Dir. Nicolas Roeg
Written: Paul Mayersburg
Starring Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer, Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci, Ed Lauter, Joe Spinelli
|There are a bunch of DVD covers for this movie, all this bad and many even worse. As near as I can tell, though, this is the theatrical poster they went with, which might have explained why no one went to see it,|
Ah, Nicholas Roeg, it’s been too long. You’re like a psychotic friend that blows into town unexpectedly and departs just as quickly, leaving behind a trail of whisky bottles, bar fights, and crude pornographic art on the walls. It’s exciting but exhausting and at the end you’re not quite sure what you got out of the experience other than a crazy story. It’s intense, but you probably don’t want to do that every day. But time passes, you go to your job every day, you hang out with responsible professional people and go home and have responsible professional sex early in the evening so you can go to sleep on time. And it’s all very entertaining and gratifying and you understand that it fulfills you on an adult, rational level and is good for you and the future. And then one night you’re watching some slick, expensive remake of a disreputable 70’s horror flick and you find your mind wandering to weird places. You start to wonder, what if instead of watching a bunch of unenthusiastically competent market-researched high-name recognition-with-the-right-demographic drivel produced by responsible, professional businessmen, you watched a movie where all of the sudden a gay bodybuilder was thrown out the 100th story window by two guys wearing sharp business suits and sparkling gold-glitter motorcycle helmets. And you know it’s time to give old Nic Roeg a call.
The great thing about Roeg is, you’re not hurting for possibilities. You know all about WALKABOUT and DON’T LOOK NOW and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, and maybe even know he directed THE WITCHES. But surprise -- he directed 9 more films you probably haven’t heard of, and co-directed or DP’ed* a bunch more. Heck, he made a film as recently as 2007. I somehow missed the memo on that one, obviously, because I am most certainly not the type of motherfucker who would forget hearing that one of the most bizarre and inventive directors alive today made a supernatural thriller called (and I assure you I’m not making this up): “PUFFBALL.” Oh Nic Roeg, you so crazy.
|I'm looking through this and not seeing dwarfs and naked women and craziness, and frankly I can't live with that.|
Anyway, when a great director makes a bunch of films you haven’t heard of when you’re this deep down the film snob rabbit hole, it should be a pretty big red flag that at some point they lost their touch and gave up and coasted on their former glory for a long career of listless mediocrity. And if said director makes a bunch of films you haven’t heard of with amazing casts of A-list actors and you still haven’t heard of it, your fucking Spidey sense better be tingling. And Spidey is right. Your fears would not be unfounded. This is uncharted territory, and here there be massive, dispiriting disappointments. Things like NEIGHBORS. Robert Benton’s (KRAMER VS. KRAMER’) miserable 1998 TWILIGHT. THE MISSOURI BREAKS. THE CHALLENGE. INCHON. If you’ve heard about them at all, it was because they failed so disastrously that their infamy eked its way into popular culture. More often, they’re immediately forgotten and sink into well-deserved obscurity.
But, even though it’s foolish to do so, you still hold out some minor hope. You hold out hope that maybe this is one of those films that was just sold the wrong way to the wrong people, missed its chance to connect with its rightful audience, and was unfairly passed over by the people who ought to have seen it’s greatness. Ironically, that can be easiest to do when great cinematic artists break into the mainstream and start working with A-listers. The unwashed masses suddenly get wind that something classy is supposed to be happening, take a look at it, come away confused and angry, and the whole thing get buried faster than a dead hooker at Michael Bay’s house. As the crowd turns on it, critics retreat to a safe distance, afraid to champion a born loser. More adventurous cinephiles read the lukewarm reviews, take heed of the populist drubbing, and divert their attention elsewhere without ever setting eyes on the thing. And so it sits in a vault somewhere, and is finally rereleased with zero fanfare and ends up on the DVD shelf at a Safeway in Kentucky somewhere, its face tarnished with a crudely photoshopped collage of the heads of all the famous people in it, shame-facedly trying, for a second time, to hustle the average moviegoer into thinking it’s something they might tolerate, and maybe luring enough people into its trap to disappoint an entire second generation without ever getting into the hands of people who might be on the same wavelength.
This is the story of one such movie.
EUREKA is the story of gold prospector Jack McCann, a fiercely independent, obsessive, egomaniacal maniac who struggles for years in brutal conditions searching for riches, finds them, and then finds living the dream to not be as simple as it might appear. It’s a tale of American stubbornness, domineering and folly which actually has a lot in common with PTA’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD almost three decades later. It’s supposedly based on a book exploring the real-life unsolved murder of sir Harry Oakes in 1943, but with some careful nudging towards surreality from Roeg, it instead devolves into a weird nightmare of hubris, myopia, and the destructive power that the illusion of control can bring. And maybe some other stuff too. It’s Roeg, remember, so the lines between the literal and the subjective are always been fuzzier than they might first appear.
We’re introduced to Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) in the snowy desolation of the Arctic in the 1920s. Even with the wind hurling snow in his face and no sign of civilization anywhere, McCann is focused on fighting with his lone fellow prospector, screaming “I never earned a nickel for another man’s sweat!” before stalking off into the unforgiving gray. McCann, like THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Plainview, embodies that particular brand of zealotous American self-reliance and ambition which is both inspiring and corrosive. We can’t help but admire his determination and persistence, but we can also see that these are the very characteristics which make him dangerously single-minded and incapable of empathy. Roeg makes use of the alien, unforgiving landscape to convey the desperation and desolation such fierce compulsion brings forth in the tiny humans peppering the great white wasteland. Time seems to expand and contract, events feel nebulously connected to each other, free of the context of linear time. Sometimes events seem to repeat, or maybe they just begin to feel the same. McCann might be wandering through the endless white night for years or days. Everything takes on a heightened, expressionistic double-meaning; when a fellow prospector blows his brains out, it’s juxtaposed with footage of fireworks, even as the brains splatter the sides of an abandoned building. When he finds his treasure, the cinematography turns downright orgasmic. I’m not a trained geologist, but I’m fairly sure rivers of liquid gold don’t usually explode out of the ground like an oil geyser (again, actually, shades of THERE WILL BE BLOOD).
|If I'm going down, I'm gonna cover you in glitter before I go.|
McCann returns to civilization literally soaked in gold, with an almost childlike sense of personal victory. He’s done it -- his years of bitter personal sacrifice and unflinching self-reliance have paid off, his wildest dreams are realized. He buys a personal island, finds a gorgeous trophy wife, and fills his life with symbols of his status and his hard-won glory.
But then what? While Anderson’s film devotes itself to watching the protagonist build himself up, Roeg’s cuts abruptly from his moment of glorious triumph to his bored, directionless later life. This is a weirder, less focused story to tell, and probably the reason most people at the time disliked this film, but you gotta give Roeg some credit for tackling the part of the story that most films neglect -- the long, aimless slog that follows the clear victory. With a clear goal, or even with a half-formed dream to work for, we can focus and organize our lives, measure out our success, overcome obstacles, imbue our existence with meaning and form. It’s at the very heart of the American ethic and dream. But we’re not so good at just living, simply existing with ourselves when we don’t have anything on the outside to push us or pull us into existence.
But even as Hackman’s McCann struggles with the malaise of a life already achieved, there are forces who still are very much motivated by their own goals and dreams working against him. For instance, Jewish Gangsters in Florida want to buy McCann’s island to build a shady casino. Because this is a Nicolas Roeg film, he heard the phrase “Jewish Gangster from Florida” and cast Joe Pesci and Mickey Rourke, because, pink monkey kangaroo. And that logic serves him pretty well, because both are awesome, especially Rourke as a kind of ambassador from the mob who comes to McCann trying to win his trust and buy him out. Rourke eschews the obvious directions to go with this character, making him a kind of quiet, intellectual presence rather than an overtly threatening one. Also it needs to be said, this is before his face got all fucked up and he’s absolutely dreamy.
|Don't worry Ed Lauter, you're still the third most handsome man in this photo.|
Also causing McCann problems are his his relationships with his frosty, resentful wife and his rebellious daughter (the frequently naked Theresa Russell) who has taken up with caddish European dreamboat Claude Van Horne (caddish European dreamboat Rutger Hauer, also looking very worthy of a lady boner and frequently in varied states of undress. This movie is heavy on man-candy.) McCann is dismissive to the point of indifference of the increasing pressure from the mob, but obsessed with his daughter’s defiance of his wishes in continuing to pursue her affair with Van Horne. His fixation on the subject both brings back some of his will to fight, and stirs all his relationships from their long doldrums. It’s a syndrome of his controlling, obsessive nature, but now he’s squaring off against his own daughter, who’s possibly just as stubborn and determined as he is. THe crux of the movie hangs on whether this conflict will bring them together or push them farther apart. But is it distracting him from his real problems?
Like all of Roeg’s films, EUREKA has a dreamy, wandering structure which seems to sometimes unnaturally abbreviate or elongate the passage of time. This film in particular is also brazenly unafraid to change tone and style as the story evolves. It begins with a surreal, nearly hallucinogenic extended prolog in the arctic, then calms down to a much more literal, unobtrusive style to set up McCann’s conflict with his family and business adversaries, only to slowly work itself into another psychotropic frenzy as the stakes escalate, and then evolve again into a kind of arch noirish style for a lot of speechifying as it segues into an extended courtroom drama epilogue. For that reason, it can feel a little disjointed, almost like three films hastily stitched together. But there’s an underlying logic which runs through the whole thing. Roeg is never less than completely in command of his camera, and here carefully calculates when to use his eccentric, over-the-top arty style and when to cool down and let the images speak for themselves.
I’m not sure it quite works, though. His ability to use images and editing to create intense emotional and psychological scenes and experiences is indisputable, but it may be too powerful a tool to turn on and off the way he does. You’re left with extreme highs and then long, slow sequences of slowly building narrative drama. They’re executed perfectly well, but can seem tepid in comparison with his kaleidoscopic visions and kinetic editing perfectly applied in other parts of the film. I suspect that this is entirely the point, of course; the movie perfectly captures McCann’s manic highs and listless doldrums. It’s perfectly constructed to make the viewer experience his prickly stagnation, but that also makes for a somewhat challenging watch. Is it more important that we feel the character’s pain, or that we enjoy watching his story? Kind of a difficult question, but to my mind Roeg isn’t a director who’s interested enough in the nuances of humanity to successfully go this route. He’s interested in the nuance of experience, and at his best when trying to push that experience to the limits. When he tries to force us to experience the banality of a character’s complex inner life, it sort of reveals that the characters are interestingly drawn, but perhaps too didactic and opaque to really read along these lines. McCann is like Charles Foster Kane -- an exaggerated, larger-than life archetype who works best when painted with bold, exaggerated strokes. Roeg may make a mistake in trying to humanize him, particularly since it’s just not really where his interests as a director seem to lie.
Critics at the time also complained about the strange, extended epilogue which takes place after the death of one of the principal characters. It’s actually much more engaging than people seemed to think at the time, but it’s undeniably an odd narrative decision and doesn’t exactly seem to do much more than make explicit most of the stuff we already figured out. In the book it was loosely based on, it’s a big mystery who killed sir Harry Oakes, but we already know since we watch it happen. What to make of the remaining characters reminiscing and looking for a solution we already know and also know they won’t find? Not sure. It’s a quite interesting little story, but seems both damningly disconnected from the rest of the film and unnecessary to the film’s main themes and interests. Remember how they wisely cut out the subplot about Kevin Spacey’s daughter and weird friend being blamed for his death in AMERICAN BEAUTY? I’m sure it was interesting and well done, but it didn’t need to be in there and would have simply distracted from the film’s real points. That’s kind of what this seems like. Today, it might have been better released as an alternate ending, or even better, as a separate short film like Wes Anderson’s naked Natalie Portman movie from DARJEELING LIMITED**. As it is, it’s not a disaster; it registers more as an odd curiosity than a complete movie-killer. But I can’t deny that it crucially weakens the impact of the end of a film which is otherwise quite expertly constructed to be a powerhouse. And probably the reason it isn’t remembered as fondly today as it it probably ought to be.
Still, EUREKA (despite a terrible title and horrible posters***) is a much better film than you would be expecting from the unpromising combo of forgotten status and big-name cast and crew. It’s a testament to Roeg’s unique genius at boldly using cinema to evoke intense experience, and despite its flaws is probably more disliked for being a weird, imaginative, and experimental experience masquerading as a mainstream A-list drama than it is for its not-always successful narrative choices. 1983 was getting a little late for anyone to tolerate the fervent artistically adventurous itch which had briefly been allowed appear in front of normal American’s unsuspecting eyeballs during the disarray of the studios in the 70’s. This was the year of YENTL, RETURN OF THE JEDI and both OCTOPUSSY and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. So maybe it was no surprise that a film as obstinately, unapologetically arty as this one wasn’t gonna find too many sympathetic eyes. But fortunately it’s outlasted that ugly era of smarmy yuppie conformity. Roeg’s oblique experimentalism still isn’t a taste for everyone, but for someone looking for that shot in the arm that only the true wildmen of cinema can provide, this one is for you. It’s an unhinged maniac forced to focus a little more than usual, but still delivering a completely unique and unforgettable cinematic experience. Who knows if we learned anything from it, but it’s an ordeal that shouldn’t be missed by the bolder filmmatic adventurers who are ready for a long, wild night.
*that’s “director of photography’d” for you porno conossueirs who may have thought something different.
**Having name checked both P. T. Anderson and Wes Anderson, I'm only a Brad or a Paul W. S. away from an Anderson hat-trick.
***Although still not as bad as the worst movie poster of all time, this image from the cover of Brad Anderson's**** HAPPY ACCIDENTS that completely hides everything which is interesting about it and replaces it with an image that looks like it should be on the front of a self-help book you'd find at the clearance rack in a grocery store.
****Yes! Hat-trick achieved! Sorry, W. S.