The artistic dilemma is to depict the hand. “The hand at the pen (which is mightier than the sword) is worth the hand at the plow,” and “the hand that signed the paper felled a city,” etc.
Buñuel is a useful guide, not only because El is suggested and Un Chien Andalou all but quoted, but also because there is a great reliance on the natural equilibrium of common studio practice, between the images that are the central points of reference (this aspect of Buñuel’s technique is akin to Hitchcock’s in Hollywood). And so you get the ring case with its empty red velvet slot, which is seized upon by the hand in a dream to find the missing gold signet ring. Later, a Christmas tree with lights is placed in a shot so as to suggest a mistress underneath it, and still later expresses a further sort of joy when the hand is wringing her out.
The hero is a cartoonist, like Stanley Ford in How to Murder Your Wife, and like Paul Kersey in Death Wish, he goes West. The amalgam of imagery is related to Altman’s Images in a way (also The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). After his hand is separated in an accident, he goes to teach at a college. He projects for his class side-by-side drawings of his heroic character Mandro and a cartoonist’s grimacing egg.
Stone adopts simplicity whenever possible. Black-and-white represents dream and fantasy sequences, but gradually this device is forsaken. William Castle is paid homage with a flash of light to betoken rage. Country bumpkins all have their hands.
The climax is a scene in which the cartoonist is attacked by the hand and strangled, so as to achieve a Guernica variant (cf. Charles Bronson at the end of Città Violenta) with the head upturned in close-up, the mouth open and tongue protruding past the teeth.
The Hand is always surprising. When the cartoonist’s wife is strangled by the hand, and he is found over her, their little daughter enters the bedroom to dissolve the moment (by sleight of hand) into a Freudian discovery. The coda runs the gamut from The Boston Strangler to Magic, and then writes itself off with ease.
There is a lineage of related films such as The Beast with Five Fingers, The Hands of Orlac, Mad Love, etc.
If you were to compose a joke whose punchline is El Salvador, it would have for its setup the two gonzos here who crap out in San Francisco and head south.
Jokes are the primordial work of art par excellence. This is the setup, like Christopher Sly’s morality lesson in The Taming of the Shrew, that gives coherence to the entire film in its surreal matter-of-factness, which cannot be bridged quite so effectively otherwise.
What you find down south is the Spanish Civil War, and your side on the wrong side, as far as it goes, though the man in the field is at least a witness.
Hemingway is taken account of, in the sense that none of the realities are missed by Stone, who builds up in the rebel attack a reminiscence of the one in The Wild Bunch, and then a Guernica at the climax.
The last scene is based on Tony Richardson’s disprized masterpiece The Border for a distancing effect (Stone brings back Elpidia Carrillo for this, to “neutralize the setback”). Missing and Romero are significantly related.
Needless to say, the critics missed the joke and floundered in the political mishmash presented here as a true and faithful portrait of the times.
Pauline Kael saw this very brightly on the big screen as badly written and overdirected, but that was all by way of missing the point. There is a technical clearness in these matters that Stone does not achieve, but rather leaves behind (I’m talking about the battle scenes). In the climactic fight, the point is that Chris (Charlie Sheen) emulates Elias (Willem Dafoe), who is not a symbol of Good but a good soldier.
There is a complex unit sense of these images at times, so that Elias raising his arms to the helicopter is not a Christly image but part of a general evocation. This rapidity of movement in a fairly nimble writer-director is what escaped The New Yorker‘s grasp.
If you compare this to Hotel (or The Betsy), you will probably be able to figure out Stone’s relative position. Add Prince of the City (and Other People’s Money), and the equation won’t be off more than a few decimal places.
There are a few good jokes, including the faux décor gag, and a tantalizing play with the New York art market.
Natural Born Killers
It opens like the end of The Asphalt Jungle, has much to do with Bonnie and Clyde, and is filmed as though MTV were a going concern. The consternation of the critics is a lift, and Stone has made it as badly as anyone could do who is not a cretin. Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance as an Aussie Rivera redeems it alone, but the fascinating machinations of Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson are equally good, and Tommy Lee Jones as the warden was thought by the New York Times to be “out of control.”
The finale of U-Turn utilizes with great skill an effect that goes back to early Hitchcock and before: rapid inserts that show the thoughts and perceptions of the characters. Here it’s carried to a very skillful and judicious point, showing the mind in action independent of direct perception.
So, in one example among hundreds, Sean Penn has killed Jennifer Lopez and regained the car. He laughs at his triumph, and you see a quick few frames of her alive and as it were looking at him enviously, a spontaneous memory.