The Dark Wind (1991)

The Dark Wind (1991, d. Errol Morris)

Trudge through the shit of a google search for The Dark Wind and you’ll find a lot of intensely negative reviews. They tend to share the same statement, variants of “Gee, it’s not like Errol Morris’ documentaries!” Some claim the acting is shitty, others that the plot is incoherent, boring. One complaint reads that Morris is “out of his element,” which I suppose is a remark made by someone who has never seen his masterpiece, The Thin Blue Line, the documentary-mystery that presumably caught producer Robert Redford’s attention and initiated this adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s novel. The only thing that I find boring about the movie is its reviews.

There is a serious problem with this film, a film that is as compelling, beautiful and compassionate as any mystery could ever be, and it has nothing to do with its narrative content or its acting (Lou Diamond Phillips has never given a better performance than his deadpan turn here as naive Navajo singer / rookie cop Jim Chee). It’s a problem that sounds so petty in writing that I’m hesitant to even type it. Here goes. You can see the boom mic very frequently. How frequently is very frequently? Enough to know that it’s happened more than twice. There is a whole scene in which Fred Ward’s coverage has a boom mic in it. The boom mic even appears during the film’s violent, rainy climax, which culminates in a shot that pulls back so far that it reveals the tarp that’s protecting the camera from the weather. Stills taken from these scenes would make it look like a z-grade amateur noir of the 40s, some clumsy single-set mystery where all the elements of production are scattered in the frame. Perhaps this is because it seems especially silly to have a boom mic fall into shots when characters are threatening each other with guns. Is this the fault of a documentary filmmaker (of superb technical proficiency) making his first narrative film? Or does it have something to do with the urgency of reservation shooting, amidst tensions of the Hopi and Navajo, running down the crew so that they become indifferent about execution, hoping only that the shoot will end sooner than later? I’m more inclined to go with the former, and I can only imagine the editing room, after Morris had been fired, with the producers and editors throwing up their arms and rolling their eyes, and badmouthing a director, best known for a kind of aesthetic of quality control, for his obviously poor quality control. Other than this minor technical issue, the film is exceptional, and is certainly leagues ahead of its ‘reservation mystery’ contemporary, Michael Apted’s Thunderheart.

But how should the film be treated in critical discourse, and whatever it is that fans produce on IMDB message boards? It seems to have been destined for the ire of his fans by stories of Morris being fired (mysterious in their own right). It’s very short-sighted to walk into a movie planning to hate it, and I can never understand why anyone would bother to write about something that they disliked in such meaningless terms (“oh, it’s boring…Lou Diamond Phillips is not a serious actor…therefore, Errol Morris’s film is a disaster”). I just saw this film referred to as a disaster by someone writing about the upcoming Morris premiere at TIFF, Tabloid (I assume the author never saw this film – and disaster can mean a lot of different things with a business product, but I always assume it’s qualitative). Obviously, my subjectivity is wrong, since I think this is a wonderful film, that just happens to have a series of unfortunate boom mic intrusions.

And what is the tone of the movie? It feels a Herzog film. It feels more like a Herzog film than any other thing that Morris has done because of its embrace of spontaneity (boom mics!) and its equal parts criminal investigation and anthropological investigation. Herzog and Morris’s fates and styles and subjects are entwined despite their obvious differences, and their shared territory is displayed here. I think the silliest comment that I saw about this film was that it had “Morrisian touches” (whatever that means) but was not an Errol Morris film. That might be the most pretentious statement I have ever heard about a film. I assume that some of the same people who call this film boring would watch Herzog’s equally slow Where the Green Ants Dream and, should it line with their expectations of “a Werner Herzog film,” they would consider it beyond reproach.

A closed and open mind aren’t that interchangeable.

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August 30

Winter Kills (1979, d. William Richert)

Man on Fire (1987, d. Elie Chouraqui)

Haunted Honeymoon (1986, d. Gene Wilder)

Cat Chaser (1989, d. Abel Ferrara)

Whispers in the Dark (1992, d. Christopher Crowe)

August 29

Raiders of Atlantis (1983, d. Ruggero Deodato)

Sure, those Atlantean robot dogs are cute when they’re puppies, but they grow up to be a real handful.

Don't Panic (1988, d. Ruben Galindo Jr.)

Despite its title, this strange little Nightmare on Elm Street variant has little to do with self-control. Of course, no Nightmare film ever had a climax as great as this one, preceded by an awkward dinner party with a senator like something out of a Bunuel movie.

Macabre (1980, d. Lamberto Bava)

Ghost Story (1981, d. John Irvin)

The Other Guys (2010, d. Adam McKay)

Trespass (1992, d. Walter Hill)

Money Train (1995, d. Joseph Ruben)

Robert Blake is a killer dresser.

August 28

Plain Clothes (1988, d. Martha Coolidge)

If not for So I Married an Axe Murderer, this would be the undisputed masterpiece of its rare subgenre (the romantic comedy / thriller?)

White of the Eye (1986, d. Donald Cammell)

Physical Evidence (1989, d. Michael Crichton)

Is Burt a killer?
Did he do it? Did he not?
Has he been looker’d?

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978, d. Paul Morrissey)

This may have been the most difficult still-selection task I’ve been handed by the 300-odd films on this blog, and one I never expected. One of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.

August 27

Sharky's Machine (1981, d. Burt Reynolds)

August 26

Jack the Ripper (1988, d. David Wickes)

I don’t know very much about the Jack the Ripper murders – the same stuff that I always suppose everyone knows – five women murdered in Whitechapel in 1888, with suspects ranging from surgeons to actors to royalty. But I couldn’t tell you where Whitechapel is in London. It is a great unknowable story / unsolvable crime, and I’ve always thought the pursuit of stories like this, with a mind to conspiracy theories, is usually circular and pointless, save for the entertainment of campfire parables. Jack the Ripper meets John F. Kennedy.

But there is one detail about the Ripper murders that I always do remember, because of my interest in mass hysteria: the story of the actor suspect, Richard Mansfield, who fell under suspicion through a sleight-of-hand, performing as Jekyll and Hyde at the Lycaeum. He would do this trick where he would transform from monstrous Hyde to handsome Jekyll by standing under bright stage lights that would cause his makeup to melt off. This has been phrased in places as something that would dazzle the primitive theatregoers of Victorian London – that same disgusting dismissal, past-as-ignorance, that clouds so much study of early cinema. The truth is that it was probably a very impressive and frightening act, and the stupidity of mass hysteria is timeless and borderless.

When Mansfield performed his trick, sensationalists declared him Jack the Ripper, so convincing was his transformation between madness and sanity. That’s where this silly little film finds the most interesting angle of its story, in Armand Assante’s performance of Mansfield. The rest is by-the-book, though surprisingly pro-monarchist, anti-anarchist, something uncommon in conspiracy-endorsing Ripper films (see Murder by Decree and From Hell) — and it’s tedious, badly photographed, and has glaringly inaccurate characterisations that even I recognized (like the characterization of a tradesman / community organizer as a rabble-rousing anti-monarchist).

Men in Orbit (1979, d. Lydia Lunch)

August 21

Scream Dream (1989, d. Donald Farmer)

Belch.

Tales From the Quadead Zone (1987, d. Chester Novell Turner)

Mother and son reunited in a shimmering solarized afterlife. One of the most chilling, heartbreaking, memorable films about familial dysfunction that I’ve ever seen.

The Bounty Hunters (1985, d. Bruno Pischiutta)

Words can’t describe this one ridiculous scene, in which two Vietnam vets, each in bed with two women (to a total of six bodies), speak to each other over the phone, and get sexually aroused at the thought of going on a mission.

Ninja Bachelor Party (1991, d. Kevin Booth, Bill Hicks, David Johndrow)

See: senseless killings.