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Arts & Entertainment

RH Greene reevaluates Wm Friedkin's 'flop,' 'Sorcerer'

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UPDATE 4/7/2014: Cinefamily is showing a restored version of "Sorcerer" April 16 - 24, with a special appearance from Friedkin himself on April 16.

(A new revival of director William Friedkin's notorious 1977 box office failure Sorcerer has contributor RH Greene thinking about other ambitious cinematic flops from  the "New Hollywood" era, and how time has been kind to them.  Sorcerer screens May 9 at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre. Greene says a first-ever DVD and Blu-Ray release is currently rumored to be in the works.)

The New Hollywood Directors of the 1970s are remembered for making great movies, including The Godfather, Jaws, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and Annie Hall. Their failures were equally legendary. In 1980, Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino made a Marxist western called Heaven's Gate. The film flopped so mightily it took down a studio.

Two years later, Francis Coppola released One from the Heart, a small romantic comedy that somehow metastasized into one of the most costly failures of all time. But if there's one New Hollywood movie that has hubris written all over it, William Friedkin's Sorcerer might be it.

The title is oblique, but suggested to audiences a follow-up to Friedkin's mega-hit The Exorcist, which Sorcerer emphatically is not. It's an existential parable about four desperate criminal anti-heroes hired to haul decomposing dynamite through a jungle, and there is nothing like a hero to root for.

Sorcerer was a runaway production; Friedkin overspent his approved budget by around 700%. It's also a remake of a French masterpiece, and it therefore virtually invited critics to make invidious comparisons.

Last but not least: the film's first 20 minutes are in various foreign languages. With subtitles. And oh yeah. Sorcerer is also one of the great American films of its time.

Released in 1977 during the summer of Star Wars, Sorcerer was chased out of theaters to give Luke Skywalker more screens. In a sense, Star Wars never relinquished those movie houses, because Sorcerer is exactly the kind of challenging studio fare the Star Wars phenomenon rendered all but obsolete.

Star Wars is pure escapism, while Sorcerer is a riveting cinematic essay about the futility of human purpose -- an anxious spectacle of emptied men caught in postures of jeopardy and despair. It's a film about Purgatory, not even Hell, about lost men who expiate their crimes through suffering. Or try to, anyway.

The audacious bleakness of the vision is matched to riveting, hallucinatory imagery, including: a broken-nosed bride, reciting her vows beneath two black eyes. Two oversized trucks slow-rolling across a rope bridge while it heaves beneath them like a wakening monster; and Roy Scheider's unraveling gangster Jackie Scanlon, ranting like Ahab as he veers through a dead volcanic landscape weirder than the Moon.

In Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond grieves for a lost era saying, "I'm still big. It's the pictures that got small." Sorcerer is still big too. As is Heaven's Gate,  by the way. And Warren Beatty's Reds. And Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie. And many another alleged fiascoes perpetrated by the screen lions of a bygone time.

Say what you will: the blunders of the New Hollywood era took raw risks in the name of art and originality, claiming what Orson Welles called a primary right of the artist, which is the right to fail. How riveting they seem in the time of John Carter and Battleship. And how remarkable that directors like William Friedkin occasionally failed themselves all the way to a masterpiece.