Stuart Cooper’s elegiac anti-war film, Overlord, contains a heady brew of images, mixing documentary and
live-action footage together.In the
film, one sees a cylinder propelled by rockets, the Great
Panjandrum, thrashing across ocean waves, looking like a super-sized
firework.One sees a large vehicle, a
mine flail, tearing across a beach, shredding up barbed wire with elevated
spinning claws.These machines seem like
the creations of mad scientists.Intermittent with such hypnotic images of
destruction are shots of a young British soldier’s preparation for the D-Day
invasion.In effect, the image potpourri
creates a film, which is part spectacle and part lyrical dream.
To get a better idea of the effort put into blending the
various pieces of footage together, I’ll give you a brief sketch of the film’s
production history.Initially, England’s
Imperial War Museum tapped Cooper to make a 20-minute documentary about a large
embroidery depicting the Allies invasion of Normandy.While researching at the museum’s archives
though, Cooper got the idea to create a feature-length film from the sources at
hand.Cooper spent well over 3,000 hours
pillaging through the museum’s film archives over the course of three
years.By the end of his stint, he got
permission to use the footages’ nitrate negatives.So, once inserted into the film, the texture
of the archival footage matched the crisp shots of Cooper’s cinematographer,
John Alcott.In fact, Alcott used
ancient German lenses to shoot Overlord,
foreshadowing the period detail and the natural lighting of Barry Lyndon.
For all his research though, Cooper doesn’t cue the viewers
on historical details.He eschews
exposition, which is fitting, since the film’s title is the code word the
Allies used for the invasion of Europe.He’s
not interested in visual history.Instead, what interests him is the sense of being, of existing during
wartime.He zooms-in on one life, which
could stand-in for countless other soldiers in the war. He focuses on Tom Bellows (Brian Stirner), a fresh-faced
English boy.Tom leaves his parents,
trains, makes a few friends, meets and falls in love with a girl, but never
fights.With Tom, Cooper achieves a
macro view of the war by focusing on the micro.
Cooper intercuts Tom’s narrative with archival footage, some
of which includes aerial shots of planes dropping bombs on ravaged landscapes
and cities.It is this found footage
that Cooper expands the focus of his film.It is with these images that Cooper links an individual account of the
war with a collective one, one filtered through the media.
Harking back to this micro-macro point, the film has a tinge
of spirituality, which is even apparent in the name.Early on in the film, as Tom goes off to
train, Cooper cuts to a baby being baptized.Later, as Tom approaches the shores of Normandy, he imagines
encountering the girl (Julie Neesam) he had a one-night romance with.Cooper cuts to a scene where the two are in
an empty, spacious room.Laying him
down, taking off his clothes, the girl demonstrates to Tom how to prepare the
dead before kissing him tenderly on the lips to “revive” him.Tom lies on the floor, splayed like Christ
crucified.Tom was born into this war,
and he will die in it.
Constant aerial footage from the POV of bomber planes suggests
an omniscient God of war, destroying whomever it chooses.One of the first people we see in the film is
Hitler.In grainy footage, he peers out
of a plane window, looking at bombed out cities below – the lord of war.Yet, immediately, as the film progresses, we
lose an individual entity, and the overlord is war itself, ubiquitous, the
concept of war, war as an institution, with all the mechanical procedures
leading up to the fighting – boot camp, letters from home, traveling.Colonizing mind and body, war as a way of
life kills Tom before he even engages in combat.
For more on Overlord,
here’s Kent Jones insightful essay included with the Criterion DVD.He places the film between those made
in England about the "preparedness of war," such as the works by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as well as the staunch,
ironic films coming out of America about the Vietnam War – Apocalypse Now, Full
Metal Jacket, M*A*S*H.
At the time of Overlord's 2007 re-release, Stuart Cooper wrote
this article for the Guardian, offering some context about the film’s production
On several occasions, George Axelrod characterizes his film,
Lord Love a Duck, as a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove. This may be so, but the film could use some of the formal rigor Kubrick applied to his. An anti-beach party film, Duck unloads a scattershot of rounds at
all things sacred – education, religion, family, and marriage --, sacrificing
rhythm and narrative coherence as a result.
At the center of this freewheeling film is Barbara Ann Greene
(Tuesday Weld), a Lolita clone who wants. Want twelve cashmere sweaters? Done. Want out of botany class? You got
it. Want that boy-toy who has the hots
for you? No problem. Granting all her wishes is Allan “Mollymauk”
Musgrave, a brainy teenager played by a going-on 40 Roddy McDowall. He is the genie granting her every wish. He will even resort to murder in order to
make her happy. In Duck, Musgrave’s mad, devotional love is the only kind of
love. All the other men in the film are
Sex rules the day here.
In one of the film’s most bizarre moments, sex merges with
materialism. Heeding Musgrave's advice, Barbara calls on her absent father, Howie (Max Showalter). Spending the day with dad is an excuse to buy
twelve sweaters on his tab. As she comes
out of the dressing room wearing a sweater, Axelrod cuts to a googly-eyed
Howie. Barbara comes out with another,
causing Howie to cackle wildly.
There are some “freaky frames” in
this scene. Axelrod cants camera angles
as the shot-reverse-shot quickens. Out
of nowhere, the film enters into delirium.
Howie’s yuck-yucking belly laughs give way to grunting and moaning
between him and his daughter. The scene
climaxes with the two covered in a pile of sweaters – a clothes orgy. Here, Axelrod captures commodity fetishism as
a sexual frenzy.
“All that’s missing is an ‘ahh-oooo-ga’ sound effect for
this incestuous pairing to go full cartoon,” R. Emmet Sweeney writes. Resembling a live-action Tex Avery cartoon,
nothing before or after rivals this scene.
With the sweaters, a prerequisite for admission, Barbara
becomes part of a girl’s club. Now part
of the “in crowd,” she spends spring break at Balboa beach, since
everyone’s going. There, Barbara starts
a relationship with Bob based purely on physical attraction, which inevitably
leads to marriage.
Barbara just wants attention. “Everyone has got to love me, everybody!” she
tells Musgrave during their first meeting.
(A fitting subtitle for Duck could
be “The Loved One,” which is also a film some critics compare Axelrod's to.)
Axelrod offers a parallel to Barbara -- her mother, Marie
(Lola Albright). With her, the film
slides into sorrow.She’s a 42-year-old pixie that hits the
bottle, brings home middle-aged men, and works as a cocktail waitress during the day.
In one scene, we see Marie sprucing herself up before going
to bed. She looks into a magnifying
mirror, which distorts her face. It’s an
image of her mangled mind, perhaps.
Reflected in a vanity table mirror in the background is Barbara, a
miniature version of mom. One wonders if
Barbara is following in Marie’s footsteps.
Yet mom and her way of life just seem like a roadblock to what Barbara
Marriage, however, involves mutual agreement. When Bob tells her not to make a screen test
for a B-movie, it’s time for Barbara to leave.
If Bob gets in the way, so be it, murder the man for its time to be a
Near the film’s end, once Barbara reaches celebrity status
as a B-Star, as the lead role in Bikini
Widow, the camera follows her from the POV of the paparazzi. Here, the camera turns handheld and the frame
starts to shake. Removed from school,
from home, the camera captures Barbara as a beauty, empty of personality, of
character, of psychology. The last
glimpses of her, Barbara is an image, glowing with the aura of fame.
The aesthetic, however, is just as empty as Barbara. Although Axelrod packs Duck with acerbic wit, he doesn’t seem to fair the transition from
writing to cinema too well. Little
contrast in the lighting, most shots come off as a muddled gray. (To be sure, the paltry look may be due to
the poor DVD transfer MGM released in 2003.)
The shabby décor and clear use of sound stages seems to indicate that
little of the 1.2 million spent on the film went into its look. Of course, Axelrod may have wanted an
artificial look, but I don’t think so, since the aesthetic varies from scene to
scene. Perhaps his next film, one I hope
to see eventually, The Secret Life of an
American Wife, Axelrod irons out the particularities of the medium. For this film, however, he’s not shooting a
film, but writing one.
Kôji Wakamatsu certainly had one of the more colorful
backgrounds than many filmmakers. He worked for the yakuza, “supervising”
location shooting in Tokyo. He served a
six-month prison sentence for robbery. He supported the surge of Japanese political
activism in the sixties and seventies. In one of his last films, United Red Army, Wakamatsu circles back
to this period in his life and in Japanese history, looking at the rise and
fall of that ultra-left movement. Unlike
many of the films (and TV series, in one case) released in the last decade, which took revolutionary groups or
figures as their subject (Carlos, Che, The Baader Meinhof Complex), United, Dennis Lim rightly noted, is unique
because an insider directed it.
United Red Army,
centers on the establishment and early days of the ultra-left movement. Starting as a mass of student protesters,
organizing as a small cultish unit (comprised of two URA sub-groups, the Revolutionary Left Faction and the Red Army Faction ),
struggling as a rag-tag quintet, the URA mutates throughout the film. Whatever iteration the URA takes though,
Wakamatsu has a style to go with it. In
fact, make that three, for a film in which Wakamatsu brings to bear his personal and professional experience.
For the first of three-plus hours, Wakamatsu blows through
events leading up to the Red Army’s mountain training: the US’ Anpo Treaty with
Japan, the rising cost of tuition in Japanese universities, the death of civil
rights leaders, and the Vietnam War.
This is a history lesson stuck on the fast-forward button, ever moving
to create a flow of found and re-created footage.
It is within this hour that Wakamatsu begins a formal
pattern that remains throughout the rest of the film: amid the fact and the
fiction, the recruiting or arresting of revolutionaries, Wakamatsu freezes the
frame, pausing on an activist as text on the screen reads their age, name, and
some sort of context – arrested, executed, etc.
By stopping to focus on these individuals, Wakamatsu consecrates them as victims of a delirious ideology. He consigns them to cinema as faces,
names, and ages once written out of history.
Once in the mountains, in the Gunma Prefecture, with a band
of Red Army members, United becomes a
different film, one gripped in cabin fever.
As the film’s tempo slows, here, ideological rigor leads to ideological
paralysis. Instead of engaging in an
“all-out war” with the Japanese government, in-fighting sets in. Under the warm glow of lantern lights, URA
leaders issue “self-criticisms,” in which activists are beaten,
tortured, and executed for actions counter to the group's cause.
Punishment and entrapment, two themes that Wakamatsu seems
to work through even in his early, “pink films.” In fact the cramped quarters of this middle
section recalls Violated Angels. A nihilistic
work based on the rape and murder of eight student nurses by Richard Speck, Violated doubles as an allegory for US
imperialism according to Jasper Sharp. With United,
however, Wakamatsu does away with symbolism.
He collides various styles instead.
What emerges is historical “truth.” Indeed, United begins with the claim that "The events depicted in this film are all true." Followed cheekily by text that reads, "But some fiction has been incorporated."
Both movies have a, blunt look. Low-grade video in United, however, replaces the searing black-and-white (with
occasional color) film in Violated. Video gives the image a flat look, blanched
of color that fits in well with the DIY mentality of the activists.
By the third section, United
enters another cramped space. Hewing
away the number of exterior shots, Wakamatsu makes this space more restricted
than the last. Finished with what seems
like interminable training, the remaining members of the group, those eluding
arrest or execution, barricade themselves in a lodge, holding the owner hostage
for ten days. This is the Asama-Sanso hostage case. Although a media blitz during its time, Wakamatsu
shies away from this aspect, rendering the event from within the lodge as an
between spouting and acting on ideology gives way as a gun battle erupts
between the leftists and the police. In
the end, the lodge (which Wakamatsu owned) loses. Over the course of the stand-off, the lodge
endures blasts from water cannons, thick gas, sparks and flames, before
crumbling as the police infiltrate it and take the URA members in by handcuff.
And like many
docu-dramas, the obligatory on-screen text explains away events that stretch
beyond the plot, a lazy way of saying “this film is only a small moment in the
continuum of history.” On the other
hand, for me, this final section, United’s
epilogue, is the most frightening part of the film. There’s a chilling historical precision as
the text appears and disappears, scrolling across the blank screen. The screen’s emptiness is a striking contrast
to the text, which tells of the rising level of terror acts to come.
Here's two pieces by Rea Amit and Dickon Neech that I think are quite good. One contextualizes United Red Army, the other looks at the different periods of Wakamatsu's oeuvre