John Boorman is among those filmmakers about whom you only ever hear two opinions: there are his champions who praise him to the skies; and then there all the other critics who just tend to forget him very quickly when it comes time to giving out any kind of accolade or canon-forming vote.
I myself have become a Boorman fan – but it hasn’t always been this way. Excalibur (1981) didn’t impressed me at all when I first saw it (however incredible that reaction seems to me now!), and I hated The Emerald Forest (1985). I think I saw Boorman in the ‘80s as a failed art-cinema director – or, more exactly, a failed Stanley Kubrick.
I’m not exactly sure what flipped the switch in my brain, but at a certain point I saw clearly two important things about Boorman. Firstly, he really is a masterful director, with an extraordinary way with colour and rhythm, wielding narrative drive with a genuine élan. That’s all there in Excalibur, which I now appreciate as the great film it is.
The second and more important key in my coming to appreciate Boorman is that I realised he is not a director of art films at all, but a very boyish, even proudly vulgar filmmaker. He’s a naive artist, and I mean that in the best sense of the term – naive like some old Hollywood classics such as the garish Western Duel in the Sun (1946), naive and yet affecting like a lot of pop songs.
Boorman is a director of simple ideas and simple sentiments. He’s one of the many filmmakers these days attracted to the great archetypal myths, to the Jungian collective unconscious, and to the various grand religions of the world (Eastern or Western). He translates all this stuff into his stories and images in a very direct, vigorous way – it’s not self-conscious at all. And it’s not very complex, either: all the big ideas in these films are pop ideas (just as we talk of pop psychology). Boorman is, I am convinced, way too pop to be a really popular artist (take a gander at the mindboggling Zardoz of 1974) – and that’s why too many of his films hardly do well commercially. There’s a disconcerting mix of extreme, dazzling craft on the one side, and an almost embarrassing unsophistication of intent on the other (Boorman himself seems well aware of this, and speaks of it often in his various published diaries and memoirs). Yet it is precisely this strategic mix that I’ve come to love and treasure in his work.
Beyond Rangoon is a political film (scripted by Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein), almost a proselytising or muckracking propaganda piece. It concerns the oppression and bloodshed in Burma in the late ‘80s – the oppression that the rest of the world didn’t get to see, because the television cameras weren’t there to record it. The biggest and most frequently voiced complaint is that this movie just isn’t political enough; it doesn’t really tell you what went on in Burma and why. The power struggles we see are shamelessly reduced to the level of melodrama, even pantomime: we see many nasty soldiers versus a people’s army of beatific students, teachers and ordinary citizens.
Boorman gives us every cornball, pseudo-psychological explanation to as to why this oppression and these atrocities have gone for so long. “Burmese people are too polite to resist”, one Burmese student earnestly tells us. In another scene, we get a little allegory. A guy with a street stall sells a bird to the main character, an American tourist named Laura (Patricia Arquette). She immediately sets the bird free, hurling it into the sky. But then there’s the twist: the seller whistles, and the bird simply flies back to captivity. That’s when the wise Burmese former-professor, Ko (U Aung Ko), who will become a main character, introduces himself, saying about the birds and, of course, about his people: “All they know is the cage”.
OK, it’s not sophisticated. And Boorman, in his naïveté, blunders into even more dangerous waters. The central focus of Beyond Rangoon is Laura, played with great power and conviction by Arquette. Laura is our guide, our identification figure, through this strange, troubled, foreign world. Some movies are able to use this ploy very skilfully and cagily: starting with a central character who is an outsider, and then more or less phasing him/her out as we get absorbed in the general, collective struggle.
But this is not Boorman’s way. He stays with Laura, and insists we care about her life, her personal malaise, her past, her coming to consciousness, and her eventual acts of bravery and commitment. Boorman clearly loves this character; he doesn’t take the option of making her a typical Ugly American in a situation she doesn’t understand, as Oliver Stone did with his unlovely heroes in Salvador (1986). And Boorman, in a sense, must love his heroine – after all, in Jungian terms, she’s his anima, the projection of his female side … you know the score.
By staying with Laura, asking us to invest so much emotion in her, Boorman invites the charge that his film is racist or imperialist, just some slam-bang thriller with no real interest at all in the politics of Burma. I think all these charges would be unfair, because Beyond Rangoon really is, on its own, simple level, a political film, with its heart in the right place. And I don’t doubt that it will make at least some people aware, for the first time, of this real-life, historical situation. But finally, on another level altogether, there’s something very touching and true in Boorman’s stubborn attachment to the fictional journey of Laura Bowman.
Boorman is a director who refuses to make the personal, mythic story less important than the Big Picture political one. It’s as if, for him, the critical change that one pampered, middle-class person goes through in the middle of the Burmese jungle is just as important as the bloody revolution from which the whole nation is convulsing.
In fact, it’s probably not even a question of hierarchy in Boorman’s mind – whether the personal is more important than the political, or the political is more important than the personal, which is the way that people often argue out this issue. It’s rather that Boorman, with his generous mix of religious and philosophical systems, sees the personal and political levels vibrating together in an organic, harmonic synthesis. What shifts and changes in one realm immediately affects the other.
Boorman’s films enact a grand, pantheistic vision. A shift in the weather, the twitch of a muscle, the sudden explosion of group revolt: all these things are part of the same wave. Boorman is one of the great nature directors, a real outdoors type. There’s a wonderful sequence where, without words, something snaps and changes in Laura. Her wise Burmese companion lays dying, the mud and swampy marsh hems her in claustrophobically. Suddenly, Hans Zimmer’s music starts to build. Laura’s eyes dart back and forth, her body starts to uncoil, some nameless energy and strength is building inside of her. Then Boorman cuts to the spectacle of Laura hacking into a knotted up thicket of branches, clearing a path using whatever tool or object she can pick up or create for herself. And then, as if by magic, a face appears, and a town emerges from the previously tangled nothingness.
Boorman is a director of the natural world; he’s also a natural-born, involuntary surrealist. His films are full of miracles, sudden apparitions, visions of a world in flux, a marvellous world of dreams made flesh. Not surprisingly, it’s the long-living members of the last wave of the Surrealist movement in France (such as Gérard Legrand at Positif magazine) who champion Boorman’s films more fiercely than anyone. There’s a simple, naive, beautiful moment in Beyond Rangoon where Laura has a dream, set in the site where she is in reality at that moment; her dead husband and son come to her side, wake her up, and then walk up a hill to a statue of Buddha. Then she actually wakes up; it’s the same space, same door, same dimensions – but of course, no ghosts. Nonetheless, she follows the dream-vibe and walks up the hill path that the dream figures just trod; and there she finds ... a humble statue of Buddha. It’s a small, very touching rite of passage, and it is crucial in the development of the drama and its “argument” in the narrative-thematic sense.
Beyond Rangoon is, finally, not among Boorman’s best. I liked it less than his extremely eccentric Hope and Glory (1987) or Where the Heart Is (1990), a modern Shakespearian fantasia about the apocalyptic collapse of world capitalism. Beyond Rangoon hits a rather repetitious, unvaried groove, as Laura and her Burmese companions just keep running and running from the guns for what felt like the last hour of the film.
And yet, what is good and captivating about the movie is precisely that headlong, breathless running. Boorman is obsessed with mythic passages, transformative journeys. So are a lot of other filmmakers these days, but sometimes such journeys come out pretty inert, cerebral or forced – as if they’ve been contrivedly laid on top of the story in a mechanical, wish-fulfillment mode.
But in Boorman, the mythic passage is always intensely physical. The mud, the water, the trees: all these press in on the body, obscuring sight and choking breath; then, suddenly, there’s a line of flight through this murk, a road out, or simply a direction in which to plunge forth. Laura is a bit like Kathleen Turner’s character in Romancing the Stone (Robert Zemeckis, 1984): the deeper in she gets, the more the signs and accoutrements of her civilised self drop away.
Finally, it is as if Laura is naked before us, and before her newfound companions. She’s not the great white Western messiah, but she does become a kind of everyday saint. And in Boorman’s eyes, so is every single civilian who manages to survive this wild ride for freedom.
© Adrian Martin October 1995