ALAN PARKER FOR MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Michael Cimino for The Deer Hunter
Woody Allen for Interiors
Hal Ashby for Coming Home
Warren Beatty and Buck Henry for Heaven Can Wait
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Back to Turkey, though in a somewhat (but not completely different) light. The Turks have had a rough go of it lately, first as an oppressive ethnic majority, now as the perpetrators of a penal system that made the term “Turkish prison” shorthand for hell on earth. The film’s six nominations and two wins indicate the strong impression the sensational true-life account of Billy Hayes made on the Academy, much of which stemmed from permanently punching up the sobering brutality of prison life by a notch or two. The film had a substantial impact on the genre—just compare Cool Hand Luke to Hunger and it’s clear the worlds that Midnight Express bridged. On the other hand, as a political thriller the film’s legacy is dimmer—its distortion of Turkey through the eyes of its American protagonist is a cross for Alan Parker, Oscar-winning screenwriter Oliver Stone, and the Academy to bear. Ultimately, I found both elements combine into a meticulously—and frighteningly—effective study of unjust imprisonment and its toll on the human spirit.
A veteran director of commercials who leapt to feature films decades before Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, and David Fincher made it the thing to do, Parker brings the key strengths and weaknesses of short-form filmmaking to this project. As Jake Gyllenhaal once said of Fincher, Parker uses performances like colors in his grand compositions—the villains portrayed by the oh-so-Turkish Paolo Bonicelli and Paul L. Smith are straightforwardly evil, while the sympathetic Westerners played by Randy Quaid, Norman Weisser, and a saturnine John Hurt (the ensemble’s lone nominee) fit into stock characterizations instead of emotional arcs, though at least the latter sticks around long enough to face the same abyss as Billy. As for Davis: I saw little dynamism or nuance in his portrayal of the naïve young American, but Parker’s directing did the heavy lifting.
Parker and Stone construct Midnight Express as an intensely embodied experience, approaching the decline in Billy’s mental state through a relentless focus on his physical state and surroundings. His first sensation upon arriving in prison is to be overwhelmed by the cold, and his response—to steal a blanket—leads to his cringe-inducing corporal punishment (punctuated by the cutaways at the instants that the pain erupts). After his transfer to the insanity ward, the suffocation of his willpower manifests in the milky haze permeating the air. Even in the lowest depths of his senselessness, though, physical sensation is able to resuscitate him: glimpsing Susan again at last, his request is for her to press her breasts against the glass, as his lips squish up against them and he achieves a long-withheld sexual release. That scene, bridging a near-total disintegration with a jumpstarted resolve, cements the effectiveness of Parker’s pervasive visual sensibility. Returning to the insanity ward, his willful defiance is met by the smothering touch of the other inmates, and as he finally approaches Hamidou’s body crumpled against the wall, the fog dissipates through his POV.
In addition to his aptitude for sensory filmmaking, Parker, along with editor Garry Hamblin, also shows the keen temporal instincts of someone accustomed to managing short amounts of time. These virtues are manifest in scenes of action and violence. For as fabled as the film’s violent content was, most scenes were cut with surprising efficiency and clarity—including perhaps the most concise attempted rape and ensuing struggle in film history. More importantly, though, Parker appreciates the understated power of the long take, and has the skill and confidence to capture key character moments in a single shot: Billy’s embrace and first words with his bravely composed father, his tender rejection of a cellmate’s romantic advances, and most importantly, the final tracking shot, expanding the space surrounding Billy as he comprehends his transformation. This scene also highlights Giorgio Moroder’s superb Oscar-winning score, a fresh and distinctive vanguard of the synthesizer craze that would soon overrun Hollywood. The single melodic strain (coupled with the taut rhythm of Billy’s heartbeat) as Billy approaches the door exhales into gentle harmony as he steps out onto the other side and the walls encasing his mind quietly crumble.
For as effective as Parker’s psychological case study is, the film’s politics stymy its stylistic achievements. Whether as individuals, nameless groups, or a society at large, Turks are perceived as corrupt and barbaric. Not typically known in his subsequent work for vilifying non-Americans, Oliver Stone has since apologized for his work on this screenplay, but his malignant adaptation is in a way more sincere than one that would strive toward a balanced portrayal of “good” and “bad” Turks. Midnight Express represents the tainted perspective of a survivor, whose anger toward the injustice brought onto him essentialized all things Turkish as evil. Billy’s vitriolic monologue to the Turkish court repulsed me, but it did strike me as the heartfelt words of a 27-year-old about to be sentenced to life in prison halfway around the world. Disturbing though it might be to contemplate, the final, sober takeaway of the film might not be the triumph of the human spirit, as the freeze frame of Billy in mid-leap would suggest, but the stain of inhumanity begot by inhumanity that remains after his return to earth.
1978 was a year for Oscar newcomers—Woody Allen, on his second nomination, was the only veteran in the bunch. I have some respect for the other films in competition, though all suffer by comparison in some form. Allen’s Interiors for me works better as a satire of Bergman than a straight homage, I much prefer the original Here Comes Mr. Jordan to Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, and I’ll take Hal Ashby’s lighter Being There or Harold and Maude over his abundantly serious Coming Home. In the end, I have to recognize Michael Cimino’s flawed but profound epic filmmaking in The Deer Hunter, one of the last towering achievements of an era in Hollywood that Cimino himself would help to collapse with Heaven’s Gate. Parker’s film is another firm second place for me, and I’ll be curious to see if his second nomination for another true-life adaptation, Mississippi Burning, fares any better.