Cinematic Ecstasy Lost and Rediscovered
There are movies that are lean and focused, executed with purpose and precision and shaped to relate its story and values with the goal of guiding their audiences toward a predetermined response. Other movies strive to another level, stuffed with complex symbols and grandiose visual tapestry, playing with time and memory, risking viewer disorientation in a quest toward a deeper, more elemental engagement, bursting with such detail that boldly edges toward a precipitous edge of too much muchness. That expansive overload – of ideas, emotions, fatalism, forces of nature and destiny – contributed to the range of reactions to director Nicolas Roeg’s startling and twisty adventure/mystery/family saga Eureka (1983), which opened in England 34 years ago last month and, snarled in distributor management changes and hampered by its lack of easy marketing hooks, remained inaccessible and little-seen in its initial release. The seed of its basic story was inspired by a true story. Film scholar Scott Salwolke recounts in his Nicolas Roeg Film by Film: “When Roeg sat down to read James Leasor’s book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes?, it was not with the intention of turning it into a film. With Bad Timing completed, he was simply reading up on one of England’s most famous murder cases. Oakes was something of a legend even before his ghastly murder in 1943. He was a self-made millionaire who found one of the largest gold strikes of all time, after having spent 14 years looking for it. He was friends with the former Duke of Windsor and had ties to Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, and even during World War II his murder was news. For Roeg, it was not the murder or even the discovery of gold which attracted him to the story, but the fact that Oakes had been a man who had reached his quest and then lived out the rest of his life without a purpose in mind.” Roeg’s reaction, taken from a 1983 Film Comment interview: “Something touched a chord. I found that the incident and the position of the character reflected some kind of truth in my head. I would hope that anyone who sees the film would feel something of Jack McCann’s [the reconceived Oakes character] predicament. It’s about a man who experiences the ecstasy of finding what he is searching for. But ecstasy is a dangerous emotion to reach. Where do you go after that? What can you reach for after ecstasy? In a way his story is over, but his life is not. He has to live on to wonder what his life means.” Roeg marshaled a cast that served that basic premise startlingly well: a ferocious and recklessly powerful Gene Hackman as McCann, Roeg’s then-wife and Bad Timing co-star Theresa Russell as his sensual, ambiguously close daughter, Rutger Hauer (fresh off Blade Runner) as a French aristocrat who becomes a rival for the daughter’s love and the object of her personal ecstasy, Joe Pesci (hot off Raging Bull) as a vicious mob kingpin and Mickey Rourke (late of Body Heat and Diner) as a silky, scheming attorney. The technical contributions of cinematographer Alex Thomson (Excalibur, Hamlet), production designer Michael Seymour (Alien), supervising art director Leslie Dilley (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and editor Tony Lawson (Straw Dogs, Barry Lyndon, Dragonslayer) energize the cumulative power of the film’s stunning imagery, derived from location shoots in frozen Vancouver, humid Jamaica and a tantalizingly stylized courtroom finale on British studio sets. If ecstasy proved a difficult sell decades ago, movie lovers since, not cowed by an onslaught of ideas and sensations, have become converts to Roeg’s fever dream. Few may have been awake to it in 1983; Film Comment’s Harlan Kennedy was, and he chronicled that enthusiasm in this April 1983 interview with Roeg: http://americancinemapapers.homestead.com/files/EUREKA.htm. But, like a hidden lode of precious ore, the splendors of Eureka, augmented with a vintage Roeg Commentary Track Audio Interview and recent video conversations with Lawson, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and producer Jeremy Thomas, are readily available for potentially ecstatic rediscovery on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.