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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Saints and Sinners

I bought a movie classic on DVD the other day. Now, many people misunderstand The Saint; but it is, undeniably, one of the towering absurdist masterpieces of modern cinema.

Consider if you will the movie's central premise: that Val Kilmer is a master of disguise and espionage. But it then cleverly undercuts this; Kilmer's increasingly ridiculous disguises a) are tremendously conspicuous b) look just like him and c) are instantly penetrated by the bad guys. As a result, Philip Noyce creates a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt - as an audience, we are forced to confront the artificiality of cinema itself. What is the artifice of Hollywood but a disguise of the truth - one which we allow to deceive us?

An example of the film's brilliantly twisted narrative logic: Kilmer must recover the formula for cold fusion from Elisabeth Shue's ditzy genius - she keeps it hidden in her bra. So, if you were a suave international man of mystery, how would you seduce her? Kilmer gives us a greasy-haired, buck-toothed character in a frilly shirt and leather trousers, with a very camp and lisping accent somewhere between German and South African. When she asks him who he is, Kilmer replies with one of the most enduring lines in the modern history of cinema: "Chust a twaveller, searching for pew-witty." Nevertheless, in The Saint's skewed universe, this ghastly creature is in bed with the demure and mousy professor at the drop of a hat. Again, Noyce is playing with our expectations, satirising the archetype of the gentleman spy, and offering a comment upon movie aesthetics. Everything in the script and direction, and the very grammar of the genre, is telling us that Kilmer is supposed to be attractive, but we cannot ignore the evidence of our own eyes: he is repulsive.

From then on, the film becomes a narrative of the hero's continual failure and humiliation - continually unmasked, his wiles and ruses thwarted at every turn. However, Noyce manages to keep twisting the plot in his favour with ever-more surreal devices - distortions of reality that serve to keep the audience off-balance, alienated, and aware of the manipulations of genre. The scene where Kilmer and Shue, fleeing from killers deep in the Russian sewers, open a door and find themselves in the Bond-style hideout of an arch art-thief, is a case in point. The thief's only function in the plot is to facilitate their escape; there is no mention of this character either before or after her appearance. Look, Noyce is saying, here is a character used in a completely arbitrary way to save our protagonist, for whose existence we had no evidence before, but who commands tremendous hidden resources; is it going too far to see it as a critique of an interventionist God? That a world with redemption, with a Saviour, may be as meaningless as one without? (Remember, Kilmer's Sainthood is a label without a referent - an empty tag.)

In fact, there is perhaps only one film of recent times that can stand comparison with Noyce's magnum opus: Rowdy Herrington's majestic study of neurotic machismo, Road House.


Blogger Barbara said...

While I hesitate to suggest that your penetrating analysis might have missed a spot, surely the death of the scientist's child-avatar in the opening sequence foreshadows her role as Beatrice to the Saint's Dante?
The parallels between the pair's flight through the sewers and Dante's journey through the circles of the Inferno need hardly be laboured. (But would require more research than I am currently inclined to engage in.)

1:24 am  
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