Sunday, 6 April 2008

Masculinity + Sweat + Intensity = Chuck Heston (RIP)

When he heard the news, even Moses needed a hug. Charlton Heston died today, and though I wanted to talk about him and his work, I didn't want to say too much about his politics, other than to say that the views he held later in life were antithetical to mine, and that though he came out of Bowling for Columbine looking bad, Michael Moore came off looking bad too for haranguing a sick old man (that said, the end of the interview, with Heston walking away, followed by Moore, is oddly enough more dramatic and "exciting" than most car chases made today, though much slower). But how easy is it to talk about Charlton Heston without talking about his political influence?

I've found that having a blog makes me want to write about everything that happens around me in some form or another (one good reason not to get Twitter, because I would be chained to it), but when sitting down to do it, I realise I've not reached a point of comprehension complete enough to ensure what I write won't look ridiculous or ill-informed or outright embarrassing. Commenting on contemporary politics of any kind is too daunting to get into, which is why I've concentrated more on pop culture chatter (though again I pledge my support for Firefly/Pilager '08).

I'm sure I've failed over and over for many reasons (though I'm right about Torchwood), and that's bad enough, but when it comes to talking about politics, I find it even harder. It's not like I know nothing about it, but I'm not able to comment from a position of superiority, and that's a failing that makes me shrink from talking about it (even though a blog is meant to be about personal experience either as monologue or starting point for a dialogue, and not a source of encyclopaedic knowledge). A blog post about my experience reading and watching both versions of The Fountainhead lies unwritten because I know it will open me up to all sorts of criticism, either justified or cranky or knee-jerk and hostile. The technical term for this is, "cowardice".

It's the same with Charlton Heston's gun love. I strongly believe he was wrong, but today it struck me that even though I didn't hold to his beliefs, his work had a big effect on me. I've been working on a project looking at sci fi in popular culture, and the late 60's/early 70s featured some outright classics, three of which starred Heston. It meant that during for a short period he was the populist face of bold sci fi, appearing in films using the genre to comment on the world in the aftermath of the counterculture clashes of the Vietnam period (Tom Cruise and Will Smith do a similar thing now), starring in a trilogy of good to great movies that remain relevant or intriguing to this day.

That's all I want to talk about, and yet with someone as divisive as Heston was, it's hard to get into it without paying lip-service to my mixed feelings about him. People focus on his right-wing views later in life, but let's not forget his support for the civil rights movement and his march with Martin Luther King. This article has some good pithy background on that. So, now I've reluctantly touched on his political life, here are five (personal, pop-culture-related) reasons why Charlton Heston's death has affected me above and beyond any comment about what he eventually stood for.

5. It's not that great a movie, and it's the kind of film that would be loathed today for following a trend and being nothing more than a big event movie, and the moment that shocked me most is a rip of the end of The Poseiden Adventure, but when Charlton Heston dies at the end of Earthquake, my young self (watching it on TV) was horrified, mortified... terrified.

He did many better movies (only a few of which I've seen), but to see him try to save Ava Gardner and then meet his maker was just too much for me, and haunted me for ages. Apparently it was his idea as well (unveil the spoiler at the bottom). So yeah, not a brilliant movie, but compare it to Dante's Peak, or Volcano, or The Day After Tomorrow, or any of the recent disaster movies that pop up every so often like the bling-encrusted but spoiled brats of the genre, thumbing their mechanical noses at the classy parents borne in the 70s, and you see real craft there. Plus, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Richard Roundtree, Walter Matthau, and Geneviève Bujold, who I thought was all French and classy and hott when I was young. It may not be The Towering Inferno, but it's not The Swarm, so it wins some kind of award. Okay, so everything that isn't The Swarm deserves an award, but still.

4. A lot of comment flies around about Charlton playing a Mexican in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, but never mind that, feel the quality of that Hestonian intensity! This is my favourite Welles movie, and this original trailer is incredibly salacious, all sweat and low camera angles and shadows. I love it.


I'm actually including this because I'm so impressed he was willing to play an almost irredeemable asshole in Soylent Green. In a future where food is nothing more than slabs of protein made in a factory, where natural foodstuffs are rare and the difference between the haves and have-nots is even more pronounced than it is now, where fighting to survive means you have to be ready to kick a lot of ass for things we take for granted now, Heston had to sell that at the risk of alienating the audience. His macho bravado, chauvinism, brutality and uncompromising attitude are a sight to see. Many actors would resist playing someone this unlikeable, but Heston knew what he was doing.

2. Obviously, Planet of the Apes has to go in here somewhere. It's one of the great final scenes of all time, one that made my poor child brain turn into a cinder when I first saw it, but just like THE SECRET OF SOYLENT GREEN, it's been spoiled to the point where it's impossible to recapture that amazement. I came close a few years back, while living with a flatmate who had not only never seen it but had no idea about the twist. How he managed this I don't know, though it might have had something to do with his dismissive attitude towards any non-musical cultural artifact that was American. I badgered him into watching it one night even though he was initially sceptical and kept whining that he didn't want to see a dumb ape movie, but that Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack and hyper-intense Heston performance held his attention right up to this incredible scene.

He looked like he had been punched in the gut. "Fuck! It was Earth all along!" Priceless.

1. Shades of Caruso is heavily pro-I Am Legend, thinking the most recent re-telling of the story is a much-misunderstood classic that will be reappraised over time (our copy of it is in-bound from the US and is highly anticipated even though There Will Be Tears). That said, though Canyon thinks I have brain-problems for even considering it, I'm also a big fan of The Omega Man, Boris Segal's version of Richard Matheson's novel, partially because Ron Grainer's score is excellent, but mainly because Heston was at his most Hestony for the majority of it. With no one else onscreen, he perspired and grimaced and filled the screen with machismo tainted by loneliness and madness, a violent tough guy and killing machine reduced to rewatching Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock over and over again just to see crowds again. The sight of this iconic he-man, who had represented the word of God and hung out with Jesus and fought film wars with Sam Peckinpah, sitting in an empty theatre watching hippies dance about like the last living embodiment of the fossilised losers of the culture wars, was a memorable image.

The best scene, though, comes early on, when trying to find a new car to replace the one he just crashed. Coming across a car dealership with the right model parked inside, Heston engages in a bit of banter with an imaginary salesman, and his response to the outrageously high price (again imaginary), is possibly my favourite line reading of any dialogue ever in all of cinema ever ever no comebacks. It probably won't affect other people the way it affected me (i.e. gales of laughter). It's just so out of the blue, but then I guess he too is insane from the first frame of the movie, just like Will Smith is in I Am Legend. Plus, you know, he's right.

RIP, Mr. Heston.


Masticator said...

I never really understood why Heston was robust and fiery enough to address a pro-gun rally in Denver not long after the Columbine massacre, but too old and feeble to be badgered about it by Moore.

sjwoo said...

Heston hit the trifecta of 70s B-movie cheesiness: Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, Omega Man. Despite all of his later-life politics, I'll always be a fan of his movies.

BTW, I just finished reading Matheson's I Am Legend. Loved every line. I was surprised to see how much of The Omega Man sticks to the original story: the girl, the vampire society, Neville's death.

sjwoo said...

By the way, I just saw the movie version of The Fountainhead! If Canyon thought Glen Hansard had "googly eyes," what about Patricia Neal's? I believe I'm going to have nightmares for the foreseeable future.

After seeing the film, initially I thought maybe I was being too harsh. It was, after all, 1949, and cinema wasn't exactly at its most sophisticated. But then I remembered that just a year later, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard came out, so no excuses. Ayn really could've used some help with the "screen play" there.

Admiral Neck said...

Masticator, God helped him up to the podium, obviously. Know your messianic prophets a little better, sir. Besides, I've met Moore, and he's pretty imposing himself. I was intimidated by him. And his beard needed trimming pronto.

sjwoo, Glad you liked Matheson's book. It's one of the greats, though its fans are often a bit too protective of it. Omega Man and the Will Smith/Francis Lawrence version are different stories to the original, and valid in their own right. Especially the latter. We really loved that movie.

As for The Fountainhead, that movie is hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Some appalling performances, clunky symbolism, melodrama heightened to the popint of parody. What worst, though (and not funny at all), the rape scene from the book that is already really shocking is even more so here, stripped of Rand's crazy rationalisation and featuring Gary Cooper's terrifying face leering from the shadows. So, Rand came up with a philosophy about people whose pure freedom from the constraints of societal norms will only allow courtship in the form of rape because anything else is weak acquiescence to an opposing viewpoint/philosophy. Well done, Ayn. That's a keeper. [/immense withering sarcasm and disbelief]

sjwoo said...

And the philosophy also apparently believes Cooper did the right thing by blowing up the Cortland housing development (a housing development for the poor, no less!). Because, you know, it had balconies. I wonder if he would've used nuclear arms if Peter Keating and Co. decided to go a little Greek or God forbid, colonial...

It's a bad movie, but incredibly entertaining nonetheless. Which I suppose you could say about her books, too. IMDB has Atlas Shrugged slated for this year, starring Brangilina. All rumors, of course.

This past weekend, I saw The Fountainhead, Walk Hard, and J-C Van Damme's The Quest. All three were hilarious, though only one intentionally!