Sunday, February 05, 2006
SIFF Notes: Year of the Dragon
"What investigation? What Chinese Mafia? The investigation's in your mind!!!"
There's no better film to represent the lofty aims of the Saturn Intergalactic Film Festival than Michael Cimino's lunatic masterpiece, Year of the Dragon (1985).
Anyone who knows me at all knows that this film is my obsession, my recurring subject, my idea of the ultimate film. It is by far the worst film I have ever seen, to the point where it is off the scale and into the other camp. In my life there have been maybe five films that I would define as containing everything I ask for in a motion picture experience. This is one of them.
I saw it on opening day at the University Theatre, in 70mm no less. I went in without a lot of preconceived notions. It looked stylish and violent so I had to go, and it was directed by the man whose last picture virtually destroyed a major film studio. I knew it was co-written by Cimino and Oliver (Scarface) Stone. I knew who Mickey Rourke was but he hadn't made an impression on me yet. It was also the first 'restricted' movie I successfully snuck in to see. So I thought I knew, somewhat, what I was in for. Nothing, nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen when the lights went down.
For the next two hours and sixteen minutes a crazy fever dream unfolded in eye-blistering colour and cinemascope, a tale of a racist police captain who tries to bring down the powerful chinese mafia in New York. Only this New York was primarily filmed on a maddeningly detailed recreation of New York built on a studio backlot in North Carolina (with some additional location work in New York and Vancouver). This film was unlike any other - a psychotic, unpleasant hero and a strangely compelling and sympathetic villain, except the film was firmly on the side of the lunatic. Watching the movie was like being attacked by a stampede of wild animals while being relentlessly tickled at the same time. The worst dialogue I had ever heard, being delivered exactly as purple prose should be delivered. A morality play with bent emotions, inexplicable turns in the plot, a mounting body count, and delirious camera movements and editing decisions that came together to create, for me, pure cinema by default. The fact that this film was absolutely sincere and at the same time absolutely out of control impressed me greatly.
And Mickey Rourke gave one of the greatest movie star performances I had ever seen - so over-the-top as the middle-aged Christ figure Stanley White, with a weird dye job that bounces around from brown to grey throughout the film, and yet Rourke throws everything he has at the part. When people laugh as to why Rourke is so huge in France, it's probably because of this performance.
As far as I was concerned this film could go on forever. I didn't find the film moving in an honest way, but in an artificial way that achieved a weird form of honesty through the intensity and the totality of its failure. I went to see it over and over again, sometimes dragging people I knew with me to blow their minds and bring them in on the joke, and also to see if I was the only one slack-jawed by the experience. And it only got better and weirder with repeat viewings. I even saw it one night at the Rio, the late lamented grindhouse on Yonge Street. During the Toronto film festival.
It only came out on DVD last year...I wanted to hand out copies of it to all my friends like a newborn's dad hands out the cigars. It came with a Michael Cimino commentary track. On the track he says, vis-a-vis his general creative intentions... "I'm not a teacher. I'm not a preacher. I'm a reacher."
Dragon has everything you could ever want in a movie:
- washroom soap dispensers getting shattered by gunfire
- old mafioso types screaming at people through their voicebox machines
- wiretapping nuns
- fedoras being provocatively thrown down on well-appointed desks
- people being grabbed by the lapels and shoved through doorways
- and lines like "I'm not Italian. I'm a Polack. And I can't be bought!!"
Oh, and Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. And Chinese pop songs. And a cover of Rod Stewart's Infatuation. And mournful mandolin solos.
I don't think they've built a movie theatre big enough to contain this film.