Wolf at the Door

August 29, 2012

Wolf at the Door chronicles two decisive years (1893-4) in the life of Paul Gauguin from his arrival back in Paris after painting in Tahiti, until his return to the South Pacific. It was, according to the film, Gauguin’s last fling at trying to live in civilization, and it was a complete failure.

Gauguin is played by Donald Sutherland, who plays it intelligently, if never thrillingly. I suppose this performance is somewhere between a couple of previous cinematic approximations of the Gauguin character—the different approaches of Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life and George Sanders in the fictional The Moon and Sixpence.

Sutherland does not attempt an accent or anything like that; the movie is a potpourri of nationalities before and behind the camera, as is the case with most international co-productions.

When Gauguin arrives in Paris, he has nothing but the superb canvases upon which he pours his brilliant genius. Naturally, it follows that his one-man show is a disaster (everyone hates his work), and he has no idea how to support himself. (The film includes a flashback to the moment some years before when he walked away from his family and a lucrative job as a stockbroker to pursue painting.)

At the lowest moment, an inheritance arrives, which will support his time in Paris. Gauguin tries to organize a colony of artists who will return with him to Tahiti, though this dream falls apart. He also dallies with many women, including a Javanese girl who models for him and shares his room.

It is an interesting period in his life (it included an encounter with a cranky August Strindberg, played by Max von Sydow), and the movie is a trim enough telling of it. It’s seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old neighbor girl who idolizes and romanticizes Gauguin.

The movie is essentially a Danish production, directed and produced by Henning Carlsen, a veteran Danish filmmaker.

Carlsen’s Scandinavian scrupulousness keeps the film tidy and decent. But that approach is hardly suitable to deal to Gauguin’s raging primitivism, and a fuller account of the artist’s life awaits a gutsier, more romantic film—and, probably, a more volcanic actor.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

Henning Carlsen is still alive; he did adaptations of Knut Hamsen’s Hunger and Pan, 30 years apart. I’d watch this movie again, because the story of Gauguin is so hard to resist, but I do remember being disappointed by Sutherland’s take on the role.



November 29, 2011

We’ve seen this set-up dozens of times before in the movies. You take a guy, and you establish that he’s got psychic powers.

Fine. Now make him the pawn in a nefarious government plot to—oh, control the world, for instance. Trick him into helping an innocent-sounding research project, and then drag him into the nasty business.

In just the last year, The Dead Zone, Brainstorm, and Firestarter have all used this serviceable plot line, more or less. Dreamscape joins the ranks. But like almost all movies about psychic characters, it conveniently avoids the question that always presents itself with this plot.

To wit:

If this guy’s so psychic, how come he can’t see the bad guys for what they are?

Well, he just can’t, I guess. You’ve got to suspend disbelief a little—make that a lot—in Dreamscape, or you’ll never go along with it.

You may not go along with it anyway. It’s about a man (Dennis Quaid) with the telepathic “gift,” who gets drafted into a project that will unlock the key to dreams. Some scientists (Max von Sydow and Kate Capshaw) have discovered a way to transport highly psychic people into the dreams of others, in the hope that the dreamer may be cured of whatever demons may be haunting him.

Turns out the whole thing is a plot by a covert government group led by Christopher Plummer, who looks and talks like a National Security advisor. He practically is one; he’s an old buddy of the President of the United States (Eddie Albert), who has been having these nightmares lately.

I don’t want to give everything away, but Plummer doesn’t agree with the president’s plan for nuclear disarmament, and would like to get him out of the picture. This coincides with the discovery that a dream-visitor can cause heart attacks in dreamers by terrifying them during a nightmare. So Plummer invites the president over the research center for a short nap….

Fill in the rest. Dreamscape is a pretty cheesy piece of work: hokey story, actors fumbling around for a unifying tone, awkward use of “cute” repartee. And the dream sequences—we see them while Quaid goes on his trips inside other people’s minds—are a gyp. No interesting ideas here, with the possible exception of an encounter with something called “The Snakeman.”

About halfway through, I began to enjoy the movie anyway, in that lazy way yiou can get into the simplest potboiler that comes on TV late at night. Dreamscape has no pretensions, which makes it both disappointing and pretty palatable. It has no intelligence either, but it does have Kate Capshaw, in her third movie in as many months (the others were Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Best Defense). I continue to find her an attractive actress, despite her bad luck with roles.

And it’s got von Sydow and Plummer, who are silky-smooth. But then they could do this kind of thing in their sleep—which maybe they did. After all, everybody else in the film is asleep at one point or another.

To top it all off, it has a human heart being ripped out of a chest, just like the one in Indiana Jones. Which means, of course, an automatic PG-13.

Look, what can you expect from a director (Joseph Ruben) who began his career with The Pom Pom Girls? Still, look for Dreamscape on cable-TV in six months. You may very well enjoy it.

First published in the Herald, August 16, 1984

Of course Ruben’s next movie was The Stepfather, an excellent picture, so I paid for that crack about the Pom Pom Girls. (Still, he was responsible for Gorp, so you can understand where I was coming from.) I’m not sure if Dreamscape is an actual cult movie, but it has its fans, and way back then I seem to recall Pauline Kael was one of them, which means the movie must still have fans amongst her followers. I would actually like to see this again, but apparently I’ve had other things to do in the past 27 years.