Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rise, SORCERER! The lost masterpiece of 1977

It's been a long time on its jungle creep but William Friedkin's much anticipated Blu-ray SORCERER (1977) has emerged into the clearing and into the flaming oil fire of our American hypocrisy. Distance, time, and the the totality of Friedkin's stunning attention to vivid, lived-in widescreen detail are now revealed as the staggeringly beautiful shots they are: the monstrous grins of the trucks moving through the mist like prehistoric alien rhinoceroses, the apocalyptic rainstorms; flooding rivers lifting flimsy bridges up off their moorings as trucks loaded with nitro slowly grind and sway across; crowded Tel Aviv streets rocking from a bomb and the quick soldier reprisal; NYC Catholic priests robbed of vast stashes of money in the backroom of a church during a wedding; a white collar Frenchman ducking out on his wife at a swanky Parisian cafe to avoid prison for embezzlement --each character gets their origin exposition, their reason for escaping to the anonymity and weak extradition practices of some nameless South or Central American one-horse town, and each origin packs enough real  hustle and bustle for a film of their own (such as Friedkin's surreal Cairo dig, the Georgetown protest film set, the real-life NYU hospital spinal tap procedures in EXORCIST). The locals depend on nearby oil pipeline work for survival, so when there's an oil fire at one of the wells, it's up to them to fix it. It's the kind of thing Warner Herzog seems to go for in his own work but sometimes errs on the side of decency, lacking the same insane drive and egotistic bullying needed to smash the world apart in order to capture its plummy essence, which is why he needed Kinski, or a Cage. Friedkin, however, is his own Kinski. We all read EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS, so we know the horrifying anecdotes of the film's troubled shoot, with Friedkin harassing the locals and crew in the paranoid, foamy-at-the-mouth way of the coke head rich Anglo filmmaker from the 70s.

Well, all that pain was worth it.

What's most interesting now that its been remastered in gorgeous Blu-ray is the surreal contrast between the hostile nature of these male characters and the deeply human story (which I mean as the opposite of Fordian sentimentality - human as in 'true' human, bestial, full of grudges, fears, greed, and the way cowardice and courage can switch places at random). Taking a page from Peckinpah, these men are dangerous lowdown scoundrels who are, in a sense, the only people around crazy, tough, and desperate enough to handle an almost suicidal task - hauling very unstable explosives through 200 miles of rough dirt roads and jungles to snuff the fire.

There are almost no women in the story - the one who gets actual billing in the cast is Anne Marie-Deschodt as the Frenchman's rich wife. As a counterpoint commentary to Clouzot's female character in the original (played by Clouzot's then-wife Véra), an elderly barkeep in Friedkin's version never speaks. It all works because this is a movie that is not about desire, but survival. No time for soft stuff.  It's like THE THING or THE GREY, i.e. no women! It's not a movie for flowers and song, it's about struggling through the mud, man. It's about the kind of men who are, as we learn in Hollywood, the nasty necessity of the western world. I like it way better than Clouzot's original, wherein I never really felt anything was at stake. I had to take their word for it, and I didn't trust or like them. But who doesn't love Scheider? Point them out and I will snuff them like an oil fire! And now, on a big screen with a booming stereo you can feel Friedkin's trucks in your coccyx.

The Tangerine Dream SORCERER score has been some of my favorite soundtrack for awhile, long before seeing the movie. It's like if John Carpenter and Klaus Schulze got together for the score of THERE WILL BE BLOOD; it never micro-manages our emotional state, the way, say, John Williams or Howard Shore do with their flourishing orchestras, the pulsating amniotic eerie music just sets the chilly, nerve-shredding tone and as such is ahead of its time, at least for Hollywood. In its moody percolating contrasts and mystical ominousness, the score never tells us what to feel, it just gives us a way to mystically transfer this rainy wet misery we see onscreen into an atmospheric alien buzz.

I remember this film when it came out in 1977, around the same time as STAR WARS. Naturally we kids thought, based on the title, it might involve wizards, aliens and armies of the dead and so forth - and instead, what, trucks? Good lord, that's false advertising! No wonder it bombed. But now that ignition is thrown in reverse. We're sick to death of wizards, and alien landscapes can be found right here on earth, caked in rain and mud. All they need are the right music, the right drugs, and a crazy coked-up son of a bitch like Friedkin at the wheel.

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