You can see the nominees for best foreign-language film at the Oscars coming from a kilometer away. They’re tied to some sort of hot-button issue, or a pivotal historical event in the 20th century (see this year’s winner, The Counterfeiters), or a polyglot of arty and hearty elements that are delivered to us in subtitles. They are also often not the best movies their countries have to offer. Mongol, the 2007 nominee from Kazakhstan (choke on it, Borat), departs from the template. It begins with an ancient Mongolian proverb that might have sustained Conan the Barbarian through his various trials — “Do not scorn the weak cub; he may become the brutal tiger” — and with plates of 12th-century mutton and meat dishes thrust into our faces. Ladies and gentlemen, loosen the ascots you wear when you enter the arthouse for the usual highfalutin fare: There will be blood.
This is the story of Genghis Khan. Or, rather, one-third of it: the Russian director, Sergei Bodrov (of the 1996 Oscar nominee Prisoner of the Mountains, a Tolstoy update) has announced two more parts. Temudgin, the boy who would be Khan, has not been well-served by Hollywood. On Turner Classic Movies recently I came across the 1965 feature Genghis Khan, with all-purpose ethnic Omar Sharif grappling with a usurping Stephen Boyd and the none-too-Chinese James Mason and Robert Morley in yellow face and false eyelashes as onlookers to their quarrel. It was about as good as a Genghis Khan picture from the director of Where the Boys Are and Come Fly with Me could be. It was, however, still better than the legendary-for-the-wrong-reasons The Conqueror (1956), which I read about in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time in 1978 and lived down to its reputation when I saw it 20 years later. Here, red-haired Susan Hayward plays Borte, Genghis Khan’s hot-tempered lady love, and as Temudgin — a scowling John Wayne. “I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her,” the Duke drawls. “There are moments for wisdom and moments when I listen to my blood; my blood says, take this Tartar woman.” If the subject had been alive during the making of this picture the rebuilding of Hollywood after the wrath of Khan would still be going on. [As it was, it was the cast and crew who suffered from the irradiated soil of the Utah locations, with many, including the two leads, dying in a vicious cancer cluster over the next two decades.]
Mongol has the smell of authenticity. [Dudes, I haven’t forgotten Genghis Khan’s gnarly appearance in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but we shall pass over that in silence.] The harsh Mongolian steppe is the real deal, expansively filmed by Sergei Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers — see this one, which opens today, on the biggest screen possible. There is a rousing-to-deafening score to listen to, a vigorous collaboration between Tuomas Kantelinien and the Mongolian folk band Altan Urgan, complete with a closing credits theme song. Artist and production designer Dashi Namdakov and costumer Karin Lohr do transporting work. I don’t claim to know much about the times Genghis Khan lived in, but the movie feels accurate — as accurate as, say, the Chinese warrior fantasy Hero — and is far from the skimpy Late Late Show treatment the subject has been given. The horses and riders are flesh-and-blood and not CGI, which is used sparingly.[One objection, and one that can be made for numerous new films, including Rambo: The blood is digitized. I realize this saves wear-and-tear on the actors and the period costumes, even as it puts squib makers out of business. But though blood is eternally difficult to get right on film — look at early Seventies pictures like Dirty Harry, whose gun carnage resembles a paintball match — the CGI version is rarely more convincing than a can of viscous tomato soup being torn open. There is too much of a disconnect between the real swords and the computerized corpuscles to sell the illusion. The computer wizard who gets the formula right stands to make a fortune, so crack open those lab books, fire up the workstations, and work on it.]
I would like to tell you more about the story, which is the tangled tale of how the Khan came to be. There are multiple abductions, a strategic poisoning, a clan-crossed love affair, and a clash between Temudgin and his blood brother, the tribal prince Jamukha, which determines the course of history and presumably that of the next two installments. The actors, including Japan’s Tadanobu Asano (an acclaimed thespian described on the Internet Movie Database as “a cross between Johnny Depp and Toshiro Mifune,” pictured as Temudgin) are suitably intense and impassive, none of that “Tartar woman is for me” stuff. When the film ends, however, it is more about the impression it leaves than about the emotional impact it makes. Consider me impressed with all the physical detail, and willing to give Part 2 a try to see if the saga engages more of my senses. For now, the Khan is on.
We turn next to writer Harlan Ellison, who is never off. In our documentary-driven age you don’t rate as a cultural figure until you get one. His, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, is premiering at New York’s Film Forum, which is soon to spotlight docs on Louise Bourgeois, Patti Smith, and Richard Serra. Ellison has something the others don’t, and that is Robin Williams, never better than as himself, as a long-time friend. Erik Nelson’s labor-of-tough-love portrait (“turn the goddamned camera off” is heard with some regularity) begins with Williams quizzing the self-described “cranky old Jew” about the myths of his brawling past. Q: Did he mail a publisher who he felt had swindled him a dead gopher? A. Yes, fourth class, costing his office thousands in fumigation bills when he opened the package. Q: Did he break a TV producer’s pelvis in an argument? A: Yes, in Irwin Allen’s office, and a model of the Seaview from the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV show suffered collateral damage. Q: Has he really slept with 500 women? A: False, more like 700 since he was last asked. “We’ll be right back,” says Williams, in his best faux broadcaster’s voice.
Ellison, who has been writing virtually non-stop since the mid-Fifties, specializes in science fiction, though he hates the term. He hates lots of things, actually, which makes him a lively subject for a movie, as far as writers go. There are the usual tributes and testimonials from the likes of Neil Gaiman and Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore (is the show’s brainy, and disparaged, horndog Gauis Baltar modeled on Ellison?), which the 74-year-old author deflects in his acid-flecked way. He is, in short, the Genghis Khan of geekdom, warring first with the anti-Semitic bullies in his Ohio neighborhood, then onto college professors who told him he’d never make it as a writer, battered and bruised publishers and TV execs, Southern rednecks (he marched proudly with Martin Luther King, Jr.), James Cameron (who “borrowed” Ellison’s concepts for The Terminator), fans and admirers who lob dumb questions at him, AOL for sundry infringements in a bank-breaking lawsuit, and five wives. His fifth and current spouse he kicked out of their Aztec castle home in his beloved L.A., when she was naked. They laugh about it now, sort of.
As Richard Thompson’s score thrums in the background, Ellison shows his scars unashamedly. There are the battles won (he uplifted The Outer Limits and Star Trek with his original scripts, and performs some of his work for the camera) and lost (his script for The Oscar, intended for his friend Steve McQueen and Peter Falk, proved a mortifying disaster with Stephen Boyd — again! — and non-actor Tony Bennett in the leads and ended his big-screen career, though the cult film of A Boy and His Dog goes unmentioned). What sticks with me is his never-ending campaign to have writers, and writing, taken more seriously. For The Today Show, he once tapped out a short story, live, in a bookstore, to show that writing is a job like any other, and he is quick to go after anyone who stiffs or defrauds him. [I would love to hear him on the subject of the copyright graveyard known as YouTube.] He demands to be compensated for his labor, a matter I intend to bring up with my Popdose editor. I’m sure we can work something out, Jeff — if not, the gopher is in the mail.
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