Wednesday, December 1, 2021

What a disaster: She's gone with the hula hula boys, she don't care about me


Directed by Jan Troell
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the novel The Hurricane by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordoff)

Spoilers: well, there's a hurricane in it, but moderate, I guess

In retrospect, it's surprisingfrom our present-day vantage point, almost alienbut throughout disaster cinema's reign in the 1970s, indeed, even as the trend waned, the money behind the films almost never stooped to remaking any of the movies from the last time disaster cinema had been big, back in the 1930s.  Almost never: but in the late 70s, Dino De Laurentiis was fresh off remaking King Kong (which, despite being largely disliked today, was a serious hit), and he began casting about for other 30s classics to remake.  He landed on John Ford's 1937 film, The Hurricane.  And to ask is to know the answer, but of all the 30s disaster films to remake, why did he choose the one that was already perfect?

De Laurentiis's 1979 Hurricane (distinguishing itself, I suppose, by ditching the "the" in the title) at least has the decency to not be a straight remake, and I'll give it some very small credit for that.  At the outset, the story that it proposes to tell, taking advantage of forty-two years of social progress, strikes one as an exciting spin on the material, using the basic framework of Ford's film (and James Norman Hall and Charles Nordoff's novel), with its Polynesian setting and metaphorical storm, to pursue its themes from a different angle.  It keeps the fundamental core of a man and woman persecuted by a repressive and terroristic colonial regime; but now their romance is the reason for their persecution.  It begins in the 1920s with the arrival of Charlotte Bruckner (Mia Farrow) at Pago Pago in the South Seas, where her father, U.S. Navy Captain Charles Bruckner (Jason Robards), has been charged with governing American Samoa, and you will notice that the female lead in this one is whitewell, yes, so was Dorothy Lamour, but you know what I mean.  Charlotte has some vague romantic attachment to one of her father's subordinates (Timothy Bottoms), but at her welcoming party, she catches the gaze of a young Samoan, Matangi (Dayton Ka'ne), heir to the high chiefdom of the island of Alava.  As she accustoms herself to her environs, those gazes become longer and more frequent.  When her father leaves on state business, she elects to remain, and this gives her and Matangi the opportunity to do more than just stare, but such things tend not to end well, especially as her possessive father finds a way to put Matangi in prison.  He seeks escape, and Charlotte helps, but their flight together into the unknown is cut short by the arrival of a hurricane that promises to destroy everything.

That's not terrible, and it is at least superficially different.  It does a lot that would seem to justify "being a Hurricane remake," even if the only thing it does that actually improves upon its predecessor is that the Polynesians are played by Polynesians; even then, that's the sort of thing you have to accept is better in principle, rather than because it led here to any better results.  Nevertheless, it's theoretically a worthy addition to a story that was basically as anti-colonialist as 1930s cinema got, but also tended to fall into ethnic essentialism, noble savagery, and a treatment of Polynesia as a human zoological preserve; it's slightly harder for the 1979 film to fall into that trap when it's about Mia Farrow getting plowed by the Polynesian guy, and the general idea is that we'd prefer them to stay together.  The problem is that avoiding that trap also means surrendering the flattening mythic power of two primordial lovers given the chance to start their world anew, in favor of a much grubbier, grungier register.  This Hurricane is far more interested in dealing in realism (almost neorealism) and attempting to explore a bunch of messy, human-scaled emotions, and it hardly ever does a good job of it, because the template (or the producer, or Lorenzo Semple Jr's screenplay) was never really built to allow that.

So we're back to production history: Hurricane was supposed to have been directed by Roman Polanski, and indeed he was hired in May 1977 for the job.  You probably have a good idea already of what happened to thathe was arrested for rape in March 1977but, even leaving moral concern aside, it's maybe the stupidest thing I've ever known De Laurentiis to have done, even stupider than thinking that it was a good idea to budget a disaster movie in 1977 at $20 million (which grew to $22 million), as it should have been a very uncertain proposition that Polanski would ever get to direct Hurricane.  He didn't, of course, and De Laurentiis was sent scrambling for a replacementhe claimed he got his "first choice"; he's lyingand, one artsy-fartsy European being as good as another, he snagged Swedish director Jan Troell, which was probably mistake no. 2.  While it's probably best not to go into my process (no one cares, for starters), and I wind up losing the thread of such things all the time (Disney what?), it's barely possible that somebody's noticed that this whole 70s disaster film retrospective has been on the back-burner for several months.  That's partly because I decided it was incumbent upon me to acquaint myself with a celebrated director, and several days ago I barely finished his three-hour 1966 debut feature, Here Is Your Life, having divided it into three very widely-spaced chunks that each felt like they took three hours to get through all on their own.  It's like watching life dry; in honor of Troell's vision of existence being a string of one boring thing after another, I watched/"watched" the final stretch while I was doing my job and reviewing legal documents.  The worst thing about Hurricane is that it's the third Jan Troell movie I've seen.  The silver lining of Hurricane is that I will never have to watch another Jan Troell movie again.

Boning up was, in fact, probably a mistake: though Troell was a last-minute replacement, and though Troell blamed De Laurentiis and his enormous budget for forcing the film onto rails, thereby making it impossible for Troell to find interesting tangents to take his characters onand I would like to ask Troell where he got the idea that he directed movies with "interesting characters"it is nevertheless entirely recognizable as "a Jan Troell film," and recognizing that almost certainly makes me like it less.  If De Laurentiis were someone elseI think he expected to make a profit on Hurricane, not a $16-20 million loss, so the math would obviously favor Polanskiit could be plausible that Troell would be the first choice to make it.  Troell's works were frequently (almost exclusively) period pieces, and concerned with the edges of civilization, repeatedly looking at the rhythms of humans within their environment, often clinging desperately to natural landscspes, often uncomfortable with and set apart from modernity.  This started in Here Is Your Life's view of an awkwardly industrializing Sweden, and continued through the borderline-atavism of Zandy's Bride, though, going by what people say about it, it had already found its ultimate expression in an epic tale of Swedes passing into the American West in the (mercifully-unavailable) seven-and-a-half-hour diptych of The Emigrants and The New Land.  I'll even say that Zandy's Bride, being 97 minutes, comes reasonably close to being right-sized for a movie that has the one single idea.

In any case, Hurricane would seem to be right up Troell's alleyit too is about colonialism, and a "more natural" society that isn't gussied up to look especially nice, or even romanticand Troell pursues it in his idiom, that is, with snippetty editing and a general numbing aimlessness that he would probably prefer you called "impressionism," that badly explicates character relationships and character dynamics (so the script has to do it for him: we learn that Matangi's never-seen father has died, and that he's become the chief of Alava, in the space of two sentences after the fact), and demands more thoughtful performances than Farrow or Ka'ne were likely to give.  Ka'ne has the excuse of being a surfer who was drafted into acting, and, truthfully, he walks away with more dignity than most, thanks to a role that is somewhat content for him to stand there and look hunky; I wouldn't refuse to watch his other movie, Shark Boy of Bora Bora.  (He fights the shark.)  Charlotte, by contrast, should have a lot more going on, but Farrow's merely doing her New York neurotic fairy thing, pointing herself in a single direction that she's still not capable of following (that is, blind, full-throated romantic passion), and I'm beginning to reconsider my assumption that Farrow is a good actor, especially as I'm not sure how I arrived at that assumption in the first place.

Still, Troell's approach actually works for a stretch of the film.  Not the beginning, and certainly not anything after Matangi is imprisoned, but the twenty or thirty minute second act that simply follows Ka'ne and Farrow around while they go on frolicky dates across the primary shooting location of Bora Bora is perfectly pleasant.  Troell expended very little energy to make this a tropical paradise, perhaps constitutionally resistant to the idea, but this Malicky interlude (and I have to imagine Troell was a big influence on Malick, even if Malick exceeded him by a lot) refuses to look anything less than post-card pretty.  It rests the film on the hoped-for appeal of Ka'ne's bronze romance novel handsomeness and Farrow's pink spectral prettiness, and it holds up, as far you're into that.

Nothing else does: the main conflict, of course, is between Charlotte and the Captain.  It barely serves as an organizing principle, and to the extent it's explored, it's almost explicitly incestuous.  That's a choice that could workin one of  the few legitimately effective storytelling choices Troell makes, while Charlotte watches Matangi dance with a Polynesian woman and clenches her hand against her chair in horniness, her dad sees what's happening and squeezes that handbut what could be, like Ford's Hurricane, an epic and larger-than-life contest of archetypal figures becomes, in this small, observational rendering, merely gross.  Ford's Hurricane propped up its governor as tragic in his way (evil, but tragic); I half-wonder if Semple thought this would be more tragic still, a man of power blinded by personal vendetta.  It's the opposite; even when they try to find a poetic end for him in this disaster film, it's only kind of dumb.

For a good long while in the first half, anyway, the conflict (such as it is) turns instead on the jealousies of Moana (yes, really; Ariirau Tekurarere), Matangi's betrothed.  She's introduced mainly so she can passively-aggressively (passively indeed, as I don't imagine Matangi ever finds out about it) fuck some random islander, and the film probably lost me for good when it turns out that the pretext for Matangi's imprisonment in this Hurricane isn't that he defended himself against verbal and physical humiliation, but instead presided over an outlawed virginity test for his fiancee involving a priest sticking his fingers inside her, which she flees in fear of failure, out to the reef and effective suicide.  This is an extremely Troell thingan icky, challenging thing happening, presented without much editorializing, and this is partly why his movies are so Goddamned tediousthough the depressing upshot is that the movie Polanski didn't get to make turned out to be a Polanski biopic anyway.  Womp womp.  It really muddles things, and not in a way that evokes ambiguity or complexity, because Hurricane is neither ambiguous nor complex: the martyr's punishment probably shouldn't resemble accountability, and in a movie that insists on an anti-colonialist reading, the takeaway probably shouldn't be "isn't the colonialist right?"  Whereas if that is the story you want to tell, it shouldn't be a dreamy impressionist snoozefest, but something much harder-edged than this.  Man, Matangi's prison-breaks aren't even exciting.

Well, there's some occasional nice location footage in the snoozefest (far less than you'd rightfully expect; I mainly refer to a smattering of fantastic sunsets, and some shots of Polynesians on boats that would probably have been more interestingly-photographed in a Cinerama documentary), and there's the occasional well-composed landscape courtesy cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose directive of naturalism makes most everything look muddy and dull, not to even speak of the awful day-for-night shooting.  Sometimes you can see the great production and costume designer Danilo Donati straining at the bit, screaming "let me do something!"; on the rare occasions he's allowed to, his personality is tamped down hard, and even so the ceremonial costumes and the like come off suspiciously overcooked.

That leaves our protagonist, the hurricane, which is more like an obligation in this Hurricane, and rather less like the judgment of an Old Testament God.  That $22 million has never been visible, and even less so now:  it's a half hour of blue sludge, which is both a description of its modal image and a description of how those images feel in the aggregate, with none of the careful shepherding of visuals and plot that Ford (or, rather, his sequence director James Basevi) applied in the original.  The old one is clearly-presented chaos, but it is clearly-presented; it's barely evident what's happening from one shot to the next in this Hurricane, and whenever it is, it's only because you can reasonably guess that it must be copying the original Hurricane.  (It can be shockingly incompetent at copying the original Hurricane, incidentally: when it lifts Terangi's hopeless, heartbreaking swim after his white friend's boat with Matangi, Troell forgot to establish that Matangi's white friend was on the boat.)  When it does come up with its own ideas, like throwing Capt. Bruckner's ship through the churchI would bet a hundred dollars this was DDL's ideathe effects don't really come off and it's more like a joke.  (And, you know, I was going to call it an accident, but the final shots might actually intend to imply that Matangi and Charlotte starve to death on the sandbar that used to be Alava.)  I've been hard on Troell here, and I eagerly admit that while his acclaimed classics are definitely not for me, they might be for somebody else; but once we arrive upon his Hurricane's hurricane, I think it is beyond disagreement that the art filmmaker had no earthly idea what he was doing making a disaster flick.

Score: 4/10

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