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Ravenous (1999)

Ravenous 1

Antonia Bird had a long career as a director, but she only made a handful of theatrical features. As far as I can tell, none of them went anywhere commercially. I think in part this is because her films don’t play by the rules that mainstream audiences are used to. Her movies just don’t fall into the usual categories.

Take Ravenous. It tells the story of a young soldier posted to a remote fort in California who narrowly escapes being eaten by a cannibal, only to later find himself becoming a cannibal. Ravenous is not a comedy, though it has moments of very black comedy. It’s not a western, though it has many of the elements that characterize westerns. And it’s not a horror movie, though a number of scenes are truly horrifying. Really it’s a morality play. The crux of the film is the main character’s choice between right and wrong.

The script, by Ted Griffin, begins with a battle in the Mexican-American War. We see the young soldier, Boyd, as he receives a medal and a promotion for single-handedly seizing a command post behind enemy lines. Later we learn the full story, and it beomes clear that Boyd isn’t the hero he appears to be. In fact he’s severely traumatized, and his commanding officer sends him to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas.

This is where he encounters Calhoun, the only survivor of a party that tried to cross the Sierras in the dead of winter. At first it seems that Calhoun is the only member of the party that managed to escape when his companions turned to eating one another. But we soon find out that he’s the cannibal, and that he’s still hungry. We also learn that in eating his victims he acquires their strength and bravery. Calhoun tells Boyd of his transformation from a sickly, tubercular invalid to a healthy, virile predator. He plans to continue eating human flesh, and he invites Boyd to join him.

Calhoun’s character represents the savagery of nineteenth century American imperialism. He’s intelligent and cunning, and totally unapologetic about the fact that he eats human beings. In fact, he sees the practice as a sign of strength. Standing in a graveyard outside the fort, he speaks to Boyd of Manifest Destiny, explaining that this young, hungry nation must eat to grow. The first time we see Calhoun, he’s holding a small cross in his hand, and throughout the film he’s closely associated with this Christian symbol. For centuries, European nations had used evangelism as a pretext for slaughter and plunder, and the US continued that tradition in the nineteenth century. Christianity was perverted to justify war against the indigenous people who populated North America. At the film’s climax, Calhoun paints a cross on his forehead with blood. It’s not subtle, but it is effective.

The film’s design seems to have grown organically out of its themes. The story is mostly played out within the claustrophobic darkness of the fort or the enormous, snowy landscapes of the American West. Against this background of murky shadow and blinding white, we see the dull blue of the soldiers’ uniforms, the bright red of splattered blood, and occasionally the colors of the American flag as it curls in the breeze. This beautifully unified conception is the work of production designer Bryce Perrin. Using this visual framework, cinematographer Anthony Richmond paints a physical landscape that is overwhelmingly huge, while at the same time delineating a psychological landscape that is dark, cramped and terrifying. Sheena Napier’s costumes don’t just help define the characters, they also express the way the characters evolve as the story unfolds.

And these are unusual, challenging characters. Guy Pearce does an impressive job with Boyd, bringing us into his state of mind, allowing us to see these harrowing events through the eyes of this weak, scared, vulnerable man. But Pearce also makes clear that there’s a spark of strength in Boyd that allows him to take a stand against evil. As Calhoun, Robert Carlyle is both frightening and charismatic. This intelligent, articulate cannibal isn’t just a bloodthirsty monster. He believes in what he’s doing, and preaches eloquently on the subject. Sheila Tousey’s Martha speaks few lines of dialogue, but the actress imbues her character with a quiet, stoic strength. And Jeffrey Jones shows his consummate skill at playing offbeat roles, making the softspoken Col. Hart sympathetic, even when he becomes a cold-blooded killer. I can’t think of many actors who could handle the line, “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”

The score is just as unusual as the rest of the movie, being credited to a young rock star and an established film composer. Damon Albarn uses traditional instruments to capture the psycho soul of these soldiers trudging through the vast isolation of the American wilderness. Michael Nyman’s orchestral cues are skilfully woven into the texture of the film, underlining the feeling of dread and paranoia.

Antonia Bird’s films didn’t follow the usual patterns, and didn’t offer comforting solutions. Her protagonists find themselves in difficult, overwhelming situations, and they don’t win easy victories, if it can be said they end up winning at all. And this is probably a large part of the reason why her theatrical features never found large audiences.

Bird died last October. She was a filmmaker who didn’t want to compromise, and she paid the price at the box office. It’s not easy to find her work, with some of her films being difficult or impossible to get hold of. This is a shame. She was a unique artist and a gifted director. Her films deserve to be seen.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

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Nicolas Roeg’s early films are mysteries. He wasn’t really telling stories. He wasn’t creating drama. In the seventies and eighties Roeg was exploring a new language, melding sound and image, breaking down time and space. I always felt that understanding his films was less important than experiencing them.

That may sound like some kind of mystical rubbish, and there were plenty of people who accused Roeg of being glib and flashy. But from Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell) to Bad Timing (1980), I think Roeg was really trying to let us see and hear things in a new way. It may not have always worked, but I never doubted his sincerity.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of Roeg’s most ambitious films. It tells the story of the spectacular rise and fall of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to earth and builds a vast financial empire based on startling new technologies. The film was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis. (Tevis also wrote The Hustler, which was brought to the screen by Robert Rossen in 1961.) While the narrative mostly moves forward, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg don’t feel bound by traditional storytelling conventions. There are sensual reveries where bodies drift through an empty void. At times we hear sounds that seem to be echoing across the centuries. Time and space aren’t fixed in Roeg’s movies. They’re unstable. Porous. We may get a momentary flash of something that hasn’t happened yet. Or suddenly a window will open on the long lost past.

Mayersberg’s film résumé isn’t long, but it’s really interesting. In addition to The Man Who Fell to Earth, he also wrote Eureka for Roeg. And he wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film Croupier. It’s clear from just those three titles that Mayersberg is interested in outsiders. The first two are expansive, mythic stories of gifted men who build an empire and then see it stolen from them. The third in some ways is the polar opposite, focussing on a man who wants to isolate himself from the world around him, seeking safety in self-effacing anonymity. But all three are stories of individuals struggling with society, and in each one the main character finds himself trying to deal with a world which is basically corrupt.

Roeg is also interested in corruption, but tends to focus less on the world and more on the individual. His characters are often searching for something, sometimes literally on a journey of discovery. Along the way they tangle with sex and death, which in Roeg’s world are always closely intertwined. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton seems to be immortal, but he watches everyone around him age, becoming weak and fragile. And while Newton has a wife and children back on his home planet, he’s not immune to desire. He meets a maid in a hotel and soon they’re sharing the same bed.

Sex is a subject Roeg is very interested in, and The Man Who Fell to Earth is more explicit than any other mainstream film I know of from the time. In your standard Hollywood film, sex is almost always about love, and it’s usually reserved for the main characters. That’s not the way it works in Roeg’s world. Love may or not may not be involved, and even when it is, the lovers are never pure. They’re just as vulnerable as real people, feeling loneliness, fear, insecurity and desperation. In his films sex is truly intimate, and that intimacy carries with it all the perils it does in real life.

Love, American-style

Love, American-style

I’ve seen the film several times, but this is the first time it occurred to me that the three principal talents, Roeg, Mayersberg and Bowie, are all British. Watching it from that perspective, it seemed to be very much about a foreigner slowly drowning in American culture. At first fascinated, then addicted, then overwhelmed and appalled. When Newton arrives at his hotel room in the Southwest, he asks Mary Lou to bring him a TV. Then more TVs crowd into the room. Finally he’s sitting in front of a wall of television sets, all tuned to different channels, bombarding him with chaotic visuals and disembodied voices. He’s confronted with a manic, kinetic collage of machines and animals, sex and savagery. The sensory onslaught becomes so overwhelming that he flips out. When he finally shouts, “Leave my mind alone!” is it just Newton shouting, or are the filmmakers also making a comment on the suffocating effect of American pop culture?

The visual texture of the film is wonderfully rich and extremely intricate. Anthony Richmond’s cinematography takes full advantage of Brian Eatwell’s stunning production design. As editor, Graeme Clifford gives it all a seductive, hypnotic rhythm. The sound is equally complex, thanks to the efforts of Robin Gregory, Bob Jones, Alan Bell and Colin Miller. It’s also important to mention the electronic effects by Desmond Briscoe, who pioneered the use of electronic sound in Britain. And the music is a fabulous crazy quilt of old standards, rock n’ roll, bluegrass and avant garde, to which John Phillips, Stomu Yamash’ta and Duncan Lamont all contributed.

As his career went on, Roeg moved toward a more conventional approach to image and sound. He seemed to be rejecting the oblique, enigmatic style of his early years and embracing a more straightforward kind of storytelling. That’s fine. As people mature, the obsessions of their youth often fall by the wayside. But I keep returning to Roeg’s early work, and I don’t think it’s just a sentimental attachment. There’s something in those movies that keeps calling me back. His films from that time are disturbing, sensual mysteries. Don’t try to understand them. Just let yourself fall into them.

A Brit stranded in the American Southwest

A Brit stranded in the American Southwest