Film

Lost Gods, Still Kicking: John Boorman’s Best Storm Film Forum

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The most famous movies made by John Boorman are Point Blank, Deliverance, and Hope and Glory, three disparate, elegantly constructed pictures that almost any director would be proud to have on a résumé. But the movies the 82-year-old Boorman made before, after, and in between those extraordinary benchmarks fill in a grand and much broader story in this unicorn tapestry of a career. Corral his best-known work in the center, if you must. But the only way to understand Boorman, if such a thing is fully possible, is to sharpen your depth of field so that every intricately woven flower slips into focus. In other words, to see the greatness of Boorman is to reckon with the fact that the man who put Sean Connery in a red diaper and swinging hippie braid in the magnificently weird (and wrongly maligned) futuristic
fable Zardoz is the same guy who captured the bumptious joy of his own bomb-riddled Blitz childhood in Hope and Glory. Boorman is rare and mystical; there is no other filmmaker quite like him.

You can catch more than a fleeting glimpse of Boorman’s polychrome genius at Film Forum’s week-long tribute, which serves as a kind of extended drumroll for the release of his new picture, Queen and Country, a Hope and Glory sequel opening on February 18. This ten-film series rounds up the greatest hits: Point Blank, Deliverance, and Hope and Glory are all represented. But even more tantalizing are the relative rarities, some of them pictures that were badly received upon release but desperately deserving of a second look, like the bracing 1995 political drama Beyond Rangoon, in which Patricia Arquette stars as an American tourist trapped in Burma during the 8888 Uprising. Others, like the 1968 Hell in the Pacific, the picture Boorman made with Lee Marvin the year after the duo completed Point Blank, are available on DVD but rarely show up on the big screen.

And some, like 1970’s strange and wonderful Leo the Last, are relatively unknown to all but Boorman’s most ardent devotees. This is one of the treasures of the series, a sociopolitically astute European art film made by a man with the heart of an Irishman. (Though Boorman was born in England, he has lived in Ireland for years.) Just two years before Deliverance, an adventure story that also delved uncomfortably into the all-too-human tendency to think of anyone who’s not us as “the other,” he made Leo, starring Marcello Mastroianni as a jet-setting Europrince who comes home to his father’s London mansion, only to
realize he can’t turn away from the plight of the immigrant families who have settled in this once-tony neighborhood. Mastroianni’s Leo has suffered a breakdown of sorts, and this homecoming offers no rest. He’s brought along his almost-fiancée, Margaret (played by celebrated stage actress, and Samuel Beckett favorite, Billie Whitelaw), but she seems to care only for money, prestige, and, of course, herself.

In a listless haze, Leo, an avid birdwatcher, trains his telescope on the run-down flats across the way, focusing on one struggling family and the beautiful young woman who’s struggling to hold it together, Salambo (Glenna Forster-Jones). Leo watches Salambo walk arm-in-arm down the street with her boyfriend, Roscoe (Calvin Lockhart), a kind of neighborhood folk hero — Roscoe concocts a clever, slapstick scheme to steal a frozen bird from a local market to feed Salambo’s hungry family. Leo watches, as we do, through the iris-view of his telescope. His gaze is, at first, cool and appraising, dispassionately curious. But it warms up fast, and the shift is telegraphed through Boorman’s visual
inventiveness. Salambo and her family and friends, at first just symbols of the downtrodden, become more real to us, as they do to Leo — Boorman shrinks the distance with his graceful, subtly shifting camera moves, pulling Salambo’s world closer and closer in a gentle visual embrace. Leo yearns to help his neighbors, though his well-meaning charity nearly backfires. In the end, Leo the Last — a visually magnetic, diamond-edged essay about voyeurism, alienation, and painful class divisions, like a cross between Rear Window and The Landlord — isn’t about the magnanimous white savior, but about the necessity of almost literally exploding everything we think we know about race and class. The picture ends with the visual equivalent of a joyous, revolutionary cry.

It’s easy enough to trace certain thematic threads through Boorman’s work: He’s troubled by inequity and injustice, but he frames them with an artist’s eye. He’s
incapable of making a politically themed picture that’s just a hammering tract — it will also be a work of exacting visual beauty. He knows that the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of families are the glue that holds them together — perfect accord is overrated. And he believes in the fierce power of nature, particularly as revealed in the misty landscapes of the British Isles, dotted with sacred rock formations that must surely be the handiwork of the gods.

Those gods are present, in majestic forms, in two pictures that clamor to be seen on the big screen: Excalibur (1981) is Boorman’s ambitious, gorgeously staged retelling of the Arthurian legend. You know how the phrase “knight in shining armor” has become such a cliché that it’s practically meaningless? Boorman and cinematographer Alex Thomson reclaim it handily: The knightwear in Excalibur, especially that of Nicholas Clay’s Lancelot, gives off a soft, silvery glow. This is one of those rare instances in which a movie rendering of a mythical detail is even more beautiful than the vision you’ve always carried in your head. Excalibur is filled with actors who are very famous now but who weren’t then, among them Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Gabriel Byrne. And Helen Mirren fans, all six-hundred billion of you, take note: You don’t want to miss her as Morgana, the treacherous sorceress and royal half-sister who strives to bring down the kingdom with a single, pulse-quickeningly erotic seduction. With her bewitching lizard gaze and mermaid smile, she’s a magick spell in human form.

And what about Sean Connery in those red underpants? Zardoz — in which Connery plays a futuristic barbarian catapulted out of the world of have-nots and into a sexless utopia of serene, seemingly superior beings — is better known as a punchline than as a movie, the kind of “flop” that some moviegoers use as handy evidence that they know a bad movie when they see one (even when they haven’t actually seen it). But Zardoz, fascinating and beautiful and odd, hardly belongs on that scrap heap. The visuals are of the exquisitely trippy variety — Zardoz gives us a world of painterly
images projected, trompe l’oeil–style, onto naked bodies, of intimate acts that take place under translucent silken veils conferring only a whisper of privacy, of giant stone heads that hover ominously above the Earth’s surface, fake gods spouting firearms and urging human beings to kill one another. This is a world where sexual brutality has been eradicated (good), but also one in which humans are in danger of losing their drive to do much of anything at all (bad), now that sexual desire is no longer a part of their lives. Charlotte Rampling is the stone fox who senses the danger in Connery’s rippling muscles and bodice-
ripping stare. Of course, she eventually
succumbs, and you would too.

If Zardoz were nothing but a visually imaginative Edgar Rice Burroughs–style hippie fantasy, that would be enough. But there’s an aura of mournfulness about it, too — it’s a worried, furrowed brow of a movie, one that strives to reconcile what we may think of as our coarser nature with our finer qualities as human beings. We can love art and beauty and good food, but passion, in the end, is the force that keeps everything in motion. Zardoz was made with that kind of passion, so go-for-broke in its visionary craziness that the easy
response is to laugh at it. Like nearly all of Boorman’s films, it pushes past such easy answers and into a challenging, verdant forest that demands we feel as well as think. We’re on our own, but strangely and comfortingly, never alone.