RIP Stuart Gordon, Max von Sydow, and the Film Industry

It’s not looking good for the future of movies. To be fair, it’s not looking good for the future of humans, but I’m going to need to narrow my focus at the moment to prevent a full-on descent into despair. Then again, will lamenting the death of film really make me feel any better? Well, no. But what else am I going to do? Go see a movie?

And what movie plans I had! Coppola oversaw a restoration of The Conversation, you may have heard, and unlike everyone else who “restores” anything these days, he actually struck 35mm prints instead of merely touring a pre-blu release of a 4K DCP.

One of those prints was set to play at the Castro in San Francisco next week on a double bill with a 35mm print of Rumble Fish. That would have been fun. Also fun, the print of The Hidden I was going to see at the Alamo. And in May, Mishima, Kagemusha, and Koyaanisqatsi. Will there be movies in May? I am doubtful.

I remember when I used to see movies in theaters. I remember, in the ‘80s, in my mid/late teens, going to the theater and seeing Re-Animator and From Beyond and thinking, yes, here, surely, are two of the finest films ever made. I was not wrong. Stuart Gordon, who passed away just in time not to die of coronavirus, wrote and directed these hilariously gory H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, and if he’d never made another movie I’d still be here saying he was one of the greats.

See? Art.

What did he do next? He wrote Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for Disney. He was going to direct it (his original title: Teeny Weenies), but some form of ailment unelaborated upon in Wikipedia prevented him from doing so. Though he wrote it for kids, imagine if it were a Re-Animator-esque horror movie. I think I’d better write that next. If you beat me to it, I’m suing.

Gordon made a few more movies, one of which, another Lovecraft adaptation called Dagon, I only saw recently (it’s kinda great), and some smaller movies no less intense for being small, like Stuck, about a hit-and-run victim stuck to the hood of the car that hit him, now parked in the garage of its driver. That’s a fun one. And Edmond, a David Mamet adaptation starring William H. Macy as a guy who gets what’s coming to him.

Speaking of Mamet, his play Sexual Perversity in Chicago was first staged in Chicago in ’74 at the Organic Theater Company, and was directed by Gordon, whose theater company it was.

Gordon’s early creative output was all in the theater, much of it, beginning as it did in the late ‘60s, highly confrontational and political (or weirdly science-fictional/comic bookish with Warp!).

Stuart Gordon

So he came to movies relatively late in life, and purely by accident. Re-Animator was written first as a play, then as a TV show, but movies, Gordon was told, was then the only place for horror. And so a classic was born. Even mainstream critics praised Re-Animator to the skies, a rarity for any horror movie, particulary one as goopy as Re-Animator. I mean look what critics did to The Thing a few years earlier—called it nothing but gore for gore’s sake and moved on. To be fair, The Thing didn’t feature a headless corpse, head in hand, going down on a naked woman strapped to an operating table. I think we all know what critics like Roger Ebert are looking for in horror, and it’s not a bunch of serious men in bulky anoraks pontificating on trust.

Did I, as a teenager, watch Re-Animator over nine billion times? You bet I did. Thanks, Stuart Gordon! You’re another one of those wonderful humans who made my childhood weird. I owe you.

I owe Max von Sydow too. Being born when I was, you can probably guess when I first saw Sydow onscreen. Exactly. Flash Gordon, 1980. As Ming the Merciless, he brought needed gravitas to what is certainly one of the stupidest movies ever made.  By which I mean a classic for all time. A terrible, awful, stunningly bad classic.

He’s a sly one, that Ming

Later in life I learned that Sydow was just a little bit famous pre-Flash Gordon (and pre-Victory, Conan the Barbarian, Strange Brew, Dreamscape, and Dune, to name a few other early ‘80s films I saw him in while still young and impressionable (me, not Sydow)). Turned out some little-known director named Ingmar Bergman had made a few flicks with him, including The Seventh Seal, considered Bergman’s best, or anyway most famous film. My favorite of Bergman’s is Shame (’68), also starring Sydow. He and Liv Ullmann play a couple in an unnamed country as a war sweeps over them. It’s a little bit on the emotionally devastating side, so be warned, but oh man is it a beautifully acted film.

Liv and Max in Shame

Sydow also had the good sense to die just prior to the coronavirus taking him out. Or trying to. Good luck killing Ming, you stupid virus!

Stupid as this virus is—and really, try having a sensible conversation with it—it’s managed to shutter the entire entertainment industry for the forseeable future. Film sets involve many, many people. Working from home is not an option. Life will be coming back on-line sooner or later, but large groups of people working together in close proximity for long hours is going to be way over on the later end of things. To think how long it’s going to be until the final season of Better Call Saul is shot and airs is almost enough to blot out the actual real-world horrors slowly enfolding us.

As for movie theaters, they may return sooner than any newly made movies, but will audiences return to fill them? Or half-fill them, to at least maintain the illusion of social distance? That’s going to depend on how deep the fear of infection settles inside us over the coming months. It still feels a little unreal, a little science-fictiony, a little like numbers on a computer screen. What about when some small percentage of all those people currently infected start dying? When we all know someone killed by this stupid virus? How eager will we be, even once the immediate danger passes, even once it seems safe, even when theaters have reopened, to gather in the hundreds in small, enclosed spaces?

Put it that way, it sounds a bit dire and ominous. But humans have weirdly short memories when it comes to tragedy. Also, we like rubbing shoulders with other humans. And watching movies together.

I mean I hate people, but I’ll be back in theaters as soon as I can. How else am I going to see a new print of The Conversation?

Play it, Gene

2 responses on “RIP Stuart Gordon, Max von Sydow, and the Film Industry

  1. First memory of Max von Sydow was Strange Brew: “I could crush your head. Like a nut. But I won’t. Because I need you.” I loved watching him from that moment.

  2. My glass is raised to Brewmeister Smith. And headless corpses, as long as they stay away from hospitals for a while. This is no time for reckless necrophiliac cunnilingus.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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