Half a century has passed since Manny Farber wrote in these pages about underground films, by which he meant the urban crime movies watched by male loiterers near the Greyhound station, in theaters whose dank gumminess rivaled that of the bus terminal’s restrooms. The close fit among setting, audience and cinematic expression particularly recommended such movies to Farber, who recognized meaning and purpose where others saw only inadequacy. He noted, for example, that these so-called action pictures often showed little more than views of men standing around on a sidewalk, waiting for something to happen. The something, when it came, was often an inventive way to torture human flesh.
Very little changed in the world of movie-watching between the publication of that great essay and 1976, when Assault on Precinct 13 first unspooled near America’s bus terminals. All right, a lot had changed. The studio system was gone, a generation of film-school graduates was breaking into the big time, and a surprisingly large audience could now name the makers of Farber’s underground movies and believed that these directors deserved the name of auteur. Still: Time in 1976 could be wasted as cheaply as in 1950 at a city-center moviehouse, if you weren’t squeamish about the people sitting behind you, the stuff sucking at your shoes or the spasmodic shadows passing across the screen, made up half of existential dread and half of anomie. You paid a buck or so to get indoors, and Assault on Precinct 13 showered you with an hour and a half of unreasoning, unstoppable blood lust, loosed from those imaginary ganglands of Los Angeles where the only stable, responsible types were those whose criminality had risen to the level of a career. As the story of a siege at a police station, the movie provided long stretches of dead time. As an updated and citified version of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, it also gave you glimpses of character, though without Hawks’s warmth and breadth of vision. The approach was more like that of the Cossack narrator of one of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, who goes back to his village to confront the landowner: “I stomped him for an hour or more, and during that time I got to know something about him and his life.”
This isn’t to say that Assault on Precinct 13 qualified as a classic. (“Archaizing” would have been a better word for its effect.) The picture was just something you could discover on your own, in a public place. Its maker, John Carpenter, had not yet achieved fame and riches through Halloween. The theaters where it showed had not yet split into multiplexes, with ticket prices in the double digits. The event-movie era, with its thrilling box-office reports, had barely begun; and “home video” still meant whatever the TV was broadcasting.
So the release of an all-star, Franco-American remake of Assault on Precinct 13 is worth noting, as another milestone on our journey away from old-fashioned film culture.
Rather than being cast like the original, whose performers you will not be able to identify unless your name is Tarantino, the new Assault on Precinct 13 may legitimately be said to star the actors Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, with John Leguizamo, Drea de Matteo, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Gabriel Byrne and Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins in supporting roles. Note the whiff of prestige. Observe as well the pairing of a strong, menacing, above-the-law black killer with a younger, weaker, vacillating white cop–a combination that inescapably brings to mind Hawke’s previous outing in such a role, in the Oscar-winning Training Day. Despite being sent out into the wasteland of January, despite having roots in grind houses, this Assault on Precinct 13 expects to be taken seriously by at least some portion of the audience. You might even say it aspires to partake in an American “tradition of quality.”
That latter, poisoned phrase was of course the boast of the French studio filmmakers of the 1950s, who provided such a useful enemy to the rising critics and directors of the New Wave. The ironies of history: Once upon a time, younger French cinephiles made room for themselves by tearing down their elders, which they did by promoting American action pictures over the supposed best work of their own country. The taste and ideas of these auteurists, when subsequently imported to America, taught people here to respect Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray and (eventually) John Carpenter. And now a French producer (Pascal Caucheteux) and a French director (Jean-François Richet) have paid homage to Carpenter’s earliest hit, imparting to the project the very artiness that the New Wave wanted to escape.
They have brought a decorative sensibility to Assault on Precinct 13. You see it in the pretty latticework that the bad guys create, when they poke their red laser beams into the darkened police station. You see it in clever-cute tracking shots, such as the one of cops and criminals pairing off to defend the entrances of the precinct house. And then there are the snowflakes, each as big as a horsefeather, which float through the backlit, piney woods of Detroit as Assault on Precinct 13 climaxes in the killing of its ninth identifiable figure. Maybe tenth.
I lost count, because of all the people associated with this movie–Jean-François Richet, screenwriter James DeMonaco and no fewer than six producers–none thought it important to track the fates of all characters who have names and dialogue. I know, this movie is a shoot-’em-up, and convention decrees that the bad guys (who in this case are faceless behind armored masks) may drop as the autumn leaves. But did a cop die in that overturned van, or was he just soaked in blood? Did the bad guys really let Brian Dennehy go, or did they take him off-screen and shoot him (which is what I’d do, every time)? Convention decrees that these matters should not remain a mystery; and yet they go unresolved here, even though DeMonaco made time for Laurence Fishburne to articulate his views on the inevitability of death and the absence of God.
In the tradition-of-quality action picture, the dialogue groans with philosophical weight, while the plot twists grind with improbability. (Exactly how did Brian Dennehy find apparent release in the bad guys’ hands? Really, don’t ask.) The women characters are no longer just blond-mopped expanses of thigh and cleavage; now they are strong and independent, so they can also talk about sex. As for the film’s horse-feathery notion of Detroit: When a picture is expected to play for two or three weeks in nondescript multiplexes and then spend the rest of its life on DVD shelves, it may as well leave undefined all relationships of physical and social space.
I am making Assault on Precinct 13 sound like a terrible movie. It’s not. Ethan Hawke is good in his opening scene, as an undercover narcotics cop (and utterly unbelievable throughout the rest of the movie, when he’s a tousle-headed desk sergeant); Laurence Fishburne delivers another of his carved-from-a-block-of-ebony performances, which is OK with me; and John Leguizamo stands out in the role of a junkie who has the bad luck to be in the precinct’s lockup when the siege begins. (According to the press hand-outs, Leguizamo took the trouble to invent a back story for his character–something the writer and director hadn’t thought to do–which explains why the movie seems three-dimensional when he’s around.) Some of the action sequences are fun, too, particularly when the rag-tag defenders are first fighting off their robotic assailants; but Richet’s invention soon flags. By the third time a gun-wielding heavy was brought low with an improvisatory thrust of a sharp object, the carnage had lost its gaiety for me.
Here, then, is today’s overground action thriller: a picture whose raffishness, far from being inherent, amounts to a marketing tool, just like its choice of cast members (all of them known for better roles), its semaphoric appeals to be taken seriously, its French and auteurist pedigree. You could, if you chose, waste some time with it, especially in this empty month. But if you want to recapture just a little of the spirit of 1976, you’ll have to buy a ticket to something else you want to see at the multiplex–Million Dollar Baby, House of Flying Daggers, Hotel Rwanda–and then afterward, for your double feature, sneak into Assault on Precinct 13.
But to prove that January is not just a dumping ground, let me tell you now about a genuinely small film that needs discovering, since it won’t get much hype while it’s in the theaters: Yaron Zilberman’s beautiful and humane documentary Watermarks.
It’s a portrait of half a dozen champion women athletes from 1930s Austria–all of them Jewish, all of them former members of the Hakoah Vienna Swim Club. Using a remarkably rich collection of archival sources and contemporary interviews, Zilberman reconstructs the story of how these women won national prominence before the Nazi rise to power, how they were then stripped of their honors (and much else) and how, through collective effort, they escaped after the Anschluss to England, Palestine and the United States. Every detail of the account is vivid and arresting; and that’s only the first part of Watermarks.
For the climax of the film, Zilberman accompanies the surviving members of the swim club on a trip back to Vienna. They have not visited the city since the war, and many of the women have been out of touch for years. But they are a sharp-witted, candid lot, and they have no trouble sharing their feelings and opinions with one another, or with the camera, even at moments when they disagree. The breathtaking moment of the film, though, is the one that expresses their harmony, when they return to their old practice pool in Vienna and swim together one last time. They are in their 80s, and older; one of them is blind. Their grace and dignity as they disrobe and begin to glide through the pool are enough to make even a reviewer get misty.
Watermarks begins its US theatrical release on January 21 in New York City, at the Quad Cinemas. The film is distributed by Kino International.