Saturday, November 03, 2007
COOL HAND LUKE
COOL HAND LUKE (1967, Stuart Rosenberg, Donn Pierce / Frank Pierson screenplay from the Pierce novel)
Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute? It's beginning to look like You got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all of them... rules and regulations and bosses. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it's beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me?
There's an energy to the camera work, peculiar editing choices that jab you awake, unexpected rhythms in the story-telling that make this distinctly American film feel foreign. The prison work gang, strangely energized by some whim of the title character, shovels dirt onto fresh-poured asphalt and the camera jostles and dodges like a brothel kid with a new point-and-shoot. A dramatically charged scene chops off mid-climax, almost mid-sentence, hard cut to another that wanders langourously, maybe tells no story at all, and ends as strangely. But it's anything but sloppy: everything feels inspired, enlivens, conspires to keep you edgy, alert, alive. Like maybe you've just found yourself in a chain gang, and you've got no idea of the rules around here, and there are a hell of a lot of them. Just like Luke, who plays his hand cool, but has to stay awake to stay alive.
Some wax nostalgic about the movies of the sixties, but I say, only if you lived in Paris. America was a cinematic dead zone, studios floundering like dying behemoths while the culture moved on. But LUKE cuts against that.
Those also happened to be years when God wasn't welcome in the movie theatre, so God-hungry folks made much of Luke as a Christ-figure. Fair enough, but a curious Christ-figure, an ironic one, a Christ-figure for a Christ-fleeing time. Sure, he gets beat like Gibson's Christ, and like Gibson's Christ keeps standing up to ask for more, he sprawls out cruciform enough times to let you know everybody making this movie had Something In Mind, and there's allegory in the way none of it touches him, in the princely, winsome, relentless way he moves toward freedom, embodies it. (Freedom was big in 1967, as was cool: rules and conformity, not so much.) Yet he confounds all that Jesus stuff with face-to-face fights with his unseen Daddy that howl "I'm the suffering servant, but there's nobody up there to serve." If he's Jesus, he moves perpetually between Gethsemane and Calvary, a pervasive "Why have you forsaken me" behind that smile. You want to make him into a Jesus, you gotta face the fact that this Messiah's message is that there ain't nobody out there, or if there is, He's mean as a prison guard, and further away. Failure to communicate, indeed.
Still. There's something in Luke's courage, his more-or-less innocence, the self-contained swagger that means nobody no harm, something that just plain transcends. Something very Jesus, all that absent Father business notwithstanding. Something about this saintly Luke that's almost gospel.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU