Tuesday, November 18, 2008
More Philosopher Than Soldier
William Friedkin’s SORCERER is a key title in the story of the 70s auteurs whose careers began to spiral as the likes of STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS were going through the roof. In many ways it was to Friedkin what APOCALYPSE NOW was to Coppola—both involve dangerous journeys through jungle territory and both were physically, as well as mentally, grueling shoots for their directors. Of course, APOCALYPSE was eventually released to great acclaim and is now considered a classic, whereas SORCERER was deemed a disaster as soon as it hit theaters, disappearing from view almost immediately. It seems historically significant that it was the movie that followed STAR WARS into the Chinese and, no surprise, it didn’t exactly do the same amount of business. If you live in the Los Feliz area, you may want to stop in at the Bank of America on the corner of Hollywood and Vermont. Behind the counter is a large mural of what Hollywood Blvd around the Chinese looked like in the late 70s and, yes, SORCERER is the film playing there in the mural. I don’t expect it to turn up again there for a revival screening any time soon but fortunately the New Beverly picked up the slack for a rare screening this past Saturday at midnight, coming just a few days after what would have been star Roy Scheider’s 76th birthday and even featuring an old March of Dimes ad narrated by the actor preceding the film. It’s an unusual choice for a midnight movie, but if that was the way to see it, that’s ok. I was a little concerned that I was too tired to be there, but once the film started it felt absolutely impossible for me to even become slightly drowsy. Even at that late hour, it took hold and you could feel that the audience, a very good turn out, was gripped by the film as well. It’s a remake of THE WAGES OF FEAR which I’ve seen and thought was brilliant, but it was so long ago that I don’t remember very much about it. It’s also a long time since I saw SORCERER and whatever I thought of it then, it’s nothing compared to what I think of it now.
Four men (including Scheider, with a hat that not too dissimilar from the one Popeye Doyle wore) from different parts of the world, on the run from the law for various reasons which we learn about in four separate extended prologues, wind up in a remote village in some hellish past of South America. When an oil well nearly 300 miles away catches fire, it is determined that the only way to put it out is with explosives but the ones to be used are so unstable that they are essentially “sweating nitroglycerine” and it’s advised not to even carry them as much as ten feet for fear of detonation. With no other way to get the dynamite there, our four lead characters are chosen to drive two trucks (one of which is dubbed "Sorcerer") with the dynamite in back over the most treacherous jungle terrain imaginable but it’s the only way they can possibly earn some decent money and be assured that the local government will no longer harass them. But first they have to get there alive.
I have a vague recollection of reading an interview long ago with Friedkin where he talked about a shot during the Iraq prologue of THE EXORCIST where Max Von Sydow walks through a marketplace. It added nothing to the story but Friedkin was so enamored by the shot that even after he had cut it, he put it back in at the last minute. I bring this up because it occurred to me that in many ways SORCERER is nothing but shots of Von Sydow walking through a marketplace, so to speak. I don’t mean this as a bad thing at all. The entire film feels like it’s telling its story through these striking visuals, getting us to pay attention to this world, filmed in the Dominican Republic, France, Israel and New Jersey, through the most visceral way possible (which reminds me, is that the demon Pazuzu behind the opening title?). In many ways, I found SORCERER to be absolutely mesmerizing and while I’m not going to rush and suddenly declare it to be his masterpiece (maybe it is, who knows) it does feel like the most Friedkin all of all the films that William Friedkin has ever made. The multiple prologues introducing the four guys seem to take the stylistic dislocation of the openings to THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST, which told us nothing and made us work it out for outselves, to its most extreme degree. It’s as if Friedkin was saying, How long can I wait before I start explaining things? How far can I go in letting the audience work it out for themselves? Through its depiction of these men, particularly the Scheider character, and what they do the movie feels like it ultimately presents a kind of world view of humanity and everything that represents. This is followed through right down to the conclusion which says that no matter what you do, you can’t outrun your crimes, they’re strapped to you like a crate of nitroglycerine on your back. In other words, you’re fucked. I can’t think of too many other directors aside from Friedkin who would present a briefly-seen wedding feature a bride sporting a black eye, standing next to the groom with all the obvious implications (this comes during a robbery sequence set in New Jersey which, with its extremely twisted humor and violence, feels like a mini SOPRANOS episode). One of the most surprising things about this extremely grimy, violent film was actually the PG rating card that shows up at the very end of the credits. It may not be the most cheerful summer movie imaginable so coming a month after STAR WARS may not have been the best time to release it. It also opened the same day as Scorsese’s NEW YORK NEW YORK so maybe it seemed like auteur overkill to critics at that point in time (Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders Raging Bulls" contains some very juicy stuff on SORCERER's production and is recommended for anyone who might be interested in this period).
It’s not an actor’s movie and one could easily imagine a Jason Miller-type unknown in Scheider’s lead role (interestingly Friedkin has always said he wanted Steve McQueen). Written by Walon Green, who has THE WILD BUNCH among his many credits, it’s also not a dialogue-driven movie. It’s so purely visual that it’s not too much of a reach to imagine being able to follow it perfectly with the sound turn off, but the Tangerine Dream score, fairly revolutionary for the time, should prevent that from happening. The trucks don’t even leave for the destination until around the halfway point but once we’re on the way much of it is genuinely, stunningly suspenseful and, on occasion, not a little awe-inspiring, particularly the sequences involving both trucks trying to get across a precarious-looking suspension bridge. If I have any serious issue with the film it’s that, at 121 minutes, the journey does feel a little truncated. If Scorsese and Coppola could make NEW YORK NEW YORK and APOCALYPSE NOW close to two-and-a-half hours, it’s fairly easy to imagine a version of SORCERER that would be about as long. Whether it should be that long is something I guess we’ll never know, but as it is the ultimate forms of madness that Roy Scheider goes through feel like they occur a little too abruptly. Still, the film feels like a remarkable achievement, one that deserves serious reappraisal so more people could be aware of it and I only wish there were a decent DVD so I could watch whole sections again right now. But at least the New Beverly showed it, just another reason why I love going there these days.