Saturday, September 19, 2020

Why Sorcerer Is a Great Quarantine Film

For years the film Sorcerer was more of a legend than a movie to me. Peter Biskind's book about 70s New Hollywood, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls came out right as I was becoming a film obsessive. I devoured and re-read it. He talks a lot about Sorcerer, William Friedkin's 1977 follow-up to The Exorcist and The French Connection.

In those films Friedkin had combined genre film-making with international art cinema techniques. The results were absolutely thrilling and made a lot of money. A few years ago I got to see The French Connection on the big screen and was blown away by its energy and creativity, hardly a usual crime film. Sorcerer came out in 1977 and flopped. It arrived in theaters right when Star Wars hit its wide release. 

As Biskind pointed out, the whole thing was a kind of metaphor of where Hollywood was heading. Blockbusters were in, arty movies by difficult directors were out. I learned in the book that Friedkin spent massive amounts of the money on the film. twice as much as Star Wars cost. The expense was not in models and special effects, but in getting the perfect shot of a truck driver shifting gears. Reading the book it sounded horribly self-indulgent.

The Tangerine Dream score is just too good

Sorcerer was very hard to find on video and wasn't streaming, but a couple of years ago I got my mitts on the blu-ray release. I bought it sight unseen because I had waited almost twenty years and I was damn well going to see it!

I also knew that the underlying story was a good one. It's an adaptation of the 1953 French film, Wages of Fear, one I had already seen and liked. In both films a group of outcasts and vagabonds in South America must drive trucks full of unstable nitroglycerin over treacherous jungle and mountain roads. Their pay will be their ticket out of a nightmarish existence. With a setup like that, it's hard to go wrong. 

In Friedkin's version we get to see how the four vagabond criminals came to be outcasts. One is a Mexican assassin, another part of a New Jersey gang that met a band end, another a Palestinian terrorist, and the last a corrupt French banker. The films starts as four short films, a format I find innovative and interesting. 

The film has been criticized for having all this setup for characters who still remain distant from the audience. I actually like that. These outcasts -who know they have done wrong- are really standing in for the broader human experience of being playthings in the hands of fate. All four were unlucky, and while they did bad, they seem more honest that the oil company officials sending them on their deadly mission. 

The tension in some of the scenes, especially in driving the trucks over a rope bridge swinging in a raging storm, is almost unbearable to watch. Seeing the film last night, however, it felt more familiar and less fantastical.

School has started again, meaning that I am working like the devil to make distance learning work for my students while juggling my children's education needs and somehow preparing meals in the midst of days that are spent in a constant state of frenetic anxiety. It really does feel like managing my emotional state is akin to driving a truck full of nitroglycerine over a flimsy jungle bridge in a thunderstorm. Like the characters of the film, I have no confidence that I can make it, but not pushing forward is not an option. It must be done.

The universal quality of the characters' dilemma is helped out by the fact that none of the actors (who do a great job) are stars. The closest is Roy Scheider, who is the kind of actor who only could have been famous in the 70s. His charisma is more subtle, but his presence is unmistakeable. At the end, when his mind is fraying under the stress he is enduring, you can put yourself in his shoes the way you couldn't with say Steve McQueen.

This past year has reminded me more than ever that I am at the mercy of forces well beyond my control. I have had to make my peace with the complete uncertainty ruling my existence. Being unexpectedly called into campus? My children's school schedule altered? Loved ones I can't visit getting really sick? Ruth Bader Ginsburg dying? I'll just have to keep driving that truck, whether I make it or not.

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