Movies

Thief; Breaker Morant; Altered States

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• In films of previous decades, no matter how agonizing the struggles the good guys had to go through, or even how many of them got killed along the way, they or their cause always won out in the end. Indeed, the Hayes Code demanded such an outcome. Then in the '60s, things began to change: either the bad guys got away with it (nothing bad happened to them at the end), or they were actually treated as heroes, or, more frequently, you couldn't tell the goodies from the baddies in the first place.

In the current film THIEF the situation is a bit more complex. The goodies do win out and the baddies get their comeuppance, but the goodies are baddies themselves, only not quite so bad as the real baddies. Everybody is so bad that the audience cheers when the real baddies are wasted away and also when the not-quite-so-baddies triumph. James Caan plays the part of a professional thief who will stop at nothing to get those millions of dollars' worth of other people's property out of that vault. But he's no ordinary thief, he's got morals: he won't rat on his friends; he gives others what he has agreed to and expects the same of them; and when they don't fulfill their contractual obligations, hell has no fury like a cheated thief. He doesn't care whom he robs, but he must do it according to certain Kantian principles; and as for his wife, she doesn't care if he robs for a living either, as long as he loves her and provides for her in the style to which he has accustomed her, which is decidedly un-Kantian.

It is somewhat amazing that this seedy plot and the raunchy gallery of characters can produce such an absorbing film, but they do. The merit of the film lies not in its story line, nor even in the acting (which is good enough), but in the imaginative use of cinematic techniquesâ€"the constantly moving camera, the fit between the story and the background music, the mood pictures of Chicago in the rain, the atmospheric milieu. Students of cinema will find it sufficiently imaginative to be worthy of their attention; students of morality will find it a study in quasi-heroism cast in a frame of unrelieved decadence.

• As all Australian films seem to be these days, BREAKER MORANT is an extraordinarily well done motion picture. The writing has a keen biting edge that is missing from most American productions. The acting, the rhythm, the pace, the cutting away from one scene to another, the steady build-up to the climax, are dramatic and exhilarating. Besides all that, it has something to say.

It's about a historical incident in the South African Boer War of 1901. Australian volunteers have joined the British to defeat the Boers (Dutch); but since they have to live off the land, they cannot sustain prisoners. Unofficially the word comes down not to burden themselves with prisoners but to shoot them, but officially such a practice is forbidden. When a small contingent of Australians do it (having seen their British superiors do it), they are charged with murder, and at the trial the British will not admit the existence of any such practice. (Admitting it might arouse the Germans to enter the war on the other side.) And so the Australians are caught in between, for doing what others were doing but nevertheless disobeying "official" orders. To ensure the concealment of the truth, Lord Kitchener orders that the death penalty be pronounced on the prisoners.

In this film the Australians are innocent pawns in the system of British military "justice"; and since Breaker Morant has become a posthumous folk hero in Australia, the enthusiasm down under for this film is quite understandable. The British are depicted as doubly villainousâ€"first for railroading their own colonials to save face, and second for undertaking a war against the Boers, who were only trying to retain control of the farms they had carved out of the wilderness.

Perhaps it is not superfluous to add, and some Australians have not been hesitant to mention, that what Britain did then was not dissimilar to what Australia itself did in 1980 when it sold out the New Hebrides to retain its economic "guardianship" over the islands. It is easier for one government to deal with another government, however repressive, than to deal with individuals who prefer to deal with other individuals as free traders on a free market, without the intervention of any government. Perhaps one day they will make a film about this also, and perhaps they won't wait till 80 years after the event to do it, as with Breaker Morant. Posthumous indictment of the guilty and posthumous exoneration of the innocent are all very well, but justice is better served (though politics sometimes is not) by setting the record straight at the time it all happens.

• It's done with the trappings of scientific investigation by professors with Ph.D.s, and for all I know much of what is reported about the experiences of ALTERED STATES while one is immersed in a tank of water in total darkness with complete sensory deprivation may be accurate. But after the scientific credentials have been "established," most of what occurs in the film is not fact but fancy: for example, that a four-hour immersion in a tank could cause hair to grow all over one's body so that one looks and acts like an ape is about as credible as that the same immersion would enable one to fly like a bird or turn into a pumpkin.

As always with director Ken Russell's pictures, the viewer is subjected to a continuous bombardment of visual and auditory sensations of astounding variety. In this respect the film is a spinoff from the same director's Tommy. But as for the story line, there really isn't very much of it. Having been saturated with a variety of images that don't make all that much sense when put together, the viewer leaves the theater wondering what it has really all been about. The sensory deprivation of the protagonist has been overcompensated by the sensory over-saturation of the viewer. But after the sensory bombardment is all over, one has the definite impression of having been cheated: the viewer's senses may have been stimulated to the limit of their tolerance, but his mind has been left almost totally blank.

John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His special interest is the area of aesthetics.