Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Winter is coming—oh shit, wait... it's here


Practically two movie reviews in one!  Great.  (Luckily, each movie is almost great.)

1985 (them)/1986 (us)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by William Hjortsberg
With Tom Cruise (Jack), Mia Sara (Lili), David Bennent and the voice of Alice Playten (Honeythorn Gump), Annabelle Lanyon (Oona), Bill Barty (Screwball), Cork Hubbert (Brown Tom), Kiran Shah (Blunder), Peter O'Farrell (Pox), Alice Playten again (Blix), Robert Picardo (Meg Mucklebones), and Tim Curry (Darkness)

Spoiler alert: mild

Ridiculous, vital, and terrifically camp, Ridley Scott's Legend could only have arisen from the fever swamps of the 1980s, and probably only from the particular fever swamp who directed it.  But wait: don't we need to ask which one is "Ridley Scott's Legend"?  Or should we be asking, instead, does it matter?

As far as the plot goes, anyway, it scarcely matters at all, for the plot's the same no matter which version we decide is the "real" Legend.  And the tale William Hjortsberg wrote goes like this: in a white neverwhen of such primordial substance that it doesn't even warrant a name, there live a teenaged noblewoman, Lili, and a child of the forest, Jack.  Lately, Lili's been sneaking off into the sylvan woods to see this young man who speaks to animals; and, in love, Jack seeks to impress the well-bred young lady by showing her the most magnificent sight his forest can offer, a pair of unicorns, the last of their kind on Earth.  But Lili arrogantly dares to approach the beasts, and even touch one.  This would be a vile desecration under the best of circumstances, but it's an even worse move now, for in the brush, a clutch of goblins is waiting for their chance to trap and kill the unicorns.  Lili has given it to them.

They half-succeed in their task, tearing the stallion's horn from his head; in response the sun itself dims, and an unnatural winter befalls the land.  Yet the goblins' satanic master, the very incarnation of Darkness, shall not be satisfied until the mare is dead, too, and all the light in the world dies with her.  In the chaos, Jack and Lili are separated.  Each take it upon themselves to right their wrongs.  Thus does Jack quest to retrieve the severed horn, in combination with a band of magical companions, Gump the Elf, Oona the Fairy, and their two dwarven (or something) comrades, Brown Tom and Screwball; for her part, Lili finds herself captured by Darkness' minions along with the mare, whereupon the black prince, intoxicated by her sheer purity, decides that he has at last found the perfect companion for his eternal wedding night.

Sure.  That's all kinds of appropriate.

You can say that Legend is the point Scott started to make a real habit of releasing his movies to the public all butchered and fucked-up, with that old bogey, "studio meddling," taking the brunt of the blame on Scott's behalf—although today we know that in many of these cases Scott was doing an awful lot of the butchering and fucking himself.  It was the director's first project after Blade Runner; and Blade Runner, of course, is infamous for its cornucopia of varying cuts, though by common consent the only ones anyone cares about today are the two more-or-less identical ones that bear Scott's unambiguous seal of approval.

Legend went through something akin to the same process.  Yet Scott's new experiment in choosing his own adventure wound up having rather different results.  No fewer than five extant cuts of Legend were released in some form or another, two of them theatrically: a 94-minute cut, prepared for European markets, and an 89-minute cut, made for American audiences.  We need not concern ourselves with the European Cut, any more than we need to care about the semi-mythical 150-minute first cut Scott whipped up, for use by the studio and his stakeholders.  However, the most salient difference between all these previous versions and the eventual American Cut (and, as I understand it, the pair of ephemeral TV cuts to follow) is preserved by the presumably final iteration of the film, a 113-minute version, released on DVD in 2002 as Scott's self-described "Director's Cut."  But we must take notice of the curious fact that Scott demonstrated nowhere near the same level of enthusiasm for this particular "Director's Cut" as he did for Blade Runner's or Kingdom of Heaven's. This Director's Cut's an "archival curiosity," that kinda-sorta maybe better reflects his "original vision."

It's probably not spoiling things to say I'm not all that sanguine about it either, but, regrettably, there's a little bit more history here.  After suffering through a negative preview screening, during which—get this—audience members had the temerity to laugh at the movie Scott  had made (about the sacred unicorns, a demon with four foot horns, and a metric ton of glitter), our splendid visionary took the thing right back to the editing room, where he took out his insecurities with what certainly seems like patent anger.  It's doubtless noticeable in that long-forgotten European Cut; it's feverishly aggressive in the American one.  In the meantime, however, there really was a meddlesome moneyman, Universal head Sid Sheinberg, and what Sheinberg whispered in Scott's ear was that the youth weren't likely to connect with the traditional score Jerry Goldsmith had composed for this fantastic adventure.  Rather, what the kids really wanted was a score from a pioneering electronic band from 1960.  Thus the Legend that at last made its appearance in U.S. theaters (eight months after its first release!), came part and parcel with what might well be the best film score ever composed by a little synth combo you may have heard of, called Tangerine Dream.

So that's the big distinction between the two versions at issue: Goldsmith on the one hand, and Dream on the other.  It seems like it ought to be the film score version of the Trolley Problem—and, in fairness, there are Director's Cut fans who swear by Goldsmith's effort, as well they might, given that Goldsmith is a recognized titan.  And it's not as if Goldsmith's score is bad.  Why, it's not even correct to call it merely "plain" (though it is, let's be honest, a little plain).  But even in the moments where the Goldsmith score clearly ought to be superior, it turns out Dream was making much, much better choices: where Goldsmith overreaches with operatic cues, the Dream score does a nice, underplayed electro riff on medieval Celtic dance music, that actually builds to something sinister; where Goldsmith fatally underwhelms with his orchestra, Dream lifts the film to heaven with their simple, transcendent central motif.

So when the music counts the most—Jack's mystical submission to the mourning mare, affronted but nevertheless possessed of the kindness of a world—Scott might be directing the hell out of this horse with a horn glued to her head, but it's only the yearning sincerity of the Tangerine Dream score, and perhaps even the strangeness of its very incongruity, that makes this encounter feel legitimately epic and moving, rather than (perhaps) a tad silly.

Meanwhile, if you guessed that the humpback whale noises that stand in for the unicorns' divine language had to be the work of Sheinberg's hired hippies, well, you'd actually be wrong.  So go ask Ridley, because I'm sure I don't know.

And if the statement, "bro, these unicorns speak whalesong," doesn't peg Legend to a time and place and seal it under glass, I guess nothing would; though there's a great deal here that's eager to take up the challenge, from the film's clear line of descent from the decade's deluge of fantasy films to the stunning practical effects work by Rob Bottin, whose Darkness prosthetics must be the maestro's greatest achievement outside of avowed horror.  (For The Thing is still a force we have to contend with.  Yet like most 80s kids, I wasn't allowed to watch The Thing at an age where it would give me sleepless nights, whereas the only childhood memories of Legend I have are my Darkness-inspired bad dreams.)

Even so, it's the silliness that stays with you, though it's a silliness that winds up leavened quite a bit by the film's insistence upon itself as a timeless, well, legend.  Hjortsberg's intention, which would be obvious even if you didn't hear him say it, was to make a fairy tale that you could mistake for a genuine antique.  And it's a magnificent collection of tropes, anyway, even if the focus on unicorns somewhat gives the game away, as more of a Ridley Scott movie from the mid-80s than a Grimm Bros. folktale originating in the 1600s.  It's kind of got everything, though, from the medieval to the modern, and if Scott needed to cut anything out, the existence of human beings besides Lili and Jack might've been the best place to start, since the thing's so close to Biblical in its edenic splendor—sure, one supposes Lili has parents, though we never even hear about them, except through implication—it certainly wouldn't have been hard to get there.  Obviously, it's got all the sexual subtext any proper fairy tale needs to get by; Legend, after all, is at least as much about Lili making a series of increasingly bad choices, that she has an increasingly hard time undoing, as it is about Jack jumping out of the way of swords.

And the desire to be a fairy tale is, perhaps, where the American Cut shines even brighter.  Yes, it is less a statement of opinion than a straight-up objective fact that the Director's Cut tells this story "better."  The American Cut slices whole scenes in half, without regard for whether what was lost was actually useful; the Director's Cut replaces the parts that make Jack a resourceful hero from the start, rather than the leaping ninny with a flash of inspiration we get in the American Cut.  These scenes are sorely missed: a cleverly solved riddle here, a piece of fantastic world-building there, and, suddenly, Jack's a proper hero in a proper movie.  The Director's Cut even winds up ironing out (some of) the lumps in what previously seemed like a pair of merely adequate performances from Tom Cruise (in that brief period where Cruise still had human teeth) and Mia Sara (in that even briefer period, where Sara was kind of a movie star, with Legend being her first big role).  And, certainly, the Director's Cut's decision to introduce Darkness by voice, and saving the full glory of Bottin's work for the big reveal an hour in, is a credible one.

It is absolutely the case that in both versions, Cruise and Sara alike get pushed hard to the margins by their co-stars—and that's even if you don't count Tim Curry, who offers up one more career-definingly sumptuous performance of literal pure evil, despite being encased inside what amounts to a clumsy exoskeleton, on the fair basis that, after all, Curry's presence overwhelming all else was inevitable.

But besides Darkness, there's still Annabelle Lanyon's jealous, tricky fairy—for this movie doesn't mind adding Peter Pan to its list of influences, though to her credit, Lanyon places her squarely in the much older tradition of horny demidivine females who test the callowness of male heroes with their magical wiles.  And then there's David Bennent's giddily antagonistic hybrid performance, as Jack's elfin Obi-Wan, "Honeythorn Gump"—for this movie also has no sense, whatsoever, of shame, and that's maybe the most breathtaking thing about it.  Alice Playten dubbed Gump's voice, and it's downright impossible to decide which specific actor's contribution is more important, but  we can say that Playten's electronically-filtered croak and Bennent's bulging eyes and poisonous sneers are just endlessly amusing in their combination. Playten took on a physical role, as well, as Blix, leader of the goblins, and she's good at that, too, strutting and rhyming across the screen with all the mincing false bravado you'd expect from a feckless goblin.  (And, given that Legend's performances are always more interesting the less grounded and human they are, perhaps it's worth noting that Sara is much more interesting herself, once she fails in her struggle against her dark shadow, and the makeup folks and perverted costume designer really get their hooks into her.)  But then, that does leave out Blix's comrades—and Gump's own little person companions—and, naturally, they are the inexorably zany comic relief.  But they are mostly inoffensive, and  sometimes even actually funny, and that counts as a real success for any 80s fantasy flick.

Before going further, though, it's necessary to talk about the other big thing both versions have in common, and that's the uncanny, every-frame-is-over-the-top look of it.  I said above, Legend is "about glitter."  And that's not, actually, a joke.

It's also about an offscreen bubble machine.

It's simply such an astoundingly weird movie, fairly defined by a series of truly monumental sets—Darkness' castle is more-or-less a literal hell (and, amusingly, every last thing in it is built to scale with its gigantic master), and it stands in the starkest possible contrast to the idyll of Jack's forest.  But that's not the strange part.  The strange part is that Scott must have asked production designer Assheton Gorton to make a forest that looked tremendously physical and real, and Gorton diligently did so, going so far as to populate the forest he'd built out of the enormous cavern of Pinewood's fabled 007 soundstage with flocks of birds, and to set up mirrors on the walls to make it look even bigger than it already was.  And then Scott punches it up in every way the Scott of 1985 knew how, betraying Gorton's bid for realism in practically every single shot: there's enough flying, shimmering debris flushed into the man-made maelstrom of Scott's wind machines to classify the Legend set as a Goddamn respiratory hazard, and in any given two minute period, you'll notice that DP Alex Thompson's artfully-overwrought lighting set-ups appear to indicate there are somewhere between two and one half-dozen different suns in the sky, so I don't know why it was such a big deal to lose just one.  (Thompson had a niche, I guess: he was a vet of Excalibur, and would go on to Labyrinth the very next year.)  Add in the obviously false backdrops, and you can almost imagine Scott saying, "Sure, I liked Kwaidan.  Everybody liked Kwaidan!  But wouldn't it be better if it had cost 12 million pounds?"

And who knows what else Scott might've accomplished, if he hadn't burned Europe's biggest soundstage to the ground with ten days of shooting left.

This was Ridley Scott in 1985, though, the Scott we've only occasionally got to see since Legend's commercial failure chastened his ambitions.  Legend ties off a trilogy, of sorts, with Alien and Blade Runner, albeit an aesthetic trilogy, rather than a thematic one: three movies that look, sound, and feel like dreams, or nightmares, and in which waking logic is (at best) a secondary concern.  A fantasy film was the obvious choice for Scott at this point.  It gave him the option to lose the Kubrick-inspired discipline that had kept him at least slightly in check on his sci-fi opuses.  Indeed, it let him lose himself, in an elemental world that probably wouldn't even benefit from the imposition of strict logic.  That's where the American Cut seems, in crucial ways, more like Scott's vision—or more like a vision, anyway—than the Director's Cut ever does.  The American Cut, with its apopleptic, "now see this!" urgency, carried aloft on those Dreamy synths, bludgeons you with its broadside of fantasy cliches, one after the other, and each framed like the most pretentious of art films—or a pompous TV ad spot.  This Legend is the fugue inside a child's head after it's spent an afternoon looking at all the pictures, and some of the words, in a great illustrated collection of fables.

Sadly, neither of our Legends themselves can be considered unambiguously great, despite all the greatness within them: Scott goes too far each way.  His American Cut is superior, but its incoherence is sometimes a sin, too; his Director's Cut is overlong and too coherent, and of course its musical accompaniment lacks the American Cut's ethereal, transportive quality.  Legend is a frustrating fascination, then, a film school case study that cost me ten bucks at Wal-Mart.  It's a composite near-masterpiece that you can't give anywhere close to the marks you believe the perfect cut of it could have earned.

For even these imperfect Legends that do exist hold within them some of the most compelling bits of cinema Scott ever did—a reeling montage of a precipitous winter, a unicorn's forgiveness, Lili's dance into darkness.  (The latter truly is a self-contained piece of brilliance.  And, because Legend has no intention of making it easy, the music is perfect in the American Cut, and the editing is perfect in the Director's Cut, concluding with a jump cut of such infinite elegance that it feels like an apology for the one Scott used in Alien.  In the American Cut, of course, the sequence climaxes with a cheesy green optical flash.)

Truthfully, there is no "real" Legend.  And that only matters in the first place, of course, if you even like the thing; and Legend is not exactly universally beloved, even now.  But love it, or hate it, I can't imagine anyone not responding to it.

Score, Director's Cut: 7/10
Score, American Cut:  8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment