Sunday, July 21, 2013
Kill the Pig
That film has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and I had the chance to watch it last night. Through this film, my dislike of Golding's novel has transcended into something close to ambivalence. I mean, the basic premise, that of plane carrying a group of English (this is important) schoolboys crashing on a deserted island and leaving the children, who are the only survivors, to descend into savagery, is pretty much a can't miss idea. But while A High Wind in Jamaica is about the natural, human, casual, and ignorant cruelty of children, Lord of the Flies is about "We British think we're so great, well think again, bub." This is decidedly less interesting, to me anyway. And being this, a story with a point, or message, shortcuts must be made to get there, so that what's compelling about the idea is given short shrift. Furthermore, Peter Brook and his crew seem to have approached the material with the thought that somebody was bound to make this movie, so it might as well be them. Much of the film lacks imagination, in my view, and this is surprising given Brook's reputation -- my only other experience of Brook's work is his film adaptation of the Peter Weiss play Marat/Sade, which is not the kind of film you make because you crave mainstream acceptance. Not that Lord of the Flies does feel like that kind of film, but it's also not going to allow you to miss its point. To begin with, composer Raymond Leppard's score has essentially two modes: lazily martial, in a "our trumpets are satirical" sort of way, and lazily tribal, in a "our drums are foreboding" sense. I can't remember, Golding's novel feeling hazy to me even as I read it, if Golding hammered on this particular nail so ruthlessly, but the withering simplicity of all this makes me wonder if it to some degree explains the somewhat curious fact that this rather horrifying story has been a required-reading perennial in schools for the past half century.
In any case, the premise being can't-miss and all, Brook's unwillingness to break away from That Which Needs to Be Said makes much of the movie feel like a formality. In the first third of the film, a group of schoolboys led by Jack (Tom Chapin), whose nasty charisma will lead most of the kids into savagery earlier than they might otherwise have, go off to kill a pig for food. The subsequent eating scene is simply ridiculous, with Brook piping in loud chomping and sucking sounds that never convince that they could possibly be coming from these images -- even if they did, it's too early going for me to accept that killing for food, and for survival, adequately tips off the horrors to come. At the same time, there is something about the loose style Brook employs that allows for glimpses of natural and naturally weird child behavior, and the loony ways a child off to the edges of the action will start twisting his body and making odd faces, just for something to do. Similarly, if their is a casting triumph here, it's Hugh Edwards as the notoriously ill-fated Piggy. As seemingly untrained as everybody else in the cast, Edwards is nevertheless able to naturally be himself, and his brief monologue about the facts behind the name of Camberly, his hometown, is both hilarious and so well-written that it feels like Brook just planted the camera down and told Edwards to tell his Camberly story. Which maybe he did.
Obviously, this film, and Golding's novel, wouldn't be so frustrating if I thought it was a complete wash. One strong memory I have from the novel is of a sequence involving one boy walking through the forest and coming upon the severed head of a pig stuck on a post and covered with flies -- I thought it was the most effective bit, and Brook vividly translates it here. A greater success is nighttime beach bonfire, with the Jack-led children running wild and throwing fire and losing their heads in frenzy that will culminate in the story's first death. In the film, it's pretty blood-curdling, and it seems clear to me that Brook, as a film director rather than a herder of children, is most at home when simulating chaos. For a brief stretch, his Lord of the Flies feels as Satanic as its title implies. But the allegory-above-all philosophy is too overwhelming, and is perhaps best illustrated by the choice (originally, I've been reminded, from Golding) to make some of the children -- the bad ones -- eventually wear tribal war paint. The belief seems to be that native tribes that do paint their faces or bodies do so only because, well, they're natives, and it seems like the thing to do. As if there was no cultural significance to the colors or patterns they choose. So that when a group of white English kids find themselves free of adult supervision, plus there's trees everywhere, in a matter of days they're painting their bodies, because of savagery. It's a meaningless nothing of a symbol that thinks it means everything in the world.