Friday, November 21, 2008

castle keep...

Friday night and, as per usual, someone is standing outside of my bedroom window screaming. I have nothing to say about it, really, except that I wish they'd stop screaming, and also I needed some kind of introduction, and that was it. Anyway, I wanted to get out of the horror mood for a minute, or really kind of a half-minute, and talk about something more cheery- war movies. Well, just one war movie actually, Sydney Pollack's "Castle Keep," from 1969. "Castle Keep" is what you might call a psychedelic war film, which is to say that although it takes place in World War 2 Europe, it comes from a 1960s sensibility, and has anti-war undertones, though I wouldn't call it specifically an antiwar film, in the sense that something like "Catch-22" is pretty overtly an antiwar film. "Castle Keep" definitely isn't a pro-war film, but despite lefty leanings, it's also primarily a Hollywood film, which isn't meant as a put down, just a descriptive here.

Written by Daniel (Knock on Any Door, Picnic) Taradash and David (Jeremiah Johnson) Rayfiel, from a novel by William Eastlake (Donald Westlake's evil twin?), "Castle Keep" has a one-eyed (a rip on John Wayne in "True Grit"?) major (the great Burt Lancaster) and his troops (including Scott Wilson, Tony Bill, Al Freeman Jr and a hilarious Peter Falk) stationed in the French castle of of the Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and his wife (Astrid Heeren). Amidst sporadic bursts of violence, impromptu art lessons from Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal), visits to a nearby whorehouse, the Major's affair with the countess and encounters with a lost platoon of religious zealots (lead by Bruce Dern), wait for the Germans to attack, or the war to end, whichever comes first. Of course, there's totally a bunch of violence and chaos at the end.

"Catch-22" is the film one could most compare "Castle Keep" to, in fact. Both deal with the insanity of war through parody. Both are somewhat stylistically disjointed, as influenced by the "Hollywood Renessaince" of the late-1960s ala "Easy Rider" etc. Both have large ensemble casts. And both films are boundary pushers in regards to content (both are among the first mainstream American films to feature frontal nudity). Of the two, "Catch-22" is the more extreme, the funnier, the gorier, the more absurd and as such perhaps the more memorable. But as a companion piece, the more subdued, detached "Castle Keep" is worthy of mention, particularly in regards to being a war film produced with presumable antiwar intent during an unpopular war.

During Vietnam, of course, filmmakers weren't making films explicitly about Vietnam, but rather filtering their reactions to the war through other genres. War films were about WW2 and WWI (Johnny Got His Gun) and then of course there were westerns (the Wild Bunch) and horror films (Night of the Living Dead). For whatever reason, this approach makes more sense to me than making films explicitly about something that's going on at the time you're making the thing it's about (which would be about as awkward as this sentence here). The only movie about Vietnam actually made during Vietnam that I can think of is "The Green Berets," a propagandistic John Wayne flick that used to have something of a cult follow but seems to have been mostly forgotten over the past fifteen or twenty years. Grafting contemporary themes onto an existing genre gives the filmmaker some distance and some leeway to react directly without the concern for immediate authenticity. Call it allegory, or metaphor, or symbolism, or whatever, but sometimes being a step removed can bring you a step closer to your subject. I'm not 100% on this, but it's a thought. Perspective requires time.

Interestingly enough, the other film that "Castle Keep" most resembles is William Peter Blatty's "The Ninth Configuration," a post-Vietnam movie (in fact, an explicitly post-Vietnam movie). Both films feature groups of soldiers sequestered in remote castles, dealing with boredom and insanity (in "Castle Keep," the insanity of war, in "Ninth Configuration," the soldiers' own insanity) (both films also feature actor Scott Wilson, whom I like quite a bit). And again, we have a disjointed and distant cinematic style and cryptic ending. In many ways, these movies, along with "Catch 22," are the opposite of contemporary (or semi-contemporary, as this film, I realize, is several years old now, but still influential) war movies like "Saving Private Ryan," which portray war as a kind of stunt ride, not so much in an action movies sense, but in an aggressive, you-are-there way that strives for authenticity but of course is not really authentic because, after all, it's only a movie.

These older films seem to acknowledge the impossibility of accurately portraying the horrors of war onscreen, that the makers of the films haven't experience the horrors of war firsthand, and that there will always be a layer of unreality between cinema and truth. As such, the reality of these films is portrayed as fragmented and absurd, not specifically temporally linear, and distanced further by ironic humor. The results, in all three cases, are disorienting, at times disturbing. "Castle Keep" is definitely the "straightest" of the three movies but in some ways it's deceptive in its' slowness and dreaminess, lulling the viewer into something of a fugue state, of engrossment, identification, then shocking with a moment of violence, or humor, or sheer oddness. "Castle Keep" is an easy film to get lost in, and I think is the type of movie that benefits from multiple viewings.

Oddest of all is that this film seems to be so historically overlooked. It's not exactly as "important" a film as "Catch 22" (forgotten more or less for many years itself, and still not as revered as it probably deserves to be), but it is a significant film in viewing Hollywood's (Pollack made this right after "the Scalphunters," also with Lancaster, and right before "They Shoot Horses Don't They," my favorite film) reaction to Vietnam, and it does contain some moments of genuine absurd brilliance. In one scene, a soldier rhapsodizes over the beauty of a Volkswagon. In another, Falk, at his funniest, splits with the rest of the troops on their way to the bordello, opting to go to a nearby bakery instead. "Where there's a bakery," he announces," there's a baker's wife." Upon meeting the (widowed) baker's wife, he tells her, "I'm a baker." She replies, "I'm a baker's wife."

Up next, postwar examinations of violence in "Naked Massacre" and "Mr. Majestyk," and maybe some more Charles Bronson shit. Maybe...

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