In the past day I’ve seen two tough films that I want to explore here, the one here is High Life (2018) a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing for a good few months, whilst another is The Boys From Brazil (1978), both hard films to watch for different reasons which I hope to explain over the course of these separate reviews. You could say that Claire Denis‘s english language debut is my generations Solaris (1978), that maybe stretched to the competent Steven Soderbergh remake.
High Life is a very brave and bold piece of science fiction that like Solaris is not so much about space but more the internal struggles with what makes us human. The fight for control over memory, what is real and what is not. It would be equally unfair to say this is just another version of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s masterpiece, there’s a lot of influence in this film to unpick so it may take me sometime to explain.
What I thought would be just a 2 or 3 person film with minimal dialogue is carefully unpackaged to be more than the trailer lets on before it’s release earlier last month. We begin with the sole surviving adult aboard a spaceship, Monte (Robert Pattinson) who is carrying out a repair on the hull of the ship whilst parenting baby Willow inside, being kept occupied with the sound of his voice and archive videos for entertainment. It’s not unusual for babies to be found in space or even sci-fi, it’s the first time Pattinson has taken in a fatherly role which is mentioned by his character early on. Is this an acknowledgement that the actor is continuing to grow and now taking on the role of the parent in future films. Maybe not just yet, he’s really pushing himself to work with some interesting directors making a name for himself well beyond his initial Twilight films that brought him to the Hollywood’s attention a decade ago. Pattinson’s Monte is an anti hero, a prisoner who among a 7 more inmates were offered the chance for life on a spaceship as lab-rats instead of serving a sentence back on Earth.
I’m reminded early on of the solitude in Silent Running (1972) with the greenhouse where a number of scenes take place throughout the film. Similarities are drawn even closer between Monte’s actions and There are even similarities Bruce Dern‘s Freeman Lowell in how they treat the fellow passengers/crew. Whilst Dern is left with child like robots to tend to the floating greenhouse, Monte has a baby to raise and protect. We still have no idea how we even got to this point, how has he and a baby become the sole survivor of this ship.
The tone changes to an extended flashback that acts to answers all our questions from a quiet first act. The small number of prisoners are under the care and captaincy (it seems) of Dibs (Juliette Binoche) whose able to control them by water contamination. The prisoners all know this but there’s little they can really do to fight this. One of Dib’s goals is to successfully deliver a baby in space, solely through artificial insemination. She does this with the incentive of offering drugs to the prisoners in exchange for using their bodies. We learn that the success rate has been very bad, losing a woman each time through the procedure, combined with radiation it makes the whole process almost impossible to carry through.
So with no sex allowed on board, how do they all release that pent up sexual frustration, 4 men and 4 women. One way is to use the box, which we see in graphic detail thanks to Binoche’s ride on the device that shows just hoe effective it can be. Monte finds that the best thing to do is to be abstinent for the duration, that way he can’t hurt anyone including himself. There’s a sense that all these rules and conditions out on the edges of the known galaxy is far too much for some to stay away from one another. Monte clearly has the attention of a few women on board but tries to control them, acting only to protect them from Dibs who we learn is no better and a prisoner like the rest of them.
High Life is clearly a film made to reflect the #MeToo movement where sexual violence which is graphically depicted is not dealt with in equal measure by the prisoners. The majority know right from wrong here and are quick to hand out justice. However one case of rape reverses the roles whereby the male – Monte is raped in his sleep by Dibs, who gives into her desires both sexual and scientific to ensure her goal is realised. Taking his “good genes” and inseminate another woman. Highly unethical but makes for some dark and shocking scenes that are hard to forget soon after. I’m reminded of Under the Skin (2013) that similarly reverses the roles in rape to place the woman in a position of power of the the now male victim, luring her victims back to devour them in her lair. The number of board slowly dwindles to a few who can survive alone in the harsh coldness of space, the radiation and a disturbed doctor who will stop and nothing to reach her goal.
The third act is surprisingly short and very abrupt in how it begins, with no titles to tell us we have moved forward in time to find a teenage Willow (Jessie Ross) playing opposite a little aged Monte (probably one of my only criticisms of the film) as they seem to have reached a point where they may reach their make. Far bleaker than the overwhelming visually splendour and bewilderment of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to an abrupt end that leaves you lost for words at last two hours, what have we just seen is scraps of humanity thrown into space to be forgotten and fight amongst themselves. I’m still processing the images, the ideas of this highly stylised bleak film that is not so much about being in space but being pushed to the limits of being human, discovering the worst and the best in us. Not too far from Solaris as it travels further away from home to a place where those onboard can’t recognise themselves.
Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.
The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.
So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.
Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.
At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.
Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.
There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.