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.