The Mysterious Disappearance of Roland Joffé

Let’s pretend for a moment that you didn’t pass high-school English by the skin of your teeth and you actually spent some quality time with the poems of Emily Dickinson, specifically this one:

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set

Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer’s Corn —
Men eat of it and die.

Remember it? Or do you need a moment to dig up your copy of this:

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While the poem was written at least 150 years ago its message continues to resonate, no more so than in the movie business, where an actor touted as the “next big thing” can find him- or herself, in the blink of an eye, the punchline to a joke, not unlike a certain English heavy metal rock band:

Oh, the humanity! One minute the flavor de jour, the next scrounging for work in a series of e-cigarette commercials. Or providing fodder for the tabloids. Or voicing cartoons. Or still working but not on the kind of projects worthy of your initial promise. Recognize anyone?

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At least they had a cup of coffee, I guess.

Sports idioms aside, directors, too, can be hot one day, only to find that the next they’re struggling to get work shooting Kamal’s music videos:

Loyal readers of this blog (all 3 of you) may recall my brilliant post on The Train, which, among other things, discussed director John Frankenheimer’s precipitous fall from grace until a very later career renaissance. Another promising director who comes to mind is Phil Joanou, who, back in the late 80s had Hollywood climbing over themselves to take him to lunch. But then, after one mediocrity too many (State of Grace, Final Analysis, Heaven’s Prisoners) he became a persona non grata to the extent that, while pitching Mel Gibson his vision for a movie he hoped to direct (The Million Dollar Hotel, eventually helmed by Wim Wenders), Mel basically pretended Joanou wasn’t even in the room. (It seems Mel had only taken the meeting as a courtesy to Bono, who co-wrote the movie and who was buddies with Joanou from when the latter directed U2 in 1988’s Rattle and Hum.) 

But I degress.

The guy I’d like to examine in this post is Mr. Roland Joffé:

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The name ring a bell? Throughout the 70s, Joffé was primarily a TV director for the BBC. But then, in 1984, he helmed his first feature, The Killing Fields. You ever see it? No? Well, you should. It’s the one starring Sam Waterson as Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times reporter whose indispensable Cambodian journalist/translator/colleague, Dith Pran, decides to stay behind in Phnom Penh at the end of the Vietnam War to help Schanberg continue reporting despite the U.S. military’s pull-out and the specter of the approaching Khmer Rouge. Too late, all parties realize their mistake and take refuge in the French embassy. The Khmer Rouge soon demand that all native Cambodians leave the embassy–a death sentence, most likely–which spurs Schanberg and fellow journalists Al Rockoff and Jon Swain (played by John Malkovich and Julian Sands, respectively) to create a fake British passport for Pran. In the end, however, the lack of proper photo-development chemicals at the embassy torpedoes the plan–Pran must leave:

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The second half of the movie focuses on Pran’s travails at a Khmer forced labor/reeducation camp and, ultimately, his incredible resilience as he tries to survive the freakish brutality of the camp (which is basically run by children, part of the Khmer’s “Year Zero” policy) and, later, his long, arduous escape through, among other things, the killing fields, to freedom at a Red Cross camp:

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The film belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor, of course, the non-actor who plays Pran. A survivor of the killing fields himself, Dr. Ngor’s Oscar-winning performance is something to behold, one fraught with the kind of emotion, anger and fear that only someone who’s truly experienced it can deliver. (Tragically, after surviving the Khmer Rouge, Dr. Ngor was murdered in 1996 by a Los Angeles street gang in a robbery gone wrong.)

By no means a perfect movie–I’d love to shake Joffé silly for including Lennon’s treacly, emotionally manipulative “Imagine” over the big reunion among other minor missteps–it’s still an impressive debut, one filled with fine performances and indelible scenes carnage and grace, all photographed impeccably by the great English cinematographer Chris Menges, who also won an Oscar for his work.

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Regarding carnage, even 32 years later I vividly recall my 15-year-old self sitting in the movie theater (score another underaged sneak into an R-rated film!) and being floored by the scene in which a Khmer soldier offers a thirsty prisoner a piece of fruit spiked to the end of the barrel of his rifle only to shoot the poor slob in the face as he tries to take a bite.

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The swiftness of the execution really threw me for a loop–brilliantly, Joffé didn’t give us time to prepare ourselves. He simply had the soldier lift the rifle to the prisoner and then–bam!–the prisoner’s face erupts in blood and he drops like a sack of potatoes. No fancy cutting, almost documentarian in its–excuse the pun–execution. Spielberg did the same in Schindler’s List (1993), a very effective way to deglamorize the violence and make it feel utterly random. One wonders if he was inspired by this scene from The Killing Fields. (On a related note, I recall sitting in the theater thinking “How did they do that?” I mean, it really looked like they shot the guy in the face. But then it dawned on me: just like Moe Green getting whacked in The Godfather, it all had to do with the glasses. Both guys who were shot were wearing glasses. Thus, all the special effects guys had to do was rig the glasses to crack and spew blood. Add a loud gunshot in post and, voila, instant gruesome realistic death.)

As for a scene of grace, one that immediately comes to mind is the evacuation of Phnom Penh, a scene that Joffé and his collaborators do a great job communicating the noise, fear and confusion as Vietnamese families beg, borrow and steal to get themselves into the U.S. embassy, where monstrous helicopters thump at the air in a courtyard awaiting the OK to get out of Dodge. Pran, with Schanberg’s help, is able to get his wife and kids onto a transport. Pran, of course, stays. And the two watch as wave after wave of helicopter thunder into the sky until, suddenly, it’s quiet again, freakishly so after all the noise. Pran and Schanberg give each other a look as if to say, Now what? And there’s this momentary vibe of unreality, as if what just happened was a dream. As if, instead of a war raging and the city about to be overrun, it was simply a quiet, lazy afternoon in the tropics. It’s Joffé’s artful way of having his movie take a deep breath before plunging into even more unimaginable chaos and horror.

[Conflicted Film Snob bonus: Do you know Spalding Gray, the terrific writer, actor and monologuist who, also being a tortured soul, tragically committed suicide back in 2004? He had a bit part in The Killing Fields, as some U.S. government functionary. Small part, so what’s the big deal, right? Well, he took the experience and wrote it into a famous monologue entitled Swimming to Cambodia, which was eventually filmed by Jonathan Demme. I highly recommend you check it out someday.]

So, Joffé knocks it out of the park with his first film (13 BAFTA Awards and seven Academy Awards nominations). Not too shabby. So what does he do for an encore? He directs The Mission, which won the 1986 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Remember The Mission?

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Yeah, it’s the one that opens with the Jesuit priest lashed to a cross and sent tumbling over the Iguazu Falls in Argentina/Brazil (which, by the way, features in a ton of movies, including Moonraker, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Miami Vice. But you already knew that.).

And the one starring Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro, Aidan Quinn, Ray McAnally and an incredibly young Liam Neeson.

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And the one featuring a painfully literate script by Robert Bolt (Don Hontar: “You had no choice, your eminence. We must work in the world; the world is thus.” Cardinal Altamirano: “No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”)

And the one with the beautiful score by Ennio Morricone, which many think may be among the best of all time. And the one featuring more incredible cinematography by Chris Menges, who won a second Oscar for it.

What’s it about? Well, in a nutshell, a bunch of Jesuit priests try to save the indigenous Guaraní Indians from evil Portuegue slavers. It doesn’t go well (note the raging flames):

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The Conflicted Film Snob was lucky to see the film on the big screen. However, this wasn’t necessarily a choice. The deal was, my high school ethics class offered up extra credit if we could bring in a ticket stub proving we saw the movie. Seeing as this beat doing homework on a weeknight by a mile, the decision to go came easily. Anyway, I’m glad I saw it. While ponderous at times, and preachy, it’s still a solid flick, especially on the big screen.

So…Roland Joffé is now two for two. The Mission grabs seven Academy Award nominations. The guy can do no wrong, right?

Wrong.

As John Frankenheimer earlier proved, one’s perch atop the film-direction hierarchy is never less than tenuous. The Scorceses and Spielbergs and Woody Allens of the world, guys who keep cranking them out to accolades and profits, are few and far between. Hollywood, it seems, is a strong adherent to the concept of gravity–what goes up inevitably must come down.

And down Mr. Joffé came, flopping both commercially and critically with his next film, the Manhattan Project epic Fat Man and Little Boy, which starred Paul Newman. And then the poor guy really began to lose his touch, culminating in his 1995 film adaptation of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Remember that fiasco? So reviled it was, so laughably bad, that it actually gave Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s ode to T&A, a run for its money in terms of the worst movie of the year, possible the decade.

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Joffé since then? Basically MIA. There aren’t enough milk cartons in the world to find the guy. One minute the toast of the town, the next picking his feet in Poughkeepsie. Bummer.

Like Frankenheimer, maybe he has a second act up his sleeve. I’d be more than happy to pay for a ticket to a Joffé flick if it could approach the sublimity of those scenes mentioned above in The Killing Fields or Jeremy Irons climbing up the Iguazu Falls backed by Ennio Morricone’s lush score in The Mission. At 71 years young, however, he’d better get a move on. Wasn’t it Alexander Pope who once wrote, “Hope springs eternal in in the human beast…unless you’re dead.”

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