It is, quite simply, the best. I've seen it twice and can't stop thinking about it.
I was going to wax on and on about it, but the film critic HULK (one of my favorite not only because he writes as the HULK, but also he is very very good at watching movies) does it much better, so instead I add a link and an amen.
I was asked the other day what my favorite movie was.
This is a notoriously difficult question, as many of you know. There is so much that goes into a question like that: pure entertainment value, artistic merit, technical prowess. All three criteria have lists of their own, so which one do I pick?
My go-to answer, if I am in no mood to really think is Empire Strikes Back. It is deserving of the honor of favorite, and aside from the fact that the film is deep in my blood, and that it really fits into all three of those categories, I a still flirt with the notion that I shouldn't be so myopic. So, to help me answer this question I am turning to this blog in hopes that as I write about my favorite films I will be more able to clearly articulate why I love each film in my top 5, or even top 10 (if I am feeling ambitious...though I rarely am).
First and foremost, when I am being honest and when I really sit down and stew over the query, I come again and again to Stewart Rosenberg's 1967 Cool Hand Luke. It hasn't moved from the top 5 since I saw it almost 10 years ago.
And here's why:
The film tells the story of Luke Jackson, imprisoned for "maliciously
destroying municipal property" by cutting the heads off parking meters.
The very first word and image of the film is VIOLATION.
Luke is thus arrested and sent to a work camp in Florida, where he
becomes, in effect, part of the country's emerging national
transportation infrastructure, paving rural roads through the Florida
He is immediately introduced to a new set of limitations. "We got all
kinds," the camp warden announces, referring to the prisoners kept
behind fences there in the subtropical heat; but all of them have had to
learn how to stay put. To this, the warden adds, "in case you get
rabbit in your blood and you decide to take off for home," you'll be
rewarded with more time in prison and a "set of leg chains to keep you
slowed down just a little bit, for your own good. You'll learn the
Later, Luke meets the camp's "floorwalker," a man who keeps watch over
the prisoners' boarding house; the floorwalker unloads an absurd and
seemingly endless monologue about how the prisoners can avoid spending
"a night in the box," a small building the size of an outhouse with no
pretenses of comfort or hygiene. The list of steps by which to avoid
this fate—involving everything from laundry to yard tools—is
mind-numbing and absolutely impossible to remember.
When the rest of the camp comes back inside to shower and meet these
newly arrived state captives, tension between Luke and the existing
group's ostensible leader, nicknamed Dragline, is established
immediately. "You don't listen much—do you, boy?" Dragline growls,
mistaking his own corpulence for an ability to intimidate. Luke barely
looks at him in return. "I ain't heard that much worth listening to," he
mutters. "Just a lot of guys laying down a lot of rules and
As such, the film offers an interesting mix of, on the one hand, the
surreal impossibility of reasoning with the state and its hired
representatives (similar, say, to the writings of Franz Kafka); and, on
the other, what seems to be a particularly American breed of
libertarianism, one in which even parking meters can be interpreted as
"just a lot of guys laying down a lot of rules and regulations," where
all instances of authority are meant to be, if not resisted, than at
least publicly mocked and undercut.
As we'll see—and this post contains spoilers, for those of you who haven't seen the film yet—Cool Hand Luke becomes a kind of Trial-like cautionary tale, suggesting that the end result of playfully antagonizing the state can often be repression or death.
So Luke, a nonviolent offender, is sent off to pave roads in the heat,
clearing weeds and snakes, and otherwise maintaining national
infrastructure alongside others in his imprisoned crew. They are, in a
sense, tragically ensnared in the geographic project of the state, which
seeks to expand ceaselessly into underserved rural areas by means of
convict-facilitated construction projects. And thus the nation—brutally,
physically, literally—is made.
Aside from the argument that Luke is a Christ figure and that is all (a discussion that I will address later) it is this relentless growth of the well-policed roadway is perhaps the film's
central motif—even above the film's admittedly more entertaining
scenes, such as Luke living up to his own challenge of eating 50
hard-boiled eggs. For instance, in one scene where a particularly manic
Luke successfully challenges the rest of his crew to treat the day's
road-paving assignment like a race, they're left confused and
dumbfounded when the tar truck drives away. The inmates are left staring
at a STOP sign. "Where'd the road go?" an exasperated Dragline asks, as
if they're now faced with doing nothing.
But that's precisely it: the only thing left to do is nothing. This
recalls how Luke gets his nickname—"Cool Hand Luke"—by bluffing his way
to victory in a poker game, holding a hand "full of nothing."
In any case, Luke responds by laughing at the idiocy of the entire situation. They ran a race against nothing and no one won.
Roads were built promising America "freedom," but in the film, they are built on
the backs of literal slave labor and prisoners. Luke, meanwhile,
deliberately plants himself "inside" (ironically enough by "freeing" the
parking spaces, where movement is haulted), perhaps to prove to himself that the human spirit can
be free regardless of walls or ownership.
Luke, of course, escapes—three times—but not once, in any long term
sense, is he successful, getting hauled back to camp twice in chains.
Luke's various punishments for these attempted escapes grow in severity. Specifically, Luke first spends "a night in the box" and is then
forced to dig and refill a hole in the prison yard, several times over,
effectively breaking his will. At one point he is even pushed back into
the hole, as if he has, all along, been digging his own grave.
After witnessing Luke's very audible collapse, his fellow inmates refuse
to speak with him after he stumbles back to the bunkhouse, as if Luke's
aura of indefeasibility has been permanently smudged by this
performance of desperate weakness. The "horrible and unimaginable
commission" of breaking his spirit has, it seems, been accomplished.
However, Luke has one more escape in him, driving off unexpectedly in a
road-servicing truck and disappearing into the parched landscape seen
reflected in the mirrored sunglasses of the silent "boss" (and
sharpshooter) who watches over him.
This, then, will be my final point about the film: in what is otherwise
an obvious—even hackneyed—scene, played for all its poetic and
metaphoric power, Luke finds himself alone in an empty church at night,
unsure of where to run to next. In many ways, this is where the film's
Kafka-esque themes are most clearly foregrounded, as Luke, addressing
God for the second time in the film, finds himself simply speaking to
The church is silent, just a bunch of a wood and darkness, and Luke realizes, once and for all, that no one will be answering.
Only, here, Luke is at the receiving end of something incoherent, lumbering, deaf, and unstoppable—as if he has snapped the trip-wire of the state, becoming
lethally ensnared in a system from which escapes are punishable by
death, no matter how trivial the initial offense might be.
Image: Luke's apotheosis, ascending above the cross of the roadway
In any case, Cool Hand Luke is, in the end, a strangely affecting film, seemingly more tragic each time I see it, and it reminds me constantly of another favorite: Papillon.
Begin other rant:
Now, there are those that would argue I was wrong, that the film is nothing but a Christ story. I agree that this viewing has its appeal, as well as evidence.
For example, he is a strong leader but he leads without brutality. He leads with a smile and an inner strength. As evidenced in the egg eating scene. Aside from the humorous respite it grants, Luke eats 50 eggs -- there are fifty prisoners. He's saving, protecting them from
persecution. Notice the color white and where it appears. Notice the
scene where the other prisoners come and eat the rice from his plate -
it's The Last Supper retold.
I see this and I agree that the obvious interpretation is that Luke is a Christ. However, as Luke sings "Plastic Jesus" (an apt name, methinks) after his mother's death -- a song about a statue on a dashboard that is free on the road -- a song he sings when
he is denied the chance to move. I question that this is the correct interpretation. My contention is that the Christ figure argument, in some way, is interesting but not as poignant unless seen as a part of the anti-authority argument, because really Christ was playing the same kind of game with authority that Luke is.
Poor John Carter. Itnever had a chance and for some reason I feel the need to defend it. Perhaps it's the Burroughsian ripe childhood and therefore the deep nostalgia it conjures, or perhaps it is because the movie is, simply, a good fun movie.
Weeks before the film was released, reports of its impending doom eeked through the internet and into trade magazines. In several articles, “tracking” figures were discussed by would-be “sources” with little journalistic regard for contextual backing that would allow layman readers to decipher their claims. Simultaneously to this haranguing the film’s budget and allegedly troubled production history entered into the fight and eerie whispers of the dreaded Ishtar were heard in wind. It should be noted and needs bearing in mind that, at that point, very few, and likely even fewer of those doing the writing on John Carter, had actually seen the film itself.
Why anyone would sharpen their knives for Andrew Stanton, the nerdy, clearly quite imaginative filmmaker who delivered the gems Finding Nemo and Wall*E is beyond me. Wouldn’t it be better to root harder for the end of the Michael Bay era? (the answer is yes...the sooner that man stops making movies that pillage my youth, the better).
The final torch on the pyre of John Carter’s public perception may well have been Brooks Barnes’s New York Times article (unimaginatively titled “Ishtar on Mars”) that ran on the Sunday of the film’s release, before box office numbers had even been reported in full. Barnes, though working without actual figures at his disposal (the article has since been amended with final tallies, though it omits some of the film’s staggering overseas figures in favor of making its case), seems too gleeful in his dismantling of what he views as Stanton and Disney’s colossal folly, which is far less offensive than the his false equivalence between box-office success and aesthetic quality that is laced throughout the article. Barnes's quite useless piece of writing is a perfect example of the tragic byproduct of the industry side of film, which all too easily and often becomes a conversation that should be about art into one of figures, charts, and competition. Who can ever be said to have won art? (I'm working on another post that will expound more to this idea that many of the best films made hardly any money.)
Which brings me to John Carter. In my opinion it is a cleanly told piece of unserious pulp storytelling that wants for little more than to entertain, yet never condescends to resort to the tactics of cheap ingratiation (such as past expiry pop-culture references, underlined catchphrases, fart gags, easy cynicism, racism, homophobia, etc.) that are littered throughout most entertainments of this size (*cough* Michael Bay's Transformers). This alone should qualify John Carter for a medal of some kind. For those that don't know here is the set up: a lumpy amalgam of narrative bits cobbled together from several novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi Barsoom series followsJohn Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate solider panning for gold in Arizona, as he finds himself transported to Mars. Unlike the dead and dry red planet on which today’s space obsessives hope to find evidence of life, Burroughs’s Mars/Barsoom, though indeed dusty and dry, is populated (sparsely) by several warring races. The geopolitics of Barsoom are sketched out in the film’s Willem Dafoe–voiced prologue, but the film deftly jumps from airships battling over the fate of Mars to a rainy U.S. street circa 1881 and the death of our just-met hero, before flashing back a decade earlier to Arizona via a tale in a leather-bound journal (the spark of many a great adventure fiction) John bequeathed to his nephew. It’s a fairly breathless start, one that briskly leaves its audience a half-step behind, fully confident that they’re going to want to catch up.
In an age of hurried, truncated narratives, John Carter reminded me of the pleasures of exposition. John’s travails as a prospector involve a punchily edited series of prison break attempts, a coherently staged old-fashioned shootout, and an honest-to-goodness prairie horse chase. Throughout, we’re given glimpses into the man’s character: stubbornness, distrust of authority and causes, innate moral compass, prowess with guns and swords. All standard-issue hero stuff, and this is about as deep as the film’s psychology wants to delve, not that the material demands much more. Of greater importance to John Carter’s success is its ability to regularly up the gee-whiz factor: the horse chase is quite fun, but when John finds himself alone on Mars soon after, and takes his first step, only to find himself flung into the air then quickly crashed to the ground (revealed later as the result of Earth man’s bones interacting with Martian gravity), it’s clear the filmmakers are alive to the possibilities of the world they’re creating.
Once John learns to control his body (the sequence detailing his education showcases more brilliant editing), his newfound ability to leap across vast distances places him in prime position for heroism and provides John Carter with its most graceful visual motif.
Before long, and much to his chagrin, John finds himself embroiled in the planetary war the Red Martians of peace-loving Helium and the destructive roving city of Zodanga have been waging for eons. He’s drawn in by lovely Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins) who’s on the run from Helium after her father Tados Mors (Ciarán Hinds) promises her hand in marriage to the enemy to end the war. If this all sounds a bit like Star Wars, it should—Burroughs’s 100-year old work practically invented the genre Lucas would later plunder, and now Stanton, surely reared and well versed in that foundational cinematic space trilogy pillages again in turn.
It is hard to shake off the feeling John Carter only exists because Disney saw in it the possibility for another immersive, world-making fiction in the record-breaking Avatar vein. The formula is similar: send a fairly average Joe to a far-off land where he’s somehow rendered special, pair him with a lovely princess whose civilization is threatened by war, cue battles and romance. Carter succeeds in creating a Mars that rivals Pandora for detailed rendering, and dispenses with some of Cameron’s drippier, logier tendencies. Stanton even provides, in a midfilm battle scene intercut with flashbacks to Earth which reveal Carter burying his wife and child after the Civil War, one of those bits of compressed, emotionally dense storytelling that Pixar has lately become so expert at (except Cars 2).
That the film is full of welcome cinematic devices like these doesn’t mean that John Carter isn’t often cornball (though this may well be by design), unevenly performed (I wish Kitsch was a better actor, the voice work from Morton and Dafoe is often more compelling than Kitsch’s on-screen persona), and, at times, narratively foreshortened (another fifteen minutes of Barsoom lore might not have hurt). These minor sins are forgivable in the face of a fiction that’s generous with simple pleasures: creative creature design, endlessly vast vistas, a buoyant score that’s instantly familiar and welcoming without lapsing into the derivative.
I am grateful that John Carter doesn’t seem compelled to allegorize the present moment. It doesn’t, as in the fictions of Michael Bay, score cheap points by ridiculing minority groups and rhapsodizing the patriotic. It features nary an ounce of cynicism. I’ll allow that in my critical old-age I’ve perhaps become more credulous in the face of big canvas movies produced with a modicum of care. Yet I couldn’t help but be charmed by the imperfect but stellar John Carter, and simultaneously frustrated that all of the old-fashioned joy it attempts to inspire will likely go unexperienced by viewers who’ve been craving just that.
I am excited. For those of you that haven't heard the new single from the Shins, steer on over to this "Simple Song" minisite to take a gander. The HTML5 reel-to-reel player is actually a super impressive heap of code. The volume knob works, the meters jump with the music, and the tape reels transfer sides as the song progresses.
This is a good track, not stellar, but a strong showing. It is missing the depth and bliss of say "New Slang", or "Celibate Life". Still, I am excited for the new album because if it is anything like the following gems, we are in for treats.