8.09.2015

Historicizing "Point Blank"




I watched John Boorman’s 1967 classic Point Blank for the first time this week, primarily because it was one of the two hundred or so films on this list that I’ve never seen.  Working my way through the list I’ve made some happy discoveries and met with some disappointments.  Point Blank was more of a disappointment than a happy discovery.  I don’t know much about the foundation on which this film’s reputation as a classic rests.  (Had I more time, I might have listened to the audio commentary by Boorman in conversation with Steven Soderbergh, who I assume is a fan of the film.)

Is it simply that Point Blank is one of those movies that represents a turning point in the history of its genre?  It’s certainly lean, muscular, and tough in a way that many other action thrillers weren’t in the mid-’60s.  The Hollywood studios were struggling to adapt to a more modern sensibility and trying to keep up with (read: imitate/colonize) the stylishness of European new wave cinema.  Meanwhile, young turks like Altman, Scorsese, Coppola and De Palma were beginning to make their mark on the fringes of the mainstream, cutting their teeth on exploitation fare.  Enter John Boorman, a relatively inexperienced English filmmaker brought in to direct a Lee Marvin vehicle for MGM about a criminal who sets out to get revenge on the guys from his crew who, after a successful heist, made off with his share of the loot (as well as his girlfriend).

Boorman is perhaps best described as a journeyman filmmaker who does not have a distinctive vision so much as an ability to move in and out of various styles and genres.  (Consider five titles from his filmography: Deliverance, The General, Hope and Glory, Excaliber, The Exorcist II: The Heretic.)  As directed by Boorman, Point Blank looks a lot like a conventional studio picture tricked out with some flashy asynchronous editing techniques in the style of Antonioni—who, incidentally, would make Zabriskie Point for MGM just a few years later.  Point Blank is perhaps less successful as a film in its own right than as an historical artifact from a Hollywood in transition.


2 comments:

  1. Hi, Ian,

    I'm writing simply because I appear to be the first and so I'll go on record as disagreeing with your assessment. You go part way to placing the film in context and, indeed in 1967 this picture would have been rather astonishing in its nihilism and "modern" cutting and narrative strategies. While the film may look like a conventional studio picture it doesn't feel like one - the highly stylized and minimalist comps and acting styles make it more avant garde than any picture coming from a studio up to now and for years besides Kubrick's 2001. And for heaven's sake don't conflate Boorman's sharp and muscular non-literal vision with Antonioni's.

    Antonioni is a neo-realist at heart and looks for the symbol laden with populist meaning -- Boorman is after a more dynamic type of cinema in my opinion. And Zabriskie Point is hopelessly slathered with over-baked meaning and import. I think Point Blank has attempted to drain a classic narrative of as much of its meaning as possible to simply watch the machine move of its own sheer momentum. That it "looks like" a classic film is part of the transgressive point. It feels like a film from 5 years later.

    I also direct you to Boorman's Emerald Forest as a better example of his kind of picture -- more painterly than generic. I'd consider Excaliber and Exorcist II outliers in his career and also consider his Zardoz, a picture he wrote and directed to be the best glorious SF sincere mess the '70s has to offer.

    Cheers, Roger

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Roger. I agree that stylistically Boorman and Antonioni do not really have that much in common beyond a modernistic approach to editing that was also shared by many other filmmakers associated with the European New Wave cinema of the 1960s. My point in bringing Antonioni up here was more to suggest that, as with Boorman, MGM may have imported him in an effort to remain vital and "relevant" as the classical studio system was dying.

    I'll confess that I haven't seen The Emerald Forest or Zardoz (or Excalibur). I look forward to deepening my knowledge of his work. I think Deliverance is superb, have fond memories of seeing Hope and Glory many years ago, and remain baffled by Exorcist II.

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