In Praise of William Friedkin

by Richard B. Phillips on October 11, 2012


William Friedkin is an American treasure and one of the boldest, uncompromising directors in the world. And at age 77 (which he turned recently) he continues to take risks by exploring the most terrifying subject matter that teeters on realism and hyper realism.  His latest film, Killer Joe, which is screening in theaters and stars Matthew McConaughey, is a testament to his career of milestone shock scenes, strong performances, loss of innocence, and dark comedy—too sordid and diabolical for the faint of heart, yet morality is at the core and evil is more powerful than his heroes can handle. His themes often deal with impossible choices, sacrifice, and hell that extends from a cauldron of reality into paranormal nightmare. The audience is usually left reeling, unresolved if what they just watched was either regretful or therapeutic, desensitizing shock and fear in their lives and what exists (or may not exist) in the real world.

The Exorcist is still the most terrifying movie of all time. It is still known by children today as the celluloid boogeyman that lurks within the litany of cable channels and the labyrinth of net streaming. It’s there and they know it…I watched The Exorcist on a dare 30 years ago and to this day, it is the most horrifying viewing experience that I ever had in the living world (and that includes cliff diving on LSD).

The movie made its TV debut on Channel 20, a local syndicated station in the Washington DC area and was abruptly interrupted by an interlude of local, low-quality commercials that made the experience more uneasy and bizarre. It was as if the neighboring businesses were in on it, collaborating with Friedkin, Blatty, and the Devil to torment the living shit out 11 year old children and ruin our lives.  However, I have since then watched “The Exorcist” well over thirty times as a way to conquer my fear of it; yet always subconsciously fascinated with the narrative and nuances of the performances.

On the 34th or so viewing, I realized that Blatty’s script is perhaps one of the best of all time. It’s a pure recipe of good and evil implicitly defined, there’s a hero with his own struggles of bereavement, faith, and substance abuse, and an innocent child defiled by the ultimate, incorrigible evil that EVERYONE fears whether he or she believes in Satan or not. And finally – a valiant sage (Father Merrin) comes late in the game and galvanizes the hero to perform the ultimate sacrifice and save the little girl.  This is Joseph Campbell‘s Hero with a Thousand Faces at its finest and Friedkin knew he was going to make history. However formula and heroism are not what his films are mainly about. Friedkin usually puts a twist on what the audience expects and steers them away from predictable, yet fulfilling conclusions.

In 1980, Friedkin explored lurid, controversial territory in Cruising – a  story about an untested New York City undercover detective who immerses himself in the extremely-lascivious, S & M gay underworld to expose a serial killer – complete with real — not simulated — gay sex scenes shot in actual venues in New York (there is a scene that changes in pace and texture when Pacino’s character indulges in a narcotic that is unforgettable and a lullaby crooned throughout the film that is more disturbing than any Freddy nightmare film).

This film proved that Friedkin is committed to his credence in film making – the audience must be challenged to accept grounded reality. But is the audience committed to eventually become desensitized to the sordid exploitation of counter culture? Have we somehow lost our virtue through the eyes of the main character? Cruising was a revolutionary criterion in cinema that influenced legions of filmmakers to make films about people, communities, places, radical counter-culture that many may read about newspapers, but probably don’t to see played out before his or her very eyes.

With films like The French Connection, Deal of the Century, Sorcerer, Bug, and Hunted, Friedkin has proven that he is in an elite class of filmmakers comfortable in any genre. However, the themes of impossible choices, loss of innocence, and sacrifice are usually there.

One of my personal favorites is the 1994 film, Blue Chips which I still believe one of the most underrated dramas of the 20th century hitched with a criminally overlooked Oscar-worthy performance by Nick Nolte. Blue Chips was marketed as a cliched sports movie showcasing Shaquille O’Neill slam-dunking on the poster. However, the film is essentially about a man tormented by how corruption and under-the-table-payoffs is the only way to stay competitive and survive a basketball season. The film features cameos from revered basketball legends Rick Pitino, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Jerry Tarkanian, Matt Painter, Allan Houston, Dick Vitale, and Jim Boeheim all of whom at one time or another were involved in scandals in their esteemed careers (the audacity of this participation was either because of hypocrisy or because of a repentant act in the name of public service. Who knows?). But the themes are beyond bellicose locker room rants and winning the Big Game.

Nolte plays a man obsessed and sequentially tormented because he has resorted to extortion in exchange for peace-of-mind. He is then conflicted with the decision to throw it all away if he comes clean. Even if he is vindicated by the truth, he remains in hell. The expulsion of his own demons involves a great sacrifice. The movie only received %37 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes “tomato meter” probably because it was a bit preachy and  histrionic at times. I still think it’s an overlooked classic.

The bottom line is that Friedkin’s films are not for the “pure entertainment” crowds that prefer cruising on a comforting formula. Friedkin favors pragmatism over heroism; reality over entertainment.  All his films are both challenging and enlightening. As bold as they are depraved they depict the dark side of the world with integrity – subject matter that we can’t bear to discuss at dinner and are too terrified to reveal to our children.

Happy Birthday William Friedkin! You amaze me…Most folks your age are screaming at an orderly for colostomy bag change in a convalescent home, you’re still behind the camera making the same type of intrepid films you made when you were 35. What a badass…

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Richard B. Phillips

Rick Phillips is a writer based in Los Angeles. He wrote the screenplay EDEN, a feature film that won the Audience Award at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival. Additionally, the film was the1st recipient of the Reel NW Award, as well as Runner-Up for the Grand Jury Award at the 2012 Seattle International Film festival. The film also screened at Cannes and Busan, South Korea. In August 2012, EDEN was purchased by Phase 4 Films and will be released in US theatres in early 2013.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gary Shap February 24, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Jim Boeheim. not Jerry. Go ‘Cuse!

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