William Friedkin – The Imperfect Filmmaker
There is a problem with modern cinema, and that’s streaming. Having things like Netflix, Amazon and Sky (as well as possible downloading) means that there are thousands of films at your fingertips. Yet what kind of films are we watching on these services? If you’re like me you research films before watching them – check out how they reviewed. This has the unfortunate outcome of only ever watching things that other people like. What about what you like? I’ve seen enough films to know that a 6.5 on IMDb might be something that I really love. The problem with having access to every film ever, is the lack of surprise, or risk you take seeing a random film. There was a magic to catching a film late at night on the TV, then being pulled in by it. So I would encourage anyone to delve out of their comfort zone, and look for films in the past that were possibly unpopular. Search for left-field directors, who might have a style you gravitate to. This is what I’ve been doing by going through William Friedkin’s filmography. A legend of cinema his films have often been polarising, or just out-right hated, or loved. He’s a filmmaker who is totally uncompromising and has an incredibly varied back catalogue. I’ve now seen a fair bit of that catalogue, and why wouldn’t I share my unasked thoughts about them? This is done in order of when the films came out, and not the order I watched them in.
The French Connection (1971)
This film is like an action video game that has a tutorial soon as it loads up. The tutorial is tricky, and it’s almost as if it expects you to know everything already. Take a breath before watching this film and make sure you are in the right mindset. Get past the 10 minute tutorial, and abstract introduction to the characters, and then sit back. The rest of the film is Friedkin yanking you along with a big lasso.
This is a classic, and one of those films that fits into the loved category. It’s been on my list for a while, and I was disappointed when I finally started it. So much so that I turned it off, and decided to give it a go a different day. Thankfully it was much better the second time around. After the first 30 minutes the film really picks up the pace, and never stops moving till the end. Friedkin is quite level-headed and subdued in his direction here. It’s early in his career and he’s more of a steady hand then a visionary. Despite that, it still has the great imperfections that I’m going to try and highlight. Imperfections such as incongruous pieces of acting, or ridged cuts. Gene Hackman is playing a disjointed character – saying and doing rash things. This makes the film entertaining because as the central character he is unpredictable. These are early signs of Friedkin not conforming to simple movie tropes. He doesn’t need to take a break between action scenes or have additives to the plot. That is the main thing I can say about this film, there are no add-ons. There’s no need for a tacked on love-interest, or twist, or moments of pause. Friedkin tells the story how it is – a policeman desperate to bust a drug dealer. He is a visual director, someone who is concerned with cinema and not narrative. It’s one of the things I love most about him – he does not care in the slightest about something if it doesn’t make the cinema experience greater. There’s no fat in The French Connection at all.
I’m not sure that it completely holds up, and there’s plenty of stitching marks. Yet its early signs of those errors, and scratches, and dirt on the lens that make Friedkin the great director that he is.
The Exorcist (1973)
This whole piece is about how imperfections make things stand out and have character. However this film is perfect in every way. Perfectly paced, perfectly acted, perfectly shot. Lightning really struck for Friedkin here. Each scene is wonderfully crafted to aid the visual pleasure for the viewer, and the building of the plot. The characters are all 3 dimensional, all relatable, and real. They are acted with care and Friedkin creates a complex world for them to be in. For me, it’s not scary, but gets it so right tonally that it is certainly unnerving & intriguing.
Each character is composed with style. Jason Miller as Damian Karras is the standout, who has subtle inner troubles that makes him likeable. He’s charismatic but unfathomable. The film took great risks, and Friedkin pushed everything and everyone as far as they could go. It’s these risks, and leaps of faith (some literal faith) that make it so genius. The themes of faith are deep-rooted in him as artist and it is a classic of theological storytelling. There is plenty of legend around this film, and whatever Friedkin did on set it certainly worked. It’s timeless.
The beginning to this film is tough to follow, but if you allow yourself to settle in you will be rewarded with a breathtaking second half. It’s a masculine film with lots of sweat and grunting. The characters are frustrated, tired, pushed to their limits and its showing. Natural human nature is emerging and the men at the centre of the film are starting to lose their minds.
Friedkin is excellent at capturing people doing things on screen. He has this ability to shoot characters problem solving without it being boring. This is particularly noteworthy in a spectacular scene about half way through the film when they have to blow up a massive felled tree to continue their journey. It’s the simplicity of his camerawork that makes it compelling, and every second of that scene has weight behind it. There is a real peril at all times.
Friedkin’s direction is so suspenseful throughout. This film is thick, and sweaty. The characters are brash and heavy handed. It’s clear that Friedkin just let the camera roll on them, because so much of the acting is idiosyncratic and personal. This matches alongside the jarring electronic soundtrack that soon blends with the hearty visuals
The ending to this film is a spiritual experience and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s profound in its use of music and colours with Roy Schneider at the centre being physically engrossing. There is a mood to this film that can only be explained once you’ve seen it. SEE IT.
The feeling you have watching this film is impossible to explain. It has a strange intrigue and showcases everything that is great about Friedkin. My favourite quote from him is: “If I don’t show it, it doesn’t exist,” and with Cruising he shows just enough. It’s a murder mystery with the late 70’s gay BDSM scene as the backdrop, and Friedkin feels no need to make it anything else. There are no political statements, just visual storytelling. The film moves weirdly, and is mostly soulless yet it is fully engaging. All the performances are convincing, with of course Al Pacino guiding the film. Each small player is thought of carefully and has a reality to them. Karen Allen’s character Nancy adds a lovely femininity to the film. There is clarity during her scenes, and Friedkin doesn’t feel the need to push anything during them. She’s involved in the final moments of the film, final moments that are hard to get your head around. Is Friedkin trying to say something at last?
A lot of this film feels like the surface level of something much deeper. Famously there is 40 minutes of lost footage that Friedkin had to cut to stop it from being X-rated. It was basically pornographic material and in 2013 James Franco made a Documentary/fiction film about the lost footage called Interior Leather Bar. That film delves into the ideas on what should be shown on screen, and how actors feel about shooting stuff like that. It’s a weird one but tackles the question that I had whilst watching Cruising: “Where’s the rest of it?” There appears to be something missing from this film, something that would fit into audience expectations. Never once does the Al Pacino character question his sexuality, and the gay scene is never criticised or praised. It’s the reason I love the film, and Friedkin so much. He leaves that out, making the film raw visual entertainment instead. It doesn’t get bloated with ideas or dilemmas – it just tells the story. Most of all it has that magic quality and a bit of edge that makes it timeless. What is that quality? Who the fuck knows the film just works for me.
To Live and Die in L.A (1985)
There’s this odd memory about 18 rated films I have as a child. It’s like I was scared of them – scared of that thick red logo. Whenever I caught one in my grandfather’s collection I would be fascinated by it. What makes that film an 18? I wanted a bite of that forbidden apple. To Live and Die in L.A is one of those 18’s I was scared of. A violent thriller about corrupt policeman, and a villain with no boundaries. There are explicit sex scenes, gore and moments of exploitation cinema. It’s a brilliant, fun ride that does not hold back in the slightest. Willem Dafoe is terrifying in this movie, playing a greedy sociopath. His relationship with the people around him is distant but kinetic. He’s an artist but a killer. A business man but a maniac. William Pietersen stars opposite and I adore him in this and Manhunter. For my own personal film catalogue he is iconic to 80’s film. In this movie he’s a conflicted, often unlikable cop, who is totally compelling. His sex-fuelled relationship with Darlanne Fluegel is dripping with style and these smaller scenes are the highlight of the run-time.
80’s cinema can go three ways: popcorn joy, intense thrills or utter rubbish. This is the second one and again Friedkin is working the visual art form to the extreme. The film jumps from scene to scene, only allowing the audience in on some of the secrets. Moral or ethical values are seldom, and Friedkin excites with his direction. There are parts where this film is shocking, or uncomfortable to watch. More than anything it’s brutally entertaining.
Its 2000’s Billy Friedkin. He’s known as a classic auteur but has had 20 years of pretty much flops. Slowly he’s slipping into that aged director category, where his modern films are self servicing. Bug throws all of that out of the water. It’s not an easy watch but it’s a really strong (and strange) play adaptation. Also it’s best going in not knowing much about it.
The film is dirty, and works like a horror. Ashley Judd is magnificent as this spitting, bold, and clearly lost woman. She has no direction and a past that is clinging onto her. Suddenly Michael Shannon appears in her life as a complete enigma. The film drudges along and they begin to unravel. Shannon becomes manic and screen-grabbing in powerful spurts of monologue. The colours and mise-en-scene are stark, and unnerving. The lines between imagination and reality are blurred, and it’s hard to grasp the meaning of it all. The film moves with fragility until a total explosion in the climax. This climax is true visceral cinema and worth the wait until then.
It’s definitely not one of my favourite Friedkin films as it has quite a dull plotline. Though it is undoubtedly brave and left-field like the rest of his films. And like the rest of his films it is worth watching. That’s probably the best compliment I can give all of Friedkins work – worth watching.
Killer Joe (2011)
After the first 10 minutes of this film, I thought what has Friedkin become? What is this television looking, leering mess? Then I quickly realised how grounded the film was, how great it was acted, and how Friedkin cuts all the fat away. He leaves behind any sense of flair to give a bare bones story. It’s crude and harsh. Each character an archetype but also deeply complex. There’s juxtaposition of beauty and real filth. Hopelessness is constant, and a sense of danger imminent. Friedkin is almost lazy with his camerawork but on the nose with his control of the narrative.
The now infamous scene with Matthew McConaughey and the chicken leg is disturbing, but I think gels with the rest of the film. It’s repulsive but didn’t feel out of place. The ugliness of this film is its outstanding feature and I was surprised with how engaging it was. There’s no abstract emotional connection, or moments of clarity like his earlier films but the Friedkin-esque style shines through.
Synonymous with Friedkin’s work the film has a powerful ending that allows the viewer to ask their own questions. I am hoping this isn’t Friedkin’s ending, as this is his last major feature. He’s well into his 80’s now, but there must be another splash of mucky paint left in him.
Billy Friedkin is a brave director, a risk taker – someone willing to go all the way. He gets the best out of his actors and isn’t afraid to put them under some intense pressure. Listening to him is like being in the presence of a thespian making his way through a Shakespeare sonnet. His memory is outstanding and the stories he tells are mesmerising. He has thoughts on films that are romantic and compelling but he’s not afraid of change – he welcomes it – he starts it.
These are just a small selection of Friedkin’s films as he has a fair few more. Arguably the ones I’ve chosen are the only ones you need to see from him. He has others that are heavily criticised, and a couple that are liked, as well as a plethora of documentaries. He is imperfect because of all those failures, but when he gets it right it is an EXPERIENCE.