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Home » Culture and Criticism

Film Fiber: Midnight Express and the Rosebud Conundrum

Submitted by on October 31, 2012 – 3:58 PM27 Comments

What is film fiber? It's the movies I feel it's necessary to have watched in order to participate in the cultural conversation. Canon, in other words, and whether it's good or enjoyable isn't the point. The point, as our exasperated sophomore-English teacher noted on the subject of The Scarlet Letter: "You can hate Pearl all you want, but if you can't tell me what she means, you're going to fail this class."

The point is also to chop my Netflix queue down to something even slightly shorter than a Soviet bread line. Sometimes it's an unexpected pleasure (Casablanca); other times it's a baffling drag (Myra Breckinridge). But usually, it's a split decision, and I liked a lot of things about Midnight Express — Brad Davis's genuine and lived-in performance; Giorgio Moroder's score, untranslatable to any other material — but I had a lot of problems with it too.

The portrayal of the Turks is as egregious as you've heard… Swarthy, unshaven Jabbas; skittering cockroaches with bad dental work; meretricious dumplings with too many rings…the only thing missing from the cartoon is the identical cacti and clouds repeating in the background. Hayes Sr.'s too-long, too-loud announcement that the local cuisine gave him the trots could just speak to that particular character's blinkered discomfort, but the rest of the film has already declared everything Turkish shady and vile. Many of those involved in the film have apologized formally for that, as they should have.

…but the portrayal of the prison environment has a Camp Turkey feel. It just doesn't look that bad. Hayes's bunk has pictures and candles, he can read, he can get up in the middle of the night and get a drink of water and wander around and brood; he seems to have a supply of fresh clothing. Max gets to keep a cat (that doesn't turn out so well, but still) and drugs. The violence is, compared to what we've seen elsewhere (and, more to the point, expect to see here), not awful, and in the case of the rampant buttock-stabbings, it's actually funny. It's not Midnight Express's fault that we've seen harsher-seeming jails and more obviously psycho inmates (and guards) in the intervening years — Shawshank, Oz — but the movie was for years synonymous with a hard-to-take portrayal of overseas imprisonment, and it's hard to see why from here. (Papillon, which predates it, is far grimier, more dismal, and more successful at imparting a spiritual claustrophobia.)

I don't know what to call that, the inability to feel a film, or meet it as new, the way a contemporary audience would have because said film, and/or its firsts, has existed in the culture for so long. I know I've shared this anecdote before, but Ma tried to inject the occasional classic into our customary drivelous Rocky III rental viewing, and when she brought home Citizen Kane from Video Station, we made in-shite-ful comments like "what's with the weird angle, didn't they have tripods in the eighteen-hundreds" and "ooh, a focus pull, big whoop" and my mother is like "OH MY GOD HE INVENTED THE FOCUS PULL YOU IGNORAMI." We actually liked it pretty well on its line-narrative merits, in the end, but I've seen it several times and I don't think I've caught half of the filmmaking tools Welles pioneered — and I certainly can't get knocked back by it the way a viewer at the time might have.

So let's call it the Rosebud Conundrum for the moment, by way of saying that, through no fault of its own, much of what may have made Midnight Express notably raw or bracing or what have you is more commonplace today (sensual tenderness between two men, say), or we've seen it done better in the interim (Shawshank, In the Name of the Father, pick your prison-injustice movie), or it's in the mix as a parody. I've seen Jim Carrey whamping his breast onto prison glass and moaning "Billlleeee" in Cable Guy so many times by now that, when I got to that scene in its original form, I couldn't see it for itself. And it's stern stuff; he's jerking off, she's crying, it's intensely private — and busted — and I shouldn't immediately think of Matthew Broderick, but: there it is.

Erich looks like the guy from the Nissan "now you'll know when to stop" ad. Also not the film's fault, but I saw that ad about a thousand times during the postseason. The unfortunate result: during the shower scene, I kept expecting a little "honk!" to tell Erich to stop.

The movie's not off the hook for everything, though.

The patented Oliver Stone "Who Am I?" Moment derails the pacing. Look, I love Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone in turn loves a speech, and he can't always pull them off, but one of his gifts as a director is casting and cutting the bombast correctly, so you don't always notice that Gekko or Garrison or whoever has now entered minute 17 of speaking only in abstractions. Stone's not directing here, though, and Hayes's speech at his second sentencing hearing is much too long. From there to the end, the movie feels like it's a beat behind.

The wig work is deplorable. Hayes is sweating balls in the airport bathroom and I'm muttering, "Just take the pelt off if you're that hot, it's not fooling anyone anyway." Dollar-store Frankenstein hair is more realistic, and then it has a reprise when Hayes is in the mental hospital that ruins another kind-of-out-there Stone moment — all the patients walking in a circle — that I could have gone with if I weren't distracted by the Robert Blake scalp on Hayes's head.

So, is it worth pouring a bowl of this film fiber for yourself? Sure. It's not essential, I wouldn't say, but it's got nice performances, Randy Quaid is kind of foxy in it (I know. Abs! …I KNOW!), and in spite of the pacing spanner thrown in the works, it's not boring.

Next up on Film Fiber: Stalag 17

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27 Comments »

  • Georgia says:

    Weird, I just watched this very recently for the first time. The performances were great, and I thought Brad Davis was a total fox. (Sidebar: reading Davis's wikipedia entry after watching the movie was possibly more engrossing than the film itself.)

    I agree that the prison just didn't seem that bad. It was dirty, and some bad shit happened, and yes, you don't get to just go outside and see your friends and family when you want, but mostly it's just sitting around getting high, playing guitar and gin rummy, and reading? Sounds like an OK weekend.

    The pacing was off, but I thought it had more to do with attempting the affect of actual prison life. As in: Yep, mostly prison is not so bad–though it's fairly dull–but it's occasionally punctuated by bizarre and horrible violence (the cat, the blanket-stealing, the drug raid). While this may be an accurate depiction of life behind bars, it doesn't make it all that interesting to watch.

  • Ellie says:

    TV Tropes deems it "Seinfeld Is Unfunny." (I like "The Rosebud Conundrum"; just sayin'! Can't help being That Nerd, volunteering all the information.)

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SeinfeldIsUnfunny

  • What did you think of the Giorgio Moroder "Only in the 70's" score? I must confess a certain fondness for it, if only for the fact CBS used to use the theme from the movie during the halftime highlights of its NBA games (just like I always think of the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls whenever I hear Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius"). I haven't seen this movie in a long time, but so I just remember the music, as well as the performances of Quaid, John Hurt and Bo Hopkins (who really makes the most of being in the movie for only a few minutes).

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I like their explanation — but TVT and I both need a term that's a little less opaque about what it actually means. "Innovation Expiration"? "Guess You Had To Be There Vector"?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Loved the Moroder. It doesn't age well (see: "Electric Dreams") (…don't see it, it's horrendous), and yet it's exactly right for the movie and organic to it.

  • Jack says:

    I remember seeing this movie in college about ten years ago, and my immediate reaction was, "I'm glad I saw that [auth. note: confirming its status as "film fiber"?], but I have no desire to ever watch it again." I found it engrossing, but at the same time unpleasant and exhausting.

    Being something of a Wilder wonk, I love Stalag 17, while fully recognizing – and not caring about – its flaws. Very interested to hear your take on it.

  • haras says:

    I recently completed a project of watching all of the Oscar best picture nominees I hadn't already seen from 1978-present (my lifetime) – this was among them.
    I really like the term "film fiber" because it explains in a nutshell why I wanted to concentrate on watching a lot of these movies I hadn't seen before. There's no pressing reason to sit down and watch Apolcalypse Now, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Z, but there was a baseline that I just felt like I was missing before.
    It's certainly been interesting (my next goal is to fill in my gaps back to 1960), but not every classic is an unexpected gem for sure. There were quite a few that surprised me in a good way, but Midnight Express was not among them. It was watchable, but kind of tedious.

  • Tylia says:

    Sars, I called your Rosebud Conundrum The Psycho Dilemma for a very long time because I had avoided Psycho, and much of Hitchcock until my twenties, but because I live in the world, I knew all of the relevant twists and turns and I'd seen it done similarly and better in certain circumstances that when I did watch Psycho, it was just completely underwhelming. How about we call it the Underwhelming Touchstone Experience? Show of hands?

  • ferretrick says:

    Underwhelming Touchstone Experience is gold.

    I really like this new feature. Crush Film Festival was fun too, but that had gotten kind of stale to me. I'd nominate All About Eve for this.

  • anotherkate says:

    I always thought of this as the Simpsons Effect – where I watch a classic film and then recognize a famous line or whatever from a Simpsons parody.
    The main problem I have with older movies is accepting that even though they are often shorter over all, the action is usually slower. This is maybe not the best example, but I just watched How To Steal a Million, and it felt like it took forever to get to the actual heist. Also Hepburn was too old for the role, but that's a separate issue.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    There are also some movies adapted from the thee-ah-tah that…didn't adapt. Static shot compositions and staging, everyone yelling into the cheap seats…a lot of '40s pictures feel that way even if they didn't come from plays.

  • Sandman says:

    Ma tried to inject the occasional classic into our customary drivelous Rocky III rental viewing, and when she brought home Citizen Kane from Video Station, we made in-shite-ful comments like "what's with the weird angle, didn't they have tripods in the eighteen-hundreds" and "ooh, a focus pull, big whoop" and my mother is like "OH MY GOD HE INVENTED THE FOCUS PULL YOU IGNORAMI."

    Hee. I love it when your Ma makes a cameo appearance. She always sounds like such a riot. (But, er, not the prison kind.)

    "Rosebud Conundrum"? In this context? Hew. Dirty! (Sorry, I'm such a philistine, I know.)

    I really like "Underwhelming Touchstone Experience." And I agree with @ferretrick: I think All About Eve would make a good entry in this series. And maybe also The Magnificent Ambersons.

  • Todd K says:

    This is almost spooky — I had watched this the night before you posted. I had seen it once before, many years earlier.

    I found Stone's screenplay awful, not only for the xenophobia. Too many of his storytelling solutions are just absurd. I don't care that he departs from reality and/or Hayes's memoir. He's writing a commercial movie, more power to him. But so much is wrong with key scenes that I can't even buy into it as a lowbrow thriller. That final attempted rape and the manner in which Billy dispatches the behemoth guard is nakedly desperate in its attempt to rig a final-act jam to satisfy the formula, and so *bad* at it. How was it not rewritten on the spot? (I mean…really? The coat hook?)

    A few times I had the discomfort that comes with the worst brand of manipulative propaganda, the feeling that the filmmakers were working backward from states they wanted us to be worked into — laying groundwork so we would be exhilarated by and cheering on that rage episode with the tongue-biting, and the "nation of pigs" speech.

    The homoerotic interlude with the Swede didn't work. As you say, such material has been better presented in prestigious movies since then, besides which this was the most pretentiously shot sequence, and there was also something curiously detachable about it. It is self-contained, disconnected from what comes before and after. I suspect that Stone and Parker et al. put it there believing they might be forced to take it out at some point, and they wanted to make it no great loss to continuity if it came to that.

    The crawl at the end, which tries to weasel-word the viewer into believing the Cannes premiere of this glorified exploitation picture was responsible for a diplomatic breakthrough, is shameful.

    This is a movie that made me ponder to what degree impressive technique can rescue material that is stupid when it isn't reprehensible. Everything I've said above is negative, but Alan Parker is a good director in the mechanical ways. He can get pulses racing, he has style and brio, he pulls you in. I wish I actually liked more of his movies. "Shoot The Moon" is probably the best of them. "Mississippi Burning" has the same problems as "Midnight Express" — it's fraudulent, manipulative, and troubling, yet undeniably well made. But better acted. I liked Brad Davis less than you did; I didn't think he had a lot of presence, for someone who was going to be on screen constantly. But then, this isn't a movie in which actors count for much. They are cast for a look and then just wound up and moved around. Someone with John Hurt's gifts hardly seemed necessary. Anyone of the right age who was English or capable of faking the accent could have slotted right in.

    Ditto on the wig work!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The homoerotic interlude with the Swede didn't work. As you say, such material has been better presented in prestigious movies since then, besides which this was the most pretentiously shot sequence, and there was also something curiously detachable about it. It is self-contained, disconnected from what comes before and after.

    It did feel like a pointed idyll; I didn't have a problem with it, on that basis or otherwise. Hayes's finger-wagging "you scamp" reaction at the end was a problem for me tonally, but I thought the actors had chemistry that, had the script/project been less fearful about showing two dudes together That Way, could have put it over.

    But though I didn't think as poorly of it as you did, I agree there's a "don't look down" thing happening where, once one thing doesn't work, you start noticing everything that's off.

  • Sandman says:

    But then, this isn't a movie in which actors count for much. They are cast for a look and then just wound up and moved around. Someone with John Hurt's gifts hardly seemed necessary.

    I end up thinking some variation of this about Oliver Stone movies a lot.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    When Charlie Sheen keeps showing up as your lead, you're not going for nuance, I think it's safe to say.

  • Todd K says:

    Briefly re: "Kane." I know a lot of people are underwhelmed. It is hard not to go into it with high expectations, knowing that it's the consensus Greatest Film Of All Time. At least it was, for longer than anything else was. Recently, Sight & Sound (which may have started all the nonsense) transferred the burden to "Vertigo."

    I feel fortunate in that I took to it that first time. It really is a movie for which I have affection, rather than academic appreciation. I've seen it half a dozen times since I was 17, and my favorite scenes are still powerful and beautiful to me. I'm as likely to have as good a time or better rewatching "Kane" than I am seeing something else that's new to me.

    So I think it's one everyone should see, and I believe it holds up; because while it's dated in the details and cannot knock us out with its no-longer-novel techniques, its themes are timeless. In that sense, it's in a movie group that could include everything from "Sunset Boulevard" to "Wild Strawberries." They're old but they've still got it. I just wish its admirers had not so weighed it down, because seeing it should be an enjoyable experience. It has wit and mystery and poignancy and it's just good entertainment, apart from everything else.

  • Sandman says:

    When Charlie Sheen keeps showing up as your lead, you're not going for nuance, I think it's safe to say.

    Maybe it's the GBC fan in me, but I immediately wanted to add "uninvited" to Sars' comment above. I'm imagining Sheen turning up all glad-handy and "Stoney! What up, baby?" and the AD muttering "Psst. Ollie! What's he doing here? Again?"

  • Rachel says:

    I find I have this reaction with a lot of acclaimed or much discussed movies – that I wish I'd seen it at the time, because while I can see what people are reacting to, it just doesn't work as a movie for me because times have changed. I'm very interested to see which movies end up with the Rosebud Conundrum, and which, for you, are still genuinely engrossing.

  • @Georgia – thanks for the note – I just read the wikipedia entry and learned so much!

  • MinglesMommy says:

    "so you don't always notice that Gekko or Garrison or whoever has now entered minute 17 of speaking only in abstractions."

    HEE. Awesome.

  • Darryl says:

    I'm sure the cheese stands alone here, but I feel that Pulp Fiction fits on the Rosebud Conundrum list. I saw it for the first time a few years ago and was entirely, categorically underwhelmed. What must have felt like a serrated knife to the soft loaf of mainstream cinema circa 1994 has been so overplayed, imitated, referenced, and hyped that I failed to connect with it. The middle section also drags unforgivably; my eyes started to glaze over and I wanted to shake Tarantino's shoulders and force him back on point. The ending is admittedly terrific, and almost redeemed the self-satisfied hipster posturing of the previous two and a half hours. Oddly, I enjoyed Reservoir Dogs, which I find leaner and less showy. And Kill Bill remains one of my favorites; every scene feels charged with electric energy, and while I'm not sure I can defend it on an intellectual level, I found the whole two-volume shebang utterly engrossing and charmingly goofy/serious. Tarantino seemed to be having more kid-in-a-sandbox fun with the Kill Bills than with Pulp, where (in retrospect) it felt like he was trying to Shock The World with his new-school brilliance. Once the shock fades – and, almost 20 years later, it has – there's…not much of a movie there.

    (Citizen Kane left me cold, too. Vertigo is another story; I suspect it won't be able to bear the weight of its generationally compounding hype for long, but I loved it.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Darryl, I watched PF endlessly back in the day, but it's one of those, like Seinfeld, that I have nothing left for now.

    BTW, I welcome pitches for Film Fiber AND Crushed Film Festival.

  • Todd K says:

    Addendum on "Midnight Express": I have learned that the troublesome text crawl at the end has been cut. When I re-watched recently, I admit, I stopped at the freeze-frame of Billy clicking his heels after escaping prison; I didn't hang around for the end notes.

    In the version you're likely to see today, you will read only that Hayes crossed the border and was back in the United States shortly thereafter. Moroder's score plays out over black-and-white "joyful reunion" stills of Davis and other actors.

    In the movie's theatrical and videocassette releases, it continued, self-importantly: "On May 18th, 1978, the motion picture you have just seen was shown to an audience of world press at the Cannes Film Festival…43 days later, the United States and Turkey entered into formal negotiations for the exchange of prisoners." As Pauline Kael and other critics pointed out, those negotiations had been ongoing for years; absolutely nothing had happened in those 43 days that was not on schedule to happen anyway. The movie was disingenuously positioning itself as an important tool of reform.

    Theatrical ending: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amqzpg-H5Cc

    Anyway. The movie is just slightly less offensive, to me, with that deletion made. It's still on the hook (…as it were, heh) for the screenplay. And the wigs.

  • Todd K says:

    I haven't seen PF in years, but that sounds about right.

    I don't entirely dismiss Tarantino. His movies have energy, style and some wit, more than can be said for some; but even when he was being anointed an Artiste in 1994-95, I didn't get it. I knew he would never grow into more than he was then, and he hasn't. He reeked of arrested development somehow from the beginning. When one of his movies is over, it's as though a top has stopped spinning and I see how little was there. I never need/want to see one a second time.

    He and David Lynch both play with conventions of old movies they've seen and love, but Tarantino's films are those conventions filtered through that glib, hip-'n'-bitchy Gen X sensibility. Lynch's filters are his dreams and a very painterly eye. I'd rather be in over my head in Lynch's depths (even when, as often the case, murky) than wading in QT's shallows.

  • Darryl says:

    @Todd K, thank you – "glib" is exactly the word I was scrambling for. I do find some of Tarantino's films re-watchable – again, the Kill Bills provide me repeated joys, and I have a soft spot for True Romance – but Pulp Fiction was just so much ado about so little.

    Seinfeld…ehh. I see the "overrated" argument, but I can't call. If anything, my appreciation for the series grows with each passing year. I didn't give two hoots about it while it was on the air (mind you, I was 12 when the series ended, so 90% of its humor went right over my head).

  • Todd K says:

    I think Seinfeld holds up, but I'm more likely to enjoy one of the middle-to-late episodes than the very early ones. The most famous episodes do suffer from familiarity. If I tune in mid-episode and *immediately* recognize dialogue from "The Contest" or "The Chinese Restaurant," I don't stick around. If I tune in and I have to ask myself "Which one is this?" then I can get into it and be entertained, still.

    It has become such a period piece now. The hairstyles and clothes that the characters make fun of seem only slightly worse than the hairstyles and clothes they let pass without comment.

    Some things will never stop being funny to me, such as Mel Tormé serenading "mentally challenged" Kramer. And there's a line from "The Merv Griffin Show" that I'm always using in real life. "[name of person, enthusiastically!] Why, is it possible that you are even more beautiful than the last time I saw you?" Surprisingly, no one ever gets it.

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