Thursday, May 28, 2009

Midnight Express: Redux

Ivorismo Rating: *

Old rubbish never dies, it just makes your mind fade away. Go on, take a load off me: You find the appropriate cliché! I never thought I’d have to sit through this old sack of dreck again, but, instead of a remake, almost thirty years later, we get the Director’s Cut. It’s kind of funny, actually. I really like Oliver Stone’s On Any Sunday, which also just came out in a new, marvellous director’s cut. Well, I’ll be danged if, after raving about Ollie’s best piece of work, I don’t get to review his total worst a week later. Fair enough, he didn’t direct this one, but, as screenwriter, his DNA is splattered everywhere. A huge success when it came out in 1975, Midnight Express, allowed its director, Alan Parker, the chance to pick his own scripts ever after, which more or less destroyed his journeyman career. It also allowed Stone the chance to direct his own script, Salvador, and onward to sustain hit after hit with the likes of Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon, JFK, U-Turn, Natural Born Killers, World Trade Center, and, of course, one of the greatest comedies ever, Alexander.

Stone’s academy award-winning script is based on Billy Hayes’ memoir of the same name. You know you’re in murky territory instantaneously, because, along with the percussive putt-putt-putt pummeling of Billy’s heart, a big yellow banner says, just like in those old Warner Brothers thirties classics, ‘Based on a true story! Yes, we’re inside a nice, wonder bread college boy’s chest as he straps a couple of kilos of hash to his stomach and gets caught at the Istanbul airport just as he’s boarding a plane for New York. For the next two hours, we go for a brutal-but-beautiful ride, as our pretty, virginal Billy (Brad Davis) is battered and buggered by the savage, homo-eroticized Turks with the accompaniment of composer Gorgio Moroder and his disco-bleep synthesizers. Billy is rendered naked a lot, and the hairy-eared Turks, led by an ox of a huge, head screw, Hamidou (Paul Smith), who welcomes him by hanging him upside down during the first night and then rapes him. As the film piles on the torment, Billy slowly deteriorates and becomes more or less like the English junkie, Max, a nice star turn for John Hurt, the hotheaded American psychopath (Randy Quaid), and the scores of exquisitely beautiful thirteen-year-old boys who seem to have been imprisoned solely for the pleasure of the evil Turkish prisoners and guards.

Yet, no matter how degraded and tortured Billy is, beneath the deathly pallor we still see the steadfast true-believer eyes of a Slavic Christ icon. And those dirty Turkish prisoners and screws, sodomites all, seem to do nothing but stab one another, scream and shout in their funny language and come off not so much as icky Moslem foreigners, but as a different hairy species. By the time Billy snaps—in the midst of giving a seductive kiss to a Turkish informer which becomes a horrifying, slow-motion act of biting off the informer’s tongue and then spitting it out—it signals an end to the former, expected, run-of-the-mill sort of “this could be what happens to you if you break the law in a foreign country”-film sort of way, into a kind of propaganda bludgeon. What follows is a long, Fellinesque coda accompanied by a Moroder synth wash. Dragged off to the sector of the penitentiary reserved for the insane, Billy becomes a raving, raging mumbler. By the time Susan, his girlfriend, visits, Billy is a hysterical babbler. Then, abruptly, five years later, after somehow getting himself together, Billy manages to escape.

The massive box office success of this movie seems incomprehensible to me still. What I do remember well from seeing it in the theater is the mass cheer that came from the audience as Billy spat the Turk’s tongue out, which turned to applause as he stood there, his arms upraised, another white champion triumphing over the innate wickedness of the barbarous third world, a pixilated slo-mo Christ spattered with heathen blood. Michael Seresin’s cinematography, an earthy palette of burnt siennas, mustard browns, and a journey through the full gray scale, has to be complimented. In the hands of a less subtle lens artist, say the subtlety-free work of that bludgeoning iconoclast John Alonzo, the film might have slipped into a state of total, umm, vulgarity.

Midnight Express is a relentless exercise in audience manipulation. A cynical use of manipulative technique very far removed from any mode of sincere artistic impulse. Parker and Stone use a cow prod to goad the viewer from one brutal shock to the next. There are no ambiguities in this xenophobic tract. It’s a cruel bit of rabble-rousing. The Brit and Yank prisoners (oh, and the one flamingly gay Swede) are civilized and noble. The Turks, even Billy’s lawyer, who picks his nose and clears his ears with his pinkie in the only comic turn in the film, are sadistic, filthy, and, did I say, hairy?

How could I help but check out the extra commentary from Parker and Stone that accompanied this, the glorious director’s cut with seven added minutes of footage hacked cut out of the original release?

“I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Express and the stuff I’ve been reading about Abu Ghraib and Gitmo,” Parker--now Sir Alan Parker-- says very solemnly in his awful North London accent as he revisits the film’s creation. Now I know the problem. He’s an Arsenal supporter. Running a nervous hand across his comb over, Parker adds. “Prison brings out the worst in human behavior.”

All right, now I get it. Prison brings out the very worst in human behavior. On the other hand, Stone, being a writer and all, digs a tad deeper. “It strikes me that, despite a few bad examples of errant behavior by ill-trained guards at Abu Ghraib, our people, whether, you know, it’s the army in particular, or the penitentiary system in general, our people are just not capable of the kind of behavior you see going on in this movie.” Enough said. It seems to be imperative for Americans to believe that we are, all of us, naïve and misunderstood. As the gregariously crusty barkeep of The Simpsons, Mo Cieslak, sings in a state of utter frustration at the rest of the cruel populace:"Why don't they like me?/Nobody likes me?"

Nah, I can't let Stone have the last word. Having failed so miserably with Alexander, his elegiac World Trade Center movie proved to be a fairly subtle success. Now, with Wall Street 2 shooting, the signs are there for all to see that the cupboard is, if not bare, down to a few canned goods. With Shia LeBouef replacing the long-since-dissipated Charlie Sheen, one wonders if he might do a redo of his whole oeuvre. Consider those five missing years Billy Hayes spent in jail getting his shit together. Billy Hayes: The Lost Years. It's a natural for Stone. Neither a prequel nor a sequel, the film would be something conceptually new: A mequel. Well, Brad Davis may be dead, but I'm sure Shia will be game, as long as the Turks brush their teeth.

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