Saturday, July 28, 2007

The She-Wolf gets her Man: Frank Sinatra & Betty Garrett


Most romances in musicals follow one of two patterns: either the boy chases the girl and gets her, or the girl chases the guy and scares him away (poor Martha Raye!). But in two special musicals, On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, this mold was broken. Betty Garrett and Frank Sinatra shucked convention let the brassy, tell it like it is, slightly older, aggressive "woman" (as opposed to girl) finally get her man... and in this case the man was Frank. Double score!

Betty Garrett was a fine singer and dancer who went on to appear regularly on TV in shows like All in the Family (Edith's sister?). As for Frank Sinatra, one might initially think he'd squawk at being the pursued, but the choice was a canny one if you know the history behind it: During wartime, Sinatra was a radio constant and the women waiting at home for their solider boys swooned over his dreamy vocals, to the potential fury of the guys overseas, listening to the same broadcasts on army radio. Whether it was ace spin doctoring or just a running gag, the potential for jealousy was diffused by playing up Frank's skinniness and lost little lamb demeanor; gals could then adore him because he brought out their "mothering instinct" more than sexual desire. "Mothering instinct" is a phrase Garrett uses in each of these films.

On comedy shows like Fred Allen or Jack Benny, Frank was always being carried off by sudden winds or mistaken for a broom and locked in the janitor's closet, again emphasizing his 4F status, his inoffensive charm guaranteed to keep the girls warmed but chaste til the boys got home. There was a certain amount of this "mothering instinct" business still lingering in his roles for MGM even after the war (it would continue until he remolded himself as a serious actor in From Here to Eternity) in 1953.

In each film, Betty Garrett swoons at first sight over that "skinny little runt" and chases him around, belting out grand tunes and braying her intentions none too subtly as Frank runs and hides or sings meek responses of the "slow down and go away" effect. But in each film there is a magnificent turning point where Frank transubstantiates himself from copper to gold, where her changes from a 4F "mama's boy" to an early version of the rat pack razzle-dazzler who'd soon be ruling the roost at the Vegas Sands. Garrett responds to this change with a swoon, going from pursuer to deliriously submissive as Sinatra steps into the dominant role (with her support and approval).

In Take Me Out to the Ballgame this change comes after the big "Strictly USA" number. Frank's just tried to kiss Esther Williams, whom he adores because he saw her field a mean grounder to first. She kisses him back for a second, but it's apparently a flop. "No kick in it, hah?" Frank says. Hey, Frank's cool; he understands if there's no kick there's no kick. So then he transubstantiates his defeat as Frank the emaciated crooner into Frank the Vegas ratpacker, and says "C'mere, you" to Garrett--who's been chasing him like Robert De Niro in The Fan all this time--and gives her a big wet one. "Any kick in it?" he asks. You bet there's a kick in it. She loves it. (Read those last two sentences like Robert Evans for maximum effect - "you bet there's a kick in it").

In On the Town, Frank the sailor has fallen in much the same way with Garrett's extroverted NYC taxi driver. All the time he's resisting her and being coy, the innocent sailor abroad whose not used to brassy New York lassies. But then he lets Garret takes him up to her apartment for a nap (!) but her sneezy roomate is there. After some hilarity has subsided and the roommate's been sent to the movies, and you've been led to believe all this time that Frank's just kibbitzing, he suddenly drops the mama's boy veil and behold! Vegas Frank! He grabs Betty, who swoons into his arms.

In each case we have a romance begun by the woman, who is considered--relatively speaking--the less attractive of the pair. Sinatra was still a heartthrob after all and Garrett is deliberately playing up the "strong" aspects of her persona. So Frank's alchemical crossover is a result not just of a wiseguy getting hip to the situation and grabbing the gold--or in this case settling for the bronze-- but of Frank the actor/artist wriggling free from conventions of character, both as the scrawny crooner who draws out the mothering instinct and as the second fiddle to Gene Kelly.

In a way, Sinatra and Garrett's romances in these films forge a link to the comedies of Shakespeare, where not just the hero and the princess get married, but also his valet and her handmaiden, who represent a rough reversal of the traits of the lead two, the hierarchy does not devalue any of its members, but rather all members are considered to be at the level of the king so long as they are in accord with the king (and thus are reflections of his kingdom). I would go so far as in this case to say that Frank even surpasses the king, for while old Gene Kelly hoofs it up nicely he still comes off as a bit of an immature black Irish braggart by each film's end, while Frank has gone on to become a full adult, valuing Garrett for her strengths and not trying to relegate her to any pre-determined niche. Similarly in keeping his frailty and innocence he becomes more masculine, ala a hero in a Howard Hawks film.

So on this incredible first of August, I salute thee, Garrett and Sinatra!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Lindsay Lohan, the Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon of Our Age


So poor Lindsay is arrested again after just getting back in rehab and now everyone's circled the wagons and has their tongues all out to be clucked. Well excuse me if I stand tall in her defense, brandishing a flaming piece of lumber from your witchy bonfire as I clear the area for some Richard Burton-style oration.

My resistance is probably partially due to being a fucked up alcoholic myself, partially it's my genuine distaste for mob mentality, but mainly I just think there's a Norman Bates-ish thing about it: persecute the young and beautiful and fucked up for the crime of stirring our hackles. Does Dreyer or Bergman or Russell make films about unattractive older women being burned alive as witches? No. Lindsay Lohan, you were made to be sacrificed on their altar of petty scandal.

And that brings me to one of my all-time favorite movies, which I just had the chance to revisit during a long summer cold, THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964).

The story concerns the lusty, boozy reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (Burton), whose taken a job as a tour guide in Mexico for a bunch of pinched old Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers. Among the group is no less an icon of jail-bait than Sue Lyon, Kubrick's LOLITA from two years earlier. The leader of the sunday school teachers is a closeted dyke named Miss Fellows (Grayson Hall) who pours all her tangled up rage out at Burton for daring to act on feelings she's too repressed to even admit exist in herself. When Miss Fellows catches Sue Lyon up in Burton's room, his goose is cooked as she can't wait to get on the first available phone to her brother, a judge. In a last ditch attempt to save his job, the poor rev strands their tour bus at the foot of a hill leading up to the hotel run by a dressed-down Ava Gardener. Soon the poor rev is running from one co-dependent seductress to another, all the while spouting great gobs of philosophic brilliance.

Watching the film now, in the age of Lindsay-on-the-cross, it's pretty clear that those damn Sunday schoolteachers have won; they've spread their mundanity across the earth and man has been, in Burton's words in the film, "stamped, stacked... and canned." The sort of devils Burton wrestles with here have long since closed-up shop, been made to holler uncle by the sheer tedium of our allegedly less repressive society.

Well I thank the dark gods that daring, alcoholic visionaries like John Huston, Richard Burton and Tennesee Williams were able to leave such lovely relics of a bygone age behind. For NIGHT OF THE IGUANA is a film that pisses on the luggage of our mundane contemporary social mores. I can just imagine a wild-eyed Lindsay Lohan running up to Ava Gardner's hotel on the hill and hiding out in one of the bungalows, while the foaming-at-the mouthed Miss Fellows of the world come climbing up after, seething with their righteous contempt, brandishing cameras, tabloids, torches, and pitchforks.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th Killed my Childhood (+ Postscript: No it didn't!)



I was a kid in 1980 when the first Friday the 13th came out in theaters, and it was a tragic fuckin' time in cinematic history to be 13 years old and already a squeamish feminist. I grew up a horror fan, but more of the classic monsters variety, and frankly the whole murders for the sake of murdering thing scared me in a sort of pretentious "I fear for our common humanity" sort of way. I was a 70s guy. I dug the ladies, and here the ladies were getting chopped up, and the whole groovy yellow submarine was sinking.

If you too were a kid in the 1970’s then you likely remember how pervasiv classic horror and science fiction was. Old movies were always on local UHF TV, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND was sold on every newsstand. CARRIE, THE OMEN and SUSPIRIA may have been the hot topics on the playground; when being R-rated meant something truly terrifying and forbidden. UHF classic horror was a constant, like the radio, comforting. DRACULA immunized us to real fear, such as we got from hearing about the R-rated films. As kids we saw the adults do all sorts of fun weird stuff--drugs, swinging-- and none of it was considered "evil." Scary, yes... but in an exhilarating, life-affirming way. Even those R rated films were ultimately outside our realm of true understanding, and therefore life-affirming. The first of the modern slashers, HALLOWEEN, was still that way, but it's open ending left a never-healing wound. After it infected horror stopped being sexy and started being ugly. The slasher wave crushed the sex wave underfoot, and sex’s mangled corpse washed up in the surf. Standing demurely atop that corpse, like Venus on the half-shell, was hockey-masked conservative, Jason Voorhees.

With Jason Voorhees and the slasher cycle we were forced to see that true terror lay not in the supernatural of our UHF TV creature features but in its opposite... in the bland tedium of a world without "magical thinking." Not having access to free love (due to AIDS panic) made people spiteful. What was Jason but an early and earthy version of Ken Starr? The 1970s free love folk thought they had permanently killed off the knee-jerk repression of the 1950s, but here it was, back from the grave and staggering around with a hacksaw. When John Lennon was shot the same year FRIDAY came out it was the last shot, free love froze in its tracks and slunk home, suddenly realizing they had left the kids in the microwave without a babysitter. The neo-counterculture was born. People had failed the test (everyone else, not us). "No" become the new yes. No to drugs, no to sex, no to drunk driving, yes only to survival in the most mundane sense.

To this day I have seen only a few slasher films, though I love almost all other horror sub-genres. I’m disturbed and a little depressed by the slasher cycle, to be honest, especially as I've been educated to see them all as misogynistic, foolishly thinking this would get me girls. Though as I write this I begin to see that my distrust of slasher films really a lot less to do with my hatred of misogyny and frat boys and more to do with the creepiness of the moment in time when they were all the rage in theaters and I was a depressed virgin. If I'd have gone with a date, or a pack of friends, maybe I could have figured it out, but just the way they talked about the murders of these girls made me want to never be friends with anyone at my school.

America was only beginning to homogenize itself at the time; the whimsical eccentricities of “Main Street” were just beginning to lose out to the pre-fab sterility of “The Mall” and I (like all good Americans) embraced the ensuing ennui and depression. The economy soon grew dependent on our newfound addictions, we drove long distances to get stuff cheaper at giant outlets rather than bike to the mom and pop grocer. But if there were no sidewalks anymore, if parents have to be hanging around we may as well get them to buy us comic books and Atari and then lock ourselves in our rooms and slowly gain weight and suicidal ideations.

Nowadays it's all but unthinkable, but In the 1970s kids of any age ran loose all over the neighborhood. If you were old enough to walk you were not only allowed to go off on your own and explore as far as you could walk, you were often forced to do so, not allowed back in the house til dinnertime. In the 1980s that freedom was removed thanks to hysteria over pedophiles and sundry other neighborhood menaces played up by news headlines and TV's America's Most Wanted. For some of us, it was the answer to our prayers, even though our prayers led us to become couch potato hysterics.

Along with the slashers, AIDS and the shooting of Lennon came the national furor over sexual molestations at day care centers, outrage over drunk drivers and just say no to drugs. Parents stopped going out. We barred the doors and windows. For us kids old enough to remember how cool things were just a few years earlier, the sense of despair was sudden and unrelenting; it arrived with all the force of a second national puberty. It felt right to be doing this, curtailing our liberty... it felt safer.  Jason Voorhees sprang form our forehead fully formed, not as a golem-like avenger of the unjustly persecuted but as a manifestation of the egoic infantile rage we'd been suppressing in favor of groovy vibes and love and tolerance. Suddenly there he was, like Walter Pidgeon’s Monster of the Id in FORBIDDEN PLANET or the kids in THE BROOD. Uncanny...

Of course this rotten state of affairs didn't last. The story has a happy ending. The internet! Mac notebook computers! DVDs! It's a cool world. The slasher film now provides retro delights for fun, brilliant writers like Stacie Ponder at Final Girl. I became a rock star in 1987, sobered up in 1998 and now live happily ever after until 2012. Time heals all wounds! What goes around comes around, so can a second summer of love be lurking right around the corner? I believe it can. And if Richard Beymer was here, I'd ask him to sing "Who Knows?"

So what’s the future of horror? What new bloody thing can Jason do? I’d like to leave you with the idea of death coming full circle and horror movies going through the carwash of the abyss and coming out about the dawn of life instead of onset of death. Imagine FRIDAY THE 13TH PART XX: JASON THE MIDWIFE! Picture Jason delivering babies! Gore in reverse! A slew of baby-delivery horror films -- FX shots of placenta becoming a standard "money shot" for every horror film, along with c-sections, torn vaginal walls, umbilical cords covered in alien slime… Jason grabs his mighty garden shears and severs newborn popular kid from his cozy womb of nonexistence. Another kid born screaming into this world of garden tools and tooth decay.

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POSTSCRIPT: 10/'14 -- I've changed my rabid anti-FRIDAY stance recently, when a random viewing on IFC made me realize how wrong I was -- that the first one at any rate is innovative with great use of darkness and rain merging together to create a sense of isolation like the woods are swallowing people up, and the incessant water on canvas sound is muffling any strange noises, etc. The camera work borrows all the right things from Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, and like that film, it takes its time building things up with tick-tock momentum!

More than the film it was the attitude of the other kids my age at the time, who all cheered the violent deaths of sluts like they were a bunch of puritan Neros.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

CABIN IN THE SKY: Ethel Waters, Co-Dependency and The Lord

An interesting subtextual window into the popular conception of African American temperament can be found in CABIN IN THE SKY (1943), released on DVD last February. What's set up in the allegorical story is the polarity of opposites between temptation (represented by craps, booze, sex and other "black" vices) and goodness (the church!). It's implied that the African American subject needs more control/discipline than a white one due to a surplus of energy/life force (or what the Lacanians would call “jouissance”) so they have to work twice as hard to be good, or else be twice as bad as whites on account of they're being lazy, shiftless, et al. But if they get the discipline together, then they're formidable, respected and devout enough to make a white preacher seem horny and brimstoned in comparison.

Popular African American success stories since the dawn of American pop culture usually involve some strong parent or grandparent (think of Jamie Foxx’s Oscar speech about how his grandma used to beat him to get him to listen and otherwise he'd be just a street kid, etc). Multi-generational and community strength is needed (beyond relative self-contained independence of whites). Placing this in the context of CABIN, we find Petunia (Ethel Waters) regularly dragging her no good shrimp of a man, Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) off to church, much to the consternation of his gambling cronies. Joe "wants" to do good, but he owes money from throwing dice with a no-account hustler named Domino (“Bubbles” John W. Sublett). When the game goes bad, a gun goes off and Joe is reckoned a goner, until the powerful prayer of his good woman saves him.

There’s a run-in between the factions of good and evil at the crime scene as devils and angels argue over Joe’s soul. They agree to play it as it lays, giving Joe a second chance and each using their abilities to lure him one way or the other. The representatives of good are dressed in solemn military garb with stout, straight backs and strong voices; the devil's minions are playful jazzbos (including Louis Armstrong). The devil's son-in-law (a marvelous Rex Ingram) sets about trying to lure Joe back to the fold via a winning lottery ticket and Lena Horne's gold-digging vamp. Through it all, it's assumed the Joe needs to repent, if for no other reason than Ethel loves him so gosh-dang much.

This "love" is what tips off the whole thing, for a close "acidemic" look reveals it as nothing more than smothering, all-consuming, co-dependence. Joe is never even asked how he feels about Petunia: all concerned know that she’s a good woman and therefore Joe is one lucky fellow! Case closed! But it's clear she's more enamored with her own powers of endearment rather than she is with said endearment's undeserving object, Joe. In the end of the film, Joe wakes up from his death bed and wants to tell Petunia his dream, but she won’t let him: “That’s not important, let's just talk about how much I love you!" Too bad these two didn't have access to a couple's therapist, or Joe might have learned it was okay that he felt stifled. She's the bad guy here.

Through it all, Joe, the man, works almost as a Hitchcockian mcguffin-- a plain white flag in the capture-the-flag game between forces of good and evil. He exists mainly to be adored by Petunia and to reflect within himself the weakness for vice which is by association subtextually inherent in the African-American character. In the picture above you can sense his passive ambivalence about her: she grins like she's about to devour him whole; he looks up more than a bit afraid, like a mouse gazing up at the smile of a Cheshire cat.

Vincente Minnelli is a brilliant enough director that one is obligated to do this subtextual digging, particularly when his AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) features such a similarly dysfunctional romance at its heart, between a self-satisfied but financially bereft painter who treats his kind French sugar mama like shit (he wants to be self-sufficient while doing no work other than painting, which he then refuses to sell, never considering the effect his hypocrisy has on others, like his landlord) and when he finds himself attracted to Leslie Caron, he cares not a wit that he's forcibly breaking up her own sugar-daddy connection, forcing her into the same self-inflicted poverty he relishes, regardless of her feelings and the feelings of all those who he owes and abuses. And yet we are somehow expected to root for him, because he himself is so in love with his own big white smile. A similarly uncomfortable implication of narcissism occurs in CABIN: Petunia loves Joe the way Gene “loves” Leslie in PARIS, which is to say, as a possession, as a symbol of her own narcissism and self-righteous "integrity," an integrity that blinds the owner to the collateral damage it creates.

Seeing CABIN with a modern therapeutic eye it’s plain the only woman in the film who truly understands Joe is the devil’s temptress, Sweet Georgia Brown, played elegantly by Lena Horne. Unlike Ethel’s Petunia, Georgia at least seems to accept Joe as he really is, to "see" him clearly, rather than as a reflection of her own ideal ego. As Petunia's undeserving love object, Joe may as well be a Pomeranian, but with Georgia he's a man. When Horne and Anderson share a scene there is a sense they are connecting on a personal level as actors, something that never happens with Anderson and Waters (who preaches to everyone as if she's helping them out of a deep pit).

Joe as a man is ultimately  so ineffectual, however, that he lets himself get pushed around in his own nightclub (which he buys with his lottery winnings). You would think he could hire a bouncer to take care of the no-account Domino, who crashes the gate to sing "Shine" and do a nifty tap dance. A white club owner in a Warner Bros. gangster film would just snap his fingers and his big thug bodyguards would at least toss Domino out on his ear if not beat him to a pulp in the alley, but Joe is so ineffectual he can only watch as Domino steals his thunder and even pushes him around.

Petunia continues to manifest the hypocrisy of the church when her attempt to get Joe back starts a raucous bar fight at film's climax. Refusing to accept any blame or let people work out their own issues, Petunia prays down a tornado, beseeching God to destroy the whole town. Mind, this is all a dream, but it seems rather cavalier of Petunia, a supposed good woman, to order God to destroy a town just because she's getting bored with all the violent attention that she herself created by disguising herself as a no-good vamp.

Of course one can argue here, as with AMERICAN IN PARIS, that the music and dancing are the thing. That’s fine, but what’s with all the gleaming white teeth? Minnelli has managed to sidestep a few racial slurs with CABIN only to fall smack into others, such as those of the infamous grinning minstrel. Every single character in this all-black film seems to keep their mouth peeled back so their big pearly whites can create that nice juxtaposition of white against their black faces. It’s creepy to see characters holding these big toothy smiles through whole scenes while another character talks. I kept looking into their eyes for signs of passive aggression as if they were overdoing it on purpose as a form of protest, but all I saw was weary strain, a determination to do it right lest Vincente demand yet another jaw-aching take.

Still, any racist aspects of the film pales beside its sly indictment of co-dependent romantic obsession and fundamentalist Christian dogma, assuming that's what was intended in the first place. Let's hope one day there will be a movie about African Americans who can gamble, drink and carouse and still make it to work on time, raise decent children and love each other for who they are. Amen!

Friday, July 06, 2007

The performance that changed your life Blogathon: Jon Voight in RUNAWAY TRAIN


For my money no actor better embodies the ideal mix of sensitivity and toughness than Jon Voight. In films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, COMING HOME, THE CHAMP, and DELIVERANCE he exudes a courage that is not the result of being thick-skinned and oblivious, but from love. You look at his little baby face and you can see a wealth of emotion that breaks the heart even as it wakes it to action. What about the way he suddenly becomes a scared, cornered little boy at the end of COWBOY, holding Ratzo’s body and looking around with this tough guy face, like a five year old trying to scare the bullies by looking extra mean? HEARTBREAKING!

Yet for my money, none of these can really match the reality-warping turn as Manny in the 1985 Golan-Globus hit, RUNAWAY TRAIN.

Like a cross between Hannibal Lechter and Rocky Balboa, Voight's Manny is a champ to the underdog in the gloomy Alaskan prison where he’s been kept chained up in solitary confinement for two years, due to his constant attempts to escape. As the film opens, we find the whole prison population riled and excited at the news that Manny will soon be returned from solitary to plan to escape amongst them once again. The tough warden knows he’ll have a riot on his hands if Manny's allowed to escape, even briefly, so he plans to have him shivved during the evening’s boxing match.

The film earned Voight an Oscar nomination, and became a favorite of many an artist like myself who endeavors to crack the code of "maleness" and what it means to find courage as a man, both in and out of the social order. According to IMDB, Marlon Brando was a fan of RUNAWAY TRAIN and mentions his admiration for and identification with Manny in his autobiography.

The grimy warmth of the prison (surrounded by inhospitable Alaskan snow white mountains) conjures the same sort of masculine womb of smelly camaraderie as one finds in Wolfgang Petersen's DAS BOOT (1981), creating a palpable existentialist atmosphere. Voight is its natural leader, and a terror to conventional authority, representing an uncompromising lust for life that transcends everything from sex to pleasure to any form of comfort. No prison can hold him, no threat can deter him, no amount of punishment can break him. After he kills the assassin at the boxing match he looks up at the warden and his goons on the balcony and throws a chair up at them: “Come on! Come on! I got nothin’ left to live for!” Manny shouts upwards as if attacking God, begging the warden and his men to fight him, or shoot him, anything but the endless drudgery of his current situation.

Voight’s so alive with animal ferocity in this scene that it leaks out onto the viewer, certainly it leaked out onto me. At the time I first saw this (a rental I watched in my sterile NJ suburban parent’s house shortly before slinking off to college) I too felt this seizure of hope and inspiration. This was what it meant to be a man! I needed the lesson, for I was about to be cut loose on my own for the first time. Voight's performance is a boilerplate lesson in alchemical transmutation of adolescent alienation and self-centered fear into life-affirming rage and courage. Watching Manny rant and rave, I know I was learning how one could conquer their fear of death, bullies, and job interviews.

Of course Manny does escape, with Eric Roberts by his side, who provides the human narrator/foil to Voight’s crazy juggernaut of a freedom lover. It's not until a third or so into the picture that they climb aboard the train to escape, and wind up hurtling through the empty white wilderness, on an unfinished track line, in a train where the driver is dead and there's no way to get to the engine to slow the speeding juggernaut down.

Throughout their odyssey, Manny tries to impart some life lessons to the delusional Buck (Roberts): When escaping through the sewer pipes, Buck blanches at the smell, but Manny merely says "That's the smell of freedom, brother."Once aboard the titular train, Manny urges Buck to wise up and get a job once he gets back to civilization. He tells Buck that if he can learn to just clean the floor really well, to scrub “that one spot” he’ll have made it. But even the awestruck Buck can tell, watching Manny's crazy eyes as he starts to envision this spot, that this is not so reliable a career counselor.

As a life coach though, Manny is peerless. That sort of roaring walrus energy is the eyes-wide open approach to life that all men should strive for. I once had a mystical vision of a giant bull walrus roaring through a whole in the arctic ice... this beast, all alone and in lifeless freezing waters, but with that roar, that blind raging shout of “I am,” the walrus becomes one with the cosmos (Perhaps the Beatles had this same 'vision'?) I knew I could stay happy and in the moment as long as I remembered the loud bellow of this walrus. I later realized that Manny is the human version of this walrus; hurtling towards death, frost on his big walrus mustache, Manny even manages a heroic gesture of selflessness before journeying into the final blast of white.

With his eyes wild with life his big cheeked mouth frozen into an eternal leer,, Voight’s performance is the sort of thing that can blast a stupefied suburban slacker right out of his chair, and have him moving fearlessly out to get a job, go to school, and or join a band in no time flat. After this movie I was ready to scrub and scrub that damned spot on whatever floor some lame boss assigned me, and not see it as some damned stupid job but as a chance to define myself through action, the real time equivalent of a walrus roar in the ice, or the frenzied performance of Jon Voight as he hurtles through the blinding white void.