Monday, 9 March 2015

How you can watch a film without seeing it

Here's an odd thing. I watched Cool Hand Luke the other night and it was as if I had never seen it before. Not that I had forgotten it, just that I don't think I ever really saw it properly the first time I watched it. In my memory it was one of those 60s/70s all-American movies about a maverick hero, somewhere on the continuum between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I recalled two specific scenes from it- the egg-eating bet and Paul Newman singing "Plastic Jesus." Both of these I remembered as sort of absurdist and anti-heroic in the best traditions of these sorts of films- Paul Newman as the ultimately unknowable Man With No Name.

And then when I watched it again all these decades later it had become a film all about faith and the loss of faith, with an almost didactically precise relationship to the key themes and concepts of Christianity. For a start, Luke (the central character) is much exercised by his own loss of faith. That is what the scene of him singing "Plastic Jesus" is all about. He has just heard that his mother has died, and sits alone on his bunk bed with the banjo that is his only physical reminder of his home life singing a song about the absurdity of religious faith- or at least the sort of faith that means that "going ninety I ain't scary/So long as I got the Virgin Mary/Assuring me that I won't go to hell." Newman's last scene takes place in a church where he has gone to confront God, addressing him as "Old Man" and concluding that he is a "bit of a hard-ass too." It is there that he is shot and killed.

The film is not just about Luke's loss of faith either- it is about the process by which we all construct and abandon figures on who we fasten our faith. Luke is a quite explicitly Messianic figure in the film- achieving victory through physical suffering and performing a variety of miracles which turn him into an object of bemused veneration amongst the other men. Miracles? Well, yes. There is the miracle of the fight with Dragline, in which Luke wins by means of being beaten so severely and relentlessly yet refusing to give up that Dragline eventually walks away, subsequently becoming Luke's greatest disciple. There is the miracle of the poker game when Luke transforms a collection of "nothing" into the "cool hand" that gives him his name. Then there is the miracle of the road, when Luke transforms the attitude of the work gang and changes the unending task of tarring the road into a joyous celebration that makes the road (in the men's own words) disappear.

Finally of course there is the miracle of the eggs. To win a bet, Luke eats fifty hard boiled eggs. It is an intensely unpleasant physical trial, in which his stomach becomes distended and taught as a drum and he is left virtually comatose. Yet even though the effect of his actions in the short term is to deprive most of his fellow inmates of their hard earned cash it is pretty clear that this act of near-martyrdom is in a sense done for the benefit of the other men. The number fifty is hardly accidental- we are frequently reminded that there are fifty inmates in total in the block- and the image of Luke at the end is explicitly Messianic- lying on his back, his legs crossed at the ankles and his arms stretched to either side.

The film is not so much about Luke as Messiah though (whatever some presumably Christian websites would have you believe). It is about the other men's faith and loss of faith in him. From early on they see him as different to them, and particularly once he has successfully escaped (before being betrayed and recaptured) they begin to venerate him. Dragline receives a photo of Luke on the outside, with two girls, and it becomes almost a religious icon- another inmate paying Dragline an entire bottle of soda for it. When Luke returns he is exasperated by the other men's idolising of the symbol he has come to represent and tells them that the picture is a "phoney" but it makes no difference until the guards' relentless sadism eventually breaks him and he hangs onto their legs and begs for mercy.

Here we see the bitter loss of the other men's faith, symbolised by the tearing up of the iconic photo. They become dispirited and lost as Luke toadies to the guards, as if the breaking of his spirit has broken something profound in them too. Eventually Luke escapes again, and it is in the penultimate scene that the Messianic parallels become most explicit. In the aforementioned church, and as Luke is communing with his "old man" he is betrayed by Dragline (as Judas), who brings the police and prison guards to him, leading to his shooting by "the man with no eyes", an enigmatic symbol of relentless oppression. Our last sight of Luke is in the back of the prison officers' car. He is alive, but clearly not for long, and an enigmatic smile plays on his lips. And as the car pulls away the "man with no eyes" mirror sunglasses are crushed under a wheel, symbolising Luke's eventual and paradoxical victory over death itself.

The last scene though is, in a sense, the most telling. Here Dragline is regaling other inmates with an account of Luke's life and death and here, it is clear, the process of mythologising him reaches its conclusion. Lukehas been transformed in death from a fellow-inmate to a symbol of death and resurrection and we are left, thanks to Dragline, with a series of still images of the strange and distant smile that defines his character throughout the movie.

So why didn't see all this the first time I watched the movie? It seems almost painfully obvious now, but maybe I just wasn't experienced enough at stepping back from a story and seeing it in the light of this sort of symbolism. The fact is I enjoyed it then- recommended it to friends and remembered the lyrics of the Plastic Jesus song almost perfectly. So what does that show?well maybe that it is indeed perfectly possible to watch and enjoy a film without really seeing it.

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