Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Eastern Promises/Pursued

Eastern Promises is David Cronenberg's very conscious follow-up to his previous film, A History of Violence, which also starred Viggo Mortensen, and which also represented the idiosyncratic director's engagement with mainstream conceptions of genre and violence. Both films place Mortensen dead-center in a gritty, violent action plot, and both films are undeniably much more straightforward and polished than the wild horror and sci-fi films that earned Cronenberg his reputation. But if History was a typical man-with-a-past thriller, adorned with only traces of Cronenberg's style and depth, tacked on like so much set decoration, Eastern Promises is something entirely different, a grand accomplishment that builds on and improves its predecessor in every way. Cronenberg has effectively reversed the formula — instead of sneaking in elements of his style into a formulaic thriller, here he makes only token nods towards the purported narrative. This is a deeply strange film that only pretends to be a gangster flick, when it's patently obvious that so much more is going on.

Mortensen is typically smoldering and intense as Nikolai, the right-hand man for Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a drunken lout who is nevertheless a key figure in London's Russian mob because of his father Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The film's drama and action surround this trio of gangsters and hitmen, but the heart of the story lies elsewhere, with a young baby who's delivered at the beginning of the film by an obstetrician, Anna (Naomi Watts). Cronenberg signals the film's essential concerns early on, when he has the two opening scenes encompass both birth and death, and in equally gory detail. In the first scene, a barber (who doubles as a mob hitman) forces his retarded son to kill a customer, with a slit-throat blood geyser worthy of Sweeney Todd. Cronenberg follows this with the birth, which is if anything even more disturbing in its focus on viscera and blood, as the baby takes its first hesitant breaths while her mother dies on the operating table. These two scenes initially seem unrelated, but they turn out to be connected to the same underground world of Russian mafia, prostitutes, and killers. Through her determination to find out about the baby's origins and the whereabouts of its relatives, Anna is thrust into this world, as well as perversely drawn to it.

But Anna is, despite her narrative importance, something of a sideline character here. Her charater is important insofar as she represents the outsider, the audience surrogate exploring an unfamiliar world, but despite Watts' top billing she is not a main character. This is a distinctly male film, because it's a very male genre that Cronenberg is tackling here, and the violence at the film's core is not only masculine, but an expression of masculine sexuality. The links between this violence and male sexuality are underscored again and again within the film, as is the ambiguous link between Nikolai and Kirill. The latter clearly idolizes his supposed underling, and there's a real current of homosexual desire in this worship. This desire finds expression in Kirill's continued attempts to dominate and subjugate Nikolai, as in the scene where he forces Nikolai to have sex with an underage prostitute at his father's whorehouse, he says so that Nikolai can prove that he's not a "queer." But the way Kirill watches this joyless, violent sex, and the way he praises Nikolai's performance afterwards, only proves that Kirill is the one who's queer, an assumption that's borne out in the many gestures of friendship and joking camaraderie that pass between the two men, gestures that are constantly threatening to transform into caresses or even embraces. When Nikolai is finally accepted as a full member of the mob and marked for initiation, they do embrace, and the framing and posing seems to be setting them up for a sweepingly romantic Hollywood kiss — a formulation that's mocked in the denouement when Nikolai and Anna briefly fall into the same pose, adopting a more conventional movie combination (father, mother, baby) only to emphasize just how much this film rejects such pat familial dynamics.

If violence and sexuality are intertwined in the relationship of Nikolai and Kirill and the linkage of new life with murder and death, this theme comes to its head in the film's climax, already justifiably famous for the scene where Viggo Mortensen conducts an entire, very bloody fight completely in the nude. This bathhouse slaughter is the film's undeniable centerpiece, and it's here that Cronenberg completely lets any pretext of a conventional genre thriller fall away along with Mortensen's clothes. In the course of this masterfully choreographed sequence, a great deal of blood is spilled, and yet Cronenberg emphasizes the sexualization of his star, the way his body bends and contorts, the sexual poses he falls into in the midst of this brutal struggle. It's a truly harrowing and potent sequence, evincing Cronenberg's characteristic interest in the body and the changes wrought on it by violence and sexuality. This interest in the body also extends to the film's recurring motif of tattoos, which are markers of identity — when Nikolai pledges his loyalty to the mob, he must denounce his family and his past, and be tattooed with the markings of the gang — as well as guides to an individual's life and history. The body can be "read" through these tattoos, and the bearer's persona can be inferred from the story told by these symbols. Bodies can be read, especially dead ones, and all the film's corpses have messages to pass on. The girl who dies giving birth in the opening propels the film forward with her diary, excerpts of which are read in voiceover, commenting obliquely on the action, periodically throughout the film.

Likewise, the story of Cronenberg's film — the real, underlying story lightly disguised by its genre trappings — can be read from the abundant symbols he employs. It's a story of the traditional family undermined by both homosexual desire and explosive violence — a brief that sounds surprisingly conservative on paper, except that Cronenberg clearly takes such gleeful pleasure in disrupting the placid surfaces of Hollywood conventionality that it's hard to take the film as anything but a radical critique of the normative structures it sometimes apes. Unlike A History of Violence, where Cronenberg seemed to disappear too readily into the conventional surfaces of the genre narrative, Eastern Promises is a prickly, genuinely disturbing and potent film that may indicate a fresh new development in Cronenberg's oeuvre. Certainly, it's his most perverse and exciting film since the delirious high point of 1997's Crash, and that alone is reason enough to celebrate this return to form.

Raoul Walsh's Pursued is a lurid, frankly ludicrous Western that infuses a noir sensibility into the oater genre. Sometimes, the combination is awkward and unevenly realized, but it's always intriguing, and the concept (with the help of leads Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright) generates enough sparks to keep the film engaging even when the machinations of its plot threaten to send it careening off the tracks. Mitchum plays Jeb Rand, the last scion of a family that's been obliterated from the earth following a deadly and mysterious feud with the Cullum family. Ironically, then, it's a branch of the Cullums who take him in as a boy following the death of his parents, and he grows up under the protection of his adopted mother (Judith Anderson) who accepts him into the family and treats him as one of her children along with Thorley (Wright) and Adam (John Rodney). The film's most interesting aspect is the relationship that develops between Jeb and Thorley, despite their mother's best efforts to cultivate a healthy brother/sister bond in them. This relationship, though not incestual in the least, is somewhat strange nonetheless, especially since Jeb persists in calling their mutual mother "Ma" even as he's making out with his adoptive sister. The weirdness extends to their brother, with whom Jeb has a competitive, antagonistic relationship — in one scene, Adam lets slip that he's so enraged with his sister because she always thought of their family as consisting of the three of them, while he wants to winnow it down to just himself and his sister. While Thorley wants to get married and have a husband, Adam's vision extends only as far as his mother, his sister, and the ranch they own; if the incestuous subtext can't really exist with Jeb, it's in full flower here.

Unfortunately, though the film has a great setup and some marvelous scenes, it's hampered by structural flaws that drain a lot of energy out of the film's most interesting sequences and seriously undermine the darker emotions at this story's core. Chief among these failings is that the bulk of the film is related in flashbacks, which is a clumsy device even in the best of circumstances, and totally unnecessary in probably nine out of ten films that use it. The flashbacks here are especially egregious. They're told by Jeb to Thorley, supposedly as a way of tracing where they went wrong, even though she's already intimately familiar with most of the incidents he's recounting, and even though he tells stories about things that he didn't and couldn't witness for himself, and in some cases probably couldn't even know about. It's a ridiculous structure, and it would call attention to itself even if its effect on the actual narrative arc was minimal. But it also serves to drain a great deal of the tension out of the film's second half, because the film opens with a present-day sequence where Thorley and Jeb are obviously in love, even if external troubles are putting pressure on them. Their love is by no means certain in the flashbacks that form the film's second half, though, and in fact events drive Thorley into a hatred of her former love so deep that she becomes a kind of black widow, marrying him out of spite and planning to murder him on their wedding night.

This turn of events results in some of the film's most powerful material. Thorley as a hate-filled murderess is a thing to behold, and the angel-faced Wright does a surprisingly good job of conveying the churning emotions beneath her calm exterior. In the scene where she reveals her plot to her mother, her eyes glint maniacally, caught by the flickering light from a lantern that she holds up to her face, casting sinister shadows across her visage. It's the film's truest homage to the noir visual style, which recurs periodically in scenes like this, bathed in deep shadows with characters held as silhouettes. Walsh admirably captures the film's inner darkness in scenes like this, but he perhaps does too good a job considering the narrative's subsequent direction. Wright is far more believable (and interesting) when she's spiteful and bent on revenge, than when, just minutes later, she's abruptly reconciling with Mitchum and declaring her love for him. This turnabout, though telegraphed from the opening and the flashback structure, is never adequately explained, and it represents Walsh backing away from his momentary embrace of full-fledged noir aesthetics, retreating into horseback melodrama that grows way less interesting once Wright's anger has inexplicably fluttered away. Worse yet, even in the film's best scenes, the flashback structure undercuts the characters' powerful emotions, since we already know where they're going. Wright's rage, no matter how brilliantly conveyed by both her performance and the director's mise en scène, is impossible to reconcile with the doe-eyed, vapid movie heroine who's introduced in the opening scenes, so what might've been a compelling transformation from lovestruck young girl to raging femme fatale becomes a mere interlude in the film's essential love story.

Walsh is continually sabotaging his own storytelling in this way, so that a film that could have been a true classic is only fitfully interesting, and then mostly in the scenes that work against the film's overall thrust. For its innovative combination of a Western action setting with the psychological darkness of noir, Pursued remains an intriguing and entertaining genre-blender, but Walsh's failure to really commit to this film's best aspects unnecessarily hampers it as a whole.


Marc Raymond said...

Nice review of EASTERN PROMISES. I actually had the exact opposite opinion of Cronenberg's last two films, finding A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE a much more interesting piece. But in the context of Cronenberg's own work I think you're right, it's much more consistent with his previous visions.

Cronenberg and homosexuality is also a rich topic. I took a course years ago on his films and the debates around Cronenberg's misogyny and homophobia were quite intense. I've always found Cronenberg's depiction of homosexuality much more problematic than his view of women, although you can certainly argue that they are often heavily intertwined in his films (DEAD RINGERS being the obvious starting point and the film I think best represents what Cronenberg is about).

I think there's also some validity to Robin Wood's labeling of Cronenberg as reactionary because of a generalized disgust towards sexuality, although Wood ignores the simultaneous fascination Cronenberg has with this "perversity" (his first feature SHIVERS being a case in point).

Maybe what I liked about A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was how unlike Cronenberg the film was, which I found refreshing and something new to bounce his old obsessions off of (and the film is not exactly unrelated to his older films). I found EASTERN PROMISES simultaneously more unpleasant but also less disturbing, especially in their respective conclusions.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Very interesting read-out. And Marc Raymond is quite right about Cronenberg's attitude towards gayness being problematic over the years. I had quite a testy exchange with him over Naked Lunch where he jettisoned nearly all the gayness of one of the most thoroughgoingly homoerotic pieces of literature of all-time. Happliy he bounced back with Crash in whose climax James Spader fucks the living shit out of Elias Koteas. (More please!)

In Eastern Promises what tears things apart isn't homosexuality but homophobia and the paranoia it inspires. The scene where Vincent Cassell watches Viggo fuck the hooker is very important in this regard. As for the now-classic steamroom scene part of its power derives from the character's comfort within his own skin -- something none of the other men can boast of.

How Francis Bacon would have loved that scene!

And speaking of Bacon, in genre terms Eastern Promises is a British gangster film in the tradition of Performance -- except all the gangsters are Russian.

And because they're Russian homophobia rules. Part of the power of the Krays (and "Harry Flowers" in Performance IS Ronnie Kray) stems from the fact that they were quite able to incorproate same-sexuality into their world, thus giving "The Firm" a distinct advantage.

It also gave Bacon an advantage in that George Dyer was a Kray "enforcer." (hubba-hubba!)

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys, you both raise some good points in regards to Cronenberg and sexuality. He's definitely a problematic figure in this regard, with The Brood probably the most troubling in terms of his view of women. That film registers a visceral disgust of childbirth which can be contrasted against the view posited in Eastern Promises -- the birth at the beginning is also visceral and gory, but the child is nonetheless a hopeful figure within the narrative, not at all the horrific monster it is in The Brood. I think the Wood idea that Cronenberg possesses a reactionary disgust towards sex has some validity in relation to his early films, but as Cronenberg has developed he's become more and more fascinated with sex, and has come to view sexuality as one potential agent of the bodily change which is almost always at the core of his best work. You can see this happening, certainly, in Videodrome and Crash, where sex has become a pathway "down the rabbit's hole" into a whole other experience of life (and a potentially positive one, too).

Interesting comments about Naked Lunch, David. I think it's definitely a lesser work from Cronenberg, though it's enjoyable in its own way if you can totally ignore its relationship to the Burroughs book. I believe he's defended his choices by saying that since he's straight, Burroughs' gayness was not what interested him in the novel. Basically, he jettisoned virtually all of Burroughs from the book and turned it into a typical Cronenberg project, which is of course the prerogative of any adapter. The film is Cronenberg free-associating on Burroughs, which is interesting and definitely revelatory about the director, but winds up being very distant from the source.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well that's the thing, Ed. In that he's straight how could Cronenberg be SO interested in the novel as to make a film of it? These days his attitude towards sexuality is far more multifacted. Of course it helps if you're working with someone like Viggo, but even so Cronenberg has his head in the right place now. Hadn't thought of The Brood re Eastern Promises but your point is is quite well-taken.

The thing that really got me about Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is the way he glued the Bowles' onto it -- so his hero (who for me will always be Buckaroo Banzai) is having an affair with Jane Bowles (played by the ineffable Judy Davis) In real life not only was such an affair impossible, Jane Bowles and William Burroughs LOATHED one another like poison. Forget the unlikeiness of a love affair -- they couldn't stand being in the same room together. Consequently Paul had to do a lot of navigating to steer his old pal Bill away from the very touchy Jane.

And here's my cue for someone to make a film of Jane's materpiece Two Serious Ladies. Guy Maddin perchance?

As for Pursued, are you familiar with "The Fugitive Subject," Paul Willemin's lengthy essay on it in the 1974 Edinburgh Festival Raoul Walsh tribute book?
It's a fascinating read as this blatantly "Freudian Western" (Siggie was all the rage in Tinseltown in the 40's) gets put through the Lacanian wringer. YIKES!

Ed Howard said...

Re: Naked Lunch, the book has plenty of interest whether you're gay or straight. Now of course, if you leave out all the gay material you're missing a rather significant portion of the book, both in terms of meaning and just in raw word count, but it's not the only thing there by any means. The drug paranoia, which Cronenberg does do an excellent job of capturing (the talking bug typewriter is one of his most memorable images), is an equally important force in the novel. I think he was on much shakier ground, as you say, when he tried to incorporate aspects of Burroughs' life and surroundings, and this is the least successful element of the film.

Re: Pursued, I haven't read that essay, no, and haven't been able to find it on a cursory search. Any help in tracking it down?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Wish I could help you. Try rare book sites on the net.

Marc Raymond said...

I think it is Cronenberg's simultaneous attraction and revulsion to homosexuality that is the most compelling argument for his homophobia. I remember a student in the Cronenberg class once asking why there was so much homosexual content in Cronenberg's films if he so identified as straight, and the professor's response was that was precisely what made the work homophobic.

On the PURSUED essay, you may want to check university libraries if you're close by. They have the Walsh book at my university in Ottawa, I'd make a copy and send it off but I'm away for the year. I know there's also an essay in the Cameron/Pye (eds) MOVIE BOOK OF WESTERNS, although it's probably not the Willeman piece. Don't have the book with me at the moment though.

Shubhajit said...

Never found a more profound and involved discourse in the comments section.

Well Ed, i still feel A History of Violence a better film, perhaps because Cronenberg deliberately decided to make a bleak, lyrical commentary rather than a brutal film that we all associate him with. As for Eastern Promise, i was left wanting for a bit more because it somehow failed to elicit a "WOW!!!" that usually gets spontaneously uttered when we are in the presence of greatness. A very good film nonetheless. And i must add, as usual, a terrific review. But i was hoping for something less overwhelming, with a few "cons" along with the "pros".