INTO THE FIRE:
on life, creativity and film art
in the twilit and allegorical film art
of Sean Penn
by Gary W. Wright
As with most film artists creating today, the still suspicious helicopter crash that killed actor/director/writer Vic Morrow and illegally hired and used child extras Renee Chen and Myca Le around 2:20 am in the early morning hours of July 23, 1982 on the George Folsey jr. produced John Landis set of the twilit, allegorical, Kathleen Kennedy associate produced, Frank Marshall produced, and Landis and Steven Spielberg executive produced docufeature film TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) was an important theme in the film art of Sean Justin Penn. However, unlike most film artists, Penn was the son of film/telefilm actor and then director Leo Penn and film/telefilm actress Eileen Ryan, the latter of whom openly linked Penn to the Twilight Zone via her role as Nora Raigan in the allegorical Ted Post telefilm “A World Of Difference” (1960) from Season One of the original TWILIGHT ZONE telefilm series, an episode released on March 11, 1960 that cast a twilit pall over Penn months before he was born on August 17, 1960. In addition, perhaps inspired by his acting parents, Penn also acted in film art for nine years before he began creating film art, allowing him to draw on all of the insights into the creation of film art that he soaked up like a human sponge as an actor to give his films a seasoned and knowing confidence right from the beginning.
Significantly, Penn also differed from other film artists of the dread allegorical Zone Wars by avoiding using computer generated imagery (CGI) to enhance his film art, preferring a gritty and grounded indie docufeature style of film art like that evoked the young rebel film artists of the Sixties and Seventies like Francis Coppola, David Cronenberg, Dennis Hopper and George Lucas. All of which was on open and fiery display when he donned the writer/director hats and teamed up with twilit Eileen to create one of the greatest films ever made and perhaps the finest film of the dread allegorical Zone Wars, the twilit, allegorical, CGI free and Ozian themed indie docufeature film THE INDIAN RUNNER (1991), a film released in May of ‘91 that was inspired by the twilit and allegorical Bruce Springsteen written and performed tune “Highway Patrolman” (1982), openly linking the film to the twilit and disastrous year of 1982.
“You’re a message.
Significantly, the film began with a black screen accompanied by the howling of an animal in agony. Then an adult deer in a nighttime winter forest appeared, soon followed by a shot of an indigenous male hunter-played by Don Shanks-in traditional fringed deerskin coat and pants chasing after it, shots of deer and pursuing hunter that were intercut with a black screen, a contrast between still black screen and moving picture that evoked the panels of narrative art and was also the first indication of the importance of the harmony of stillness and movement in the film art of Penn. As the indigenous hunter chased the deer through the snow and into dying exhaustion, a voiceover (VO) by an American man explained the reasoning behind the chase, described how it unfolded and how the Indian runner knelt beside the exhausted and dying deer, lifted its mouth to his mouth and breathed in its last breath before becoming one with its peace and stillness. Then the allegorical and Dave Mason written Traffic tune “Feelin’ Alright” (1968) began playing as the opening titles flickered over the screen, fittingly establishing the rebel Sixties spirit of THE INDIAN RUNNER. Then the song faded away, the opening titles ended and beautiful, still and peaceful establishing shots of snow blanketed Nebraska farmer’s fields appeared on the screen.
These beautiful and peaceful shots were suddenly and jarringly interrupted by and intercut with frenzied shots of a frantic car chase, a chase that evoked the deadly chase in the prologue, a frantic car chase intercut with still shots of the snow shrouded fields that not only evoked the still black screens intercut between the scenes of fleeing deer and pursuing Indigenous hunter in the narrative art evoking prologue that kicked off the film and the contrast between still photography and still photographers and motion pictures and film artists, but also reaffirmed the implicit importance of the harmony of stillness and movement in the film art of Penn, a harmony that now also evoked the solemn stillness contrasting with the strong beating of the human heart, setting the stage for the implicit importance of the harmony of cool reason and wild passion in the film art of Penn. Significantly, this frantic car chase had a small town deputy sheriff who turned out be the film’s VO narrator already heard in the prologue, the implicitly Cowardly Lion linked Joseph “Joe” Roberts-played by Trevor Endicott as a kid in a home movie flashback and by David Morse as an adult, respectively-driving a wailing police car in hot pursuit of a fleeing white car driven by a young and Landis resembling and implicitly linked outlaw who turned out to be fittingly surnamed Baker-fittingly, because makeup/prosthetic wizard Richard “Rick” Baker had designed the apeman and wolfman makeup and suits for such eerily twilit and allegorical Landis indie docufeature films as SCHLOCK (1973) and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), and played by Jimmy Intveld-down the deserted and lonely road that bisected those peaceful farmer’s fields and led to the state line. Indeed, the fact that the sight and sound of the chase evoked the sight and sound of police cars in hot pursuit of Elwood and Jake Blues-played by Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, respectively-throughout the allegorical Landis indie docufeature film THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) affirmed the implicit link of Baker to Landis. An overhead shot of the car chase from a swooping helicopter also openly linked the fleeing outlaw driver to twilit helicopters and, hence, to Landis.
Soon the outlandis outlaw was skidding to a stop, leaping out of his car and turning around to blast away at Deputy Sheriff Roberts with his gun. This caused Roberts to skid to a stop as well, step cautiously out of his patrol car, duck behind his open door, aim carefully with his rifle and shoot the outlaw dead with one shot, thus killing an implicit Wicked Warlock of the East figure to open wide the doors of the healing Ozian dream. Significantly, this killing of an implicitly Landis linked outlaw so early into the film immediately implied that Penn was eager to exorcise and break audiences, film art, film artists and the Temple Theatre free from the twilit rictus grip of Landis and the TZ disaster and kick off a neo eon of daylit film art. Indeed, the Nebraska license plate of the patrol car of Deputy Sheriff Roberts implied as much, for 27 M639 included the fateful numbers 237, which evoked the July 23, 1982 date of the TZ disaster and a 73 that reminded us that ’73 saw the release of the first Landis film, SCHLOCK. The film’s many allusions to the eerily and presciently twilit, allegorical, CGI enhanced, Ozian themed and implicitly Lucas roasting Sir Ridley Scott indie docufeature artbuster BLADE RUNNER (1982), including the film long VO by Deputy Sheriff Roberts that evoked the acerbic and world weary film long VO of Harrison Ford’s implicitly Lucas linked Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Blade Runner unit Replicant hunter/killer Richard “Rick” Deckard, reaffirmed the film’s interest in the twilit and disastrous year of 1982.
The implication that Penn was addressing the TZ disaster in THE INDIAN RUNNER was reaffirmed when the younger hellraisin’ brother of Roberts, the devilishly handsome and diabolic, tattoed, wild, fiery and implicitly Scarecrow linked Frank-played by Brandon Fleck as a kid in that home movie flashback and by Viggo Mortensen as an adult, respectively-showed up in that small Nebraska town after surviving a tour of duty in Vietnam in this late Sixties set film, a late Sixties setting heightened by the sounds of classic Sixties songs on the soundtrack that implicitly affirmed that Penn was embracing and continuing the original rebel indie docufeature spirit of New Hollywood in THE INDIAN RUNNER. For the tour of duty in ‘Nam reminded us that the TZ disaster occurred during the filming of an U.S. Army helicopter attack on the set of a recreated village in Vietnam during the war, while the name of Frank evoked that of Frank Marshall, producer of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. Curiously, however, with the arrival of Frank, the film began to make all sorts of allusions to the quirky indie moving paintings of David Lynch.
Indeed, the sight and sound of Joe’s wife, the implicitly Good Witch of the South linked Maria-played by Valeria Golino-being woken up in the upstairs bedroom she shared with Joe by the sound of Frank breaking into their house one morning when he returned early from ‘Nam, grabbing Joe’s gun, and walking slowly and cautiously downstairs in the darkness with the gun held in both hands in front of her to confront Frank evoked a similar scene in the twilit, allegorical, CGI free, Ozian themed and implicitly Tim Burton addressing Lynch indie moving painting BLUE VELVET (1986), an allusion helped by the fact that Maria resembled the latter film’s troubled and tormented Wicked Dorothy Vallens-played by Isabella Rossellini. After fleeing small town life, getting in trouble and tossed in jail, Frank returned to the life of Joe and Maria with a beautiful, naïve, innocent, nutty and implicitly Dorothy linked blonde girlfriend Dorothy-played by Patricia Arquette-whose name evoked the troubled and tormented Wicked Dorothy Vallens again and whose young blonde beauty, indomitable innocence and rebel spirit evoked that of Lula Fortune-played by Laura Dern-in the twilit, allegorical, CGI free, Ozian themed and implicitly Sir Scott addressing Lynch indie moving painting WILD AT HEART (1990). Dorothy also affirmed the film’s implicit interest in Lynch with an amusing encounter with a bearded lady-played by Elaine Schoonover-soon after she arrived, a bearded lady who evoked a bearded lady-played by Alanna Smithee-met in a travelling freak show at the beginning of the allegorical Lynch indie movie painting THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980). Allusions to the twilit, allegorical, CGI free and Ozian themed Lynch indie moving painting DUNE (1984) as well as to the equally twilit, allegorical, CGI free and Ozian themed Lynch indie telemoving painting series TWIN PEAKS (1990-91)-indeed, the still snapshots of snowy rural fields that began THE INDIAN RUNNER evoked the still snapshots of Twin Peaks that began TWIN PEAKS-reaffirmed the implicit Lynch addressing intent of THE INDIAN RUNNER.
Significantly, however, despite these allusions to the film and telefilm art of Lynch, the wild misadventures of Frank and Dorothy evoked the equally wild misadventures of Clovis and Lou Jean Poplin-played by William Atherton and Goldie Hawn, respectively-in the eerily and presciently twilit and allegorical Spielberg indie docufeature film THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), implicitly linking Frank and Dorothy to Spielberg and his film art. Just as significantly, and despite the luv and devotion of beautiful crazy Dorothy and Frank and Joe’s parents-played by Charles Bronson and Sandy Dennis, respectively, the former again openly linking the film to the Twilight Zone via his role as the unnamed man in the allegorical Montgomery Pittman telefilm “Two” (1961), a Season Three episode of the original TWILIGHT ZONE telefilm series, and also openly to the twilit and disastrous year of ’82 via his role as Paul Kersey in the twilit and allegorical Michael Winner film DEATH WISH II (1982)-Frank immediately returned to his hellraisin’, law breakin’ and jail birdin’ ways on arrival back in town despite the best efforts of Joe to reach out to and stop him, creating a frustrated tension between the two brothers that built over the course of the film.
A growing tension that implied that after implicitly and symbolically exorcising Landis by shooting dead the implicitly Landis linked outlaw at the beginning of the film, Penn would also implicitly and symbolically exorcise Spielberg by having Deputy Sheriff Roberts gun down his errant kid brother, in the full circle end, after a minor crime scene that ended with Frank murdering a barkeep named Caesar-fittingly played by Hopper to implicitly affirm that Penn was keeping the rebel New Hollywood spirit alive in the film and implicitly addressing Lynch, as Hopper played the Wicked Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET. Curiously, Hopper again openly reaffirmed the implicitly twilit spirit of the film, for he played the young Hitler luvin’ neo-Nazi Peter Vollmer in the allegorical Stuart Rosenberg telefilm “He’s Alive” (1963) from the Fourth Season of the original TWILIGHT ZONE telefilm series and linked the film openly to the fateful and fatal year of ’82 via his role as Cracker in the twilit and allegorical Dean Stockwell and Neal Young indie docufeature film HUMAN HIGHWAY (1982).
In fact, it initially seemed that Deputy Sheriff Roberts would indeed chase down and shoot Frank, as the film ended as it began with Deputy Sheriff Roberts in his patrol car in hot pursuit of Frank in his battered Buick with the twilit license plate of 68275N down the same lonely and deserted rural road seen at the beginning of the film. However, this time the rural fields were shrouded in darkness and the car chase was intercut with well lit interior scenes of Dorothy, now the resigned wife of Frank, giving birth to their child. In addition, at one point in the exterior nighttime chase, Frank swerved to miss an “Indian” runner-played by Kenny Stabler-seen near Frank twice in the film, an Indigenous runner who had become one with his message and who ran across the highway independent of time and space, an Indigenous runner whose presence implicitly affirmed that Frank had also become independent of time and space and one with his rebel message.
Pulling over at the side of the highway, Frank stopped like the implicitly Landis linked outlaw at the beginning of the film and, after watching his brother in his rear view mirror, got out of his car. Significantly, Frank was transformed by Joe’s imagination with the help of his memories back into the kid brother dressed as a cowboy complete with two holstered six guns already seen in the home movie flashback, an imaginatively transformed sight that implied that Penn thought that Spielberg was an adult child. A childish sight that prevented Deputy Sheriff Roberts from shooting Frank, instead watching as Frank got back into his car and fled into the night never to be seen again, perhaps to freedom in Canada as at the end of “Highway Patrolman”, fading up and away into the dark distance down a single lane rural highway that evoked the same dark single lane rural highway disappearing up into distant hills seen in the one sheet film poster for the presciently twilit and allegorical Spielberg indie docufeature film CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) to reaffirm the implicit link of Frank to Spielberg.
Thus, Joe let Frank go again as he had done throughout the film whenever Frank had been caught breaking the law. Significantly, this ending also evoked the end of BLADE RUNNER, as it reminded us that Deckard and his main antagonist, violent and troubled outlaw Replicant leader Roy Batty-played by Rutger Hauer-were also unable to defeat or kill each other, in the end. The implication was that Penn was reminding us that it was important not to defeat all of our Dark Side, as a little rebel fire like that extolled by Frank in the film was necessary to prevent art, artists, people and societies from becoming dull, lifeless, listless and uncreative. Thus, by allowing Frank to escape, Deputy Sheriff Roberts kept enough of his rebel Dark Side fire alive that he remained a vital, creative and truly human being, ensuring his success as a brother, husband, father and police officer. Of course, given the film’s allusions to Lynch and Spielberg, Penn also implied that he was sending a message to Lynch in the implicit form of Deputy Sheriff Roberts and urging Lynch not to be so intent on killing the Dark Side of film art and film artists in general and of his moving paintings and himself in particular for fear of killing the creativity and imperfect but vital humanity of his film art and himself and of the film art of other film artists in his determined eagerness to exorcise the Temple Theatre of Folsey jr., Kennedy, Landis, Marshall and Spielberg and the TZ disaster.
In addition, the escape also implicitly ensured the success of fiery and vital film and telefilm art in general, as the successful birth of Frank and Dorothy’s child, in the end, implied the hope of Penn in the tenth anniversary of the Last Good Year of film art in 1981 that a neo eon of daylit film art would begin in the Nineties. In fact, given the film’s open link to the fateful and fatal year of ’82 via “Highway Patrolman”, Penn implied that a little of the wild and fiery spirit that led to the TZ disaster needed to be kept alive in the still and beating hearts of film and telefilm artists to ensure the vitality and success of film and telefilm art. A valid point, given that the quality of film and telefilm art declined precipitously after the TZ disaster.
And so Penn and an inspired and talented cast and crew pulled off a fine first feature film that was one of the finest films in the dread allegorical Zone Wars-if not the finest. And so THE INDIAN RUNNER featured distinctive traits like a grounded and CGI free indie docufeature style contained within crisp and balanced frames whose intuitive harmony between stillness and movement and the cold stop and fiery beat of the human heart was broken every now and then by a sudden slow motion shot, all supported and enhanced by folksy rock music. And so these distinctive traits and an implicit interest in Lynch and in BLADE RUNNER continued when Penn donned the writer/director/co-producer hats and collaborated again with Eileen, Leo, Morse, editor Jay Cassidy, production designer Michael Haller, line producer David S. Hamburger, composer Jack Nitzsche, costume designer Jill Ohanneson and producer Don Phillips and traded the twilit rural world of Nebraska for the equally twilit urban world of Los Angeles in the twilit, allegorical, CGI free and Ozian themed indie docufeature film THE CROSSING GUARD (1995), released in September of ’95.
new things die.”
Significantly, the film began with the mournful and pensive stillness of an L.A. support group for people with family members who had been killed by a drunk driver intercut with the fiery and sensual dancing of a beautiful and semi-naked young woman-played by Alina Smithee-at an L.A. strip club, rubbing a lit torch over her bare breasts. This contrasting sight and sound evoked the stillness of rural fields intercut with the frantic motion of a car chase that began THE INDIAN RUNNER, linking THE CROSSING GUARD to that fine first feature film and returning the cold and fiery stop/start rhythm of the human heart, that perpetual emotion machine, and the implicit necessary harmony of still and moving picture and Good and Dark Sides within film artists to the allegorical indie docufeature film art of Penn. One of the support group members was the implicitly Sir Scott linked Bobby-played by John Savage-while another turned out to be Mary-played by Angelica Huston.
Then the opening credits flashed on the screen-opening credits enhanced by the original twilit, allegorical and haunting Springsteen written and performed tune “Missing” (1995)-we discovered that Mary’s ex-husband was the implicitly Lynch linked indie jeweller Freddy Gale-fittingly played by rebel New Hollywood icon Jack Nicholson, implicitly affirming that Penn was continuing the rebel New Hollywood indie docufeature tradition in THE CROSSING GUARD-an implicit interest in Lynch affirmed by the film’s allusions to BLUE VELVET, THE ELEPHANT MAN and WILD AT HEART. Gale was so haunted by the death of his implicitly Dorothy Gale linked daughter Emily Gale that he resolved to kill the drunk driver who had hit and killed Emily, the implicitly James Cameron linked John Booth-another rebel son who evoked Frank and was ironically played by Morse-when Booth was released from a greater L.A. prison. This implied that Penn was not happy that Cameron had implicitly roasted Lynch in the implicit form of Kyle Reese-played by Michael Biehn-in the twilit, allegorical, CGI enhanced and Ozian themed indie docufeature Zonebuster THE TERMINATOR (1984) and in the implicit form of the T-1000 Terminator-played by Robert Patrick-in the twilit, allegorical, CGI enhanced and Ozian themed indie docufeature Zonebuster TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991).
Indeed, the fact that the surname of Booth evoked Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET and that Piper Laurie, who played Catherine Martell in TWIN PEAKS, returned as John’s mother Helen, affirmed the film’s implicit interest in Lynch. As such, the fact that Gale’s girlfriend was the Katherine Bigelow resembling and implicitly linked exotic dancer Verna-played by Priscilla Barnes-was a wryly knowing and ironic touch from Penn, reminding us that Bigelow had implicitly roasted Lynch in the form of the hypocritical Tarver-played by J. Don Ferguson-in the twilit, allegorical, CGI free and Lafayette “Monty” Montgomery co-written/co-directed indie docufeature film THE LOVELESS (1981) and in the form of outlaw surfer and bank robbery gang leader Bodhi-played by Patrick Swayze-in the twilit, allegorical, CGI free and Ozian themed indie docufeature artbuster POINT BREAK (1991).
Intriguingly, however, Gale was unable to kill Booth on his first attempt to shoot Booth dead in the trailer he lived in that was parked in the driveway of his parent’s house, and Booth was also unable to kill Gale in self-defence. The scene evoked Joe’s inability to arrest or kill Frank in THE INDIAN RUNNER, implying that Penn felt that, despite their differences, Cameron and Lynch were brothers who needed each other. Indeed, the sight and sound of Booth being released from prison at the beginning of the film-the entrance to the prison fittingly identified as Ontario Dr. to reaffirm his implicit link to the Ontario born and raised Cameron-reminded us that Frank did some time in prison after coming home from ‘Nam at the beginning of THE INDIAN RUNNER, linking Booth to Frank. The climatic closing chase through the nighttime streets of Los Angeles, an intense chase that evoked the sight and sound of Deckard chasing the renegade Replicant Zhora-played by Joanna Cassidy-through the crowded nighttime streets of the future L.A. in BLADE RUNNER-making it fitting that and the sight and sound of the T-100 Terminator and the T-800 Terminator-played by Arnold Schwarzenegger-intently hunting down targets in the streets of L.A. in T1 and T2, an intense chase that ended in a cemetery at the grave of Emily with Gale unable to shoot Booth again, reaffirmed the implicit brotherhood theme of THE CROSSING GUARD.
Indeed, the sight and sound of the two men reaching out to hold the other’s hand and sobbing over Emily’s grave as a new day dawned around them reaffirmed the implication that the two men were brothers despite their differences, and also implicitly affirmed the hope of Penn that Cameron and Lynch would also reach out to each other despite their many artistic differences and work together to kick off an equally daylit new era of film art. For the moving sight and sound implied the hope of Penn that Cameron and Lynch would stop trying to kill each other in their film art and instead support each other, as they were both dedicated and talented film artists who were as haunted and troubled by the deaths of Chen, Le and Morrow and film art itself in the TZ disaster as Booth and Gale were haunted and troubled by the death of Emily, and as such needed each other’s support to successfully channel their vital and creative artistic fire. In fact, a creepy scene that saw Gale’s fingerprints taken by a digital fingerprint machine after he was arrested for a DUI openly affirmed that Penn believed it was important for Cameron and Lynch to put aside their creative differences and work together to prevent CGI and digital cameras and editing software from taking the vital humanity of film art.
Then an implicit interest in a troubled and haunted Lynch returned on one level when Penn donned the co-producer/director hats and teamed up again with Eileen, Cassidy, Nicholson, Ohanneson, Phillips, Benicio Del Toro and Kathy Jensen-who had cameo roles as Miguel and the Pink Lady, respectively, in THE INDIAN RUNNER-Robin Wright Penn-who, under the name of Robin Wright, played Booth’s luv interest, the shy, sensitive and sweet indie painter Jojo, whose resemblance and implicit link to Linda Hamilton affirmed the implicit link of Booth to Cameron in THE CROSSING GUARD-to wrap up a Lynch Trilogy on one level in the twilit, allegorical and CGI free indie docufeature film THE PLEDGE (2001), released on January 9, 2001 and inspired by the allegorical Friedrich Durrenmatt novel The Pledge: requiem for the detective novel (1958).
“He was a great cop.
Just, it’s…it’s just sad.
He’s become a drunk and a clown.”
Significantly, the film began with the sight and sound of an older man who turned out be the retired Reno Police Department (RPD) Detective Jerry Black-played by Nicholson-standing in the sunshine in a distraught and dishevelled state and talking to himself outside a gas bar, reminding us that Nicholson’s Gale was one of the last characters seen at the end of THE CROSSING GUARD. These relatively still pictures of the distraught Black were first intercut and then intermixed with shots of black crows flying across a white sky, evoking the cold still shots intercut with hot moving shots that began THE INDIAN RUNNER and THE CROSSING GUARD, bringing the implicit harmony of still photography and motion picture, of the pensive stillness and the fiery motion of the heart and of the Dark and Light Side of humanity back to the film art of Penn. However, this time the sight of flapping crews intermixed with closeups of Black shaking his head and talking to himself suggested that the birds symbolized the writhing and confused thoughts and inner disharmony of Black rather than inner harmony.
The ironically disharmonious and dishevelled Black then faded away, and soon we rediscovered him weeks or months earlier ice fishing in a hut on a remote and snowswept lake and enjoying a dram or three of Glenfiddich before driving back to Reno for a retirement party, a snowscape that evoked the Indigenous hunter running down a deer in the winter forest prologue followed by the peaceful snow blanketed fields of rural Nebraska at the beginning of THE INDIAN RUNNER. Significantly, on the drive back to Reno, Black drove his Isuzu Trooper SUV through a mountain tunnel, evoking the sight and sound of THX 1138-played by Lawrence Duvall-driving a white rocket car through a tunnel to escape from a subterranean world at the end of the allegorical Lucas indie docufeature film THX 1138 (1971), implying that Black symbolized Lucas. Indeed, the license plate of the Isuzu was 571 PBZ, affirming the implicit link of Black to Lucas.
Significantly, the fact that the sight and sound of Black driving through the tunnel also evoked the sight and sound of the implicitly Lucas linked Deckard driving his car through the 2nd Street tunnel in BLADE RUNNER reaffirmed the implicit link of Black to Lucas. This link to Deck reminded us that the retired Blade Runner was called back into service to track down a gang of violent Replicants at the beginning of BLADE RUNNER, setting us up for the sight and sound of Black being called back into service to track down a serial rapist/murderer of short blonde girls before the end of his retirement party, a return to the police force that prevented him from enjoying a marlin fishing retirement vacation in the Lucas evoking Baja California city of Cabo San Lucas to affirm his implicit link to Lucas. A return to the Force that also affirmed the implicit link of Black to Lucas, reminding us that two years before the release of THE PLEDGE Lucas had returned to the Temple Theatre with the twilit, allegorical, CGI enhanced, Ozian themed and implicitly Cameron and Spielberg roasting indie animaction film STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).
Of course, the deaths and/or disappearances of a twilit trio of beautiful young blonde girls-particularly Virginia “Ginny” Larsen, played by Taryn Knowles-evoked the death of Emily Gale in THE CROSSING GUARD. However, unlike the accidental death of Emily, the rape/murders of Larsen and the other two girls evoked the rape/murder of the equally beautiful, blonde and implicitly Hollywood and Madonna linked Laura Palmer-played by Sheryl Lee-in TWIN PEAKS, implying that Penn was also addressing Lynch on one level in THE PLEDGE. Indeed, the appearance of Mickey Rourke as James Olstad, the troubled, haunted and implicitly Lynch linked father of another of the girl victims, and the fact that the film’s British Columbia shooting locations evoked the nearby Washington State shooting locations of TWIN PEAKS affirmed the implicit additional interest in Lynch in THE PLEDGE. The presence of another veteran New Hollywood rebel, Harry Dean Stanton, as the prologue gas bar’s original owner, Floyd Cage, reaffirmed the film’s implicit interest in Lynch, for Stanton played the likable but doomed private investigator Johnny Farragut in WILD AT HEART and the invalid and implicitly Landis linked Lyle Straight in the twilit, allegorical and CGI free Lynch indie moving painting THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999).
Alas, Black not only failed to live up to the pledge he made to distraught parents Duane and Margaret Larsen-played by Michael O’Keefe and Patricia Clarkson, respectively, who resembled and were implicitly linked to longtime Lucas pals Walter and Aggie Murch to reaffirm the implicit link of Black to Lucas-to track down and catch the serial killer of Ginny and the other two girls, an implicitly Spielberg linked psycho named Oliver known to his girl victims as “the Wizard”-played by John R. Taylor-but also destroyed his reputation and his sanity in the process by using beautiful blonde eight year old Chrissy-played by Pauline Roberts-as bait for him without asking for permission from her hard pressed single diner waitress mother Lori-played by an initially unrecognizable Wright Penn-with whom Black had struck up a relationship. And so we left Black at the end of the film where we had found him at the beginning of the film, distraught, dishevelled and talking to himself outside the lonely and isolated rural gas bar located in the midst of the serial killer’s hunting grounds that Black had purchased from Cage to keep an eye out for the killer, implying the sad belief of Penn that Lucas was a lost, confused and washed up loser, an implicit belief that most people agreed with at the time, for the attempt of Lucas to come out of retirement and impress audiences with STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE had failed.
And so THE PLEDGE was another fine and CGI free indie docufeature film interspersed with slow motion shots that reaffirmed the implicit commitment of Penn to the rebel indie docufeature spirit of New Hollywood. And so Penn exchanged an always beautiful British Columbia that had never resembled Nevada for the not yet liberated territory of always awesome Alaska, donned the writer/director/co-producer hats and teamed up again with Cassidy on the twilit, allegorical and CGI free indie docufeature film INTO THE WILD (2007), released on September 1, 2007 and inspired by the twilit and allegorical Jon Krakauer book Into The Wild (1996).
“Beware the Jabbermoose my son,
the jaws that bite, the horns that catch!”
Curiously, the first image of the film was that of a photo of Christopher Johnson “Chris” McCandless-played by Bryce Walters as a boy in a brief flashback, and mostly by Emile Hirsch, respectively-on the nightstand of his mother Billie-played by Marcia G. Harden. This still image was soon disturbed by the truly moving sight of Billie rising up from the bed after being startled out of sleep by the sound of the voice of the then missing Chris, bringing another parent haunted by another missing child to the film art of Penn. Soon Billie was consoled and hugged by her husband Walter “Walt” McCandless-played by William Hurt-a sympathetic consolation not given to the equally lost and confused Black at the end of THE PLEDGE. Of course, the contrast between the still photo of McCandless and the movement of Billie also brought the familiar duality and harmony of still photography and motion picture, cold stop and fiery beat of the heart and the Dark and Light Side within all of us back to the film art of Penn. An harmonious contrast that continued when shots of the missing McCandless hitchhiking into and out of Fairbanks, Alaska were intercut with still photos of different buildings and streets in the city, a gold lusting city as bleak, drab, disappointing, and mostly imaginary as the Hollywood that the name of Fairbanks evoked with its link to Douglas Fairbanks.
After this familiar beginning to a Penn film, INTO THE WILD became on the surface another fine, moving and thought provoking film with a fondness for balanced frames, the beauty of the natural world and haunting folksy rock, this time an original acoustic soundtrack created by Eddie Vedder that was interspersed with equally haunting compositions by Michael Brook and Kaki King, that re-enacted the life of McCandless, another rebellious and fiery son like Frank and John. A fiery, rebellious and literay art luvin’ son who decided to leave behind his stultifying upper middle class “life”, his desperately conformist and acquisitive parents, his sympathetic younger sister Carine-played by Jena Malone-and the chains and constraints of civilized “society” in Virginia and even his own name after graduating with honours from college and to take off in the summer of 1990 on a personal Grail Quest around the continental United States living off the land and the kindness of strangers and searching for truth and purity as the holy pilgrim Alexander “Alex” Supertramp, a sincere but quixotic quest fittingly told in five chapters given the fondness of McCandless for literature that eventually led to him crossing his own Rubicon and dying alone in the wilds of Alaska in the Spring of ‘93. However, underneath this moving story of McCandless, another story and meaning within the meaning quested beneath the surface, an allegorical tale that implicitly addressed the equally indie, fiery and rebellious American film artist Terrence “Terry” Gilliam.
Indeed, in one of the film’s first flashbacks, a fellow student named Vanessa Denise Lowery-played by Alana Smithee-was called up to receive her diploma before McCandless at his Emory University graduation ceremony in Atlanta, a Lowery who evoked Sam Lowry-played by Jonathan Pryce-in the madcap twilit and allegorical Gilliam indie animaction film BRAZIL (1985). This implicit interest in Gilliam was affirmed by the parents of McCandless. For Billie and Walt” McCandless looked like King Arthur and his faithful squire Patsy-played by Graham Chapman and Gilliam, respectively-in the presciently twilit, allegorical and implicitly New Hollywood roasting Gilliam and Terry Jones indie docufeature film MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). The film’s implicit interest in Gilliam was reaffirmed by five of the helpful strangers that McCandless met in the course of his trek through the southern continental United States.
For the diehard hippy Rainey-played by Brian Dierker-evoked Jones, while the lush Pacific Northwest rainforest locale where McCandless met Rainey evoked the endless Medieval forest of the madcap, allegorical and implicitly Spielberg roasting Gilliam indie animaction film JABBERWOCKY (1977), and the Sherwood Forest hideout of the segment featuring the implicitly Lynch linked Robin Hood-played by John Cleese-and his Merry Men in the madcap, allegorical and implicitly New Hollywood roasting Gilliam indie animaction film TIME BANDITS (1981). A fitting time to be reminded of Cleese, for soon after hanging with Rainey and his sweetie Jan-played by Catherine Keener-McCandless met and spent some time working on a South Dakota farm with the exuberant and implicitly Cleese linked Midwest farmer Wayne Westerberg-played by Vince Vaughan-a farm whose endless fields of grain evoked the endless prairie sea seen in the madcap, twilit, allegorical, CGI enhanced and implicitly Lucas and Spielberg roasting Gilliam indie animaction film TIDELAND (2005).
In addition, Westerberg’s friend Kevin-played by Zach Galifianakis-had a name that evoked Kevin-played by Craig Warnock-the curious and exuberant boy who was whisked off into time travelling jackanapes by a gang of rebellious and morally stunted little men who were implicitly linked to New Hollywood film artists like Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg in TIME BANDITS, and even resembled one of those Film Bandits, the implicitly Robert Altman linked Vermin-played by Tiny Ross. Of course, the next companion met on the trek, Mads the mad blonde Dane from Copenhagen-played by Thure Lindhardt-evoked Chapman again. For their part, the pinch nosed Slab City Salvation Mountain creator Leonard Knight evoked Eric Idle, while benevolent Salton Sea resident Ron Franz-played by Hal Holbrook-evoked Michael Palin-while the desert landscapes they haunted evoked the Middle Eastern locale of the allegorical and implicitly Lucas roasting Gilliam and Jones indie docufeature film MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) and the Nevada desertscapes of the madcap, twilit, allegorical and implicitly Coppola and Lynch roasting Gilliam indie animaction film FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).
In addition, a bearded and ragged sojourn amongst the homeless while stopping in L.A. that ended Chapter 2: Adolescence not only linked Alex openly to the home of Hollywood but evoked the equally bearded and ragged homeless in New York in the madcap, twilit, allegorical and implicitly Lucas and Spielberg roasting and toasting Gilliam indie animaction film THE FISHER KING (1991). Back in L.A., the sight and sound of McCandless using the “Magic” Fairbanks Bus 142-an old bus parked surreally in the Alaskan wild which linked McCandless to film art again via Douglas Fairbanks-as his winter camp again evoked TIDELAND, which saw the imaginative and abandoned girl Jeliza Rose-played by Jodelle Ferlan-enjoy playing in an equally abandoned school bus in a prairie field. The sight and sound of McCandless taking on, killing, beheading and carving up a blockbuster moose also evoked the sight and sound of Dennis the cowardly cooper-played by Palin-inadvertently killing off the blockbuster Jabberwock beast at the end of JABBERWOCKY. All of which reminded us that the sight and sound of the backpack wearing McCandless tramping out into the wild of Alaska and doing his best to hunt any game along the way at the beginning of the film also evoked the sight and sound of a poacher-played by Jones-with a basket on his back tramping and poaching through that endless Medieval forest before being attacked and eaten by the towering blockbuster Jabberwocky beast-played by Peter Salmon-in the prologue that kicked off JABBERWOCKY, a reminder helped along by the fact that the camera pondered McCandless from a height in some of those scenes like the camera POV pondered the poacher from the perspective of the towering Jabberwock in that memorably madcap prologue.
Even the ending of the film, which saw divine light shine out of the clouds as the paralyzed and hallucinating McCandless lay dying of starvation and thirst in the “Magic” Bus after inadvertently eating the poisonous and paralyzing wild sweet pea was linked to BRAZIL and MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Thus, given that McCandless almost but not quite survived his indie winter in Alaska, the implication was that Penn felt that Gilliam had almost but not quite succeeded as an indie film artist. In fact, given the link of McCandless to Rose, it was possible that Penn was implicitly expressing his dislike of TIDELAND in particular in INTO THE WILD. An implicit dislike of Gilliam and his madcap, imaginative, and idiosyncratic indie animaction film art that was not shared by audiences or by Angelina Jolie, for she implicitly came to the support of Gilliam and roasted Penn in the equally moving, twilit, allegorical and CGI enhanced docufeature film UNBROKEN (2014). An implicit support for Gilliam that implicitly inspired Penn when he donned the director hat and teamed up again with Cassidy, Vedder, Merritt Wever-who played a fast food restaurant manager named Lori in INTO THE WILD-Hans Zimmer-co-composer on THE PLEDGE-and his fittingly named son Hopper Penn and left the cold of Alaska for the fire of Africa in the twilit, allegorical and CGI free indie docufeature film THE LAST FACE (2016), released on May 20, 2016.
there isn’t a solution.
We don’t have a solution.”
Significantly, the film began in 2014 in a concert hall in Cape Town with fluid shots of a sand painter-played by Anna Strelkov-creating images related to a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Medicins Du Monde (MDM) in a lit sandbox whose images were projected onto a screen like a hand animated film, a truly moving evocation of hand animated film that was strengthened by the fact that the sand moving painting was accompanied by a symphony orchestra in full sonic swing, moving shots intercut with still shots of a pensive, beautiful, blonde and Jolie resembling and implicitly linked woman who turned out to be an MDM doctor named Doctor Wren Petersen-played by Amy Harries-Jones as a girl in a flashback and by Charlize Theron as an adult, respectively-silently watching the sand film and listening to the music, immediately returning the harmony of still photography and moving picture, cold stop and warm beat of the heart, and the Dark and Light Sides to the film art of Penn. Then the film explored the fiery tumultuous life of Dr. Petersen and her romance with a fellow and perhaps Gilliam linked MDM doctor named Miguel Leon-played by Javier Bardem-over a decade of missions starting in 2003 in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the south of Sudan in the fittingly fiery land of Africa, an exploration which, given that these missions struggled against overwhelming odds and mostly ended in failure and with the death of Leon, implied that Penn believed that Jolie’s equally difficult work against the odds as a Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would probably also mostly end in failure due to the difficulties of trying to save a troubled world full of warfare, the dead, the dying, the wounded, and the refugee, a troubled world the that refused to be saved. Indeed, the film’s allusions to the twilit, allegorical, CGI free and implicitly Cameron addressing Jolie indie docufeature film IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY (2011) and the fact that the sight and sound of Dr. Petersen as a girl helping out her father, MDM founder Dr. Peter Petersen-played by Mark De Villiers-in a flashback in Paraguay in 1982 evoked Jolie’s own work as a girl playing Tosh Warner opposite her father Jon Voigt in his role as Alex Kovac in the twilit and allegorical Hal Ashby indie docufeature film LOOKIN’ TO GET OUT (1982) affirmed the implicit interest in Jolie in THE LAST FACE.
At any rate, THE LAST FACE was another fine, moving and thought provoking Penn indie docufeature film haunted by the death of a child and its innocence and one that had the usual fondness for balanced frames and haunting folksy rock music-which this time included haunting African folksy rock like the twilit and allegorical Geoffrey Oryema tune “Exile” (1990)-and a lack of interest in CGI enhancement from a Master of twilit and allegorical indie docufeature film art. Curiously, THE LAST FACE was not well received, perhaps explaining why such a despondent fire was burning when he donned the director hat and teamed up again with Hopper, Vedder and Dale Dickey-who played Strom in THE PLEDGE-to implicitly address Lynch again in the twilit and allegorical indie docufeature film FLAG DAY (2021), a film released on July 10, 2021 that was inspired by the twilit and allegorical Jennifer Vogel indie book Flim-Flam Man (2004) and whose implicit interest in Lynch was affirmed by allusions to WILD AT HEART, THE STRAIGHT STORY, the allegorical Lynch indie moving painting ERASERHEAD (1977), and the twilit and allegorical Lynch indie moving paintings LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001).
“I had a dream
before the house burnt down...”
A fiery despondency, indeed, for after beginning on a sunny day with the contrastingly and ominously twilit shadow of a helicopter racing over a grass field like a huge black mosquito, the moving, beautifully shot and impressionistic film revolved around the beautiful, blonde, intrepid and implicitly Jennifer Lynch linked young journalist Jennifer Vogel-played by Dylan Penn-and her pensive meditations on her tragicomic, ne’er-do-well, chain smoking, sketch luving and implicitly Lynch linked father John Vogel-played by Penn-and his abandonment of his equally beautiful blonde wife Patricia “Patty” Vogel-played by Katheryn Winnick-and their young children, Jennifer and her blonde younger brother Nicholas aka “Nick”-played by Addison Tymec as a young girl and Jadyn Rylee as an older girl, respectively, and Cole Flynn as a young boy and Beckham Crawford as an older boy, respectively-and his failure to succeed as an “entrepreneur”, bank robber and counterfeiter, a ne’er-do-well father who was fond of burning down houses he owned, apparently for the insurance money. And so the film ended with another wild, fiery and law breaking son and brother driving for freedom with the police and their ominously twilit and mosquito evoking helicopter in hot pursuit, evoking the end of THE INDIAN RUNNER. However, this time the film ended with Vogel shooting himself to avoid being shot or arrested by the police in a dramatic reversal of the ending of THE INDIAN RUNNER, implying how cynical and despondent Penn had become about the film art of Lynch and how convinced he had become that Lynch was as much of a failure as Vogel since the release of that first fine, fiery and fearless feature film. Thus, it was fitting that the film began and ended in June of 1992, reminding us that 1992 was the year that the twilit and allegorical Lynch indie moving painting TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) bombed in theatres.
On another level, Penn also implied in FLAG DAY how cynical and despondent he had become about his own film art, given that he played Vogel and that his children Dylan and Hopper Penn played Jennifer and Nick as adults. At any rate, FLAG DAY was another fine and fearless film that again ably proved that mightier than the twilit and rotoring sword and always eager to take audiences on an incendiary and rebellious journey somewhere between the frozen stillness and the fiery beat of a vitally human heart was Penn, an insightful and transformative journey that deep it always led…into the fire.
Krakauer, Jon. Into The Wild. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.
Penn, Sean. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. New York:
Atria Books, 2018.