Friday, November 12, 2010

Dino De Laurentiis: Warrior, Poet, Profit. (1919-2010) + ORCA

There was something so refreshing about the man, a kind of larger-than-life dreamer quality. As my friend Sean Kelly noted, a De Laurentiis movie was such an event and yet so tragic, as they always start out super grand and big budget, and all the $$ is on screen, and then, about an hour or 40 minutes in, the budget is all used up, and things get cheap... by the big climax you can practically see the repo men in the background, hauling away the icebergs and jungle canopies... and yet somehow the film just seems to get better as a result. Nominally a mere producer/backer, his stamp is felt with recurring sense of vastness and high style - it's not just lush or detailed, his worlds have a stylish grandeur that makes them great settings for Vogue spreads or Salvador Dali dream sequences. The temple of Set in CONAN, the throne rooms in FLASH GORDON and DUNE, the Matmos in BARBARELLA. 

Consider CONAN, FLASH and DUNE, each spaced two years apart, each enduring, one way or the other, as shoulders above their competition as far as stylish art design, not just in budget and talent but in vivid, earthy texture, in costume, and set design (making up for the occasional clumsy miniature work). Even today the kinky slickness Versace gaudiness of FLASH has an enduring madcap quality. Can we doubt then that the idea of using, say, rock bands like Queen and Toto to the scores of these films isn't Dino's? Seeing the name 'Toto' as composer in the DUNE credits creates a shock, a statement bold as Queen for FLASH. There's almost no other films of the era with single word rock band names as composer, and they one man in common, Dino de. 

A man who cared about movies first and foremost, and loved to spend money, and who radiated a larger-than-life warmth, a combination celebration and winking satire of the Italian film mogul - he shall be missed. And to celebrate, here's a link to a review I did--one that happens to perfectly embody the core values and lack thereof for which Acidemic's Mid-Life Crisis Month is best embodied-- for the DVD of ORCA (1977) on Popmatters 9/29/2004:

The Old Man and the Feminist and the Sea

Recent killer whale movies feature children (see: 1993's Free Willy). Orca, now on DVD, reminds us it wasn't always that way. In 1975, Jaws (sharks, not whales) did have incidental kids in it, and youngsters were surely part of its blockbuster audience. But Hollywood in its dumb literalistic way, apparently took kids' interest in sharks and whales to mean shark and whale movies needed to star kids. You can see the shift as early as Jaws 2 (1977), when the focus moves from adults on a boat to a crew of bland, disposable teens adrift on a catamaran. Still, not all Jaws knockoffs of the latter-1970s fell into this trap. Orca falls into traps all its own, but keeps the adults at the helm every step of the way.

The film opens on a pair of happily wed killer whales in Newfoundland, under a twangy Ennio Morricone score. Produced by Dino DeLaurentis, the movie offers not just these killer whales, but also a great white shark, a Christian allegory, a Sergio Leone-style showdown, and a relationship between whale and man à la Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. And, while Orca frequently annoys and bores, it also lingers in the mind long after the credits fade.

The primary reason is protagonist Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a proud Irish seaman who prowls around the Newfoundland coast in search of great white sharks to capture and sell to aquariums. He meets local killer whale expert Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) by accident, coming to her aid when she's threatened by a great white. In turn, she spends some quality expository time filling him in on how killer whales are mammals, not fish like sharks; they can communicate over great distances, and may in fact be many times more intelligent than people. He becomes determined to capture one to sell to the aquariums instead of a shark. Ill-equipped for any sort of serious whale-capturing endeavor, he soon has a bleeding female orca hanging off the mizzenmast, ejecting her unborn fetus onto the deck of his boat.

Though Nolan instantly regrets what his casual masculinity has wrought, the female whale is too entwined in rope to be loosed, so he shakily hoses the fetus off his deck and sails home, the anguished papa screaming off in the distance, vowing revenge. Orca thus bangs up Nolan's boat on the way back, so that the captain needs to dock for repairs. When he cuts loose the now basically dead female whale, her mate noses her body onto the shore, so all the locals can see the result of Nolan's callousness.

This makes the locals eager to fix up Nolan's boat as quickly as possible and have him be on his way, for they be sensin' a fight. Will Sampson (Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [1975]) plays the Native Newfoundlander Umilak, delivering turgid lines about the orca's fighting spirit. This whale also has special powers, apparently, as he can tell whenever someone is leaning out of Nolan's boat, and so jump right up and swallow him whole. It also knows about electric current and fire, blowing up half the town by strategically rupturing some local fuel lines, then knocking over a nearby cabin's lamp.

Nolan, meantime, remains determined. Though the days of Jaws' salty Quint (Robert Shaw) were more or less over by 1977, and stars like Burt Reynolds or Harrison Ford came with a glint of self-awareness in their eyes. Nolan has no such glint. He remains unable to confess, ask directions, or let a woman drive. Orca then is about masculinity in transition-- the white man recognizing his guilt for thousands of years of oppression of sea mammals, women, and Native Americans. Still, Nolan bears his guilt with Hemingway-esque stoicism.

Though Nolan plans to sail away on his boat in the dead of night to spare his crew, wanting to offer himself to the whale's mercy, instead, he's accompanied by (inexplicably) Umilak and Rachel. The climax leads them all up to the frozen waters of the Arctic, where everyone tries to act cold while sweating in front of fake-looking icebergs. Despite all of this artifice, the orca is never less than convincing, making one wonder if any killer whales were harmed during the making of this film. When the whale lifts its head out of the water to stare down Nolan, it's incredibly strange - man and whale in squared-off gunfight pose, surrounded by thick, fake, white ice.

Due to some fuzzy motivations, the phony icebergs, and the godawful end credits music, one doesn't come away from Orca feeling very positive. But, as a 1970s ecological disaster film mingled with Jaws knockoff, it does provide a provocative protagonist. Nolan is a Christ figure, at the crossroads between the tough old men of 1950s shark- and communist-infested seas and the girly men to come, the "sensitive" white males who don't drink or smoke in front of their children, arrange play dates, worry about political correctness, and run to Human Resources when they overhear sexual conversations in the neighboring office cubicle.

Nolan is like a 70s version of Captain Ahab forced by the New Bedford Whaling Corporation to take sensitivity training. The orca, meanwhile, rises from his peaceful place in the sea to become a sort of eco-Arnold Schwarzenegger, not interested in Nolan's feeble attempt at apologies, only in a fair showdown. Captain Nolan was one of a dying breed. The next movie generation of seagoing salts will be clean-shaven youths, driving Greenpeace vessels, and carrying tear-stained children at their sides. Me, I'll take the flawed male who has no choice but to aim his shotgun one last time at merciless chthonic nature. I guarantee you any kid alive would choose the same.

— 29 September 2004


  1. Let us not forget ORCA provides a pre-10 appearance by Bo Derek, which CBS mercilessly milked by giving her top billing over Richard Harris when they premiered the movie on prime-time TV.

  2. Right! I can't believe i forgot to mention Bo... she get's one of those beautiful gams bit off.


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