â€¢ The Tin Drum
â€¢ Bronco Billy
â€¢ The Shining
â€¢ To a viewer who has been left somewhat cold by the "new wave" of German films (too arty and precocious), it is a pleasant surprise to see THE TIN DRUM, the most richly-textured, cinematic, and thought-provoking German film since the great days of Fritz Lang. I have not read GÃ¼nter Grass's novel from which the film is adapted, but the story has certainly been rendered into film in superb style. It is full of the rich flavor of life in central Europe between the wars, seen through the eyes of a boy who (in the dominant conceit of the story) grows older in years and in intelligence but not in physical size. Constantly beating his tin drum, the symbol of a child who doesn't want to grow into adulthood, he decides not to grow, and his decision makes it so.
The story is set in Danzig (now Gdansk), the Polish seaport whose invasion by the Nazis touched off World War II, and was caught in every crosscurrent of war throughout the generations. Those Poles who become loyal Nazis prosper for a while, as the Nazis take over Poland, and all the child's anti-Nazi friends and protectors are killed, blindly and meaninglessly. The child simply absorbs such wanton destruction as one of many facts of daily life; but when the war ends, his father, a devoted Nazi, is himself killed by the invading Russians, and the 20-year-old baby has no one left.
Even during the war, life goes on, and the sexual conflicts and exploits of the members of the familyâ€"including those of the seeming child, who has the sexual proclivities of an adolescentâ€"are graphically recorded. But as one person after another is destroyed in the shifting fortunes of war, and the land simply exchanges conquerors, in the end nothing really changes: just as the film began, with the boy's grandmother sitting in a bleak potato field and shielding her husband from the police under her capacious skirts, so it also ends, with the now-ancient woman still sitting in a potato field, waving at the crowded freight train that, unknown to her, carries the boy along with thousands of others to a Russian labor camp. We do not learn of this fate, but we can only assume, as the whole tenor of the film has previsioned, that nothing changes and that he too will be a victim like all the others of the destructiveness of a world gone mad.
â€¢ A train is approaching in the desert, and the masked gunmen on horseback prepare to board it and rob the passengers, though they're not quite sure how to go about it. But it's a modern train, and it goes too fastâ€"the horses can't catch up with it, and the robbers are left all dressed up with no place to go. "It's not 1880 any more," says the girl, "all that stuff happened a hundred years ago!" And somewhat sheepishly they return to their regular activities, operating a cheapie circus that goes from one small town to another, never making any moneyâ€"itself an outmoded activity in an age of television.
There are many incidents like this in Clint Eastwood's newest film, BRONCO BILLY. It isn't exactly a Western, nor is it even a spoof on a Westernâ€"it's a nice heart-warming tale of a group of 20th-century misfits who might have succeeded in the 19th; they belong in an era that is long since gone. But they don't feel sorry for themselves; they just go ahead with what they like to do most. And through all of it there arises a warm feeling of camaraderie that becomes the main excuse for their staying together. Eastwood as director has a nice flair for comedy, but even the comedy is incidental, like sparks on a forge; it's really just an old-fashioned melodrama with an occasional sardonic twist, set in a century when melodramas themselves seem dated and somewhat cute. But in its own unpretentious way the film celebrates the values of loyalty and personal togetherness, and there aren't many films these days that make you feel this good.
â€¢ That Stanley Kubrick's new film THE SHINING is a masterly work of cinematic imagination and technical expertise could not be seriously denied. But "the ultimate in horror"â€"the come-on given in advertisementsâ€"it definitely is not.
The setting is one with great potential for the macabre: a palatial lodge in the Rockies, deserted all winter except for a caretaker and his family (Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd), inaccessible to the outside world most of the winter because of snowstorms. With all this empty grandeur and only three people to inhabit it from October to May, the possibilities of going crazy from loneliness and isolation would be considerable even in the most well-adjusted of families, which this one clearly is not. The psychological effects of the isolation and the lowering of mutual irritability-thresholdsâ€"together with the eerie and ominous background music by Bartok and Pendereckiâ€"would itself be sufficient material for a drama of terror. This is how Hitchcock would have done it; but Kubrick, apparently aiming for overkill, fires with a second barrel of the supernatural lest the first barrelâ€"the purely psychologicalâ€"not be sufficient for terrifying the viewer into a state of paralysis.
But the second barrel is a mixed blessing. The need for a child's ESP powers ("shining") in a drama already overloaded with terror potential is far from clear, and it muddies the waters without adding anything substantial to the suspense. Scenes in which the isolated hotel suddenly becomes peopled with guests, complete with dance music out of the '20s, seem clearly to be fantasy: but are they projections of the unconscious wishes and fears of the characters, or are they to be construed as real, in some science fiction time-warp? They are not simply dream-sequence interludes as in Hitchcock's Suspicion, for what occurs in them determines the course of subsequent events. Their exact ontological status is left unclear, even after the revelatory conclusion, which is apparently supposed to tie the whole thing together. The film might have been better, and certainly would have been clearer, without the intervention of supernatural forces.
At any rate, it is the psychological and not the supernatural that provides the real terror. The stock line from the Johnny Carson show, "Here's Johnny!" uttered by Nicholson as he is chopping down the door with the same axe intended to hack his wife to pieces, is an eerie mixture of black humor with real terror. And the moment when the wife finally discovers the manuscript on which her husband has supposedly been working all these months, with nothing but "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" endlessly repeated on the typewriter, is far more revealing and terrifying than any of the unexpected appearances of ghosts (if that's what they are) or scenes from hell (if that's what they are) that are inserted into the story. The life-and-death chase through the maze, in which the precognitive child outwits his murderous father without benefit of extrasensory awareness, is much more chilling than the scenes in which the child reveals his "unnatural" powers.
For my money, the terror could have been achieved better without the trappings. But, as Hector Berlioz responded when he was asked why he needed 720 vocalists and instrumentalists to achieve the effect of divine wrath in the "Deus Irae" of his massive Requiem, the desired effect was achieved by this enormous ensemble, and isn't that enough? That Kubrick did achieve what he wanted by these extraordinary means is also perhaps enough. Still, one can't help wondering about that second barrel.
â€¢ Yet another film about prison conditions is BRUBAKER, very loosely based on an actual discovery in Arkansas a few years ago of bodies of prisoners who had been worked or beaten to death. The mistreatment of prisoners in films is something to which audiences have become so inured that they seem by now to be quite anesthetized to such depictions. Nor is there anything substantially different in this film from what has been seen in countless others.
The first 20 minutes are interesting: we see various aspects of prison life, with a recurring haggard face in the mass which we recognize as that of Robert Redford, carefully observing, studying, his piercing eyes taking in everything, but never speaking. We know something is about to happen, for no Redford picture is going to run its full course with the main character saying nothing. When a sudden change (what Aristotle calls "reversal") does occur, it is enough to make the audiences stand up and cheer. After that, although the attempted changes in the prison system are carefully documented, there is not much that arouses strong feeling any longer. The film is a good illustration of the importance of timing: the very same incident that, prepared for in a certain way, could have been shattering in its impact, can be presented (as in this film) with almost no effect at all. As I have mentioned before in this column, a study of Mervyn LeRoy's early film I Am a Fugitive, which infallibly raises audiences (even when it is shown today) to successive peaks of indignation and excitement, would have shown the makers of Brubaker what to do and what not to do in writing, pacing, and cutting. One leaves the theater feeling that the material is worthy of being moved by, yet one has not really been moved. It is not the material that is at fault, but the treatment. What Albert Barnes wrote about painting is just as true of film: "In art, the treatment is everything."
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His special interest is the area of aesthetics.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".