Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Billy Can’t Be A Hero: A Re-Appreciation of William Friedkin, and the Movies of May 2013

In the last month or so, I’ve not only rescreened William Friedkin’s films Sorcerer (1977) and The French Connection (1971), but also caught his latest movie, Killer Joe (2011), as well as read his recently-published autobiography The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir

An iconoclastic autodidact, director Friedkin has always been interested in morally questionable people doing bad things (sometimes with good intentions, sometimes not) and the consequences of their actions.

It has been several years since I last saw any of WF’s work, and for some reason (probably raw, ugly contrarianism), he had fallen out of favor with me. Wow, was I stupid! His flicks are GREAT!!!!

Influenced by his background as a documentary director, Friedkin’s flicks are more akin to the “Ripped From the Headlines” filmmaking of Sam Fuller, and completely representative of the bad-vibe zeitgeist of the 1970s. Unlike the “Movie Brats” who eventually took over H’wood, WF didn’t hide his head in the sand of recreating the feel-good flicks of moviedom’s “Golden Age.” He was about the here and now, warts and all.

Like a prophet, Friedkin spoke a truth, and was eventually punished for it—not that his admitted arrogance didn’t play a part in his downfall.

While I cannot say that I like all of WF’s films that I’ve seen (despite going to see To Live and Die in L.A. twice during its initial release, I’ve grown less enamored with it since then), I admire his style and verve: Even his movies with “happy” endings are grim, grueling affairs, almost anti-entertainment. Yes, the man has made some “smash hits,” but with nearly all his films, you sometimes have to ask, “Who the heck was this movie made for?”

Friedkin was a product of/influenced by the forces which helped create the paranoid nightmare of the Nixon years, and with The French Connection and The Exorcist (1973), WF managed to ride that brutal zeitgeist’s wave to great success.

But after being a (very important) hired hand/collaborator for producers Phil D’Antonio and William Peter Blatty, for The French Connection and The Exorcist, respectively, the director set out to be his own producer—the result being Sorcerer, released in 1977, the flick that essentially derailed his career. (I won’t say “ruined” because he did go on to make some fascinating flicks after.)

Beset by a myriad of technical and location problems, Sorcerer took a long, long time to complete, and had WF managed to get his personal demons reigned in and released the flick in 1975 or 1976 (or even early 1977), I’m sure it would be better remembered today. But coming out after paradigm-changer Star Wars, Sorcerer was clobbered at the box office, and being a remake of the classic The Wages of Fear (1953) did nothing to endear the film to the snobbish critics of the day, most of whom were proud Francophiles. The film was as doomed as its protagonists.

Not necessarily “feel bad,” but deffo a downer, Sorcerer is the ne plus ultra of grim 1970s actioners, and through its small base of loyal fans, has grown into a cult favorite. The director’s uncompromising vision creates a ruthless atmosphere of grime and sweat, with several nail-biting setpieces, as four losers try driving nitroglycerine over the Andes: a bleak, extremely tense mediation on men at the end of their ropes. (BTW, my wife will only refer to this film as “Four Doomed Men,” a title I’m surprised the studio never tried to foist on Friedkin.)

Screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in anticipation of a director-supervised DVD/Blu-Ray release (with the loquacious director in attendance for a post-show Q&A), Sorcerer had lost many details during its previous home-viewing formats (usually a cruddy pan-&-scan). The 35mm print used at BAM was swell, and if WF’s supervising the transfer, we can all hope for the best.

Meanwhile, a recent viewing of The French Connection has convinced me that it is one of the greatest films ever:
With multiple subtexts (the never-ending drug war; urban racism; police brutality; class warfare; social climbing), and heavily influenced by Costa-Gavras’ excellent Z (1969; and a great film in its own right), The French Connection is an almost-perfect neo-documentary about a mean, rage-drive NYC cop hunting a super-suave international heroin trafficker.

While the infamous car-train chase still holds up (Boy, does it!), I actually now prefer the cat-and-mouse foot chase between cop Popeye Doyle (an incredible Gene Hackman) and dope kingpin Charnier (Bunuel regular Fernando Rey—and I wonder, did the great Luis B. ever see The French Connection, and if so, what did he think of it? I bet he liked it).

The car chase is an orgasmic explosion—a relief—while the footchase is pure screw-tightening, nerve-wracking tension, ending with utter frustration as Charnier tricks Popeye into getting off the subway car. In the film’s overall gestalt, I love that while sly Charnier waves “bye-bye” with a sardonic smile, later, when Popeye does it back to him, there is no smile. This is no damn “gentleman’s game” to the pugnacious cop.

Meanwhile, The French Connection is also a fabulous time capsule of a NYC that will never exist again: a crazy town that was equal parts fun and genuine danger, a neon-lit, garbage strewn concrete-jungle where every block had a burned-out building or an empty lot full of rubble, and everybody had style.

After the crash of Sorcerer, WF returned to NYC with 1980’s Cruising, and ay-yi-yi! With this film, Friedkin was not trying to get on the good side of the mass-market audience in any way, shape or form. Wonderfully creepy and disturbing, Cruising does everything to make you squirm, playing off the (mostly male) audience’s homophobia (or secret, repressed homosexuality?).
Following Al Pacino’s undercover cop as he tracks a serial killer in the gay S/M world (keep an eye out for the late Bruno Kirby’s cameo as the Crisco fister!), the flick asks if you can visit this turgid, sordid and seductive world and remain objective—and few people are willing to go to such dark places.

Vociferously protested against by the gay community before, during and after production, it’s a sick, sick film—and that’s a compliment—that failed financially, further dimming Friedkin’s star in Hollywood’s eyes.

Friedkin’s Rampage (finished in 1987, but not released until 1992—another black mark on his CV) is a flick I remember well, but need to screen again. I remember it as Friedkin channeling Kubrick in a cold and formalistic, if blood-drenched, look at a serial killer involved in the capital punishment debate.

The director’s 2011 release, Killer Joe, was a fabulously twisted low-budget look at American greed, and I consider it the feature-length film that Cinema of Transgression auteur Richard Kern never got around to making. A white-trash doper sells his sister to a cop who moonlights as a hitman in order to kill his mom, and nothing turns out the way it’s “supposed” to—with my favorite recent “twist” ending. Meanwhile, I’m itching to see Friedkin’s “artistic comeback” Bug (2006), but it’s also a flick with a reputation for some serious, raw, emotional intensity, and I gotta gird my loins before tacking it.

Published in the spring, the director’s autobiography The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir is a great pageturner, aimed at movie fans, not gossip hounds. People looking for trash on WF’s failed marriages and possible drug addiction will need to look elsewhere. Here, Friedkin deals strictly with the making of his films, and thankfully he’s brutally honest with himself: Among other things, he admits he should have cast Steve McQueen in Sorcerer and filmed it in Mexico or Arizona instead of the Dominican Republic, and saved himself a lot of headaches. (But personally, I feel casting Roy Scheider in the lead fits with the film’s “everybody loses” theme: McQueen had too much “star power”—you could never imagine him not making it to the end of the film, but a lesser-wattage star like Scheider? Oh, he’s a goner…)

Interestingly, Friedkin does not spend any time at all on flicks like The Guardian (about a killer druid-tree) or Deal of the Century (a flick I liked when I saw it during its release in 1983; and despised while watching it on DVD a couple of years ago)—I guess he wants to forget these movies.

However, if you are not partially familiar with Friedkin’s work, you may find yourself a tad lost. But while there’s no “gossip” in his autobiography, there are a lot of fun facts, like: Did you know that in the early-70s, Spielberg was originally assigned to direct Cruising (now that’s an alternate universe WTF movie)? Or that Sorcerer’s title was taken from a Miles Davis album the director loved? (Getting back to that movie’s title for a second, yeah, it’s the name of one of the trucks, but not the one Scheider is driving. It’s the name of the truck that blows up! Oh, Crazy Billy, the tricks you have up your sleeve….)

I just discovered that Netflix InstaScreen has several of Friedkin’s films available, so I know what I’m doing for the next few days, as bad for my mental health as it may seem…

Here’s hoping William Friedkin goes on to grace us with many more of his nasty, corrosive and insane visions of humanity.

And Now, the Movies of May 2013 (in order screened)

Black Shampoo (1976; Greydon Clark) Not just Blaxploitation, but BlaSexPloitation! Longer review forthcoming.

Sorcerer (1977; William Friedkin)—see above.

Mercano el Marciano (2002; Juan Antin) reviewed HERE.
And you still have a chance to see it at the Spectacle Theater on Thursday, June 20! Be there!

An Evening of Phil Tippett (at the Spectacle) A fabulous clip show, with an in-person commentary by one of the greatest special visual effects men alive. A nerd cannot-miss event (that’s already come and gone; sorry kids…).

The Return of the Living Dead (1984; Dan O’Bannon) A classic that must be watched again every so often. Love this film, it’s almost perfect. Watched because I was reading punk movie encyclopedia Destroy All Movies!!! (see book reviews below).

Looper (2012; Rian Johnson) What a dopey, dopey flick… Pointlessly convoluted, without any sense of fun. Not sure what the director was trying to do except make a “cool” movie.
I especially hate sci-fi movies that postulate a fantastic invention but show a world that is still essentially ours, with absolutely no changes.

Conquest (1983; Lucio Fulci) Fulci adds a Conan rip-off to his resume in a very odd, basically nonsensical sword & sorcery film. I saw this at a screening at the 92Y-Tribeca, and I really should have taken some notes, because now I can hardly remember the flick: there was a barbarian, a magic bow and arrow, and a sorceress wearing a gold mask and little else, but after that? My brain starts hurting trying to remember. That said, while the flick is a dog, the recreated grindhouse atmosphere was loads of fun.

You Don’t Look the Same Either (2012; Scott Montoya) Bobcat Goldthwaite returns to stand-up comedy: very funny stuff. "Fire trucks?!?"

Blind Beast (1969; Yasuzo Masumura) WOW!
A blind sculptor kidnaps a model so he can recreate her—a flick that plunges deeply into disturbing territory.
A new favorite—longer review forthcoming!

La Venganza de los Punks (1991; Damián Acosta Esparza) A mash-up of revenge-driven-cop movies and slasher flicks where the cop takes the role of the unstoppable, supernatural killer. He’s hunting down the luchador/Road Warrior-rip-off motorcycle gang “punks” who killed his family—with a great, completely unnecessary twist ending that just makes things even bleaker.
Stupid fun trash that I only paid half-attention to. (And the sequel to Intrepidos Punks; which is a better flick; I’m glad I saw Venganza first.)

Intrepidos Punks (1980/1983; Francisco Guerrero)
Year: IMDB says 1980—others say 1983; I lean towards the second year, since I don’t really see The Road Warrior ripping off a low-budget Mexican crime movie—even if it does have a great soundtrack. Although, if George Miller (or one of the costume staff) saw Intrepidos Punks and was influenced by it, that would be awesome!
It’s a raw, brilliantly stupid action fun that’s proud to be Mexican—even casting an ugly, fat Mestizo as the “hero” cop. For me one of the best things about this movie was that the people all looked like real humans, instead of H’wood/White Man’s Oppression beauty standards.
Intrepidos Punks is almost beyond criticism—any faults the flick has are part of its charm (what, you’re going to complain that the leader of the punks is a luchador? Or that the flick had no budget?), and the film’s very earnest goal is maximum entertainment, with an emphasis on violence and mayhem. Not essential but fun, cabron.

Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002; Herschell Gordon Lewis) Some moments were genuine comic gold, but others? Not so much. I was impressed with the gore—and its (perhaps unconscious) negation of the standard H'wood slasher eros-thanatos vibe (sexdeath!)—lots of cute gals showing skin, but hardly a turn on (of course, I could be given greater meaning to what's essentially incompetence). The girls are such cardboard cutouts it’s difficult to empathize with their brutal fates, but is empathy compatible with Borscht Belt-style jokes?
However, I was glad that H.G. Lewis made it into the 21st century as tasteless as ever.
Recommended only for gorehounds and fans of John Waters’ cameos.

Autonomy & Deliberation (2012; Johann Rashid) The band UV Race tries to get back together in a shot-on-video film that is often amusing, but mostly amateurish. A flick only for fans of the band.

The Last Stand (2013; Kim Jee-Woon) Sometimes dopey, but well made and lots of fun, with some excellent gore and car stunts. Propulsive action, aided by a very decent Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie wears the “wise old man” coat very well now, drawing on our memory of his previous exploits, getting close to meta-movie status: “I’ve seen enough blood and death—I know what’s coming,” he grimly intones to a deputy at one point. And all action movie fans will understand what he’s talking about.

Love that the film ends with a freeze-frame, like a cheesy 1970s B-movie (which it comes close to, although with jazzed-up contemporary action-movie tropes). There may be clichés, but not too many, and all are aided by that “meta-” feeling I mentioned. The Last Stand is a good flick to cheer yourself up with if you’re action fan and you’re feeling blue.

Repo Man (1984; Alex Cox) Gotta watch this classic every so often. Screened because I was reading Destroy All Movies!!! and Bill, the Galactic Hero (see below).
Initially caught when I was “a white suburban punk,” this movie was incredibly influential on me, especially regarding my love of circular storytelling with plenty of callbacks.

Macabre (1958; William Castle) Like The Night God Screamed, another film that feels like a John Waters’ script taken seriously. This time, though, it’s from one of Mr. Waters’ greatest influences: old-school horror/shock-meister William Castle, so you can almost see a historical progression here. The cast overacts and gobbles the scenery wildly (these folks are hardly subtle), with the exception of Jim Backus as a mean and angry sheriff. It’s very jarring seeing good old Thurston Howell III playing a conniving badass, and it’s a great bit of casting: I would have liked to have seen ten movies with Backus’ amoral and semi-corrupt character. His perf was a gem amidst nonsense. But a fun flick overall, and much better than…

Black Mirror: Season One (2011; three episodes; created by Charlie Brooker) Didn’t like; the episodes are either too long or too short: the ideas presented would have been better served if trimmed to 30 minutes (a la The Twilight Zone) or expanded to full feature length. Otherwise, there is too much padding in episodes—and the messages presented are usually heavy-handed and shrill, as clever as a falling truck.

Books Read in May 2013 (in order read)
(*) = read before

(*) Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison—reread in anticipation of Alex Cox’s film adaptation. Like Otto from Repo Man, Bill is an initially passive character: cannon fodder in an intergalactic war swept into a series of Candide-like adventures. Hopefully, Cox can catch lightning in a bottle again.
A longer, in-depth review of this book is forthcoming.

Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film, edited by Zack Carlson & Bryan Connolly—whew! This is an encyclopedia! I don’t know if you should sit down and read it cover to cover like I did, but it is an excellent resource, with a deliciously snotty attitude (very punk) and often some very sharp writing. Should be on all film nerds shelves—especially if you like punk rock! Shave your hair into a Mohawk today!

(*) Filth by Irvine Welsh—reread in anticipation of the upcoming film adaptation. The book is a fantastic read for the first three-quarters, then the last section piles on the revelations on top of revelations—too much info! Also, by giving the main character so many reasons (excuses) to be a horrible person, it lessens the impact that this is a criticism of all cops. There are some who join the force because they are decent people who want to help, but then there are others (too many) who join the force to use it.
By giving the protagonist so many “outs,” we are meant to believe that racism, corruption, violence and reactionaryism are solely the province of one bad apple—and not endemic of the whole law enforcement community, thus reducing the book’s impact.

But Filth is still better than American Psycho, in my opinion, and lord only knows what’ll be in the movie: a direct adaptation would get a XXX-rating, and make any audience vomit in disgust. I don’t think I’m giving much away, but one of the main characters is a hungry tapeworm.

BTW, I think the film is miscast: James McAvoy is too slight and hipsterish to be a vicious thug cop—Ray Winstone would be better—but we’ll see.

The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir by William Friedkin—see above.


  1. Very nice piece! I agree about your evaluation of Sorcerer and its reception upon its release.

  2. Krawczynsi: Thanks for your comments!