2018년 6월 11일 월요일

SORCERER's Existentialist Spell- Interview with Professor Steve Choe, Associate Professor of Critical Studies, San Francisco State University

A very special guest who can help us understand Sorcerer is Professor Steve Choe, Associate Professor of Critical Studies in the School of Cinema, San Francisco State University. Professor Choe has authored two academic books, one on German cinema, entitled Afterlives: Allegories of Film and Mortality in Early Weimar Germany (Bloomsbury, 2014), and the other that looks at the relationship between violence and ethics in New Korean Cinema, Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  His newest project is on the cinematic oeuvre of William Friedkin, for which he had conducted extensive interviews with the director. 

 Courtsey of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The following discussion with Professor Choe took place on June 5, 2018, at Berkeley, after the screening of the 40th Anniversary Special Edition Blu Ray (UK eOne edition) of Sorcerer reviewed in the previous blog entry. It has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity. The discussion content is copyrighted to Professor Steve Choe and may not be reproduced without his express permission.

Abbreviation: Q indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, S indicates Professor Choe.

Q: OK, we have just watched Sorcerer, which I have not seen since the VHS days. Not surprisingly, it was an amazing experience. We are extremely fortunate to have Professor Steve Choe with us here.  This is the third time you have seen this film.  Anything new that jumped out to you this time around?

S: I saw it for the first time without any particular investment, and then for the second when I had started the project on William Friedkin, for which I decided to watch all of this films chronologically. Oh, I did show it to my class last Fall, so this is actually the fourth time.

Q: Wow!  Can you tell me a little about the student response?

S: In the context of a class devoted to Friedkin, the student responded more enthusiastically to Sorcerer than to his other films.

Q: That's a surprise. Other films including The Exorcist?

S: Yes, including The Exorcist. The students had built-in expectations about that film and many of them found it not quite what they had in mind. Sorcerer and Cruising, though, definitely had a surge of interest in recent years, in places such as UK and Europe. [UC Berkeley's] Pacific Film Archive had shown both films with Friedkin in attendance about four years ago, for instance.

Q: Can you tell me more about the student response to Sorcerer?

S: They were quick to point out how the last part of the movie turned "weird" for them. As is the case with The French Connection, the protagonists experience the falling away of their original objectives and satisfying their obsessions, just getting the job done, becomes their single-minded goal. The desaturation of color, the close-up on Roy Scheider's face superimposed on the bizarre, alien-looking landscape through reflections on the windshield of the truck, confusing soundtracks in which you hear a plainly dead character laughing, and so on: all this recalls for the viewers earlier moments from the film and almost summarizes the film itself, and its theme of male obsession.

The extreme extent to which Scheider's character would go to get the job done, certainly resonated with the students. The concluding scene of the sequence, in which Scheider is carrying the box of unstable dynamite, wobbling like a zombie, entirely lit by the blazing petrol fire: my students found the scene powerful.

Q: I suppose one could provide a more conventionally "academic" interpretation of the sequence as a metaphor for madness of American capitalism and so on. Certainly, Wages of Fear seems to encourage that sort of approach. Can we tell a bit about the differences between Wages of Fear and Sorcerer?

S: In Wages of Fear we have an absurdist ending. Friedkin did not care for that ending and had no desire to replicate it. Wages of Fear is just as gripping as the Friedkin film, in my view, but in the latter, we have an ending that connects with The French Connection, with Charlie Parker music in the background, a kind of film noir ambience, and then these two gangsters from New York, figures from the Scheider character's past, appearing at the end, that emphasizes uncertainty or the continued flow of the narrative, rather than providing a resolution of any kind.  I feel this is a very '70s variation on the classic mode of filmmaking, but with an element of failure incorporated into it. It is different from the classic noir tropes.

Q: Like a Raymond Chandler ending, we know the system is corrupt, the police is corrupt, the big money is corrupt, but the individual hero, Philip Marlowe, retains his integrity-- he floats above all this morass and will survive to face another day. That's not what happens here.

S: Exactly. Friedkin shows a point of view perhaps more accurately put as agnostic than nihilistic. There is no suggestion of the faith that the human spirit will in the end conquer the adversity.  So this renders his characters, even his chosen heroes, rather unsympathetic.

Q: You don't think that is a problem.

S: No. I think this is a very valid artistic point, an observation about the humanity, more precisely the nature of humanity. In that sense, I believe Sorcerer is a strongly humanistic film. It might not make you feel elated and satisfied at the end, but then, neither does human life at all times.

Q: Could we talk about a point that we discussed earlier [during the screening, and incorporated into the Blu Ray review], that in this film Nature seems pretty determined to kill the characters.

S: Yes, Nature is hostile, but also machines, most importantly trucks, seem to be alive and monstrous as well. The hierarchy of humans controlling nature and machines is subverted, unlike in the Clouzot film.  There is Otherness to the nature, an impenetrable quality. You mentioned the scene in which the tree branches appear seemingly out of nowhere to "attack" the truck drivers.  Tangerine Dream's ambient score also adds to this scene, highlighting terror and mystery.

The first thirty to forty minutes of the film seemingly sets up generic information and character buildup that appear to lead to a conventional storytelling style, but then again, once the location moves to this fictional Latin American country, these elements are pretty much discarded.  The only thing remaining as a meaningful character trait is that they have survival skills-- and are good with machines. They are truly reduced to basic essence of humanity, as human animals with certain skill sets that may or may not be useful for survival.

Q: They are all stripped of social positions and relations, political ideologies and so on.

S: Yes, in a way Friedkin is still continuing with documentary approach. He is still "capturing reality," taking conventionally conceived characters and filming them as if the world is just unfolding around them for the very first time. 

Q: The director as God is absent.

S: He sets the table up, but refuses to guide the characters.

Q: How about comparisons with Werner Herzog?

S: The hostility of Nature is certainly a similar feature of Herzog's Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.  They are similar in that both refuse to give much credence to the idea of human "specialness." There are clear limitations on what human beings can know and do. It is quite interesting, as Friedkin is not indifferent to the question of faith… he just approaches faith from a deeply agnostic point of view. 

In that sense, I note a similarity with Park Chan-wook's works, although their cultural backgrounds are quite dissimilar (I am not talking about their ethnic differences). I think Park is intensely interested in the irreconcilable contradictions in the human being that nonetheless are "real," and Friedkin is, too.

Q: How would you characterize Friedkin's relationship with New American Cinema?

S: There was the Vietnam War, Nixon was impeached in 1974, and the New American Cinema reflected that mood. Friedkin was iconoclastic even then, but he debuted as the Production Code died out in '60s and was also influenced by theater, the idea of theater as the heterotopic space, wherein the world outside could be mirrored but in a different way. A sizable number of his movies are intensely theatrical, and even the opened-up films often feature sequences that are essentially set in one room as a self-contained world: Regan's bedroom in The Exorcist, for instance, the hotel room in The Bug, or the apartment in The Boys in the Band.  It also functions as an allegorical representation of the movie theater itself. 

Let me ask you a question.

Q: Oh, OK. (Laughter) 

S: What did you think of Sorcerer as a remake?

Q: Well, when I first saw Sorcerer I have not seen Wages of Fear, despite the latter's venerable classic status.  When I caught up with the latter, I really loved it, but again, as we talked about, I felt that "nihilistic" ending felt almost tacked-on, or even made more sense as the protagonist's dream.  Now I look back on these two films, they are very different from one another… in many ways Sorcerer is the more stereotypically "European" film than Wages of Fear (Laughter). Now that I have seen it again with you, I can see the connection with The Exorcist much more clearly, as [as I mention in the review] it strikes me as a horror film without the supernatural evil. The world, or that particular country, or that particular jungle, including the river and the oil well, is a malevolent presence, the source of horror.  

S: Interesting! When I asked Friedkin, he disavowed that this is a remake, and strongly asserted that it was just another adaptation of the original source novel.  I feel that this notion that Sorcerer is a remake of the Clouzot film has hindered proper appreciation of the former, because there is a built-in prejudice that the remake must be inferior to the original.

The movie's title-- very briefly shown on one of the trucks-- comes from a Miles Davis album. I think Friedkin sees filmmaking like playing jazz music: the conventions are there, maybe rhythmic patterns or harmonies are shared, but you can write a different piece of music on the same source. His films are improvisational in that sense, I believe.

Q: Can you tell me about editing of the movie?

S: The bridge sequence, for instance, is done in a strikingly distinct way from a conventional Hollywood film. Cuts are very quick. Friedkin certainly did learn much from Hitchcock. The narrative content is fairly simple, but there are rapid shifts of close-ups from faces to ropes to the windshield of the truck, sometimes from subtly different angles.

Q: So the editing replicates our perception of an in-the-moment experience.

S: Yes, it gives one just enough time to have an impression of what is going on, but he cuts away from what you have earlier called "proper resolution" of a particular scene. The end of the bridge sequence almost looks like as if some frames are missing: you just barely get to see the truck moving to the safety and the scene jumps to another scene in a totally different environment, without any indication of how much time has passed.

Q: But it is radically different from you know… just confusing editing, like in a Michael Bay film. (Laughter)

S: Right. But cutting too quickly sometimes makes it difficult for the viewers to fully grasp the scene, or whatever meaning it carries. They might feel alienated as a result.

Q: I can totally see that. Maybe it also comes from agnosticism, because he does not want to play God to the viewers, tell them something he really doesn't know.

S: Perhaps. He told me an interesting story about visiting Europe and seeing the Shroud of Turin with his wife. And he says the experience moved him and his wife to tears, even though they remain agnostic Jews.

Q: Wow. He wants to believe then? To have faith?

S: I think he is aware that he has no access point to the kind of faith like, for instance, New York Catholics have. 

Q: It is remarkable that even after the commercial failure of Sorcerer and Cruising, Friedkin went ahead and still made a diverse and substantial array of films.

S: Yes, he reinvented himself as an independent filmmaker after 1990. I agree that many other filmmakers would have quit after what he had to go through in late '70s and '80s. We must not discount just what an astronomical hit The Exorcist was, and how shocking and innovative The French Connection was, in early '70s. In my view, Friedkin is a true American auteur, who works within the system but retains a strong personal vision, closer to Terence Malik, perhaps, and in my view more "independent" than Spielberg or even Scorsese.

For me, one of the reasons that The Exorcist still remains a great horror film, despite my student's professed disappointment in its efficacy as a scare-fest, is that Friedkin meticulously depicts all scientific methods to determine what is going on with Regan.  All scientific diagnoses fail in the end, however. The brutal reality of possession is the only "explanation" that remains at the end.  I see this as an exercise of deep critical thinking on the filmmaker's part, rather than what a conventional horror film does, that is, to begin with the a priori premise that there is God and there is Devil and going from there.     

Q: Would you say the age of filmmakers like William Friedkin is gone and will not come back again?

S: Certainly not in the form construed today as big-budget commercial filmmaking. That will be very difficult, if not entirely impossible, in the American film industry today. You know, as you have pointed out, perhaps New Korean Cinema of the early '00s has in fact been continuing the paths blazed by Friedlkin and American filmmakers of his generation. We shall see if the global impact of New Korean Cinema could generate some interesting cross-generational references and ultimately new types of filmmaking that engages with the concerns of the New American (and Korean) Cinema from new angles and perspectives.

Q: Dang, time passes so quickly!  I have one final question. Any American film that you have seen recently that reminded you of Sorcerer or a Friedkin film?

S: You know what, Friedkin recommended The Killing of the Sacred Deer to me. He saw it and was impressed by it. And I agree, it does resonate with his films.

Q: Thank you so much for the great discussion!  We should do this again, with a different movie sometime soon.

S: Yes, it was really wonderful to talk about Sorcerer and William Friedkin in such a friendly setting.

Wages of Survival-- SORCERER (1977) Blu Ray Review

SORCERER. A Film Properties International/Universal Pictures/Paramount Pictures Co-Production. U.S., 1977. 2 hour 1 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1, Technicolor, 35mm. Director: William Friedkin. Screenplay: Walon Green, based on the novel Le salarie de la peur by Georges Arnaud. Music: Tangerine Dream. Cinematography: Dick Bush, John M. Stephens. Production Design: John Box. Editing: Robert K. Lambert, Bud S. Smith. Costume Design: Anthony Powell.  CAST: Roy Scheider (Jackie Scanlon/Juan Dominguez), Bruno Cremer (Victor Manzon/Serrano), Francisco Rabal (Nilo), Amidou (Kassem/Martinez), Ramon Bieri (Corlette), Karl John (Marquez), Friedrich Ledebur (Carlos), Joe Spinell, Rosario Almontes.

Sorcerer, William Friedkin's follow-up film to The Exorcist, had the misfortune of opening in the year in which Star Wars had essentially re-written the rules of the US movie industry. Costing the upwards of twelve million dollars to make, it was a commercial failure. However, now that the American, nay, global motion picture industry has been thoroughly colonized by big-studio tent-pole special effects extravaganzas, well beyond the rather innocuous charm of the original Star Wars trilogy and teeming with literally dozens of comic book superheroes with their own patches of territory in the franchise gang war, it has come under a welcome wave of reassessment. It is certainly not an easy film to warm up to, with largely unsympathetic main characters, and arguably even more cynical or nihilistic than the notorious "existentialist" thriller, Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, with its much talked-about "downbeat" ending, of which this is ostensibly a remake. Yet, watching it again in a superior Blu Ray presentation by the UK label eOne, it is difficult to deny the hypnotic power the film weaves around the viewer: it is one of those films that can leave some viewers hating its guts, but nonetheless have them completely captivated and riveted to the screen.   

I surmise that one of the reasons those who had seen the film during its initial release felt cheated was the abrupt way it "betrays" their expectations after the first reel. The way the main characters are introduced make us anticipate a tightly constructed thriller in the mode of, say, John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday (1977), which shares this film's semi-documentarian, in-there-with-the-actors approach, but today seems rather retrograde (and not just in terms of its Middle Eastern politics). Friedkin's mises-en-scenes are superbly economical and naturalistic, but work well within the established genre conventions.

Francisco Rabal (a Spanish star and a longtime collaborator of Luis Bunuel, having appeared, among other films, in Nazarin [1959] and Belle de Jour [1967]) is an aging, arrogant South American hitman. Amidou (a veteran Moroccan actor then specializing in Arab/North African roles for the Francophone films) plays a member of a terrorist cell responsible for detonating a bomb in Jerusalem, and barely surviving the pursuit by the Israeli police. Bruno Cremer (who had a solid presence in the French commercial cinema throughout '60s and '70s, mostly cast as villains) is a banker whose corrupt financial dealings backfire, ending in his partner's suicide and his escape from a Parisian High Society life, abandoning his book-editor wife. Finally, Roy Scheider is a two-bit gangster who pulls a daring robbery on a mob booking office operating in the basement of a Brooklyn Catholic church, only to have the heist turn sour. The mob bosses have put a price on his head. All these men converge as the last resort of escape to a decrepit village in a (fictional) South American nation, where the only connections to the outside world are bottles of Coca Cola, a juke box in a saloon that plays old dance tunes, and the American oil drilling site supervised by Corlette (Ramon Bieri, one of those familiar faces from TV and old movies you cannot quite put a name to). 

Of course, as in The Wages of Fear, a spectacular explosion in the oil well makes it necessary for the company to hire a group of desperados-- excellent drivers with steely nerves and good instincts for survival-- in need of a big wad of pesos to transfer four boxes of dynamite, so soaked with moisture that they have virtually become sticks of raw nitroglycerin, with two beaten-up trucks over the mountain passages hardly fit for a bicycle trek.

Once we accept that we will never have real identification figures among the four leads, all of whom are morally flawed, to say the least (a vicious hitman, a white-collar criminal exploiting his family prestige to escape the law, a terrorist responsible for deaths of innocent citizens, and a petty gangster involved in a shooting of a priest), and that Friedkin is resolutely uninterested in editorializing about their moral or political stances, Sorcerer does entice us to join their perilous journey through its sheer filmmaking brilliance. 

The technical accomplishments, including Friedkin's direction of the actors, are difficult to be faulted. The miasma of the consistently wet and muddy jungle is rendered with an almost physical force. The make-up, costume and production design all look totally lived-in. Despite the jaw-dropping, insane complexity of the stunts and set pieces-- especially the justifiably famous sequence of two trucks crossing the river over an ancient wooden-plank bridge--, the action is always legible and clearly presented. Neither does Friedkin waste any time in conveying the essential plot information. The scene in which Ramon Bieri's Corlette and his assistant investigate the sodden boxes of dynamite is a case in point: mostly using only visual language, Friedkin drives into the brains of the viewers just how unstable and dangerous these explosives are. These sequences are classical in conception, but the urgency and tension they embody is very '70s, something that New American Cinema came up with by incorporating editing and photographic techniques from the European cinema into their own immediate, aggressive filmmaking styles.

Again, the actors fully rise to the occasion, despite what must have been culturally disparate acting styles. Scheider never projects a Hollywood leading man-aura but his presence firmly anchors the film, allowing other actors to shine in their moments. It is interesting Cremer's Victor is the only one given a borderline sentimental opportunity to reminisce about the personal life he had left behind: his Parisian identity seems to have something to do with it. You certainly don't see that kind of softness associated with "French culture" in the equally ruthless but very different The Day of the Jackal (1973).

The best way to appreciate Sorcerer, at least for me, is to approach it as a horror film, an inverse of The Exorcist, in that, instead of a demonic presence invading a Washington D. C. home, the four protagonists are pitted against Nature-- or, more precisely, the jungle-- as a malevolent presence, maybe not quite "evil" but certainly hostile to the humanity. The startling manner in which tree branches, drifting through the river rapids, suddenly appear from the outside of the frame to "attack" Victor and Kassem on the bridge, for one, might as well be a deliberate, sentient act of aggression. Elsewhere, the awesome column of orange flame from the burning oil well is intercut with the montage of the men preparing their vehicles-- the trucks themselves look like huge totemic masks of some prehistoric beasts-- suggesting that the latter are observed by an unfriendly being.

Glenn Erickson (DVD Savant) once talked about one of the running themes in South American films including La muralla verde (1969) as well as the non-local films made in location there, such as Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), that shows "civilized" (white) men attempting to conquer or tame Nature and essentially being consumed or annihilated by it in return. I feel that Sorcerer also partakes of this theme, all the while refusing to comment on the evils of American capitalism or follies of the Western civilization pretending to have successfully conquered Nature. Overall, Sorcerer is not interested in dealing with the neo-colonial relationship between denizens of el norte and the native population, not even as much as Clouzot chose to explore in The Wages of Fear. The film does include a powerful scene in which the bodies of the local workers killed by the explosion-- a few of them burnt beyond recognition-- are shipped to the village and almost causes a riot among the population. As it stands, however, it is a rather isolated, curious moment in the film otherwise rigorously apolitical. 

Sorcerer may not be a film that can be loved by everyone (William Friedkin seems to be one obviously talented '70s American auteur who is still capable of deeply dividing opinions of the scholars, critics and film historians, even more so than Brian De Palma) but I think its power is undeniable. In some ways, this difficult motion picture is more authentically "existentialist" than Clouzot's film-- which I still prefer, despite my aversion to its ending (apparently shared by Friedkin), which I have always found like a dream episode for the protagonist left over at the end by a mistake. It is stripped of the kind of intellectualism that inevitably leads to celebration of the "heroic" stance of the film's existentialist (always male and European, of course) protagonist. Here, the four guys are just trying to survive, and Friedkin suggests that we are no different from them, facing the indifferent or hostile God/Nature.  

Blu Ray Presentation:
Entertainment One UK. Region B. Video: Widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, Stereo 2.0. Subtitles: English SDH. Supplements: Insert note by William Friedkin, a Conversation with William Friedkin and Nicolas Wending Refn. Release date: November 6, 2017. Amazon.co.uk price: £8.99

Sorcerer has been a difficult title to locate on home video until recently. I remember seeing it on a VHS, but having the film actually financed by two major studios seems to have done its distribution history no favors. It should be noted that Friedkin himself thanks Jeff Baker and Tom Lucas of Warner Home Video for practically resurrecting the film. The full background of this restoration process and the subsequent reevaluation of the motion picture would make an interesting piece of film history.  
Entertainment One's transfer seems to be a carry-over from Warner Brothers Blu Ray, released in 2014. The colors are vibrant but suitably naturalistic, with stable grain structures and fine details. They are also warmer than the usual tone of the contemporary American films, which I surmise is as it should be: only tropical greeneries in certain scenes aggressively "pop." The Blu Ray does make it possible for the viewers to discern the subtle but effective "dirt" makeup on the actors and other details previously missed. 

Even more impressive is the DTS 5.1 soundscape, which allows one to notice the different recording strategies employed in Paris- and New York-set sequences. Yet, I must say I remain frustrated that Tangerine Dream's evocative score was not more extensively used. Friedkin has a very unusual ear for music among American filmmakers-- his use of rock bands-artists like Wang Chung and Mike Oldfield is quite unique and effective--, but like so many of them, seems not to trust it completely. David Cronenberg and Stephen Spielberg share a surprisingly common trait in that they totally trust their composers to add extra layers to their films, rather than seeing scores as a "sonic element" to be cut and pasted as the director pleases, but they are hardly the norm.

The Warner Blu Ray was essentially bare bones, but eOne UK managed to include a substantial talking-heads docu filmed in 2015 (shot in black and white, with color inserts of relevant photo data), "Sorcerers: A Conversation between William Friedkin and Nicolas Winding Refn," which extensively covers production history of Sorcerer and clocks at 1 hour 12 minutes. It is mostly Friedkin talking, and Refn does an adequate job of prompting information and insights out of the older filmmaker, although his repetitive refrain that "I am the younger version of you"-- although the Dutch filmmaker might have been entirely honest about this self-assessment-- becomes tiresome. We find out that Friedkin still (at least in 2015) considers Sorcerer his best film, advancing the notion that he had intended it as a commentary on the troubled international conflicts of mid-'70s (not too convincing, I am afraid). But he is refreshingly candid about the disappointment from bad reviews and box office failures (Refn annoyingly attempts to paint the whole filmmaking process and its aftermath as some kind of a heroic artist's odyssey for Friedkin: thankfully the latter resists such intellectualization, while clearly pleased by the former's adulation).

The best part of the interview include Friedkin's recounting of casting choices (how Steve McQueen loved Walon Green's screenplay but had to drop out, due to his demand that Ali McGraw be included in the production in some capacity, and so on), of location shooting in the Domincan Republic, and of working with Tangerine Dream, whom he had already in mind as his composers as early as 1974. Many of the stories and interpretations Friedkin tell are informative and add to the appreciation of the film, even though for some of them I would have loved to hear Roy Scheider's version, too.