The Fall of the Roman Empire

There’s something unnerving about watching Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) as 2017 draws to a close. Its apocalyptic vision of corruption, cruelty, and decadence eroding political institutions until the greatest political office in the land is merely a prize to be auctioned off to the highest bidder feels frighteningly contemporary.

The Fall of the Roman Empire marked a different kind of apocalypse in 1964, when it served as the harbinger of the end of the classic Hollywood epic. This expensive folly effectively ended the career of producer Samuel Bronston (who produced King of Kings, El Cid, and 55 Days to Peking), and like Joseph Mankiewicz’s troubled Cleopatra (which was released only a year earlier), Fall offers stunning example of excess as spectacle.

Mann, working in collaboration with cinematographer Robert Krasker and production designers John Moore and Vemiero Colasanti, crafts a film that is simply too huge to be believed (it holds the record for the largest film set ever created: a sprawling replica of the Roman Forum). But Fall‘s images are more than expensive. Mann stages the film as a series of dynamic and expressive tableaus. He transforms a bedroom conversation between the ailing Marcus Aurelius (invested with considerable gravitas by the great Alec Guinness) and his daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren, as radiant as ever, if somewhat hamstrung by the script) into a beautifully expressive sequence of poses that articulate the complexity of their relationship and its power imbalances.

Fall is not always so artful. Mann’s careful direction cannot entirely overcome an undernourished, albeit well-structured, melodrama with a wooden heroic lead. Stephen Boyd, as the blonde Livius, fails to elevate the stock material, and as such the film tends to stall in its second half, when he becomes a major driving force for the narrative (otherwise, the film feels more like an ensemble piece, with James Mason and Christopher Plummer delivering particularly fine performances). Some flourishes, such as two separate attempts to give characters internal monologues via voiceover, feel strained and silly. Other sequences feel like gratuitous plays to audience expectation, such as a gratuitous chariot race lifted from Ben Hur (admittedly, it boasts some great stuntwork). Still, the film’s thematic trajectory and and its consistently vibrant images make it altogether much more compelling than its more simple-minded remake, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which borrows many of Fall‘s narrative beats but none of its conviction. 

The Fall of the Roman Empire is, like many of the classic Hollywood epics, a close cousin to opera, both in structural design and in its emphasis on music. The first thing to make an impression in The Fall of the Roman Empire is the overture for Dimitri Tiomkin’s maximalist score, a work of accomplished bombast that mingles orchestra and harpsichord and pipe organ and choir. I have long suspected that a viewer’s emotional admiration of the classic Hollywood epics will correlate closely to their attentiveness and receptiveness to the films’ musical scores, which, in the classic Hollywood epics, do not function as mere window dressing, but as a pillar on which the film rests. In these stately films, the (often stilted) quasi-Shakespearean dialogue functions like a spoken libretto to the more passionate, vital underscore. If Tiomkin’s score is not as complex as some of its peers (like Alex North’s rich, precise work on Spartacus and Cleopatra), it nevertheless provides the clearest articulation of the film’s dramatic impulses.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XI

The Craig era’s extraordinary ambivalence about the James Bond character manifests itself in the way it routinely denies Bond the clear victories that his predecessors often enjoyed. The Craig era predominantly offers narratives of loss and failure. Consider how Craig’s Bond does not earn the traditional “Bond and a girl” finale until he quits the secret service at the end of Spectre. His only true victory can be escaping himself.

In this section of Casino Royale, Bond meets with his first unqualified failure and responds with suicidal petulance. Bond’s underlying pathology is such that failure is unbearable to him; it shatters his constructed self and forces him to confront the void within. We’ll see similar kinds of death-wish responses in Quantum of Solace, wherein Bond’s loss of Vesper sends Bond careering out of control, as well as in Skyfall, where a failed mission sends Bond on a bad bender.

Bond masks his profound psychological instability with calm reserve and impeccable attire, and the morning after his fight with Obanno, Bond seems to be his typically collected self as he and Mathis converse on the hotel balcony. Mathis impishly prods Bond about Vesper. Bond gives no quarter.

Giancarlo Giannini again proves that he’s one of the film’s most welcome presences. Here, Giannini’s Mathis once again proves to be a keen improviser. He’s used the bodies Bond hid in the stairwell to strip away some of Le Chiffre’s resources by framing one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen.

It’s a shame that this essential intelligence is nowhere in evidence when Mathis is reduced to a spectator during the card game, dumbly narrating the beats of the game for the audience. Bond’s loss at Le Chiffre’s hands would be so much better if it wasn’t accompanied by heavy signposting about Le Chiffre’s “tell.”

First time viewers don’t know this yet, but it’s clear by the end that Vesper sets Bond up for failure, enabling Le Chiffre to provoke Bond into an overconfident maneuver that strips him of all of his assets. This lends her confrontation with Bond some complexity, and it’s a strong scene for Green. It’s a weaker scene for Craig. The “bloody idiot” line feels much too scripted for its own good and Craig is forced to stumble over it.

He’s much better in the moment that follows, where Bond snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” to a bartender who asks him whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred. It’s a gag about Bond history, but also a significant character statement. Previous Bonds were defined by their unwavering sense of taste, but Craig’s Bond wears all the accoutrements of luxury as an adopted persona that he quickly discards when caught in the grip of an identity crisis (see also his extended bender at the beginning of Skyfall). When this Bond is humiliated and confused, he just wants to get trashed.

Blinded by rage, Bond grabs a steak knife off of a table and rushes to kill Le Chiffre. If he can’t win the poker game, he’ll assuage his ego by defeating Le Chiffre with brute force, even if it costs him his life.

Irresistibly cool CIA agent Felix Leiter stops Bond and offers him a less dangerous road to victory. Jeffrey Wright’s Leiter gets such a promising introduction in Casino Royale, an ally whose cooler head balances out Bond’s hotter temperament. Alas, that potential is never quite fulfilled in these movies, but Wright still makes the most of his material.

Bond returns to the game with renewed confidence, much to Vesper’s surprise and Le Chiffre’s dismay. In a last-ditch move to dispatch Bond, Valenka poisons Bond’s martini, forcing Bond to stumble out of the game.

The poisoning serves as a loose analogue to a suspenseful section of Fleming’s novel involving a gun disguised as a cane. Even if some of the sequence’s grace notes (like Bond inducing vomiting by swallowing a lot of salt) are clever, it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Bond has a convenient medical pack in his car, including a self-defibrillator, and establishes a link to MI6’s medical team. M and the MI6 crew watch on via computer monitors as Bond hovers near death, issuing instructions to Bond about how to prevent death. Bond is ultimately saved via Vesper-ex-machina; he falls unconscious before he can activate the defibrillator, only for Vesper to stumble upon him. She (improbably) knows exactly what to do to save his life.

It’s clearly meant to balance the Bond/Vesper relationship, but as a result of the sequence’s awkwardness, it doesn’t connect on a dramatic level. Bond’s unflabbable resolve to return for the game is good for a chuckle, though, as is Vesper’s flabbergasted response.

Bond’s return to the game gives us a classic Bond one-liner (“That last hand nearly killed me”), a Connery-style line that Craig delivers with Dalton-style intensity. Craig’s Bond so often feels distinct from the previous Bonds, but in this moment he does seems to exist on a continuum with his predecessors.

As soon as the line has been delivered, Bond’s victory in the card game is assured. For anyone who knows poker, the final hand seems absurdly overdramatized. That said, the climactic poker hand allegedly replicates an actual poker hand that occurred while the film’s creative team was playing poker to learn the rules, so perhaps my complaint is baseless.

Having won the day, Bond’s first thought is of a celebratory dinner. “You were almost dead an hour ago,” Vesper reminds him. Bond doesn’t acknowledge her remark. Bond’s enduring appeal as a fantasy figure lies in his flippant attitude toward death. Even here, where Bond’s bravado is so directly rooted in a kind of madness, it’s impossible to deny its allure.

The Exorcist III: Legion

The most successful of The Exorcist‘s sequels, 1990’s The Exorcist III: Legion, belongs largely to author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty. Blatty had adapted his own novel into a screenplay for 1973’s The Exorcist and, in 1983, he wrote his own literary follow-up to The Exorcist, a novel titled Legion. Blatty intended for Friedkin to direct its film adaptation, but Friedkin and Blatty disagreed regarding the vision for the film. Following Friedkin’s departure, Blatty convinced the studio to let him direct. The ensuing production was fraught with difficulty due to studio concerns that Blatty’s original cut of the film was too disconnected from the original film (an approximation of Blatty’s original cut, cobbled from low-quality sources, is now available as a special feature on Legion‘s recent Blu-ray release). Regardless of some of the structural oddities imposed by the film’s reshoots, Legion still feels like a complete expression of a personal vision, a vision that takes a distinctly different vantage point from that of the original Exorcist.

William Friedkin’s original film was the work of an outsider looking in. It regards the dogmas and accessories of Catholicism with fascination, but with cool distance. Faith and evil remain abstract forces, tangible but alien. Blatty, a devout Catholic, gives us an insider’s vision, treating the dogmas and iconography of Catholicism with intimacy and conviction. From the beginning of Legion, in which an evil force comes into contact with a crucifix and awakens it (the eyes of the Christ sculpture snap open in response to the intrusion), Legion treats the accoutrements of Catholic faith as portals to the spiritual world. This impulse peaks during the film’s climactic exorcism, in which the spiritual world and the real world collide in an effects-driven explosion of religious imagery. Accordingly, the desecration of these objects in Legion feels all the more potent; it’s not just the violation of inert symbols, but vital, sacred vessels. In this respect, Legion exists on a kind of trajectory with the horror films of Terence Fisher, which similarly regarded the Christian cross as an embodiment of supernatural good in the war with darkness.

Not that Legion has much stylistic kinship with Fisher’s Hammer horror films, which were marked by restrained, deliberate elegance. Legion‘s adventurous tonal dynamism has little precedent in the mannered Hammer films of the 60s and 70s, nor does it feel connected to the detached, chilly Friedkin original. Legion wildly, but keenly, leaps between comedy and grand, Gothic horror, sometimes blending them both, as it does during a nightmare sequence that serves as both an occasion to delight in absurdity and to underline the story’s existential anxieties. Blatty stubbornly refuses to allow horror to overwhelm the emotional complexity of life. Legion depicts its human relationships with warmth and humor, and the divide between good and evil becomes sharper as a result.

Legion‘s narrative pivots around Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a close friend of the original film’s Damien Karras, who investigates a series of dramatic murders that involve sacrilegious imagery. These murders share the modus operandi the Gemini Killer, who was executed many years prior to these new killings. This investigation leads Kinderman back to the events of the original Exorcist and the dark forces Karras confronted there. The serial killer plot, and a narrative structure relying on lengthy conversations with a menacing foe in an asylum, make Legion a kind of predecessor to 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, with Legion‘s Gemini Killer (played with manic menace by Brad Dourif) functioning as a supernaturally empowered Hannibal Lecter.

Scott’s Kinderman, however, is no Clarice Starling. He’s a veteran, weary of his position as a soldier on the front lines against corruption. What confronts and startles Kinderman isn’t the reality of evil–Kinderman bellows at darkness with defiance and rage–but eternity. In his final actions, Kinderman acknowledges what his close friend, Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) tells him: “We’re going to live forever, Bill. We’re spirits.” It’s a proposition that Legion shades with both hope and anxiety. The end of time may yet bring an end to the humanity’s nightmares, but the end of time is a long way off.

Sleepy Hollow

1999’s Sleepy Hollow marked the beginning of the end for director Tim Burton. While its successor, Burton’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes remake, demonstrated that, without a doubt, a once-promising cinematic voice had been devoured by the Hollywood machine, Sleepy Hollow marked the moment when Burton’s style began to shift from vision to mere lacquer.

To be fair, it is, at least in the case of Sleepy Hollow, sumptuously beautiful lacquer, thanks in no small part to the tremendous contributions of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Burton gives them plenty to work with as he gleefully takes advantage of the narrative’s opportunities for visual conceits, following after the legacy of Hammer and AIP pictures (with explicit nods in the direction of Brides of Dracula and Pit and the Pendulum). But if Sleepy Hollow is a visual feast, its visual antics feel curiously disconnected from the psychology and emotion of the piece.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s densely plotted screenplay leaves little room for the type of free-wheeling characterization that suits Burton best. Burton’s best films locate witty and brash ways to depict fractured psyches and identity conflicts in visual terms, pursuing emotional throughlines rather than narrative logic. The closest Sleepy Hollow comes to offering a traditional “Burton character” is twitchy, nervous Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp), who has the air of the typical “Burton outsider,” but is little more than a thin assembly of pale face-paint, messy hair, and some odd quirks. The character’s tragic backstory remains awkwardly detached from the rest of the film, as though it was a story change that was imposed on an already-complete narrative. It does little to inform the character or the film itself.

Burton’s impish humor delivers some light laughs, and, even if they’re underused, the cast is crowded with remarkable talents (Martin Landau, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Miranda Richardson among them), but they are insufficient to compensate for a film that has no true center. As such, Sleepy Hollow is far less compelling and memorable than the genre classics to which it pays tribute, films that explored their macabre stylizations with conviction and purpose.

Blade Runner 2049

Through both intention and accident, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a fascinating oddity of Hollywood cinema, wrenched Hollywood spectacle away from classic Hollywood storytelling and produced a new cinematic vocabulary. That this vocabulary has been largely exhausted by Blade Runner‘s numerous heirs has not diminished Blade Runner‘s place as a singular cinematic experience, in part because Blade Runner–a film that was discovered in the messy and confused process of its own making–allows that cinematic vocabulary to have free reign in a way that its successors do not. Blade Runner has always been a beast that its own creators birthed but could not tame. Its nature is its own.

Director Ridley Scott shepherded the development of the sequel, but ultimately saw fit to hand it over to filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (best known for Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival), who directs the film from a screenplay crafted (in part) by original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher. Blade Runner 2049 builds a narrative web that expands upon the thematic impulses of the original film, finding new roads into the same dilemmas of memory, identity, and artificiality that ran through Blade Runner‘s veins. But, at its worst, Blade Runner 2049 also feels schematic to the point of becoming canned. Unlike the original, its pieces have all been designed to fit within a clear vision.

Blade Runner 2049‘s best sequences avoid tracing the lines of Scott’s original, embedding its existential anxieties in new narrative and visual conceits. Many of these moments involve a holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificially intelligent app marketed to the lonely citizens of the film’s dystopian Los Angeles. Joi serves as a kind of nexus for all of Blade Runner 2049‘s meditations on desire and authenticity, an embodiment of the gray area that lies between programming and personhood. In one tender scene, Joi’s holographic avatar freezes in mid-embrace on a rainy rooftop, her intangible caresses interrupted by a phone call that arrives through her same application interface. The moment is sad, funny, and a little unsettling, all the anxieties and longings stirred by human technology incarnate in one beautiful image.

Alas, too often Blade Runner 2049 chases after its predecessor. In the 1982 film, its vistas of dystopian Los Angeles and its inhabitants comprised the actual essence of the film, but here, they often seem more like glossy window dressing, filling up time as the film shuffles us from one plot point to the next. Roger Deakins may be one of the greatest cinematographers working today, but his cinematography here feels unusually flat, as though his efforts were overwhelmed by Blade Runner 2049‘s effects work and the extensive pre-visualization demanded by it.

Given that Blade Runner follows a protagonist whose sense of self unravels as he finds himself enmeshed in the mysteries of the past, it seems unfortunate that Blade Runner 2049 never quite breaks away from its narrative engine to give voice to the emotional tempest at its center. To its credit, its mystery plot, which involves a replicant named “K” (Ryan Gosling, who was born to play an artificial human) avoids many of the more obvious pitfalls that often befalls Hollywood storytelling, but the third act, in which the drive for action beats and competing character agendas become hopelessly entangled, ends up distracting from and diminishing Blade Runner 2049‘s fundamental concerns.

The original Blade Runner had no true antagonist. Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty, a desperate replicant-on-the-run, was a second protagonist whose narrative ran on a parallel track with Deckard’s story until the two tracks converged in its climax. Blade Runner 2049 does not replicate this structure, instead offering up something of a traditional antagonist, a supervillain character named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Leto cannot make Wallace work, and, admittedly, I am hard-pressed to think of any actors who genuinely could. Wallace is the sort of character who speaks in riddlespeak pronouncements laced with Biblical language, who arbitrarily kills just to let the audience know that he is, in fact, a Bad Guy. He has Big Plans too, plans that require a lot of sinister action on part of his henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who, to her credit, attacks her part with uttermost conviction). The more prominent Wallace becomes to the story, the more Blade Runner 2049 moves away from the longings that charge its best moments.

Still, even at its worst, this Blade Runner 2049 does no real disrespect to its predecessor, and the new territory it explores is sufficient to justify its existence. At least some of that new territory belongs to Harrison Ford, who reprises his role as Rick Deckard. Even as the film threatens to reduce his character to a mere MacGuffin, Ford delivers his strongest performance in many years, full of palpable regret and resignation. His bittersweet, tearful reaction to an artifact of the past serves as a strong reminder that the greatest spectacle that cinema can ever offer us is the spectacle of a human face.

The End of Twin Peaks

So, the final chapter of Twin Peaks has aired, a defiant rejection of closure that confirms that Twin Peaks has always been, in essence, a horror story. Twin Peaks is a journey into the void left by one girl’s inexplicable murder, a mystery that, like Laura Palmer’s eternal scream, echoes across time and space and imagination.

For all of its disconcerting dread-laced strangeness and temporal shifts, the finale does mostly explain its chain of narrative events through bursts of exposition from Gordon Cole and the cryptic pronouncements from Phillip Jeffries and the Fireman (though these statements are more comprehensible in retrospect that they are upon an initial viewing).

Dale Cooper, acting on a secret plan he worked out with Gordon Cole and Garland Briggs, as well as on the guidance of the mysterious Fireman, wishes to “kill two birds with one stone”–save Laura Palmer and confront and defeat Jowday, a.k.a. “Judy,” an extreme “negative force” that gave birth to BOB and seems to have possessed the Palmer house and its lone inhabitant, Sarah Palmer.

Gordon Cole cautions that he’s uncertain if this plan is working, though Cooper certainly seems confident enough when he returns to Twin Peaks and bears witness to BOB’s destruction. The fabric of time begins to tear as Cooper travels back to the moments before Laura Palmer’s murder and rescues her. Before he can restore Laura to her home (presumably hoping to dispel the darkness from it once and for all), Laura is whisked away from him, her scream echoing throughout the woods.

Cooper seems saddened by this, but was apparently expecting this, or a version of it, given that the direction he received from the Fireman and Jeffries leads him from this moment to a place beyond the boundaries of the dimensions we have known so far in the world of Twin Peaks. Cooper and Diane travel into an alternate timeline, a universe that is apparently the domain of Jowday/Judy. In traveling between these worlds, Cooper seems aware that he might lose something of himself. He notes to Diane that they will be different when they arrive at their destination.

Dislocation and disintegration follows. At a motel waystation between worlds, darkness overtakes Cooper and Diane; their romance dissolves before our eyes. Cooper wakes the next morning to find that she’s no longer with him, reading a note addressed to “Richard” from “Linda” (presumably Cooper and Diane’s identities in this alternate universe), in which Linda tells Richard that he is no longer recognizable (echoing Audrey’s remarks to Charlie earlier in the season; Audrey, too, has apparently lost herself in a false universe). Using Jeffries’ guidance, Cooper (who now seems colder, more ruthless, not unlike his own BOB-inhabited doppelgänger that was destroyed in chapter 17), locates Laura’s doppelgänger, a waitress in Odessa with a rotting corpse in her home, and tries and fails to remind her of her life. Together, they head to the Palmer home in Twin Peaks.

The drive from Odessa to Twin Peaks proceeds slowly. Cooper and Carrie/Laura arrive at the Palmer home. The Palmer homestead no longer seems to actually be the Palmer homestead; Cooper responds with puzzlement as he hears from its current inhabitants that the house previously belonged to an Alice Tremond, and before her, a Mrs. Chalfont (a note that suggests the house is still in thrall to evil, given that Mrs. Tremond/Chalfont has appeared previously in Twin Peaks as a mysterious figure with with links to the Black Lodge).

A defeated, confused Cooper proceeds back into the street with Carrie/Laura. Cooper’s chilling final utterance–“What year is this?”–gives voice to Cooper’s awareness that he has lost the thread. Carrie/Laura suddenly seems to recall her traumatic memories. Her face contorts in horror as she utters, once again, that universe-shattering scream. The Palmer house seems to come to life: all its lights blink out, just seconds before an electric crackle sends the entire world into darkness.

It’s hard to imagine a bleaker conclusion for Twin Peaks. In bringing Laura to the Palmer homestead, Cooper has not conquered Laura’s trauma, but forced her to relive it. Cooper has lost himself, and Laura with him, presumably forever. Cooper and Laura are orphaned from all worlds, no longer belonging anywhere in space or time, trapped in the grasp of unspeakable evil. Laura’s scream echoes in the void, displaced in darkness.

The final shot of Twin Peaks–Laura Palmer, whispering an inaudible secret to a visibly distressed Dale Cooper in the “Red Room”–speaks to the way in which they share in–and have been enveloped by–the unspeakable mystery of evil.

Notes on the passing of Walter Becker

My father’s two favorite bands were the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. He listened to their records with obsessive devotion, so growing up I was inundated with their tunes. I didn’t share my father’s passion for the Doobie Brothers, but I was quickly hooked on Steely Dan. As early as age five, I was laughing along to “Monkey In Your Soul,” the final track from 1974’s Pretzel Logic.

That same album served as my gateway into Steely Dan fandom and Steely Dan became one of the few things my father and I shared. My father took me to see them in Camden just after the release of Two Against Nature. It was my first concert. I would see them six more times after that.

Walter Becker was the less visible half of the Steely Dan equation. Lead singer Donald Fagen had the spotlight and the more prolific solo career, but Becker was every bit Fagen’s partner. Their songwriting career was really just a series of in-jokes between two weirdo soulmates who saw the world through with same skewed humor.

Love or hate Steely Dan, they were utterly and defiantly unique. Their funky, literate, hilarious lyrics and rigorous musical perfectionism resulted in textures that belong only to Becker and Fagen. Their prophetic vision of American life bridged Watergate to the rise of the digital era, a blackly comic nightmare with an irresistible groove.

The last time I saw Steely Dan was during a miserably wet and chilly evening at the Mann Center. My wife and I wore ponchos and froze to death as the band rocked on. During “Hey Nineteen,” Becker delivered a rambling monologue that had become a kind of Steely Dan tradition. Bootleg recordings of it exist, but they fail to capture its good-hearted feeling, the way it existed in a feedback loop with the audience’s own enthusiasm. You just had to be there.

Walter Becker will never be there again. As with the death of any beloved artist, his passing carries an awful finality. That’s all there is, folks. I still hoped that we might get another Steely Dan album. But a good run is a good run, and it was a very good run indeed.

Here’s to you, Walter.