Sunday, November 5, 2017
Gliding Over The Water
Maybe with age comes acceptance, whatever that means, even if it’s just being more open to what you should have liked in the first place. I’ve written before about my long ago aversion to Tony Scott films and how it feels like I was too snobbish about them when I was younger. Don’t worry, I’m not going to change my mind TOP GUN or DAYS OF THUNDER anytime soon and you’ll never convince me that his TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 remake is worth spending much thought on. THE HUNGER, however, is a different story. Years after I first saw the film, probably during the laser disc days, all I could flash on were specific moments and images, maybe the same ones that have stuck with anyone else who half-remembers it. Looking at the Warner Archive Blu-ray is a reminder of those things, of how seductive the film really is in the pureness of those images and how I still can’t quite shake them, not even if I wanted to. Even now I’m not sure if THE HUNGER works as anything more than a particularly stylish vampire story with its own take on the mythology but then again I’m not even sure if I think of it as a vampire story at all or just a sustained mood piece about a certain way of life (and death). Maybe it’s just a movie about the things you remember and what they mean. Even though it’s never particularly scary, which in fairness is probably something you’re allowed to expect in an alleged horror film, the themes that emerge from the visuals refuse to diminish. Then again, maybe with age you also come to accept who you really are.
Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her companion John (David Bowie) are a pair of vampires who have been together for several hundred years, currently living in a New York townhouse and once a week search for people they can feed off of. It was Miriam who turned John in the first place, promising they would be together “forever”, but when he suddenly finds himself aging rapidly he seeks out Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a doctor who specializes in forms of rapid aging. His attempt to see her is unsuccessful, left in a waiting room only to have her realize the truth of what he’s saying too late and returning home, the rapidly aging John soon learns that he will not in fact die but simply wither away into bones, left in a coffin alongside the remains of all of Miriam’s other former disciples nearby. When Sarah comes to the house in search of John she only finds Miriam who doesn’t waste time in her search for a new companion and after they are together Sarah has no idea what has infected her blood or what she is in fact becoming.
His debut feature released in April ’83 after a start directing commercials, THE HUNGER is like the embryo version of the Tony Scott style that emerged even before we realized it, seen here in the very early days of MTV before the likes of Simpson-Bruckheimer and Hans Zimmer got a hold of him. When his approach was finessed over the years it was sometime better than you expected and sometimes simply hollow but here everything about that rawness clicks into place as part of his sheen of pure cinematic crack. It grabs you right from the start with an opening sequence that overwhelms as much as a pure strobe effect combined with that perfume commercial aesthetic where you’re always aware of what’s happening but never quite sure what it means until too late. Even the long ago promise of ‘forever’ that John repeats back to Miriam sounds like a slogan for a new fragrance, the product of immortality being sold with an unspoken catch. Every single frame seems deliberate and yet it feels like Scott is always searching through those images that he catches for things that can accentuate them, looking for just the right movement from the actors, just the right gesture to hold on and use it to tell the story instead of dialogue. He’s more interested in the appearance than in exploring just what these vampires are so while the opening with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” performed by Bauhaus might be a little on the nose these days it still feels like the closest the film comes to actually saying the V word. Based on simply watching the film I wonder how long the script (screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, based on the novel by Whitley Strieber) even was or needed to be, the essential story beats stripped down to basic essentials with some shots running only a few seconds that let us either piece things together or not, moving to the next scene whether it makes sense or not. It lasts through each moment whether it’s the sight of Catherine Deneuve crossing the frame or the quiet observance of David Bowie in the hospital waiting room, aging before you even realize it.
You could call it a case of style over substance with the focus on the visuals, the smoke and all the pure atmosphere in the air or just think of it as pure cinema, the way Scott and DP Stephen Goldblatt frame the close-ups of their godlike stars, not quite seeming like they’re in the same hemisphere of anyone else they come into contact with. Even the concept of spatial relations throughout the film occasionally throws us off, whether intentional or not, the way in one scene Sarandon keeps glancing off towards people who seem to be in another location entirely turns out to be in a restaurant overlooking a swimming pool (huh?) or when a scene cuts from her at a phone booth to someone inches away they could just as easily be way across town. It never feels like everything can be explained, not even what would usually be called normal human behavior.
These vampires don’t even seem to be any kind of representation of pure evil, at least not according to the film or even how many people they’ve killed. They’re just two creatures floating through New York (or maybe this film’s particular version of New York with streets that always seem rain soaked) and the film doesn’t pass judgement any more than it does Sarandon’s doctor for leaving Bowie in that waiting room for hours. It’s hard for me to ever hate porcelain doll Catherine Deneuve in any guise regardless and I suspect we’re not meant to, not even when she’s slashing some sleazoid’s throat or when she abandons her former lovers in wooden coffins locked up in the attic, essentially ghosting them as they remain there for eternity calling out her name (hey, I’ve been there). That’s all you remember more than any strict plotting and Scott clearly knows that the purely alien imagery provided by Deneuve and Bowie, supernaturally beautiful as they are, will be more visually compelling in their purely sexual way than any long speeches explaining plot points. If you’re going to be brutally killed then it might not be so bad if it’s Catherine Deneuve or David Bowie doing it, after all. Compared to that, it’s a close-up of a smiling old woman that is truly monstrous in this context. In addition to the beats of the original score by Michel Rubini and Denny Jaeger dripping along towards the encounter between the two female leads that we’re waiting for, the music gives it all a sheen of class whether the recurring use of Schubert or the Lakmé excerpt by Delibes described by Deneuve to Sarandon as part of her seduction later used again by Scott during the most notorious scene in TRUE ROMANCE during a display of a completely different kind of love. As a reminder, this is the film about which Leonard Maltin, bless him, in his star-and-a-half review says to avoid it “unless Deneuve and Sarandon in bed together is your idea of a good time” which doesn’t exactly qualify as woke criticism these days although if I asked what else was cinema invented for anyway since it’s almost the very reason why we’re watching the movie in the first place I’m not entirely sure that’s much of an improvement. But it’s still true.
Thematically it does feel a little scattershot as it explores that desire, that hunger the characters feel which is partly about addiction (essentially a real world issue) and partly about immortality (not so much) so I’m not quite sure if they work as equals although in a way the film is basically saying that the very concept of addiction makes pain eternal, an unending cycle that will destroy others whether they’re a part of it or not. On the disc’s audio commentary Susan Sarandon talks about how some of that was lost when the ending was changed but it’s not like I have to pay much attention to what Susan Sarandon says these days and either way it all works as the big budget, big studio, ultra-slick 80s version of something like DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS with Deneuve in for Delphine Seyrig. But Scott doesn’t turn his back on the reason why people are watching this film and goes for the pulp because he knows that’s where the true desire is, one that I imagine in this presentation is more pansexual than bi but maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about such things. What really sticks out thematically is the film’s portrayal of aging and the awareness that it’s too late to ever be anything more than what your promise was so in that sense it’s a film made by someone for whom vampirism isn’t something to be feared because it’s about living to the absolute extreme no matter how many bodies are left in the wake of these eternal lives. That’s what all of Tony Scott’s films were about anyway and it’s something that never really changed no matter how extreme his style became. He doesn’t want to analyze the themes. He just wants to jump. THE HUNGER came out less than a year after his brother Ridley’s BLADE RUNNER opened and one can piece together something of a distorted mirror image in how each film involves people living a blazing existence that abruptly cuts out as they search for more life, fucker. That one word David Bowie repeats asking for a reassurance even recalls how deleted BLADE RUNNER footage shot for the ‘happy’ ending of that film includes the exchange “What’s a long time?” “Forever” as Harrison Ford and Sean Young drive off in anticipation of a sequel 35 years later where. Just like in THE HUNGER, only one of them makes it. Each film favors a kind of poetry over strict mythology, each can in some ways be whatever you want to take from it.
There are certain elements that I still don’t get, why the characters go to a house out on Long Island during the opening sequence or if the cross-cutting with the monkeys is meant to be a mere visual parallel or if there’s something else going on in terms of a psychic connection. I wonder if Sarandon’s research into age itself being a disease, with her colleagues so cavalier about their mortality that they’re eating Big Macs, even amounts to anything having to do with the actual plot in the end. The old age make-up is at times remarkable with the middle-aged Bowie the most effective stage but when he gets near the end it essentially becomes a Dick Smith head right out of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, with too much of personality lost and there’s little enough Bowie in the film as it is even though his presence still comes through during the “a little saccharine” moment. At least one plot point, and probably more, is so oblique that you can hardly blame anyone for being confused or thinking they zoned out for a minute as if the movie is brushing off the impact of who was just killed. Does it matter? Not really. Even all the blood slashing is just another component of the style, not an attempt at a scare. The Ankh medallion that the vampires wear around their necks used to double for a blade is a little blunt as symbolism but still effective imagery, just as the doves that apparently hang out in the attic are, looking forward to how they’re used in Scott’s BEVERLY HILLS COP II, looking forward to turning up in John Woo movies. It is a kind of mish-mash of all sorts of things, a brief BARRY LYNDON flashback of Miriam making her promise to John looking forward to a SHINING present that in the end turns into a BLADE RUNNER happy ending (also part of THE SHINING, come to think of it) and if I’m really going to nitpick here, I don’t think much of the font used for the opening credits so THE HUNGER doesn’t have everything I want in a movie. But mostly I’m just happy to luxuriate inside this thing with all its intensity and erotica for a little while so worrying about strict reality is irrelevant, there’s too much mist swirling around to ever care. The images don’t always make sense. Even the time of day that the sunlight streams through windows doesn’t always make sense. I take it all about as seriously as I need to, just enough to take the shots and moments that stand out. The rest of it, maybe not so much but, honestly, I still dig the film in every ounce of its awesomeness. There are maybe only 4 or 5 sequences in THE HUNGER that really matter and the rest of it fades away a little, even as you’re watching it just get to feature length before you realize it. You already know what those scenes are. That’s enough.
It’s impossible to think of Deneuve and Bowie as mere mortals anyway, even now, so the casting is perfect. The way Catherine Deneuve plays her I’m still not sure what Miriam is ever thinking about anything, but it’s all about she projects just from her face in close-up, sometimes bemused by what she’s concealing from people but more often simply focused because she knows that she’s the one in the room people are going to pay attention to. Admittedly, I sometimes need to go to the subtitles when she’s explaining things but I still don’t care. David Bowie doesn’t have as much to work with but his very presence almost does all the work in showing how much David depends on Miriam for his very existence and he makes the moments where his quiet desperation is becoming apparent count. Up against the two gods, Susan Sarandon takes what may be the most difficult role and grounds it in her innocent confusion, particularly in her “You can’t leave” utterance to Bowie as the elevator doors slam shut, as much as the film ever needs to, faced with things that her intelligence can’t account for and with total confusion over what she’s drawn to. As music student Alice, Beth Ehlers gives hints that she’s worldlier than her years indicate which makes her perfect casting as a pure innocent--you can’t tell if she’s young or old or even what type of sexuality she’s heading towards and I wish we could get more of her interactions with Deneuve. As Sarandon's colleague/boyfriend Cliff De Young is just about the one relatively normal presence in this film while bringing an edge that grounds his end of the plot, annoyed at what he should be amazed by. Dan Hedaya is Lt. Allegrezza, a character who’s more of a plot device than anything but it’s still a treat to see someone like him sharing the frame with Deneuve since they barely seem the same species. I guess in this film they aren’t anyway. Shane Rimmer, whose presence is like a neon sign stating that the interiors were shot in England, plays Arthur Jelinek (cool name), the great Ann Magnuson is one of the victims during the opening sequence—I love that dance move as she slides right past Deneuve—and looking forward to starring with Sarandon in LIGHT SLEEPER a decade later Willem Dafoe appears briefly at a phone booth standing next to John Pankow of MAD ABOUT YOU.
On the audio commentary, Tony Scott offers about the film’s release, “It didn’t make a bean,” less than $6 million at the time as it turns out. Looking up theater listings in New York from the time it appears to have barely lasted a few weeks past opening day. Whatever following that THE HUNGER has attained over the years, the Blu-ray from Warner Archive is a stunner, capturing every stylish moment perfectly with all that light and smoke that the director loves so much. You just want to climb into this world, no matter what the risks you’re taking might be. Tony Scott was born on June 21, my birthday as it turns out, and he’s buried right in Hollywood just a short drive where I am so I’m feeling some sort of connection right now. I’m sure the next time I visit I’ll be thinking about this film more than any of his others, a film that dwells on how the people in front of you can reveal everything and nothing all at once, just as the film dwells on the Polaroid photos taken by teenage Alice. Which is just what the film does, telling us as much as a single photograph which is all we need to know. And for the 96 minutes of the movie it feels unblinking in what it says that life is. Maybe with age comes acceptance and wisdom, but maybe it also comes with ability to wipe certain things in your head away and move forward, further towards who you really are. Then again, maybe I’ll just watch another film. That might be part of destiny too.