15 January 2012

REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED WET

In addition to their classier, better-known status as the most mature decade in the history of mainstream American cinema, the 1970s could also be rightfully called the Decade of the Rip-Off; not since the onset of World War II taught the world a healthy sense of shame had such a robust culture of knock-offs and knock-offs of knock-offs pervaded the cinema of so many countries. It started in 1973, when The Exorcist broke big, and just about overnight Satanists and taciturn priests with faith issues were inescapable in movies houses from the New York grind house to the Philippines. That was nothing compared to what happened after 1975, when Steven Spielberg's Jaws redefined what "money" meant; I do not suppose that any one person could accurately count the number of films that were straight-up copies of the shark picture, let alone the even greater number that were merely influenced in some way or another. Killer animals were damn near everywhere for quite a while, until eventually zombies and surly Australian biker gangs taught the world's exploitation producers a couple of new tunes to ring in the '80s.

In those days, anywhere that the word "rip-off" raised its head, the word "Italian" was sure to be right along, and even though the country never completely threw over Exorcist fever in favor of nature-gone-amok pictures, there are more than a few classic - anyway, classically bad - entries in the subgenre to come from Rome and environs. And of course, where the words "Italian rip-off" show up, the words "Dino De Laurentiis" have probably already shown up, eagerly bounding ahead with untouchable ebullience. Where money was to be made, the prolific producer was right there at the forefront making it, or at least attempting to. There's nothing quite like a really top-shelf De Laurentiis cash-in; they combine the absurdity native to all Italian exploitation films with a truly demented sort of ambition, the kind that seems to believe that if you can't have talent, you can at least fail to have it in giant splashes all over the screen.

Orca was not De Lautentiis's first attempt at doing a Jaws (that honor goes, weirdly and famously, to his unholy 1976 remake of King Kong), though it is his most explicit, being about a very large, very toothy seagoing creature wreaking havoc in the North Atlantic, and all. Nor, for that matter, is Orca an Italian film, being as it was financed in the US, shot in Canada, and directed by a Brit; this seems rather like a technicality, though, for there is a certain Italianate tackiness that bursts out pretty much from the first minute and never stops for all of the movie's 92 minutes, which undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that the screenwriters were Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, veterans of the Italian genre scene from all the way back (look deep in their filmography, and amongst all of the expected hokum, you'll even find a few Sergio Leone films in each man's career). Hell, Michael Anderson even directs like an Italian, with a whole lot of confusingly unmotivated zooms and close-ups, and images that are chiefly memorable for how crazed they are, demonstrating none of the personality he brought to Oscar-nominated work like Around the World in 80 Days, perhaps because you can't demonstrate something that doesn't exist.

So, an honorary Italian film, anyway. The more important part is that it is quintessentially a Dino De Laurentiis film, which both encompasses and transcends national identity. It's right there in the central focus of the movie, a tremendous rarity among the killer animal films of that generation: we are meant to sympathise with the killer animal in question, and very possibly even root for it, though that might also be that the human beings that have been cast opposite the beast aren't quite up to the challenge of putting over something as complex as an "emotion". This peculiar assumption that the key to making an even better Jaws was a sympathetic monster is seen in King Kong as well, along with De Laurentiis' famous (and inconsistently-reported) quote, "When Jaws dies, nobody cry. When Kong dies, everybody cry."

On to Orca, then. It is not, as such things go, a particularly shameless Jaws knock-off; other than the fact of an aquatic killing machine, the plot is pretty much completely new (in fact, it rather uncomfortably prefigures some of the worst elements of Jaws: The Revenge). This makes it, in a strange way, one of the most honorable of the form (contrast e.g. Great White, which Universal managed to sue right of theaters in 1982), though no smarter or aesthetically defensible than your Grizzly or your Prophecy. The situation is that there is an Irish fisherman, Nolan (Richard Harris, in one of the performances where he's not even trying to pretend he's not drunk), working the ocean around Newfoundland, hunting Great White sharks, which he can sell too aquariums (or maybe not) for a sweet $10,000 a linear foot (what?). He has his eyes on a particular 25-footer, knowing how easy it shall be to charge a public institution a quarter-million dollars for an animal noted for its tendency to die in captivity, when he crosses paths with a mirthless whale biologist, Rachel (Charlotte Rampling, looking more brittle than anywhere else in her career), who is diving in the same area, and is nearly eaten by that same monster shark, when from out of nowhere an equally huge killer whale slams into the fish and kills it. Because, in Dino De Laurentiisland, showing your aquatic monster slaughtering Spielberg's aquatic monster (the same outrageous size, even!) is ipso facto the same as having a better aquatic monster (the next year, the Jaws folks would have their shark kill an orca in Jaws 2; we can only pray that it was a snitty comeback).

In the first of many scenes that fail, spectacularly, to convince that Harris and Rampling are a) secretly falling in love, and b) living on the same planet, Nolan confesses to Rachel his new plan to capture an orca, though he sadly does not quite a price-per-foot. The scientist icily - no, make that "bitchily", "icily" would require more nuance than Rampling was interested in supplying - tells the fisherman that he is of the most uncompromisingly bastardly morals and more contemptuous than any man who scraped across the surface of the sea, which shockingly does not dissuade him. Even more shockingly, they continue to speak after this point and, Rachel starts to warm up to Nolan, though not in an organic way, so much as it is simply turned on in one scene, later on, like a light switch.

In brief, Nolan's plan goes spectacularly wrong, and he ends up mutilating a male orca's dorsal fin, while wounding his mate so badly that she feverishly attempts to commit suicide by swimming into the ship's propellers, because that is something that a whale would totally do. There is a loving shot of the male's eye with water splashing over it, just like it's crying, because that is also something a whale would totally do. When Nolan hauls the dying female aboard, she erupts with a dead whale fetus like the yet-to-be-released Alien, and the male orca goes insane. That is literally what the film wants us to believe. It goes insane because its made and child are dead, and then it exercises what Rachel calls its chief link to humanity, it's "profound instinct for vengeance", by hounding Nolan and his crew and destroying the livelihood of the town where he's hiding (including, in one of the film's most awesome moments, executing a cunning plan to blow up a refinery hundreds of yard inland). Eventually, Nolan and the few people still clinging to him journey into the sea to face the animal, which leads them to the frozen north, played here by the Mediterranean Sea and a great many giant foam "icebergs". It is, in essence, a Biblical fable played by a drunk Irishman and a psychotic, grief-stricken cetacean.

One of the other things that Rachel says - in a class lecture that ladles out so damn much ridiculous exposition that I cannot possibly do it justice here - is that orcas have extraordinarily sophisticated communication skills, and "what we call language, they might call unnecessary or redundant... or retarded". Upon careful consideration of the Orca script, I am forced to agree with the whales.

Now, just about everything that there is to Orca is some combination of idiotic and incompetent, though occasionally it manages to be only one of those things. It's really quite spectacular: we have, first, the mismatch of stock-footage that occurs throughout the movie (the shark killed in the beginning is portrayed by at least four obviously different animals, all performing entirely different actions), the unmistakably rigid, plastic quality of the orca models - and thank God De Laurentiis didn't just kill and maim actual killer whales as needed to get his movie finished, a more plausible possibility in 1977 than you might care to imagine - the unmistakably rigid, plastic quality of Charlotte Rampling, and the camera that never seems to be entirely certain that what it's looking at is, in fact, the most interesting part of the set, and so always seems framed about 25% off to the side, like it's about to pan to the far more nuanced and intelligent sight of rocks jutting out of the ocean. Best of all is the single shot of an orca breaching out of the water in a big playful arc and sliding back under, that gets used not fewer than five times, including a very crude job compositing it in front of the burning refinery, and once near the beginning where it is literally used twice in the same frame, only mirrored, so you can't tell, Because dammit, if you have a photogenic shot of a whale jumping out of the water, you milk that shit.

I pretty much love it, regardless, and only somewhat ironically. I mean, it has to be ironic, because there is virtually nothing beside Ennio Morricone's characteristic feminine-vocalisation-heavy score that really holds up as per-se filmmaking. Harris, for all his cartoon gesticulating, is still the best member of a cast that includes a debuting Bo Derek as a member of Nolan's crew who can't even outact the cast she has to wear later in the movie, and Will Sampson as the Wise Native, perfecting the role that he first played in every single film he had been cast in to that point, and would play once again in every single film he would be cast in subsequently. Throughout, there are the sort of quintessentially strange Italian cutaway shots that feel more like an accident in the editing room than a deliberate choice, and so on.

But dammit, it has so much energy! It is so very easy to compare the film to fellow marine-carnivore-revenge-thriller Jaws: The Revenge, which is only a bit more clueless as a work of cinema, but is incomparably more boring. Orca is not boring at all. It is positively fucking giddy, the kind of movie that is so deranged in every way that you legitimately cannot guess where it's going next, and sort of can't wait to see it get there. That is surely not what Dino and Co. were looking for, but it really doesn't matter: the film's staggering awfulness is so one-of-a-kind that it becomes legimately compelling and entertaining, and as we know in these parts, if you cannot have a mock-Italian genre cash-in that is truly great, then you should have the grace to settle for a mock-Italian genre cash-in that is truly bugshit.

4 comments:

RickR said...

This is way, way off-topic, but you did bring up the artifacts of batshit Italian cinema (crazy framing, unmotivated zooms etc.) and I immediately thought of "Caligula". Any chance you'll review that one at some point?

javi75 said...

This review is so much fun.

Also, the way you love De Laurentiis, and the way we're being saturated with super-hero movies for a few years, how come you haven't reviewed "Flash Gordon" yet?

Benjamin said...

This sounds amazing.

Don Mancini said...

The score is incongruously, epically beautiful. Really enjoying this series. And I second the enthusiasm for your De Laurentiis love. How about a review of KING KONG (which I actually love, and which, I would argue, is as much Lorenzo Semple's vision as it is De Laurentiis's or John Guillermin's).