From: Bill Krohn
Mar 29, 2017, 11:49 AM ROAD TO NOWHERE was dumped on by Cahiers du cinéma, I think. Nobody got it, because it was such a huge leap forward. I wrote about it in The Economist, where my review, uncharacteristically, was run exactly as written, but the summit of his recognition in English-speaking territories was the two-disc Criterion set of THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, with audio commentary recorded on a Sony soundstage by Blake Lucas, Monte (in the middle) and me as the films were shown to us on a big screen. Something about the set-up unlocked Monte's tongue, and he was downright voluble in explaining what he had done and why. He had a fall recently, but when last we e-mailed he was still planning to make the second film in his Shannyn Sossamon diptych before retiring to Mexico. Originally called GHOST OF A CHANCE, it's now called LOVE OR DIE: murdered lovers who meet in the afterlife are given a chance to return to Earth and avoid death. Shannyn, who's very athletic, is going to spend the movie in one set -- evading a madman with a knife. The ROAD and GHOST are both scripts by Variety critic Steve Gaydos. Variety's eminence grise, Peter Bart, appears in ROAD, which is a Hollywood story. And let's not forget STANLEY'S GIRLFRIEND, the short made as part of the four-part anthology film TRAPPED ASHES, about the real reason Stanley Kubrick emigrated to England -- to escape his beautiful girlfriend, who has turned out to be a vampire. As in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!, he has been enjoying getting away from Ye Olde Natural Light and using constructed, lit sets -- the interiors on SNDN3:BWO! look like Christmas trees*. He's restlessly experimental and ever busy (cf. infra). ROAD was shot on practical locations using a digital camera, which he discovered could be made to look like 35mm, but the film-with-the-film structure was so elaborate that it flew right by everyone. Forgotten by young cinephiles? I'm not surprised. He's been forgotten as often as he has been discovered, and the last period, with no TWO-LANE BLACKTOPS, is not exactly fodder for the young: 2013 Venice 70: Future Reloaded (segment: "Vive L'Amour") 2010Road to Nowhere2007 Make it Three Yards: A Conversation with James Taylor2007 Somewhere Near Salinas: A Conversation with Kris Kristofferson2006 Trapped Ashes (segment: "Stanley's Girlfriend")1989 Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!1988 Iguana
Monte Hellman and Iguana
Monte Hellman’s Iguana (1988) tells the story of Oberlus (Everett McGill), a harpooner on a nineteenth-century whaling ship who flees to an uninhabited island in the Galapagos chain to escape persecution at the hands of his shipmates because of his monstrous appearance. Oberlus, who has been deformed from birth, has been afflicted with a face that appears to be half-human, half-lizard. Recaptured and tortured by his chief persecutor, Captain Gamboa (Fabio Testi), he escapes again and declares war on all mankind. He captures and enslaves four sailors stranded on the island who become his subjects in a kingdom built on force and terror, and he also captures a woman, an aristocratic Spanish libertine named Carmen (Maru Valdivielso), with whom he has a sadomasochistic love affair that becomes the emotional core of the film.
The Melville Connection
But the stability of Oberlus’s kingdom is menaced by two events: Carmen’s father decides to lead a mission to the island to find his daughter, and Gamboa’s ship returns to the harbor. Stealing aboard in the middle of the night, Oberlus captures Gamboa and burns the ship, and when Gamboa attempts to escape in his turn, Oberlus kills him in a savage duel. As the rescue party closes in on his hiding place, Oberlus prepares to lead his surviving subjects off the island in a small boat, at the very moment Carmen is about to give birth to a child. The film ends with an extraordinary gesture by Oberlus which reaffirms his status as a man resolved to live outside any laws but his own. The last shot recalls the ending of Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955).
When Iguana opened it had been ten years since we had heard from Monte Hellman. His last film, China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), was a western full of strange and wonderful surprises, and with Iguana he brought back to life again an imaginaire of sailing ships, pirates, smugglers, and South Sea desert islands previously embodied in the films of Lang, De Mille, Jacques Tourneur, Allan Dwan, and Raoul Walsh, who would have been right at home with this story of a proletarian hero-villain in love with a beautiful aristocrat.
But like China 9, whose story resembles a folk ballad about loving and killing more than a Hollywood western, Iguana renews the mythology of the sea adventure by a return to its literary roots: not the novel Hellman adapted, a best-seller by the Spanish writer Alberto-Vasquez Figueroa, but Figueroa’s unacknowledged source, which was Herman Melville.
For while the film’s hero is based on a real nineteenth-century figure, Patrick Watkins, it was Melville who gave Watkins the name Oberlus when he told his sordid story in “Hood Island and the Hermit Oberlus,” the ninth sketch in the series of sketches of life in the Galapagos called The Encantadas or Enchanted Islands. Hellman learned of the Melville story only once the film was finished. Nevertheless, it is the spirit of Melville, caught in the pages of Figueroa’s sensational novel, that informs Iguana from the first shot of the tattoo on Oberlus’s forearm. In the blue-filtered night scene when we first see him praying to the gods of Haiti, Oberlus’s face recalls the tattooed face of the heathen harpooner Queequeg in Moby-Dick, although it’s Ahab he comes to resemble in his tyrannical conduct and his self-annihilating quest for revenge. This tragic interpretation of the character also originated with Melville, who saw the failed ambitions of the misanthropic Oberlus as a mirror of his own condition, after the twin disasters of Moby-Dick and Pierre.
And Monte Hellman? I have no wish to add to the overly dark portrait that his admirers have painted of him. It suffices to quote what Hellman himself said in Serge Le Peron’s brief interview for our March 1982 “Made in USA” issue of Cahiers du cinéma, “Le solitaire de Laurel Canyon”: concerning the state of Hollywood ("Vous êtes venu enquêter dans un desert" / “You have come to investigate a desert”) and his own situation (“Je n’ai aucun ami dans le cinéma américain / “I haven’t got a single friend in American cinema”). To measure the terrible force of those words one thing must be understood: they were spoken by the most gifted American filmmaker of his generation after Cassavetes, whom he resembles in his solitude.
A Laconic Cinema
Hellman first made a name for himself in 1965 with two westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, made back-to-back, each on a six-week schedule -- early masterpieces that were preceded by apprentice work: a war movie and a thriller, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury (both 1964), made back-to-back in the Philippines on a similar schedule, and two horror films produced by exploitation maestro Roger Corman, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) and The Terror (1963), the latter of which Corman co-directed and signed. Then in 1971 came Two-Lane Blacktop, a road picture about car freaks that benefited from more press attention than all of Hellman’s other work combined, thanks to a studio promotional campaign and the work of a smart press attache. Esquire Magazine actually published the script while the movie was being made, announcing on its cover that Two-Lane Blacktop was going to be “the most important film of the Seventies,” but when it flopped despite good reviews the same magazine gave itself a “Dubious Achievement Award” for jumping the gun. Between Two-Lane and Iguana came two films: Cockfighter (1974), a picaresque tale about the South produced by Corman, and China 9, Liberty 37, a western produced by an Italian company and filmed in Spain in 1978. A detail worth noting: Hellman made five films with Jack Nicholson before he became a star and four with Warren Oates, to whose memory Iguana is dedicated.
Two articles in the Cahiers du cinema by Sebastien Roulet on the early westerns and by Pascal Bonitzer on Two-Lane Blacktop convey the excitement these films provoked among European cinephiles when they first appeared. (The two westerns were released theatrically in France and sold to TV in the US.) From one film to the next, whatever the subject or genre, a style and a vision were being elaborated within the great tradition of American cinema (Hellman is still a lover of Howard Hawks) -- a style and vision that were nonetheless radically new: characters without psychologies who came from nowhere; wanderers without fixed destinations; American landscapes seen as if for the first time, nameless and mythic; a decoupage that respected real time and made its slow unfolding, unpunctuated by climaxes, undistorted by “psychological” montage, the true subject of the film; an anti-melodramatic dramaturgy that substituted the encounter -- uncertain, shifting, always a little humorous -- for the duel that had been the master rhetorical figure of classical American cinema; open endings like the famous ending of Two-Lane, when the film burns in the projector gate. Hellman’s is an existential cinema in many ways like that of Wim Wenders (Wenders minus a certain thematic heaviness that is indissociably linked to his name), but Wenders didn’t make his first short until 1967, and his first feature until 1970. And Wenders didn’t make westerns.
One trait characterizes the Hellman hero from the beginning: his reluctance to speak. Willet (Oates) in The Shooting, unlike his young friend Coley (Will Hutchens), knows when to keep his mouth shut, while Wes (Nicholson) in Whirlwind is more than once annoyed at the need of his older friend Vern (Cameron Mitchell) to pass the time with pointless conversation. Wes and Willet survive, and their companions perish. We know in advance that the heroes of Two-Lane (James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) will win their cross-country race with the blabbermouth GTO (Oates), because they are laconic in the extreme; when they do talk, it’s only to discuss technical matters pertaining to their car. (Hellman himself is the kind of filmmaker who is most at ease when he is talking about technical matters. Before he showed me Iguana, he regaled me with an elaborate demonstration of his new videotape recorder, and after the screening we talked at some length about his obsession with direct sound and his respect for the abilities of his post-production supervisor Cesare D’Amico, who enabled him to use dialogue recorded in close proximity to crashing waves.) Even the unheroic Marty (Richard Sinatra) in Beast from Haunted Cave, the only member of the gang of bank robbers making their getaway on skis who ever sees the Beast that is pursuing them (a giant spider), refuses to tell the others what he has seen, on the improbable pretext that they “wouldn’t believe him” if he did -- and just as improbably, when the Beast attacks the group at the end, Marty survives.
In the early films this trait is first of all the sign of the hero’s difference, which it was tempting to interpret as a state of spiritual election until Hellman made Cockfighter, a film that radicalized the trait and finally made its significance clear. The hero of that film, a professional cockfighter named Frank (Oates), is completely mute by choice -- a choice based, logically in view of the rest of Hellman’s oeuvre, on the fear that talking brings bad luck. Before the beginning of the film Frank lost his chance to win the coveted “Cockfighter of the Year” award because, on the eve of the contest, he bragged too much about his chances and was forced into a premature test of his champion cock’s mettle, during which the cock was killed. Now Frank has vowed silence until he wins the award. The hero’s silence, however, can’t be read as a sign of election, because it is broken by intermittent voiceover thoughts that undercut any spiritual interpretation (but not the magical one: Frank does indeed go on to become “Cockfighter of the Year”). Instead, as we savor Warren Oates’s brilliant performance, we discover a whole language of gestures that Frank deploys to communicate with others, ranging from mimed proverbs (literally “burying the hatchet” to signify the end of a match) to the shocking symbol that concludes the film, when he twists off the head of his champion cock and forces the woman he loves to take it in her hand -- a hieroglyphic language which, in a film that uses the resources of cinema this cannily, it is impossible not to read as “cinema” (= “writing with images”). In retrospect, the silence of Hellman’s heroes is revealed to be an aesthetic choice: the refusal of overt or overly facile messages.
An anecdote: when a mutilated version of Cockfighter opened in Los Angeles, it played the bottom half of double bills with another Corman production, Jackson County Jail (1976), whose director, Michael Miller, had used every cliche of movies about the South to tell a heavy-handedly “feminist” tale of rape and revenge, ending with a shootout under the American flag, and that film actually got a better review from the New York Times than Cockfighter. When I asked Roger Corman why he thought that was, he replied that the film’s commercial failure may have resulted from the fact that “Monte made a quieter film than I had anticipated.” The adjective has always struck me as absolutely accurate, but the refusal to be governed by the ready-made connotations (implicit significations) of one’s material does not at all imply a refusal to “write.” On the contrary, it takes a kind of mastery rarely found today to stem, select, and channel the stream of connotations automatically unleashed by a subject as loaded as cockfighting in the state of Georgia into an optimistic film about America where little surrealisms (a bathtub full of dead cocks, a robber of cockfighters wearing a Nixon mask) can just pop up without the ponderous sociological significance they would have in a Jonathan Demme film, and where a theme like racism can appear with approximately the emphasis it would receive in real life (one pretty bad Polish joke).
All this serves to emphasize the paradoxical quality of the double gesture that defines the hero of Iguana:
On the one hand, Oberlus, illiterate at the beginning of the film, forces one of his subjects, an educated sailor who is keeping a diary, to teach him to read and write. All that we see of Oberlus’s skill, however, is two scenes where he refers in passing to Don Quixote and The Odyssey and one shot of him alone on a rock holding a spyglass -- another symbol of his newly-won power -- and writing. Pointedly associated with the act of seeing, Oberlus’s writing, like Frank’s language of gestures, is a metaphor for cinema.
And indeed in Iguana Hellman deploys, more overtly than in his previous films, a whole system of “writing” that begins with the literal mark of difference on the hero’s face (like Lang in The Big Heat , where Gloria Grahame’s character has one side of her face burned with scalding coffee, and Preminger in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon , where Liza Minnelli plays a character whose face has been scarred by acid, Hellman is inspired by filming a face that is divided between beauty and monstrousness, humanity and bestiality) and extends to every variety of difference and repetition: the parallel montage of scenes at the beginning that establish Oberlus and Carmen -- who wishes to freely gratify her sexual desires like a man -- as twin monsters in the eyes of society; the use of music to underline the similarity of the opening and closing credit sequences, and the terrible circularity of Oberlus’s voyage (all the voyages in Hellman’s films are circular); the presence of reflections in mirrors and water in the scenes where Carmen manipulates the men in her life, and rhymes like the scar on Carmen’s father’s cheek (“A little Freud for the critics,” says Hellman drily), or the red cover on the bed in the scene where we see her with her husband, which reappears mysteriously on the bed in Oberlus’s cave. Like Hellman’s previous films, but in a much more overt and self-consciously symbolic way, the film is “written” from the first shot to the last: Iguana is Monte Hellman’s first art film.
On the other hand, Oberlus speaks, quite a bit. In fact, from the moment he declares, “From now on, I will make my own gods and devils,” the main instrument by which he constructs his new world is speech. He enacts laws and enunciates the basis of his power to do so; he compares and contrasts his actions to those of “real kings”; he calls his subjects his “children” (“A little Freud for the critics . . .”); he explains to Carmen, in the crudest terms, the nature of her own masochistic enjoyment; he argues that he and she are both “monsters” but also explains the difference between them; he defines his own nature by talking about himself simultaneously in the first and the third persons; he engages in a refined moral calculus with Gamboa; he predicts his own last action, and explains his reasons before performing it. Everything the film shows (“writes,” connotes), Oberlus says, and always in the same harsh, even, bitterly rational voice.
Which considerably subverts a fundamental law of the filmmaker’s chosen “genre.” One example: art-house audiences may enjoy reading the heroine’s masochistic pleasure in her face during the scene of the rape, but when the rapist takes the time to explain to her (like a true Sadean libertine), “You liked being my slave and getting screwed in the ass. You’ll have trouble finding someone else like me,” their own pleasure is blocked, or worse: turned to derision. Combined with a new self-consciousness about the act of writing, this massive return of denotation creates a singular form, as if the voiceover from a militant film of the early Seventies had been added to, say, Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants (1987). A form that deviates only in appearance from the rigorous logic with which Hellman has elaborated his oeuvre until now, except that, from Cockfighter to Iguana, the nature of the hero’s sacrifice has changed: from a gift of love (to the woman, but also the spectator) to an act of self-mutilation (drowning his own newborn child) that condemns Carmen to the lucidity she had thought to escape (“My child will save me,” she had said). A new way to “wring the neck of eloquence (Mallarme)”; a new way to make the spectator experience pleasures he has never known before, while imposing on him a lucidity that he has never really desired.
NotationsBorn Monte Himmelbaum on July 12, 1932, in New York City , Hellman attended Los Angeles High School after his family moved to LA, then worked as an editor's apprentice at ABC TV before attending Stanford University on a scholarship from ABC. He worked as an editor on Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), Bob Rafelson's Head (1968), Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (1975) and Jonathan Demme's Fighting Mad (1976), and he shot extra scenes for Mark Robson’s Avalanche Express when Robson died before finishing the film. When Corman sold Ski Troop Attack (1960), Last Woman on Earth (1960) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) to television, Hellman shot extra footage to pad the running time of the films, and when American television bought Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), he shot a prologue with a Clint Eastwood lookalike, filmed from behind, being let out of jail and deputized to clean up a bad town, thereby making all the gun-downs by Eastwood in the film legal. Legend has it that Corman lent Hellman $500 to produce and direct a stage production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at a neighborhood theater in LA and lost every cent of his investment.
The Sebastian Roulet article, “Cinq points de rupture,” is in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 205 (October 1968): 57-58.
Pascal Bonitzer’s article on Two-Lane Blacktop, which elaborates the theory of the duel, and Hellman’s subversion of it, is in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 266-7 (May 1976): 68-69.
My discussion with Roger Corman is in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 296 (January 1979): 29-33.
Hellman did subsequently venture an interpretation of Iguana, which he sees as the first film of a trilogy based on the myth of Persephone that continued in Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! and Stanley’s Girlfriend.
"Le solitaire de Laurel Canyon" was done by Cahiers editors who came over in 1982 to do a special issue about American cinema. It ended up being two issue, March and April 1982.
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