilet that the cops find him and take him in for burglary, and for the unspoken but even worse "crime" of sleeping with white women.

Malcolm X's second act begins in prison, where the young hood is introduced to a new way of thinking by Baines (Albert Hall), a fiery-eyed convict who is a composite of several men Malcolm knew while in custody. Malcolm is taught the ways of the Nation of Islam and of its mystical but politically shrewd leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.). He denounces liquor, drugs, pork and white women, and he begins to educate himself about the true depth of the indignities heaped upon his people by white America. In a striking scene illustrating Malcolm's newly emerging racial consciousness, he confronts the prison chaplain (Christopher Plummer) about the true race of Jesus Christ. By the time Malcolm emerges from prison and joins the Nation as a full-fledged Black Muslim, the formerly self-loathing small-time "boy" has been rebranded as an upright, morally unimpeachable man full of pride, self-respect...and hatred for the white "devils" who made him what he once was. Much of Malcolm X's middle hour is given over to scenes of Malcolm speechifying, winning converts, and spreading the message of Elijah Muhammad, "the black man's truth", to his brethren. Many of these speeches, such as Malcolm's TV-broadcast discourse on the difference between the "house Negro" and the "field Negro", and his famous exhortation from the entrance of Harlem's Apollo Theater, are taken from real speeches given by Malcolm X, a sensible move on the writers' part, as the main action of the second act is the transformation of Malcolm the man into Malcolm the icon, a figure who belonged as much to the public as to the Nation of Islam itself. The Nation has given Malcolm the strength to stand up to any injustice, whoever it comes from; in a powerful sequence, Malcolm leads a march of Black Muslims to secure medical care for a friend beaten up by white police (witnessing this demonstration, the white police chief, played by Peter Boyle, declares, "That's too much power for one man to have"). This is not to say, however, that Malcolm has completely neglected his own happiness. During this period of his life, he meets and marries Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) and builds a family with her. But his work for the Nation always comes first, and eventually causes tension in the marriage, when Betty begins to wonder why their home, car and clothing are so modest while Elijah Muhammad and "Brother Baines" live in comparative luxury.

Throughout the film's second hour, the writers give us glimpses of where Malcolm's old running buddies ended up, illustrating the corrosive effects of white social oppression from which Malcolm has extricated himself. Malcolm's church-loving girlfriend Laura has become a prostitute, servicing white johns in back alleys. Others have wound up dead or insane, and West Indian Archie, once so cool and well put-together, is a stroke victim living in squalor and babbling on about the importance of his "rep". Only Shorty (Lee), Malcolm's former partner in crime, seems relatively unscathed...but he's unchanged also, asking the now lily-pure Malcolm to join him for some cocaine and declaring that he could never be a Muslim because "I love pigs' feet and white women too much." Still, even Elijah Muhammad is eventually revealed to be not as untouched by social temptations as he seems, as Malcolm discovers that his spiritual father has sired several bastard children with young Muslim women who have since been ostracized from the church community. His confrontation with Baines about this lights an anti-Malcolm spark within the Nation, and it reaches conflagration status when he makes perhaps his most incendiary public statement, declaring that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was "justice", a prime example of the white man's "chickens coming home to roost". He is publicly silenced by Elijah Muhammad for ninety days, and he takes the opportunity for the pilgrimage to Mecca that begins Malcolm X's final act.

While in Mecca, Malcolm prays, marches and dines with white Muslims from all nations, and when he returns to the States, he formally breaks from the Nation of Islam to form his own church which will work in concert with any organizations willing to help the cause of black equality...even white ones. This public denouncement of the Nation of Islam's political philosophy is an explicit reversal of Malcolm's earlier stance on white involvement in the cause (in an earlier scene on a college campus, Malcolm is stopped by a white student who asks him what she can do to help his mission; "Nothing," he flatly declares, and walks by the clearly hurt girl with barely a glance in her direction), and it plants the seeds that eventually lead to Malcolm's death. While the film does not specifically state who gave the orders for Malcolm's execution, the identity of the killers as Muslims is never disputed; a scene of the assassins preparing their weapons ends with one declaring the traditional Muslim peace blessing "a salaam a lakum", and though the shooters' names are not given in the screenplay, they are named in the film's closing titles. (It is alleged that the film's original screenplay explicitly fingered the Nation's current leader, Louis Farrakhan, as one of the assassination conspirators, but that Lee, under threat from Farrakhan himself, removed all such references.) There is also some suggestion that the Nation of Islam may not have been working alone, as the CIA is clearly depicted as having their eye on Malcolm. He is followed everywhere in Mecca by two white men who film his every step, and when he moves to a hotel room in New York following the firebombing of his home, his room is bugged, his phone conversations recorded. In the final major sequence, following Malcolm en route to his date with destiny at the Audubon, it is strongly suggested that Malcolm more or less knew what was coming, and may even have welcomed it. After all, Jesus Christ has had more influence as a martyr than he ever did in life. Malcolm seems to understand this fact...regardless of what color Jesus may have been.

While the screenplay for Malcolm X is remarkably comprehensive in its scope and vision, there are several issues it stirs that are short-changed or under-addressed by the writing. Malcolm X has been frequently paired in the public imagination with Dr. Martin Luther King, the Southern civil rights leader who was seen as a more conciliatory, non-violent alternative to Malcolm's northern, urban "by any means necessary"philosophy. While we glimpse Dr. King in several newsreel clips following Malcolm's death, King is not really a character in the film; he and Malcolm share no scenes together, and we never really find out what Malcolm thought of his southern counterpart, or vice versa. Likewise, Malcolm X is notably callow on a subject of continued controversy within Islam: the faith's formal position on the role of women. It is wise that Malcolm turned away from his earlier view of women as primarily sexual objects for his gratification, but during his years with the Nation, he nevertheless seems to subscribe to the faith's overall positioning of women as an inferior subspecies. He sees no problem with the faith-proscribed modest dress and head veils women are required to wear, and when he speaks in public about male-female relations, it's usually with the man positioned as the caretaker of the nurturing, home-guarding woman. And even though he is married to a strong, educated woman who seems to share a somewhat equal partnership with him, there is no doubt who is the master of their home; in the most pointed moment of their most heated argument, Malcolm momentarily reverts to his forceful street persona when she shuts her down with a shouted "Woman, don't you raise your voice in my house!" All of this is perfectly encapsulated by a shot at one of Malcolm's speeches, where we see a banner declaring that the men of the Nation must protect their greatest gift from Allah, "Our Black Women". Seated behind this banner is a phalanx of applauding black womanhood, beautiful, exalted...and isolated, far from any potential influence. It is a slight failing that the film does not address this subject in greater detail, but really, the fault in this case more likely lies with the philosophy rather than the filmmaking.

One might wonder what possible relevance a film like Malcolm X could have to someone like me, or indeed to any non-African-American viewer. But all of the greatest stories have elements that make them universal, and for all its in-depth detail about the struggles of black Americans, Malcolm X is, as much as anything else, an inspirational story about man's capacity for self-reinvention. Malcolm Little is a man who should have, by any logical measure, lived a Hobbesian life, nasty, brutish and short, winding up like the crippled West Indian Archie at best, moldering in a criminal's shallow grave at worst. While there was plenty of nastiness and brutality in Malcolm's life, and though it was undeniably short, things didn't turn out the way white America, or fate, had planned for Malcolm. Through sheer self-will, education and strength, Malcolm built himself back up into a paragon of self-love, confidence and assertion, and became one of the most influential figures of the American twentieth century, of any race. Malcolm took on the "X" as a "last name" to remind himself that his identity had been taken from him by the slave masters who bought and sold his family, but by the end of the film, he has enough self-knowledge to provide himself with a new Muslim name, El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Malcolm has reclaimed himself, and he's done it under his own power, his lesson a vivid one and well-illustrated in the final scene of the film by a group of black schoolchildren, American and African, rising from their classroom seats and proudly declaring "I am Malcolm X!" For anyone struggling with their sense of self or self-worth, Malcolm X is an invaluable illustration of what one person with willpower can truly achieve, and it should be required viewing for any screenwriter who wants to learn how a film can truly bring a man's life to life.

AWARD NOMINATIONS: USC Scripter Award (nomination shared with book authors Malcolm X and Alex Haley)