Few will forget Bill Pullman‘s rousing speech as the US president in Independence Day, but it’s only one of a long string of vast and diverse roles that have seen him cast as romantic lead, action hero, comedy star and dark villain. In more than twenty years of screen acting he’s defined himself as a hard-working, engaging talent.
His latest film, Surveillance, opens in UK cinemas this week. Directed by Jennifer Lynch, it casts Pullman as one of a pair of FBI agents (with Julia Ormond) tracking down the culprit of a grisly collection of seemingly unpremeditated murders. With a fine ensemble cast it’s an original crime thriller; only Lynch’s second film since her 1993 debut Boxing Helena. It will open in the US on 26th June.
Of his five favourite films, Pullman says his choices depend on mood and context. “I always feel like there are a lot of different types of favourites,” he tells RT. “there are some that I look to for interesting things, some that I look to for acting things, others that I watch again and again. I don’t know if this is in any sort of order!”
“This is always the first choice when people say they have a new television set or home cinema system and they want to watch a great visual movie. I always choose this because I feel it has an incredible presence.”
“I like The Searchers for the same reason. I like to see those performances again and just the way that without special effects or tweaked shots or CGI or whatever you get this expansive feeling of being in the outdoors.”
“When I was in college, first year, I saw it and I really hadn’t been exposed to a lot of European filmmakers. It’s such a ‘film’ film. It wasn’t required viewing, it was just a film playing on campus and I hadn’t been interested in film before then. Nowadays people are deciding to get into film at age five when they’re sitting, watching the Oscars. I really didn’t come out of that culture — I was pretty much a John Wayne fan and that was it. Zabriskie Point was a time when I was in a lot of change and flux and these incredible visuals hit me like they had rearranged the organs in my body. The ending and the free-floating debris and everything is an image that burned itself in my consciousness.”
“It’s a little bit of a Slumdog movie in a way of somebody coming from incredibly unlikely beginnings and climbing through a lot of incredibly hard challenges to get somewhere. As an actor you’re continually riding the waves of whether you’re in or out, getting work or not getting work, and Kazan was really a guy who was condemned into not working and looking to go deep into someplace and just live inside his art.”
“This is one I’ve watched a couple of different times in a couple of different forms. I’ve watched the film version and I’ve also seen the mini-series. I think when I first saw that it changed my idea of acting. I go back to it sometimes just to put myself back in that place where my discoveries about what was possible on a film and the level of immersion between people — this incredible dance that they do — really formed.”
Surveillance opens in UK cinemas this week. It will open in the US on 26th June.
RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 18th column, Kim uncovers Hex, a 1973 film in the “Weird Hippie Shit” genre starring everyone’s favourite Carradine – Keith, and the one, the only Gary Busey.
A particular guilty pleasure genre of mine is Weird Hippie Shit cinema. In 1969, Easy Rider reaped huge box-office profits with its combination of biker cool, trippy strangeness, counterculture politics, naked chicks and a freak-out soundtrack album tie-in. Studios, from the majors down to the tiniest independents, appreciated the balance sheet but frankly didn’t understand what ‘the kids’ saw in such a plot-free, self-indulgent, longhaired and untidy movie.
So they funded practically any stoned film school dropout who drifted in off the street with a screenplay in the hope that ‘the kids’ would turn up for equally ‘far-out’ flicks. Mostly, these pictures failed to haul in the Easy Rider audience — let’s face it, not everyone found a potential star like Jack Nicholson or could spring for a Steppenwolf song — and slunk into drive-ins passed off as exploitation films. There were some hits (Alice’s Restaurant, M*A*S*H) and a few lasting cult reputations (Two-Lane Blacktop, Zabriskie Point, Psych-Out), but the cycle mostly consists of hard-to-see oddities like Peter Fonda‘s Idaho Transfer, Moonchild, Alan Rudolph‘s Premonition, Brian DePalma‘s Greetings, Zachariah, David Carradine‘s Americana (it wasn’t proper WHS unless you had at least one Carradine), The Second Coming of Suzanne, Is This Trip Really Necessary? or Jim McBride‘s Glen and Randa.
The WHS item under dissection here is Hex, a 1973 biker/western/horror/art hybrid also released as Charms and The Shrieking (the alternate titles suggest the problem WHS movies posed to distributors desperate to find a slot — though the pun in Charms is quite clever). Some WHS films are revived because they are early works by directors (like DePalma or Rudolph) who have gone on to prominence (though even I’ve never seen Tobe Hooper‘s Eggshells); others come from one-hit wonders like James William Guercio (Electra Glide in Blue) or Robert Blackburn (Lemora — A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural).
Leo Garen, the director/co-writer of Hex, never directed another film, and his tiny handful of other credits are truly bizarre — directing episodes of the saccharine sit-com I Dream of Jeannie, acting in Norman Mailer‘s improv Maidstone and scripting a couple of minor films for cinema (Band of the Hand) and TV (Inflammable). His co-writers are similar footnote characters, but all have some form: Doran William Cannon wrote a couple of higher-profile WHS films for established elderly auteurs (Otto Preminger‘s disastrous acid trip Skidoo, Robert Altman‘s admirable post-M*A*S*H flop Brewster McCloud), Vernon Zimmerman wrote and directed a scattering of more conventional exploitation films (Unholy Rollers, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Fade to Black) and Steve Katz went on to 1980s bubblegum TV (The A-Team, Harcastle and McCormick).
The setting is Nebraska in the early 1920s — the back-of-nowhere, on-the-road milieu almost excuses the hippie hairstyles, but somehow all the faces and attitudes on view scream ‘1973’. A small band of motorcyclists with kooky nicknames breeze into town on army surplus sickles, and get into a grudge race with a local lout (future Grizzly Adams, Dan Haggerty) who has a Model-T Ford souped up and customised like a drag-racer (‘it ain’t fair,’ he whines, ‘I lost speed missin’ that old lady’).
Eventually, the outcasts — whose behaviour is mostly milder than that of the bikers in movies like The Wild Angels or Hells Angels on Wheels — fetch up at an isolated farm run by strange sisters Oriole (Tina Herazo, who later changed her name to Christina Raines and starred in Nashville and The Sentinel) and Acacia (Hilary Thompson). Giblets (Gary Busey) makes aggressive moves against the blonde, naïve Acacia but suffers for it — an owl rips his face off, and Oriole won’t let his comrades bury him on her property.
It’s one of a cycle of Western/horror films (The Beguiled, Shadow of Chikara) where violent men meet their doom thanks to perhaps-witchy womenfolk, and the rest of the film finds Oriole, who has inherited magic powers from her Indian father, working spells which whittle down the gang. Proto-bike mama China (Doria Cook) has an imaginatively-shot bad trip by the waterhole, Giblets’ brother Jimbang (Scott Glenn) suffers when a pistol he has personally cleaned and restored blows up as he fires it at his tormentor, and mute ‘half-breed’ Chupo (Robert Walker Jr) becomes possessed and turns on the gang’s leader Whizzer (Keith Carradine). Even the bespectacled, childish nice kid Golly (Mike Combs), whom Acacia warms up to, seems in danger as Oriole gets more and more witchy — though the last reel turns up several plot reversals that, frankly, don’t make sense even as they’re perfectly in tune with the what-the-hell tone of the film.
Drive-in audiences expecting something more like the lurid Werewolves on Wheels must have scratched their heads, and elements of the picture (like the twanging mouth organ/jew’s harp/kazoo music score) were horribly dated even at the time of release. But Hex is still, somehow, fascinating — the performances, from future stars and future nobodies alike, are all very strong, with set-piece moments that allow everyone to show off their acting muscles. Keith Carradine (whose father John is reputedly in here somewhere) is a rangy, interesting leading man — like many protagonists in 1970s cinema, he’s
a gawky fraud, who claims to have been an aviator in the war when he was actually a grounded mechanic who never shipped out, but still has a knot of mismatched followers.
Scenes between Busey and Glenn are an object lesson in over- and under-acting: Busey does everything but grab the camera and shake it, while Glenn seems to do almost nothing but steals every moment (he’s clearly the most dangerous character). Cinematographer Charles Rosher, who went on to work a lot with Altman (including on the last great WHS classic, Three Women) gives the landscape an acid haze that segues naturally into the trippy scenes.
Sometimes, with 1970s cinema, you just had to be there at the time; occasionally, even if you were it doesn’t help. Now, the decade is valorised in cinema histories as an era of experiment, of characterisation, of depth — but to have all that, it also needed a netherworld of fringe cinema like this.
Think of Antonioni and certain keynotes come to mind. Beautifully spare aesthetics. Lingering silences. Themes of alienation and eroticism. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Antonioni made more than 30 short- and feature-length films, many of which have become canonized as classics integral to film history and European art cinema.
In his early career Antonioni dabbled in the Italian neo-realism of his peers, documenting fishermen near his native Ferrara; his Il Grido (1957) chronicles the desperation of a working class mechanic in love. But the bulk of the auteur’s films would trend upwardly into the social elite, exploring relationships between woman and man, and man and modernity, with the director’s eye for architecture lending powerful imagery to stories of human frailty.
It is often tempting to ask filmmakers, especially those that like to challenge their audiences, to explain themselves and the ideas behind their work. A former film journalist himself, Antonioni seemed to encourage moviegoers to find the secrets and messages in his films themselves, and imbued his work with such significance — metaphorical imagery, tone, thematic questions of the human condition — that he certainly helped elevate cinema into the realm of high art.
Gianfranco Mangozzi’s 1966 documentary Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials (“the first documentary about Antonioni to receive his approval”) introduces the auteur thusly:
“Antonioni is a poised, reserved and demanding northern Italian. Like his movies, he’s quite unfathomable at first. He doesn’t believe that any director’s statement about himself or his work, will help in the understanding of the work itself; the path traveled by a director to realize a movie is filled with doubts, mistakes, faults, and the strangest thing we might ask him to do, is to talk about it.”
One of Antonioni’s best known films is L’Avventura, an existential drama about a search for a missing woman that melts into an affair between her friend and her lover. Shot memorably on the volcanic archipelago island of Lisca Bianca, L’Avventura features deliberate pacing, themes of upper class ennui, and an unconventional narrative that devolves from mystery into romance halfway through the film — all of which led famously to audience booing at the film’s Cannes Festival debut in 1960.
On Criterion’s L’Avventura disk, Italian actress (and Antonioni muse) Monica Vitti recalls leaving the infamous Cannes screening in tears, only to be buoyed the next day by an open letter of support from international journalists and filmmakers (including director Roberto Rossellini and legendary Variety critic Gene “Mosk” Moskowitz). Despite its detractors, L’Avventura won that year’s Special Jury Prize and has since been recognized as essential and groundbreaking in its use of imagery and composition in film language.
The film trilogy that began with L’Avventura continued with La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), unrelated stories that shared Antonioni’s signature style and examined similar themes of isolation among men and women. All three films starred Vitti, whose most famous roles came from her fruitful pairing with Antonioni. Vitti also starred in the director’s subsequent Il Deserto Rosso (1964), thought to be the unofficial fourth film in the series.
Antonioni found international success with a subsequent set of English language films. Blow-Up (1966) follows a London fashion photographer (David Hemmings) whose superficial life of photo shoots and sex orgies takes a serious turn when he photographs what may be a murder. His obsession with uncovering the truth of the event becomes maddening, and Antonioni breaks with convention to make the viewer complicit in the ambiguity. As in many of his films, Antonioni leaves his ending unexplained.
The success of Blow-Up was not repeated with his next film, Zabriskie Point (1970). Widely remembered as Antonioni’s biggest failure, the film about America’s counter-culture boasted songs by Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones but grossed only a small fraction of its $7 million production cost. It’s worth noting that Zabriskie, though flawed in its simple assessment of anti-establishment youth, kept true to many of the director’s trademark styles in forgoing traditional story structure to tell a story of disaffection.
At 57 percent on the Tomatometer, Zabriskie Point is the lowest-scoring of Antonioni’s films made during his golden era (the 1960s and 1970s). His next film, The Passenger (1975), would be the last bright spot before Antonioni’s arguable decline in the years to follow. The film stars Jack Nicholson as a weary journalist who rashly adopts the identity of a dead man, and continues to keep the man’s gun-running appointments while inexplicably accompanied by a student (Maria Schneider) who becomes his lover. Re-released in 2005 by Sony Pictures Classics, The Passenger has scored a 91 percent Tomatometer.
For this writer, it all comes back to L’Avventura. A truly revolutionary exercise in filmmaking, the picture gave life to Antonioni’s assertion of a new cinematic language, one in which objects and architecture — a volcanic island, an archway, a crumbling church tower — provide not just symbolic, but literal spaces for people to inhabit. Antonioni’s masterly compositions carefully place his characters in relation to these rigid structures; his rebellious use of long takes and moments of silence draw attention to every unspoken degree of change in each person and their relation to each other. To read L’Avventura with care is to learn to read movies, to reach beyond simple images on a screen and grasp ideas, concepts, and lamentations that are impossible to speak.