No matter how many times critics describe a movie as drawing us into its world, it will never be literally true. Watching someone else chop their way through a jungle, or wade through a swamp, does not force us to push vines and branches out of our own faces, or feel water soaking into our sneakers. We sit in air-conditioned comfort, watching others endure physical hardship for our entertainment. But when a movie can make us truly feel as if we are there, when it can overpower our senses to the point that we forget about our soft chair and bucket of popcorn and really feel as though we are slogging through ankle-deep mud, that’s an achievement to be admired.
Mad Max: Fury Road, the long-awaited fourth film in director George Miller‘s post-apocalyptic car culture series, was a disappointment from a lot of angles: plot, characterization, Tom Hardy‘s total inability to impersonate a human being. But critics were so excited by the idea that the vehicles, and the stunts performed by, on and around them, were “real” that nothing else mattered. Thus, Miller’s ability to create a world that, while absurd given a moment’s thought (who dragged a bank vault door up and inside a mountain for the villain?), felt real in the moment, was largely overlooked. His close-ups of faces screaming behind windshields were fine, but it was the vast desert landscapes populated by tiny, insignificant figures battered by the searing and relentless sun that made the strongest impression—that, and the grimy, sweat-stained, cracked-leather look of everyone’s clothing. Even the most baroque costume didn’t look like it had come off a designer’s rack; it looked like its wearer had built it up, piece by scavenged piece, over the course of years. This was just as true of previous installments in the Max series. The Road Warrior‘s fenced-in oil refinery had the battered, retrofitted layers of a job site; Bartertown, from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, seemed like a logical Outback attempt to re-grow industrial society, subterranean methane factory and all, and every piece visible onscreen seemed to be there for a purpose, even if it might never be used before the viewers’ eyes.
In his mid-’80s survey of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King described William Friedkin‘s Sorcerer (not a horror film) as featuring “a lot of close-ups…of sweaty people working hard and laboring machines; truck engines and huge wheels spinning in soupy mud and frayed fanbelts on the giant screen. Great stuff.” That doesn’t totally sum up the movie’s appeal, but it gets close. Finally put on Blu-Ray in 2014 after only being available as a shitty cropped DVD (buy it from Amazon), Sorcerer is an adaptation of Georges Arnaud‘s novel Le Salaire de la Peur, previously adapted into Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s 1953 film The Wages of Fear, to which it’s always unfavorably compared. It takes place in an unnamed South American country (filming took place in Mexico and the Dominican Republic), where four criminals have taken refuge; lacking options, they sign on to drive two trucks full of nitroglycerin into the jungle to put out a massive oil fire.
Everyone in the movie is unshaven and dripping with sweat at all times, even before they get to the jungle. Roy Scheider, the only American among the lead actors, looks like he’s going to melt into a small pile of grease with a fedora perched on top. They slog through brown rivers and deep, squelching mud, chopping vines out of their way, wrestling with their trucks’ engines, screaming at each other, getting soaked by rain that comes down so hard it looks physically painful to endure. Watching it is like being beaten down yourself; it’s exhausting. (The utterly bleak conclusion doesn’t help.) And yet, at the same time, it’s a beautiful movie. Friedkin’s filmmaking talents are incredible. There are sights in Sorcerer that seem impossible—not in the tedious sense that superhero movies routinely present the viewer with swooping shots, leaping “figures” and vast explosions that could not ever possibly exist, but in the far more thrilling sense that watching it, you can’t believe that massive 1970s movie cameras, lights, etc. were physically transported to that remote spot and the action filmed without everyone involved dying.
Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, which took six years to film and required five more years of post-production, and was in fact completed by the director’s wife and son after his death, is the next step beyond Friedkin and Miller: It is possibly the most immersive film ever made. (Buy it from Amazon.)
(Full disclosure: Occasional Burning Ambulance contributor Robert Sweeney was the producer of the Blu-Ray.)
Black and white, and nearly three hours long, Hard to Be a God takes place on an Earth-like planet that’s going through its medieval period—as well as a seemingly endless rainy season. A group of scientists from Earth have come to this muddy backwater to study its people, theoretically without revealing themselves or interfering, allowing the culture to follow its own course. But one of them has taken on the persona of Don Rumata, a figure who’s part aristocrat, part god. His prodigious sword-fighting skills (he’s said to have fought hundreds of duels without killing anyone—he just chops off their ears) have earned him respect and fear, and he travels here and there, negotiating with other royal personages as they attempt to murder all the intellectuals, known as “wise guys,” in their society. (These executions take gruesome form; one man is flipped upside down and drowned in an outhouse pit, and we’re shown a machine built to tear women apart from inside.)
The movie’s plot is fairly impenetrable, the dialogue abstract and about as far from expository as it’s possible to get. It exists almost entirely as a virtuoso act of world-building. The first shot is panoramic, taking in a vast landscape of wooden buildings, snow, mud, and tiny figures clambering about; it looks like a photo by Sebastião Salgado. But German’s preferred technique is to crowd the viewer; scenes that take place indoors are shot uncomfortably close, with extras wandering in front of the camera, blocking our view, and frequently staring directly into the lens like it’s a documentary. The sets, with huge chains dangling from low ceilings, ever-present dripping dirty water, and scarred, twisted laborers peering into the camera, strongly recall the methane factory sequences from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The people choke, cough, spit, and blow their noses on-screen; Rumata sticks his hand in a filthy, viscous substance and wipes it across his face; every third person punches or kicks one of the other two. And everyone is ugly—teeth like vandalized graveyards, scars, warts, blemishes, grotesque corpulence…everything about the movie seems designed to repel the viewer.
The squalid pointlessness of existence seems to be its primary message; at one point, Rumata cuts loose a man who we’re told has been chained up since he was three. Someone says “If you cut him loose, he’ll die,” and sure enough, he runs a few steps in one direction, turns around, and halfway back falls to the ground with a groan, and dies. If there’s a single act of kindness exhibited anywhere, it passes by in a blink. But the level of detail in the massive sets, made of wood, stone and iron, is amazing. This horrific planet, muddy and blood-soaked, plagued by unceasing rain, feels 100% real, albeit someplace you’d never, ever want to visit. It makes the dirtiest, most squalid scene from Game of Thrones look like an outtake from Camelot. And that, not its story or its message, is what makes Hard to Be a God such a fascinating, if nightmarish, experience—one that’s worth having, at least once.