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    A Pair of Head Trips

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Two Twentieth Century Fox movies that boldly stretched the boundaries of their respective genres arrived in theaters this day. Forty-three years ago, the filmmaker who on the strength of his potent box-office hit Deliverance was first pitched and turned down The Exorcist decided instead to pursue an idea of his own. He devised a tale of a future society where immortality had been achieved and there were the intellectual, apathetic and sexless “Eternals” who lived in an idyllic commune called the Vortex and the fatalistic, warrior class called Brutals who populated an open, rustic landscape known as the Outlands where a terrifying, levitating stone head keeps them in check. John Boorman named the film for this swooping godhead, Zardoz (1974), financed it himself through a $1-million completion bond loan, filmed it at nearby Ardmore studios and on practical Irish countryside locations around his home and ultimately conjured up a mysterious and baffling wizard’s tale about what would happen when these two parallel but incompatible cultures clashed. Into the cauldron of this more primeval deliverance, he stirred elements of fantasy and science fiction, with equal parts meditations on class inequality, violent unrest, gun fixations, death, the human sexual drive and the most purposeful escape yet from James Bond slickness that Sean Connery (as defiant Brutal Zed) would undergo. Because the assembled team of craftspeople – cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, production designer Anthony Pratt, costume designer Christel Kruse Boorman, design and story associate Bill Stair, and effects specialists Gerry Johnson and Charles Staffel – stretched ingenuity and expertise to the max, the result was a visionary wonder. In Adventures of a Suburban Boy, Boorman recalls: “With our meager budget, all the extensive special effects were done in the camera using old techniques, like aerial image (blending two images through a reflective glass in front of the camera) and in-camera superimpositions. The script was overloaded and the production undernourished. More money would have given this vision of a future world more substance. It was too ambitious for its own good, but it is the ambition, its engagement with important ideas that redeems it. Despite its weaknesses, there are some good scenes and it was technically innovative in its day.” Indeed, the legion of fans Zardoz has accrued in the 43 years since might even call it extraordinary or perhaps mind-blowing. 

    Thirteen years later came a cool, sexy and rather hypnotic thriller (by Rain Man and Sleeping with the Enemy screenwriter Ronald Bass), about the hunt for a killer siren of rich husbands, that stands out amidst the run of 1980s neo-noir that titillated audiences. As William Covey observes in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia: “Black Widow (1987) is perhaps best remembered as the first woman-centered neo-noir film where the detective and the criminal are both female. Comparison and contrast between the two women is illustrated in montage as each woman sips wine and concentrates on the task at hand. Alex [Debra Winger] builds a case by studying files, photo slides and evidence while Catherine [Theresa Russell] stays up late examining totem poles, coins and films about tribal life in order to seduce her next victim. Catherine is the stunning femme fatale with long blonde hair, a voluptuous body and attractive clothes. [Cinematographer] Conrad Hall lights her cunningly, with a mysterious, dark shadow across her heavily made-up eyes. Alex begins the film with baggy pants, blouses, unkempt hair and no makeup and is treated as ‘one of the guys,’ but ends the film with stylish hair, a Hawaiian tan and in a feminine, tight, blue dress with white flowers.” Directed by Bob Rafelson (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Blood and Wine), “Black Widow is also unusual in that its setting is chiefly outdoors in sunlight, rather than in the customary noir spaces of bars, nightclubs and warehouses.” Also, “Alex’s additional bravery with men like [fellow DOJ Investigative Task Force colleague] Bruce [Terry O’Quinn], whose sexual harassment she rebuffs; Ricci [Leo Rossi], the smarmy cop who does not help her on the case; Shin [James Hong], who is a lazy, inefficient, junkie detective; and [targeted Catherine victim] Paul [Sami Frey], who is an expert seducer of women, helps to invent a new strong, female investigator who is better and harder working than her male counterparts.” Neither film was a hit in its day, but across the years each has grown in stature and provided images that float in the giant headspace of memory. The Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray incarnations of Zardoz (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28834/ZARDOZ-1974/) and Black Widow each feature Audio Commentaries that plumb their depths and validate their unique and lasting power.