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Moriarty's Rumblings from the Labs: Special July 4th Edition

Hello folks, Harry here. Folks, the original plan was for me to write my top ten films about America interspersed amongst Moriarty's... But ya know what? There's not enough room to do it in this frame, so... instead, you will see mine next year on July 4th. Till then, lay back and enjoy. Moriarty details his 10 films that define the United States for him. Personally this is a very telling window into Moriarty's sense of what this country he hides in is about. It's far more cynical in tone than mine... but that list is a year away, till then enjoy everything that Moriarty ponies up... his look at the Conan film you never saw is particularly wonderful. enjoy....

JULY 4th SPECIAL EDITION!!

RE: The Unseen CONAN; The 10 Best Films About America!!

Hey, Head Geek...

“Moriarty” here.

I hope everyone is having a holiday weekend that’s as relaxing and as enjoyable as mine. It looks like many of you have seen THE PERFECT STORM. Some of you might even be the people that sold out the showings I’ve tried to attend. I’m beginning to think I’m never going to actually see that film, that the entire ad campaign has just been a cruel hoax, designed to make me think that someone had actually made a film of Sebastian Junger’s book. I’ll be giving it another try in the next day or so, and I hope this time I actually make it inside the Chinese.

We’re just two weeks away from the release of X-MEN now, and the hype machine is quietly kicking in. Bill Mechanic may be gone, but everything was already in motion, and the release of the film is moving ahead with no snags, no interruption. There’s a one-hour special that Fox has prepared that gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the making of X-MEN that will be shown July 11th on Fox and then again on July 16th on FX. I’ve heard from inside the X-MEN camp that the special is actually fairly awful and does a poor job of setting up the tone of the film, so if you’re a shameless clip whore like me who will watch just to get a look at the characters in motion, remind yourself as you watch that this is not the film, and you shouldn’t get discouraged if the special comes across as flat.

Now, since it’s a holiday weekend, I’m going to try to just hit a couple of things this week, not overload the column, and I’m going to hold over all the other little stuff I had planned. The 1996 installment of the ‘90s list will be included with my next column so that I can bring you the special feature that will close this week’s July 4th edition.

THE CONAN THAT NEVER WAS

I first saw CONAN THE BARBARIAN on the eve of my 12th birthday. The film was a hard R, and I remember the tricky negotiations that went into convincing my parents that I needed to see this movie. Thankfully, I grew up in a house with a mother who read science fiction and fantasy as much as I did, so all I had to do was feed her a steady diet of the Robert E. Howard collections for a few months before the big day. By the time CONAN was about to come out, she was as ready for the film as I was. That poster hypnotized me every time I saw it in the lobby. There was something about the stark image of Conan, his sword, and the warrior woman at his side... it promised me an adventure as grand as STAR WARS, mythic and fantastic, and I couldn’t wait for it.

And when it finally arrived, it was one of those perfect magic movie experiences for me. I fell hard in love with the film on first sight, and that affection hasn’t wavered one bit since. Sometimes when I bring the film up to someone, I get a look like they can’t believe I’m serious. Ten times out of ten, the ones who look at me like that are the ones who have never seen the film, who judged it based on the plethora of shitty sword-and-sorcery movies that came out in its wake. I find myself extolling the film’s many virtues with an almost evangelical zeal, and the only difficult part is figuring out where to start raving. Do I praise Arnold Schwarzenegger for turning in genuinely strong and emotional work in his first major starring role? Do I praise the oddball supporting cast like surfing icon Gerry Lopez and Mako? Do I bring up the hypnotic, powerful work of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, one of the best cult leaders in film history? Is it the staggeringly great score by Basl Paledouris, used to such rousing effect in the GLADIATOR campaign this year, that I mention? Or do I emphasize the surprisingly affecting and adult love story anchored by the tender work of Sandahl Bergman? Or do I mention the dancer’s grace and authority she brings to every major fight scene?

Or do I start with John Milius? I think perhaps that’s where any serious discussion of the film and its place among the classics begins. Milius is a curious filmmaker, a guy with undeniable skill and and style, and he’s been associated with a number of great or greatish films like BIG WEDNESDAY, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE WIND AND THE LION, and RED DAWN. He’s been spoofed mercilessly by the Coen Bros. in the form of Walter, John Goodman’s character in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. He’s a name that most film geeks know, but for some reason, he’s never had the career that he should have. For me, there’s no pinnacle in his resume that stands higher than CONAN. It’s a great story, breathtaking in its simplicity but rich in detail, mature and sweeping and sad and intense and exciting. The visual panache that Milius brings to the movie is evident upon viewing, but I never understood just how much of the story was his. For years, I’ve been raving about how smart the screenplay for the film is, giving the lion’s share of the credit to Oliver Stone, who shares screen credit with Milius.

It was only in the last month, though, that I learned exactly how wrong I was about the project’s pedigree. Two things happened. First, Universal DVD issued their magnificent new Collector’s Edition of the film, complete with a one-hour documentary on the movie produced by Laurent Bouzereau (who performed similar duties with JAWS and 1941, among others), new footage that’s been incorporated back into the movie, and a secondary audio track that features both Milius and Arnold. Second, I finally got hold of a copy of Oliver Stone’s original August 1, 1978 first draft of CONAN, written for Ed Pressman’s company. Now, I can finally see what everyone brought to the table, and the result is that I love the film even more, even as I also regret deeply that Stone’s film doesn’t exist.

From the very opening of the film, what we are seeing is Milius’ vision, inspired in places by what Stone had written, but undeniably different. Milius opens his film with a Nietszche quote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” which seems apt when you look at the life this character leads. There’s nothing but misery after misery, loss after loss, pain and death to mark each milestone. In black, we hear the voice of Mako, the film’s narrator, setting the tone for us, finishing with the promise, “Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

And then “Anvil Of Crom” begins, the film’s main theme. It’s one of those perfect pieces of film music that does it all. It manages to convey all the emotion, all the adventure that the film holds in store, all in three minutes of music. And as we’re swept away by this pounding, insistent score, the film’s other major theme is set up by the first actual image we see, the glowing hot red liquid outline of metal being poured into the mold of a sword. Right away, we are introduced to the one visual motif that ties the film together... we see the making of a sword, a strikingly fashioned blade that’s as distinct as Luke’s lightsaber. Conan’s mother and father work together on the sword, him forging it, her wrapping the handle.

And as the theme fades, Conan’s father sits with him, examines the sword, and speaks to him of their god, Crom. Both Milius and Stone have this scene in their scripts, but Milius makes it more of a mystic exchange, an elder handing down a secret. He speaks of how man came to possess the secret of steel, a secret that used to be the sole domain of gods and giants. “No one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.” He touches the blade of the sword, as does Conan. “This you can trust.” That one bit of dialogue was Stone’s first, and it is crucial to the way Milius imagined the rest of his film.

In Stone’s script, there is an attack on Conan’s village. His parents are quickly killed, but curiously, the young Conan is simply left alive to make his own way in the world. Once they’ve killed the adults, the raiders simply ride off. It’s exciting, but it feels incomplete. Milius knows the value of an origin, though, knows that we need to really feel where Conan begins, feel it deeply, if we’re going to care about where he’s going in the film. There are two main missions Conan has in the movie. First and foremost, there’s revenge against whoever wiped out his village and his parents. Milius plays the sequence for all it’s worth, staging a brutal, visceral assault that lets us know right away just how dangerous this world is. Limbs are hacked off, bodies attacked by dogs, horses felled. It’s overwhelming, and at the end of it, young Conan stands with his mother, her holding a sword, protecting her boy. They’ve already seen Conan’s father fall, and all the warriors assemble, surrounding the woman and the boy. The leader of the attackers reveals himself as a young Thulsa Doom, and our first impression of him is magnetic. His blue eyes, his long hair, and that serpentine stare... Jones exudes menace. He is set up without one line of dialogue as a presence to be reckoned with. Just as our first glimpse of Darth Vader told us all we needed to know about his character, so does our first scene with Doom. He approaches the woman, his eyes never leaving her eyes. Finally, as if in a dream, she lowers her sword. Doom turns away, then suddenly spins and takes her head off with one clean stroke. The image of her body falling away from Young Conan, who is still holding her hand, and of his face as she pulls away, is chilling and memorable. Doom and his men walk away from the boy, taking his father's sword with them, and he sees the standard they carry, a carved totem featuring two snakes joined in the middle, facing one another across a black sun.

Young Conan is then taken to the Wheel of Pain, another invention of Milius’, and again, he seems to understand that there are significant stops that must be made along the way when setting up a truly epic myth. Stone’s script is impatient to get to the adventure, which is part of what makes it such a compulsively addictive read. When we first meet the adult Conan, he’s being chased by wolves across an open plain. He finally turns and fights them all in a pretty crazy action scene. He stops for comfort and aid at the home of a woman who turns out to be a witch. She speaks of a prophecy that seems to refer to Conan. There’s events that mirror these scenes in the final film, but Stone’s world is rougher than Milius’, more barbaric, and he etches things in quicker. He doesn’t show us how Conan grows up; it’s enough to just know that he did. In Stone’s script, these events just happen, one after another.

Milius is after something greater, though. He takes his time, and the sequence that he’s invented to show Conan’s passage from boy to man is probably my favorite section of the film. All the children of the village are spared, chained together, and marched away as Mako’s voice over returned. “Their ashes were trampled into the earth, and the blood became as snow.” The children are sent away, to the North, where they are sold to a slaver, strapped to a giant Wheel, where they simply walk in endless circles, pushing the Wheel forward. Using the Wheel, Milius lets the years themselves roll by, and we see a boy grow into a man, until finally Arnold himself looks up through his now-shaggy mane of hair, pumped and buffed from the years of toil. He’s sold into a life of pit-fighting, where he picks up the skills to match his impressive size, and where he is taught the savage philosophy of the day. What good fanboy doesn’t know the response to the question, “CONAN! What is best in life?!” It’s only after all of this experience, only after Conan has earned his freedom, granted to him in the middle of the night, that we find him on the run, the wolves at his heels. It’s eleven pages into the Stone script. It’s twenty-five minutes into Milius’ film. It makes a world of difference. Now we are invested in seeing what Conan, a slave since childhood, will do with his new freedom, what place he will find in the world. Milius adds one last mythic touch, though, before momentarily returning to Stone’s script. He interrupts the chase by the wolves as Conan finds an underground crypt. In that crypt, he finds an Atlantean sword, waiting, ready for Conan to claim as his own. It’s in the hands of a skeletal warrior who crumbles in front of Conan. Conan has now finally claimed his own steel, his own gift from Crom, and it completes him as a free man.

Both Stone and Milius use the robbery of a temple as the first major set piece of the film, and the two sequences are similar in the broad strokes, but this is where the films begin to take radically different directions. Milius has Conan pick up a companion named Subatoi, a thief, after leaving the witch’s house, and then has the two of them head into a town together. Once they arrive, Conan begins to ask around about the standard that he remembers from his childhood, the symbol of the two snakes. There’s a natural flow to the way they find the tower at the center of town. It’s not just a random robbery. This is part of Conan’s main quest in the film.

In the script, Stone has Conan drift into a tavern alone, and there’s a sense that he’s experienced, knows how to work the angles in any town he rolls into. He listens to the various conversations around him, then intrudes into the one he finds most interesting. In this case, it’s between a priest and a pickpocket who are discussing a Stygian tower in the city’s center. Conan walks right up and joins in with them, setting both men on edge immediately. There’s an arrogance to Conan. He’s more of a bastard in Stone’s draft, less motivated by some driving sense of revenge or loss and more of a mercenary, cold and cruel. When Conan suggests scaling the tower, they laugh at him, but he is determined. They tell him about the Stone of Set, a fabulous jewel that’s kept in the heart of the temple, but they warn him that any attempt on it is suicide. Conan is unimpressed by the warnings. Before he can leave the tavern, he has an encounter with a thief almost as big as Conan himself, and there’s almost a fight. At the last moment, bloodshed is averted, though, and Conan fades away into the night.

Then Stone does something that Milius never does, and I think it’s the one real weakness of Stone’s script. He shifts the focus of the film away from Conan for a fairly major sequence that sets up the bad guys of the film. Milius is already tying in the opening of his movie, moving it forward as one singular narrative, and Stone’s cutting away to introduce new characters, the princess of the kingdom Conan has stumbled into. Yasmina is in the midst of a crisis as her brother the king wastes away from a mysterious illness that no one can stop or even identify. In a crazy, terrifying sequence, Yasmina is left alone with her brother, who finally reveals himself to be possessed by some evil entity called Taramis. Yasmina recognizes the name, but protests that Taramis is dead. The king attacks his sister, and she has no choice but to fight back. She stabs him to death, then collapses, destroyed by the encounter.

It’s cut back to Conan, who is staking out the Stygian Tower, but only briefly. Almost immediately, we’re back to Yasmina, who is getting ready to leave the palace, to go for help. She’s panicked now, and as her aides help her prepare, one of them calls her “Your majesty,” and the weight of what’s just happened sinks in.

In Stone’s script, Conan encounters another thief who is going to try to take the Stygian Tower, someone named Taurus. In Milius’ film, Subatoi and Conan are about to try the tower when they encounter Valeria, the warrior woman who becomes Conan’s lover and partner. Milius is laying the groundwork for his film, always advancing the story. Stone just sets up the barbarian equivalent of a STAR TREK red shirt, a thief who can get ripped apart by the tower’s mutant guard so we get a good look at the creature in action.

Yes, that’s right... I said “mutant guard.” The main reason Stone’s script wasn’t made in 1978, I’m sure, was budget. It certainly wasn’t because the script was poorly written or unimaginative. Just the opposite is true. The script is dense with descriptions of monsters and settings that seem to have been taken directly from the pages of the pulp stories of Robert E. Howard. Maybe today, with modern CGI and makeup effects, and with a budget the size of LORD OF THE RINGS, someone could capture the scale of Stone’s vision onscreen. In 1978, STAR WARS was still state of the art. Jodorowsky’s ambitious adaptation of DUNE had been budgeted at $400 million, and it would have taken a similar amount of money to do what Stone proposed. He starts with one creature, a freaky thing that guards the Stygian Tower, and he has Conan fight the thing in a sprawling action set piece that establishes Conan as the equal of any beast or man. During the scene, we get a look at the snake cult that occupies the temple, and we hear the name “Thulsa Doom” for the first time. He’s not referred to as the leader of the cult, though. Instead, he’s described as the minion of Set, a creature that will rise up in the final days and rule over man with sorcery and slavery. We see that Yasmina has come to the Stygians for advice, and they offer up a terrifying vision of the end days, which they say are at hand. She doesn’t know how to react. Meanwhile, Conan’s epic battle with the creature and the giant snake that guards the Stone of Set rages for six pages of densely described action. Stone may have missed his calling when he chose to become a social moralist with his films instead of an action writer. He’s got a brutal sense of pace, and he punishes Conan in scene after scene. There’s no easy victory offered here. When Conan flees the temple at the same time that Yasmina is leaving, their paths cross in an unexpected manner. She is attacked by a group of men, and they attempt to kidnap her for ransom. Conan hears the scuffle and intrudes. When he sees that it’s the pickpocket and the thief from the tavern earlier, he can’t help but interfere. It’s that arrogance again. He ends up having to kill all four men, and when he finishes, he wrestles her down and claims his reward from her, a savage kiss. Stone actually sets Yasmina up as Conan’s first romantic interest in the film, and this introductory sequence sets up their chemistry in the rest of the script. She’s both horrified by and attracted to his rough manner, and he is delighted by her pampered softness, but unwilling to put up with any royal temper. She realizes quickly that Conan is a valuable ally, and she offers him money to escort her home. When they reach the palace and he realizes she is Queen of Zamora, he’s shocked. She offers him even more money to stay and be her closest bodyguard, and Conan accepts.

From this point forward, there’s little or no reason to compare the two scripts. Milius seems to have read Stone’s draft and taken ideas and elements that he thought were interesting. Stone has Conan crucified on a tree at one point, and Milius does, too. They’re totally different scenes in terms of what they accomplish and where they fall in the film, though. In Stone’s draft, Yasmina doesn’t even last one full night as queen before Taramis shows up. An animal-like resurrection of Yasmina’s evil sister, Taramis brings Thulsa Doom and an army of mutants with her when she sweeps into Zamora. She is disguised perfectly, transformed into Yasmina, and the palace coup takes place in the dark, behind closed doors. No one knows. Taramis effectively becomes Yasmina and begins to turn Zamora into a hell on earth. Conan is taken out into the desert and crucified to get him out of the way. There, he is discovered by a gang of thieves who see some merit in this impressive form, who see a possible ally. One of the thieves is Valeria, a beautiful warrior who rides at the side of Janus, the leader of the thieves. They rescue Conan and take him back to camp, where Janus’ taunts cause Conan, already weakened and injured, to take up arms against Janus. There is a fight, and Janus ends up dead. On page 84 of the script, the entire camp of thieves picks up a chant of “CO-NAN! CO-NAN!” as they surround their new leader. Valeria watches, impressed, and we fade to black for an intermission.

Stone actually has his script divided into two distinct parts, but the Milius film still manages to feel like more of an epic. Maybe it’s the way Stone breaks his story up, making it episodic, like a number of short Conan stories strung together. Eventually, everything does indeed come around to Conan and Valeria riding on Zamora and rescuing Yasmina. There’s an ungodly battle against a seemingly endless mutant army that closes the script that really is like madness, like a nightmare that Stone somehow spilled onto the page. The problem is that there’s no sense of character carrying us through. For all intents and purposes, the second half of Stone’s film exists just to set up a romantic triangle between Conan and the pampered Yasmina versus the spirited Valeria. Milius makes Conan and Valeria immediate soulmates, and the intensity of their passion really pays off after Conan’s near-death, when Valeria literally fends off the spirits of death to keep him on Earth. When Thulsa Doom strikes her down in a chilling scene near the end of the movie, it’s shattering. Their love is simply doomed, no matter what, and even bringing him back from the dead isn’t enough to keep them together. I’ve always loved the line as Conan lights Valeria’s funeral pyre, when Subatoi is standing with the wizard played by Mako. Tears course down Subatoi’s cheeks, and the wizard ask why Subatoi cries. The little thief gestures at Conan and says, “Because he will not.” There is a sense of strong bonds between these characters, a depth to the friendships that is earned over the course of Milius’ film. In particular, there’s a scene that has been restored in the new DVD that takes place just before the final massive battle among the rocks, where Conan and Subatoi talk about their outlooks on life. It’s maybe the finest moment of performance that Arnold has ever given. It’s sad, tempered with the disappointment and pain that his life has been made up of, and I believe him absolutely. There’s more of a human heart beating inside Milius’ Conan. Strangely, he does this by using less dialogue, not more. The film uses dialogue sparingly at best, and it’s to the great advantage of the experience. Stone’s script is talky, and much of the dialogue sounds like it comes from the ‘70s, not from the Hyborean Age. Think of the temple theft or the orgy in Doom’s hideout or the battle at the end... these are extended sequences, ten minutes or more each time, that feature no dialogue whatsoever. In that final battle, Milius has a moment that is positively operatic in which Conan finally comes face to face with his father's sword, stolen all those years ago, and must break it in order to move on with his life. It is rich with subtext, but it's also great action cinema. Bravo.

Stone sets the character up for further adventures by having him finally choose Valeria and the wind at his back, the two of them riding away as the script comes to an end. Milius hints at further adventures, but his film ends on a somber note after Conan finally destroys Thulsa Doom and the snake cult, cutting off James Earl Jones’ head and burning down the giant outside altar where all the followers are gathered. It’s the end of the first chapter of Conan’s life, and it is a perfect place to leave him. The new DVD cut incorporates a bit more footage involving another princess, the daughter of Max Von Sydow, who is the focus of Conan’s secondary mission in the film. I don’t mind the addition, but I didn’t need it. To me, the film’s ending always felt complete and perfect before. Now the focus is diffused a bit, and it may end up actually hurting the picture.

No worries, though. In any form, John Milius’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN is worth another look for fans of the film and is a must-see for those of you who have never seen it before. And the Oliver Stone script is a fascinating look at what could have been, a great adaptation of the material that steered the way for what we eventually saw. I’m not sure I would have preferred it to what we have, but I’m glad I finally got the chance to compare the two and share these thoughts with you.

THE 10 BEST FILMS ABOUT AMERICA

So here we are... the 4th of July. This is a day when we’re supposed to reflect on America, on who we are and what we are and what it’s taken to get us to this point. This is a day when we celebrate all that is American. In that spirit, I decided to put together a list of films that best sum up what I consider to be the identity of America. No one film can do it all, either, since there’s so many facets to the country, so many voices and personalities and ideologies and issues and influences. As a result, I’ve tried to hit a number of different sides of America in picking these ten films. I’m sure America means something different to each of us, so keep in mind, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list... just mine.

I’d like to exclude five films from the list right off since they seem so obvious to me that they’re almost not worth including. I’d rather mention films that there’s a chance some of you haven’t seen but might. Anyone can pick CITIZEN KANE, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, PATTON, GRAPES OF WRATH, or THE GODFATHER. Right there, you have our relationships with media, wealth, politics, the military, our neighbors, all summed up along with a brilliant treatise on the nature of the American family as filtered through the Immigrant experience. Those films have been picked apart for decades, and deservedly so. Let’s look at ten more films that help fill in the details that bind us together, tear us apart, and continue to make us the craziest bunch of motherfuckers on the planet.

(In No Particular Order)

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS

The one I’m referring to is the original masterpiece, the Don Siegel film that still maintains the power to terrify. There’s a starkness to the film that no doubt informed Romero’s classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but the power of the film lies in the way its metaphor bends to adapt to the times. Many people labeled this film a McCarthyism metaphor, and it certainly worked as one when released in 1956, but this is a work of remarkable sophistication, like a science-fiction twist on THE CRUCIBLE. Like Miller’s seminal stage work, BODY SNATCHERS has survived various reinterpretations and always managed to work, but it’s the original film that still has the most power. Working from a novel by Jack Finney, Daniel Mainwaring, Richard Collins, and an uncredited Sam Peckinpah crafted a taut, smart screenplay that tells the story of Dr. Miles Bennel, a smalltown doctor who watches his community slowly crumble around him as paranoia sets in like a slow rot. The brilliance of this film is how it keeps the same face on things so that the horror in the film comes down to the perception of something being wrong with our neighbors, our lovers, our children, or even ourselves. As American became choked with suburban sprawl, the lessons of this film have remained important, immediate. Each new cloistered community faces the same dynamic, the same struggle with trust. Other filmmakers have worked to tap this idea, but this is where it was said first and said best. The very beginning of the film and the very end are tagged on at the studio’s insistence, and the original bleak ending with Kevin McCarthy screaming at passing cars, his hopeless, “YOU’RE NEXT!” ragged in his throat. It’s a nightmarish, painful place to leave him, and the film offers us no hope, no light. The questions about how we relate to one another that BODY SNATCHERS raises are still important today, and the answers seem no clearer. Moralists like Rod Serling, Steven Spielberg, and even Sam Mendes last year have all played with these ideas, dressing them up in different ways. The fact remains, though, that we work as a mob at our worst moments, and provoking those reactions doesn’t seem to be much of a trick. It’s a painful message, to be sure, but one that can’t be ignored.

THE RIGHT STUFF

God bless the brilliant Philip Kaufman for this film. Part of why we carry certain films closer to our hearts has to do with the circumstances in which we saw them, and I remember the release of this film in vivid detail. It was Christmas of 1983, and this was one of the most advertised, most written about releases. It was also a film that no one I knew wanted to see. I told them that Tom Wolfe’s book was amazing, that it was life-changing, that the film had to be brilliant simply by association, but all anyone heard was, “It’s about the Mercury Seven astronauts,” and they just zoned out. Not interested. Finally, I was on vacation, the whole family together, and I managed to shanghai two of my aunts, two particularly hip ladies who fell prey to my well-rehearsed patter on why the film would be brilliant and they would be better for having seen it if only they would trust me and more importantly DRIVE. I got lucky, too. One of the local engagements was in 70mm, and since I was in charge of finding the movie times, I conveniently forgot to mention any other theaters that were closer that were showing the film. As a result, my first exposure to the movie was less a viewing and more an immersion. It transported me, got inside me, and I found myself shaken to the very core. I maintain that it is not a conventional film about a historical event. Much like THE THIN RED LINE is a tone poem about war and nature and man’s warlike nature, THE RIGHT STUFF is a poem about dreams and determination and heroism and celebrity and ego and optimism. The cast is note perfect, from the largest role to the smallest, and Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of the sprawling non-fiction novel by Wolfe is ambitious and bold and surprisingly funny. He finds the humanity in everyone, and he turns what could be a dry slice of history into a personal story. He shows us the faces of these men who challenged the rules of the world as we understood them, these foolhardy daredevils who pushed the envelope just to see if it pushed back. The texture of the film is wonderful, with DP Caleb Deschanel (who shot this weekend’s THE PATRIOT to such beautiful effect as well) and Kaufman using documentary footage, newsreel material, and his work with the actors to create a persuasive permanent record, a snapshot of the very best that we have to offer one another. The men that THE RIGHT STUFF celebrates are the kinds of men who do not come often, and who can never be celebrated enough. They are pioneers in every sense of the word, and they embody that part of the American Spirit that we are all dared to rise to, playing at a level that almost none of us can ever hope to reach. It’s an intimidating portrait, even though it lets us inside and shows us the frailties that keep the men real. Kaufman knows that the thing that makes them truly great is that they aren’t superheroes. They aren’t any different than any of us, except for the fact that they did it. They didn’t talk about doing something great. They didn’t make plans and wait for an opportunity. They pointed at the horizon, said, “I’m going there,” and went. They broke the sound barrier, broke free of the orbit of this fragile little globe, and changed us all from citizens of the world to citizens of the universe.

THE SEARCHERS/THE GENERAL

There is something about Americans that is slightly Quixotic. It’s in our blood. We can’t help ourselves. We get an idea in our head, no matter how damn fool it is, and we chase it with a dogged determination that is uniquely ours. THE SEARCHERS and THE GENERAL both stand as testaments to that determination, but they’re two sides of the same coin. If you go to the IMDb to look up THE SEARCHERS, they list the film’s tagline as “He had to find her... he had to find her...” which just about sums up the film’s entire plot. John Wayne, one of the most distinctly American icons, never had a better role than Ethan Edwards. His obsessive search for his lost niece, his slow, insane drive into Indian territory, is more relentless and crushing than Martin Sheen’s trip down the river in APOCALYPSE NOW. Edwards is fascinating, a racist thug who’s completely right when he begins his quest, but who lets himself slowly rot, and John Ford’s longtime collaboration with Wayne pays off in a rich and complicated performance, as powerful and rich in its own right as Jimmy Stewart’s shattering work in VERTIGO. In both cases, the men took their images and twisted them, using them to comment on the very idealism they once embodied. It’s telling that this film was released in 1956, late in the career of Ford, after they had already worked together many times. It’s as if Ford and Wayne had grown tired of artifice, of the perfect face they put on the West, and they decided to set the mask aside and start telling the truth. On the other hand, Buster Keaton taps into the truth and still comes away with his optimism intact in THE GENERAL, a film in which nothing will stop Buster. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, this film offers up some spectacular war footage that is beautifully mounted, still some of the best on record. Keaton moves through this moment in history, an unstoppable force for good. He is the very best of what we all hope we can be, pure energy, directed with compassion and heart, able to accomplish anything. The fact that he never breaks a sweat while doing it only makes him more of an ideal. I hope that when I close my eyes at night and make my plans and dream my dreams, I am able to retain the purity of focus that Keaton has in this film. It’s a standard I think we all secretly hope for.

THE MOSQUITO COAST

Well, here’s a movie that makes powerful, brilliant observations about America without even being set in America for the most part. It’s directed by Australian Peter Weir, and it was adapted by Paul Schrader from a brilliant novel by Paul Theroux, who has written some amazing travel books as well as some other piercing, intelligent novels. This book is a scathing indictment of the failure of the American Dream, and Allie Fox is as tragic a figure as I’ve ever seen in a movie. I adore the work Harrison Ford does here, and it’s another case of an iconic actor counting on you underestimating him and how far he’ll go. When Allie Fox first rants about America and what’s wrong with it, he makes good points. He may sound eccentric, but he’s almost never outright wrong. He’s fed up with things that many of us are fed up with... things like commercialism and greed and the media. When he decides to leave, to find a place where he and his family can start fresh, he’s looking to build a model of what he believed America could be, and that’s what makes the film such a powerful microcosm. It’s violence that starts the rot that eventually drives the Foxes from paradise. It’s ego, hubris if you will, that proves to be Allie’s eventual downfall. Weir never tips his hand, never shows us the grander metaphor he’s striving for, instead trusting that Theroux’s story and characters and Schrader’s expert adaptation will carry the day, that we will understand what we’re seeing. I would say the failure of the film at the box-office proves that. People were disturbed by this particular mirror being held up to them, and Ford’s never corrupted his image to the same extent since. There’s a bitter taste left by this film, but its lessons are profound and important, and it’s an experience I cannot recommend strongly enough.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

Here’s another film by a director who wasn’t even born in America, starring an English icon. In adapting Walter Tevis’ cult science-fiction novel, Nicolas Roeg turned an outsider’s eye on America, and the result is unflinching. Bold and experimental now, this film must have looked like a transmission from another planet to audiences in 1976 when the film was released. This is definitely not a ride like STAR WARS was. Keep in mind, also, this was the Bicentennial, and patriotic fever was at a public high. There wasn’t a single thing I can remember seeing that summer that wasn’t red, white, and blue, and that 4th of July is the one that all others have been compared to since in my mind. Along comes this bizarre film in which David Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who lands on Earth in an effort to save his dying planet. His scheme is simple. He’s going to patent certain alien technologies he’s brought along, then use the money to build a device that can transfer water back to his planet. Everything’s fine at first as he hooks up with Rip Torn and Buck Henry and gets everything rolling on his fortune. He quickly finds himself to be absurdly powerful and wealthy, though... Bill Gates rich... and his new insulation numbs him to his original mission. He becomes immersed in American popular culture like television and drugs and music and sex, and he gradually forgets himself and his purpose. The more he becomes like us, the less reason there is for him to even exist. It’s a brutal movie, and to be understood, it must be seen in its full widescreen ratio. The screen credit for screenplay may go to Paul Mayersberg, but there’s no question who the author of the film is. Nicolas Roeg made a few masterworks in the ‘70s like this, WALKABOUT, and DON’T LOOK NOW, and the sophistication of his technique is what keeps this film fresh and relevant now. The alien is us. We are him. And our culture is killing us. Magnificent stuff.

NETWORK

It’s no accident that this was also released in 1976, the Bicentennial. Just as 1999 inspired people to reflect, inspired filmmakers to try and sum up where we are as the millennium ended, 1976 inspired a whole kaleidoscope of views on America. Paddy Chayefsky was, simply put, one of the greatest voices in American drama. Important, humanistic, and tough as nails, he told the truth every time out, pushing himself and his collaborators. This script was his masterpiece, a meditation on the responsibility of the media and the power of the media. Whenever there is a Columbine and people turn and point the finger at movies or TV or rock music, this film becomes relevant all over again. It looks positively prophetic when you watch it today and realize this was before cable, before television became the freak circus that it is today, where there were just networks, and things were still corporate and buttoned-down. In today’s world, NETWORK makes perfect, terrible sense. It’s crushing to watch Peter Finch in this blistering tightrope walk of a role, knowing he’s doomed, knowing he’s never going to be allowed to say everything he says. There’s something terrifying about listening to someone tell the naked truth about media, about the way we are bought and sold, the way our opinions are preshaped, predigested, and the meek acceptance with which we all greet this multinational conglomerate con job. Finch’s voice rings true across the decades, and Chayefsky’s words seem to grow in power. I hope that this remains a cautionary tale, that its imagery remains a warning, because if we ever see the end of this film play itself out for real on our nightly news, we’ll know it’s time to pack it in. Put a fork in our ass, turn us over... we’re done.

THE GRADUATE

One part of the American identity that filmmakers have never really nailed in a definitive way is our relationship with sex. Kubrick scored some smart wicked points on us with his adaptation of Nabakov’s LOLITA, and great filmmakers have made noble attempts at the subject time and time again. There’s something impossible to catch on film, though, about our peculiar combination of third-grade prurience and our inability to let go of our Puritan sense of shame about our bodies and our sexuality. Mike Nichols got closest, I think, with the tale of Benjamin Braddock, played to comic perfection by Dustin Hoffman in the role that he literally was born to play. I can’t picture anyone else in this role, no matter how many times I hear Nicols talk about other actors he saw for it. Hoffman is perfect at capturing this boy wrestling with a man’s desires and responsibilities, paralyzed on the verge of real adulthood. In America, we’ve created a false adolescence, a prolonged period in which we don’t just encourage people to behave like children... we legally define them as such. The way we make 18 a landmark and 21 a final frontier almost gives people permission not to grow up. They want to play with the trappings of adulthood, though, and none moreso than sex. Braddock is bullied into his relationship with Mrs. Robinson, and the levels at which is it unhealthy are too numerous to list here. His relationship with Elaine Robinson is no smarter, no better considered. It’s just more like the norm, therefore it’s more acceptable. In both cases, Benjamin has no idea what is expected of him, and he is horrible to himself and to the women. It’s a miracle that he makes it through the film intact based on the way he seems to simply pinball along, unaware of the damage he leaves in his path, unconcerned with anyone’s happiness or peace of mind but his own. A generation embraced Benjamin as a symbol of themselves, and I think it’s a telling statement. When Elaine and Benjamin take their seats in the back of the bus, their ride into an uncertain future signified the death of a certain type of American romanticism, a belief in a world where there was love at first sight and musical numbers and happily ever after. Some might call the new attitude cynicism, but it might just as easily be called realism. Either way, THE GRADUATE hasn’t lost one bit of its bite.

BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY

Oliver Stone is one of the filmmakers whose name I kept coming back to as I considered films for this list. Obviously, he’s obsessed with the character of America. He’s looked at it from every angle he can so far, and he’ll probably keep poking at it, picking it apart, for the rest of his career. By choosing to dramatize the story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, Stone found a perfect brilliant metaphor that, to me, elevates this above a simple story about war or the cost of war or patriotism or even sacrifice. This is a shattering look at what happens when a dream is sold to someone, a promise made, that can never be made real, that can never be fulfilled. Ron Kovic grows up watching John Wayne movies, seeing Audie Murphy at war, the image of heroic men in heroic battles burned into his little-boy brain. He is raised in a devoutly Catholic, devoutly American house, God and Country more important than anything else. When Vietnam arrives, Ron Kovic can’t wait to volunteer. He wants to serve his country. He believes that he can make a difference, and there’s nothing stupid about that belief. It’s what he was raised for. Ron is a great kid when he goes off to fight, a huge heart, full of fervor and the desire to do right. What happens to him over the course of the rest of the film is devastating. The thing that makes the movie so great is watching him slowly reject everything he’d ever learned, watching him rebuild his identity out of the ashes of the life that is taken away from him. Ron Kovic may not be a great patriot at the end of this film, but he’s sure as shit a great American. He still believes in truth and justice, and he still believes in protecting those who need it. Kovic is shown picking up a fight that puts him on the side of right, a fight for respect and for a certain degree of treatment. His journey from naïve boy to shattered man to political activist is an example that even when things seem impossible, there is hope, and there is a chance to contribute. The Kovic we meet in this movie is the kind of American I hope I am... imperfect, but determined to never stop striving to be better.

ROCKY

The final entry on this list from the year 1976 is screamingly obvious, but there’s no denying the chord that ROCKY struck in a country that was struggling with the death of innocence. We were coming out of Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis was kicking in and celebrating the idea of being American seemed almost insane. Yes, people celebrated and put brave faces on things, but it was not the proudest hour for the country. This film became a phenomenon because it reminded everyone that it all begins with the individual. We are great as a nation only when we are great as individuals. If Rocky Balboa, the bum we meet in the first half of this film, can somehow transform himself into the guy who stands toe to toe with Apollo Creed and never goes down, then any of us can transform ourselves into anything. Any child from any background can beg, borrow, or steal an education, enough to build a dream, to become something great, to make a mark. It was a reminder that we all needed, that we all wanted. If movies are our collective dreams, our shared inner lives, then ROCKY was an essential Band-Aid to our national spirit. Every sports film since owes a debt to it, and every story about the triumph of the human will borrows from it. Sylvester Stallone became a superstar because he didn’t just write ROCKY, he embodied it. Even when Sly has been furthest off-track, no one can take away the incredible achievement of this film, of his Oscar-winning screenplay, affecting and simple and above all else, a truth we want desperately to believe.

WACO: RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

The exact opposite of ROCKY, this is the truth that none of us want to embrace, but one that cannot be ignored if we are to understand exactly what world it is we live in. William Gazecki’s Oscar-nominated 1997 film will make you angry. There’s no way it won’t. It has to make you angry, because it is as unbiased and as meticulous a piece of documentary work as I have seen. It uses facts, documentation, evidence, and it paints a persuasive picture that points to one unavoidable fact: we, the American public, were lied to in a willful and knowing manner by a small group of federal authorities who committed mass murder on a group of innocent people. If you believe anything else, you are wrong. A landslide of information has led to constant, ongoing investigations since the release of this film, and new information continues to come to light. All of it reinforces this film’s conclusions, only making it more infuriating to watch today. The importance of this film is almost too much weight for any film to bear, and I’m sure there are detractors who will attack this choice and this picture in the forum below. I understand. It’s terrifying to be confronted with proof that your government will lie to you if need be, and they will kill you if need be. It’s horrifying to realize that every paranoid fantasy that Hollywood has spun about the intelligence community has a basis in fact, that abuse on a massive level is possible. The only thing that allows me to continue to sleep at night is that this information is available, and there’s more where this came from. This action wasn’t accomplished in a dark alley or a quiet warehouse where no one saw. The American people may have been fooled into believing that Koresh and his followers were a suicide cult, and the story may still have its supporters today, but there’s proof available, and in a media age, maybe it’s possible that we can turn the harsh glare of public knowledge on these events and others like them. Maybe these murders will not be forgotten. Maybe there is still a dream of justice, no matter how tattered. I hope so, and it’s that hope that I celebrate today.

Just listing these films makes me want to discuss others, to really break down the American character further. We could spend the entire 4th debating the relative merits of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, MELVIN & HOWARD, TAXI DRIVER, GATES OF HEAVEN, THE THIN BLUE LINE, CITY OF HOPE, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, MEET JOHN DOE, SCARFACE, FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, BOOGIE NIGHTS, DAYS OF HEAVEN, BADLANDS, HAPPINESS, DELIVERANCE, FIELD OF DREAMS, BREAKING AWAY, HOOSIERS, RAMBO, DIRTY HARRY, WALL STREET, MENACE II SOCIETY, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, THE NATURAL, PARADISE LOST, CITY LIGHTS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, JFK, THE 20TH CENTURY, LOST IN AMERICA, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE PARALLAX VIEW, SHAMPOO, DAZED & CONFUSED, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, A FACE IN THE CROWD, UNFORGIVEN, AMERICAN GRAFITTI, DINER, and GLORY, just to name a few examples, but hey... that’s what Talk Back is for.

Happy 4th, Everyone. Congrats again, Harry, to Sister Satan and Lobo and the entire Knowles clan on the birth of Kubla Khan. I’m surprised to hear that he’s already walking and talking, and that he’s seen 36 movies since early Saturday morning. Sounds like a film geek in training, to be sure. I’ll see you back here soon. Until then...

“Moriarty” out.

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