Saturday, September 7, 2013

Surfers, Psychopaths & Sexy Cyborgs

I spent most of a weekend at the Castro Theater in August watching three films.

Big Wednesday starring Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt & Gary Busey; directed by John Milius; (1978)
M starring Peter Lorre; directed by Fritz Lang; German with subtitles; (1931)
Metropolis starring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm & Gustav Fröhlich; directed by Fritz Lang; silent with intertitles; (1927)

Big Wednesday played on a Saturday night double bill with Apocalypse Now but I couldn't spare the time for both.  I saw M on Sunday afternoon with the intention of not seeing Metropolis again but once I was in the theater, I was hooked.  I was hoping for the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack but it was not.  I cannot recall the composer or performers of the soundtrack.


The director of Big Wednesday, John Milius, was a prolific screenwriter in the 1970s.  Notable credits include Jeremiah JohnsonThe Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean & Apocalypse Now. He also wrote the screenplay to Big Wednesday, a semi-autobiographical film for Milius.  Milius famously traded "points" or a percent of box office with his friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Milius' film was Big Wednesday, Lucas' film was Star Wars and Spielberg's film was Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  If you haven't heard of Big Wednesday, you aren't alone as the film was a flop although it has become a cult classic among surfers.

Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt & Gary Busey are Matt, Jack & LeRoy "The Masochist," respectively.  They are three surfers in Southern California in early 1960s when the film starts.  Matt is the troubled one, Jack is the responsible one and LeRoy is the crazy one.

Although the characters go through life changes, the film seems more about societal changes that occurred between the JFK administration to the winding down of the Vietnam war in 1974.   The title refers to The Great Swell of 1974 during which legendary waves created ideal surfing conditions off the coast of Southern California.

Milius was an avid surfer so you would have expected the film to have a deeply personal feel.  The opposite seems true.  Milius seems to have set out to make an epic film and forgot to create characters we could care about.  There is one scene towards the end where Matt is invited to a screening of a surfing documentary in which footage of him appears.  Matt, Jack & LeRoy are longboard surfers.  By this point in the film, shortboard surfers like Gerry Lopez are popular.  Matt's footage is greeted by silence by the audience in the film.  This is set up as a minor tragedy but I couldn't tell the difference between them.

The film reminded me of Point Break except none of the three spouted Zen like aphorisms like Patrick Swayze's character.  However, all three characters in Big Wednesday took pleasure and maybe therapeutic value from surfing.  Surfing was a form of meditation to them.

The plot seemed formulaic but I don't know if that is because of all the films that have come after Big Wednesday or because Milius wrote & directed so many films.  There is the big fight scene where the house gets trashed, there is the fight scene in a Tijuana bar, there is an impressive scene where the protagonists try to get out of the draft by faking illnesses both mental and physical, etc.  The most memorable scenes are the surfing scenes which leads me to believe Vincent, Katt & Busey were actually quite accomplished surfers.

Milius, who would go on to direct Conan the Barbarian and the original Red Dawn, appears to have been too personally invested (emotionally not financially) in Big Wednesday for his own good.  A little more objectivity would have served the film better.  I cannot recommend this film and will not see it a second time but there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night than watching Big Wednesday at the Castro.


I've long wanted to see Fritz Lang's M.  I'm quite certain I saw Joseph Losey's 1951 remake of M at the PFA in March 2010.  I cannot find the corresponding entry on this blog.

M is the story of a child murderer.  Interestingly, the killing is specified but the sexual abuse is only hinted at.  Losey's remake move the action to Los Angeles but Lang's original is set in Berlin with Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, the killer.  Not just a killer but a serial killer and not just a serial killer but one who taunts the public with letters to the newspaper about his crimes.  This sends the city into a panic and the cops respond by pressuring organized crime.

Tired of being harassed by the police, the crime bosses react by setting up their own manhunt.  Beckert's downfall is caused by his incessant whistling of  Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.  A blind beggar recalls someone whistling that song around the time one of the girls was murdered.  Beckert seems to whistle the tune when he is stalking young girls.  The beggar tips off a friend who organizes a posse to follow Beckert who is on foot.  One of them marks him with a chalk letter "M" on the back of his shoulder.

When Beckert realizes he is being followed, he takes refuge in an office building as work is letting off.  With their suspect trapped in the building, the crime bosses send an army of criminal to break into the building and methodically search for Beckert.  When they find him cowering in the attic, they drag him to an abandoned building to face a trial with the crime bosses as his judge, jury and likely executioners.  He is assigned a "defense council" and the questioning begins.

It's in the 2nd half of the film that Lorre begins to shine.  He is squared animal in the storage room of the building when the criminals close in on him.  Under trial for his life, he is still frightened but recognizing his situation he attempts to deflect blame and rationalize his actions.  It's only when the inevitability of the guilt becomes clear that Lorre breaks down and you see what a miserable person he is - tormented by his compulsion, grotesque by his actions and unpardonable by society's standards.  It's like that the final breakdown of Beckert launched Lorre's storied acting career.

Lorre is what makes M a classic film.  It is a career defining role for him.  Beckert is such a pathetic human being and Lorre shows all his shortcomings, perverted thoughts and cunning.

Watching the film, I recognized that Lang was filming in Germany in 1931, a few years before Hitler would become Chancellor and the Nazis would come to full power.  These characters and actors would confront even greater monster than Beckert in a few years.

The ending of M is very powerful.  The police bust up the proceedings before the verdict is announced.  The screen goes dark and the mother of one of the murdered girls says that nothing can bring her dead child back and that we need to protect our children.  M is still an excellent film to watch.  It was more powerful than Losey's 1951 remake.


I believe this is the fourth time (if you count Moroder's version) I've seen Metropolis in the movie theater since I started this blog.  I can't add much to what I've said before.  Brigette Helm is more sexy each time and her performance more wanton.

In my opinion, the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack is still the gold standard for Metropolis.

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