Film Fiber: Midnight Express and the Rosebud Conundrum
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
Tags: bigotry in film and TV Brad Davis Cable Guy Casablanca Citizen Kane Film Fiber Giorgio Moroder In The Name Of The Father JFK Jim Carrey manipulative use of pets in film and TV Matthew Broderick Midnight Express movies Myra Breckinridge Nathaniel Hawthorne Oliver Stone Oz Papillon Randy Quaid Rocky III the bog of labored symbolism The Shawshank Redemption Wall Street