November 5, 2012

So much of Iceman is so good that you almost knock yourself out wishing it were better. Really, it’s amazing the film is as involving as it is, given a shaky, undernourished screenplay and the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The movie hurtles through its first minutes, as a form is found in the ice and brought back to an arctic research station to be thawed. When the doctors and scientists of the station prepare to examine the body—it’s a human shape—they are astonished to discover faint life signs. When they bring the terrified iceman to consciousness, they face a new problem: what do they do with him now?

Australian director Fred Schepisi throws you right into the fray in these early scenes, and this fast-moving approach does two things: It gets you involved very quickly, and it doesn’t give you a chance to think about the admittedly wild premise.

Once the iceman (played by John Lone) is up and around, it’s time for the old science vs. humanity argument. Some of the scientists want to test and probe the iceman, so they can assemble clues and find out what gave his cells the capacity to regenerate after so many years in limbo.

One anthropologist, Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), wants to place the iceman in a sympathetic environment and try to get to know him. Shephard thinks that if they learn what’s inside the iceman’s mind, rather than simply sampling his body, they’ll get an even better idea of what kept the 40,000-year-old man alive.

They install the iceman in a Vivarium, an artificial habitat that resembles the outside. Shephard lets the iceman adapt, and then goes into the Vivarium to try to make some sort of contact. His dealings with the iceman form the core of the movie, as they exchange words, share food, and even a duet on a Neil Young song.

Much of this is smartly done, but the conflicts between Shephard and the other doctors seem trumped-up, and aren’t really all that interesting. We never get to know exactly who’s pulling the strings (or threatening to pull the plug), and most of the scientists don’t seem like real people with histories. They just exist as characters who disagree with each other.

There are script problems, but the film is visually powerful. Just the sheer physical presence of the Vivarium, which exists under the arctic ice in a huge warehouse, is fabulous.

And Schepisi, who directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa, has a terrific eye. In the landscape footage of the tundra (filmed in Canada), Schepisi has found some breathtaking vistas, and he has a knack for putting the camera in just the right spot. In the final sequence, as two people trek across the snow, there’s poetry in the shapes he finds in hills and drifts of ice.

On this particular project, Schepisi’s reach exceeds his grasp—something like the iceman, who, looking up at a helicopter flying over the Vivarium, reaches up to it, thinking it’s his god coming to take him to heaven. Iceman doesn’t quite cut it, but moments like that make it an intriguing disappointment.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1984

The ice fields turn out to be not so far from the mystical Outback, as far as Schepisi is concerned. I recall Pauline Kael going ape over this movie, although it seems to have had no real life since then (it would be interesting to know more about what got changed in it, as online sources suggest Schepisi had a falling-out with producers and various stuff, including the ending, got tinkered with). Lone came out of nowhere (by way of Peking Opera) for this. The movie was one of the string of very curious choices made by Timothy Hutton in the years after his Oscar.

The Last Emperor

September 16, 2011

In The Last Emperor, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has found one of the remarkable true stories of the 20th century, yet it is one that may not be familiar to Western audiences. It is the life of Pu Yi, the final imperial ruler of China.

At the age of 3, in 1908, Pu Yi was declared the Lord of Ten Thousand Years and the Son of Heaven. He was ensconced in the lavish Forbidden City in Peking, a walled group of palaces where he was pampered by an army of women and eunuchs. Like the emperors before him, he would rule China absolutely.

Except that the China outside the Forbidden City was changing. The 20th century overwhelmed Pu Yi; first the war lords reduced his power, then the Japanese came and installed him as a puppet ruler of Manchuria. After the war he was arrested by the Red Army, which imprisoned him and “re-educated” him. Eventually freed, he survived until 1967, when he died a simple gardener.

Bertolucci, who wrote the script with Mark Peploe, sees the awesome possibilities of this strange life, and he has mounted this film with all the grandeur of a David Lean super-production. Filmed entirely in China, including the Forbidden City itself, The Last Emperor features an eye-popping array of magnificent locations and costumes (photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro). Some scenes required thousands of extras, all dressed in rich period clothing.

While Bertolucci satisfies the epic requirements of such as story, his finest moments come in the human details. Bertolucci has always followed the individual journey within overpowering socio-cultural events (Last Tango in Paris, 1900), and here he peels away the ornate exteriors to find a peculiar person. To borrow the title of another Bertolucci film, it is the tragedy of a ridiculous man.

Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone, the excellent actor from Iceman) is not himself an epic character, one of history’s great men. He is not even all that likable. Rather, he is made pathetic and tragic by the events that happen to him. Throughout his life, Pu Yi goes complacently along with whatever is happening at the moment. He enjoys servants slaving for him, accepts having both a wife (Joan Chen) and an official concubine (Ying Ruocheng), and is willing to aid the Japanese so he can return to power.

Thus it is moving when, at a Communist parade at the end of the film, Pu Yi finally extends a sympathetic hand to someone who had been fair with him. When he does, a Maoist marcher angrily tells the Lord of Ten Thousand Years to “Get with us or —- off!” This time Pu Yi pulls back, choosing to (literally) tend his own garden. In the final scenes he seems to have found some small measure of self-knowledge.

With a passive hero, Bertolucci smartly allows other characters to energize different sections of the film, such as Pu Yi’s English tutor (Peter O’Toole) and the two women in his life. Still, some sections in the middle of the movie flag a bit, although the device of telling most of the film as a flashback from the Communist prison (where Pu Yi still has his shoes tied by a servant) gives the early scenes a layer of poignance—we already know the sad downfall of this poor pawn of history. The remainder of the film wrestles with the unexpectedly touching question: What do emperors do when there are no more emperors?

First published in the Herald, December 1987

I always felt a little more respect than passion for this movie, until I saw it a few years ago in a super-long version, when it looked completely rich and sensual and mesmerizing. Even working on an epic scale, Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, with all his peculiarities. The movie won nine Oscars and led Bertolucci to make his classic acceptance speech remake about Hollywood being “the big nipple.” Bertolucci is still Bertolucci, etc.