Saturday, 18 February 2012

From the archive: "The Manchurian Candidate"

The great critic Manny Farber described the original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate as "straight jazz, all the way through". Jonathan Demme's 21st-century reworking opens with the credit "music by Rachel Portman" (the pianist-composer best known for flowery period soundtracks like Emma) "and Wyclef Jean" (the former Fugee) over a scene in which American soldiers are listening to a mix of rap, rock and reggae. This briefest of moments sets the (discordant) tone for a film that's at once jagged, schizophrenic, richly, wonderfully weird, and the best thing Demme's done in a good ten years.

The source of the prevailing trauma (of Korean origin, circa '62) has been brought closer to home, relocated from the Far East to - not surprisingly, given current events - the Middle East. Sergeant Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a Gulf War I hero, has spent the decade since stockpiling pot noodles and old papers, failing to sleep, and - in his rare public appearances - extolling the virtues of Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a former comrade-in-arms now running as a vice-presidential candidate. Everyone associated with Marco and Shaw's unit has been having flashbacks, though, centring around a funny-haired doctor in the paid employ of the Manchurian corporation. What can it all mean?

This version has a strange idea of paranoid, insisting - like the conspiracist Marco, who starts seeing connections everywhere - that more is more. Demme has always been a noodly, experimental sort of director (he dabbles in documentaries - Stop Making Sense, the recent The Agronomist - that are often more satisfying than his fiction work), and a filmmaker who'll think nothing of throwing in a bit of sound or one of his increasingly large roster of cameo performers to get a rise from the cognoscenti. The approach ruined his previous remake, 2002's The Truth About Charlie, where the fiddliness took the form of prodding and poking around the edges of a film aspiring to the lightness of a Nouvelle Vague caper; instead, you saw the director's fingerprints all over the thing, and a would-be souffle collapsed and fell apart.

Demme's technique here is more controlled: he employs a layering of aural, visual and narrative elements that not only does the trick, but proves vastly more sophisticated than anything in the soi-disant "grown-up" Charlie. Every scene in this Candidate is milked for too much information. Instead of the original's implicit brainwashing, we get the over-emphatic deployment of scientists in white lab coats pushing drillbits through people's foreheads. The screen swells with graphics documenting the state of play in the presidential election. In one exposition scene between Marco and Shaw at the latter's campaign headquarters, you're distracted from the dialogue by the relentless flashing of Shaw's slogan - "Secure Tomorrow" (as much an order as a promise) - on a screen behind them.

And thick and fast it comes at last, and more and more and more. When Marco, already at the flustered stage of paranoid, goes to the New York Public Library to research the scientists he believes are responsible for his hazy mindset, your eyes are drawn not to the results of his Google inquiries, but to the Elvis impersonator sitting at the monitor next to him. After the Oscar triumphs of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme's rep as an actor's director means even relatively minor roles can be filled with familiar faces, leading the viewer to wonder what part these performers might yet play in the conspiracy. (If Demme were putting implants in people's heads, he'd probably put in seven or eight at a time, just to be sure, and get Roger Corman, Charles Napier and Tracey Walter to hold his victims down.)

A successful paranoid thriller should lead the viewer to suspect every frame of the celluloid, and to wonder where the next shot is going to come from. Demme's imagery invariably finds its target: it gets under your skin, leaves you feeling nauseous. I spent much of The Manchurian Candidate wanting to throw up, and unable to distinguish whether it was a consequence of the day I was having, or of the purples, greens and scarlets of the film's palette. A string of roving close-ups evoke travel sickness before the subjectivity of the events depicted manifests itself in slightly hectoring point-of-view shots, where the actors have only to look and shout into the camera. A painting hanging on the wall of Shaw's hotel suite takes as its subject the hotel suite itself (complete with painting), so that, as the camera approaches from Shaw's point-of-view, we find ourselves peering into a form of infinity. In every other scene, a noodly guitar (Portman's? Jean's?) is audible in the very background, nagging away at you; it conjures up activity in adjacent rooms, business our hero cannot quite get to. (Shaw's suite, it turns out, backs onto a surgical theatre.) If your stomach doesn't start turning, your head just might.

The most audacious studio release of the year, this Candidate proceeds with a certain dream/nightmare logic. For much of its two hours, you're immersed in somebody else's subconscious, albeit a subconscious starting to malfunction; as if to remind us this is the work of a filmmaker who moved from low-budget exploitation fare to the studio system long before Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, the film unreels as a series of nightmares in a damaged brain. A slight problem is that all this rampant paranoia doesn't give us, as rational observers, many sureties to cling to, or anyone much to side with. Washington, our nominal hero, is identified as an obsessive oddball from the very first shot of his cluttered apartment. The actor seems to grow more teeth the older he gets (which isn't entirely unhelpful to a film evoking the terrors of the dentist's chair: authority figures rummaging round inside you, metal scraping teeth, the sound of the drill), yet seems a little dehydrated from all the sweating he had to do in last year's Out of Time: he's pliable, and therefore just as susceptible as anybody else on screen to delusions or madness.

Schreiber's Shaw is a blank, partly deliberately, one assumes: his character's been politically neutralised to suggest he could go either way on a number of issues, but his tenor has a Kerry-like waffle to it, and he's perhaps the only VP in history unable to get laid. As Shaw's mother - and principal cause of that dry spell - Meryl Streep contributes another of the American screen's monstrous matriarchs. (Some critics have compared her character to Hillary Clinton, others to Margaret Thatcher, others still to characters in Greek literature; as she stomped about her mansion in a black evening gown, I rather thought she resembled Sharon Osbourne.) A cool, lean, efficient political machine, Streep's Eleanor crunches on ice cubes and insists on doing everything for her boy, whether opening files or lovingly patting his nude form with a towel - but cast as a pantomime villainess, she's hardly a natural point of identification. We're left in the position of the caged monkeys kept by Marco's buddy Delp (Bruno Ganz): blasted with light and noise, jacked up on stimuli.

Is this new Candidate, then, a document or a product of an extreme cultural malaise? (It is, after all, Paramount's third remake in less than six months, after Alfie and The Stepford Wives.) Demme's film strikes me as just as much part of the self-analysis of American life as is visible in 2004's spate of dissenting documentaries, films which appear to suggest the country needs all the help it can get. One might consider the hardwringing special pleading on behalf of a nation more than capable of pulling itself - and several other nations - out of trouble if only it would accept its responsibilities. Released in the US before this year's presidential election, and in the UK in the weeks after, this Candidate offers a potent explanation for the events of November 2nd: that an America of great privilege and arrogance, whose power is rooted in lines of paternity which stretch back to the founding fathers, is preferable in the eyes of many Americans to an America - evoked by Kerry and the mollycoddled, mother-fixated Shaw, and which a liberal-left text like The Manchurian Candidate can't help but represent - of even greater insecurities.

(December 2004)

The Manchurian Candidate screens on Channel 4 at midnight tonight.

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