Review: Friedkin Uncut
by Kaleem Aftab
- Italian director Francesco Zippel has made a fun and light-hearted introduction to the cinema of William Friedkin
With Friedkin Uncut [+see also:
film profile], out now in Italian cinemas, Italian director Francesco Zippel has made a friendly and breezy portrait of American filmmaker William Friedkin. It is packed with talking-head interviews from a myriad of luminaries, such as sometime producing partner Francis Ford Coppola, frequent cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and movie stars Ellen Burstyn, Matthew McConaughey and Willem Dafoe, as well as celebrity fans Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson.
Eschewing a chronological biography, Zippel tells the story through the use of anecdotes. And the stories being told are designed to shed light on the personality and working style of the director, rather than offer a critique or production analysis of the oeuvre itself. The first scene sets the tone, with Friedkin proclaiming that the two most important men in history are Hitler and Jesus. It’s an extraordinary claim made with the desire to highlight the battle between good and evil. Although he will later say he is an atheist, he also adds that he doesn’t feel that ethics can be taught without making use of religion. Friedrich Nietzsche is turning in his grave. It’s this internal battle between God and Satan, which Friedkin believes humans fight every day in their souls, that defines not only his outlook on life, but also his movies.
It’s a great set-up because it enables Zippel to jump straight into 1973’s The Exorcist, which remains the Chicago-born director’s most (in)famous movie. It’s not even hyperbole when The Warriors director Walter Hill proclaims, “What Star Wars was to sci-fi, The Exorcist was to the horror film.” It’s left to the movie’s star Ellen Burstyn to try to analyse why this is so: “The reason the film is so successful is that it’s embedded in reality. It starts off in a normal way, and step by step, something happens to pull the audience in.” Zippel homes in on particular aspects of other films when dealing with them: Coppola is rightly bowled over by how his documentary The People vs. Paul Crump resulted in the righting of an injustice; then there’s the car chase in The French Connection and the S&M scenes from Cruising.
The film offers its most intriguing insights when actors and crew talk about how Friedkin was on set. He only shoots one take. He doesn’t mind if there is a reflection of a camera in a window in view, because he’s not looking for perfect; he’s searching for spontaneity. There is a moment when Juno Temple talks about Friedkin getting naked on set so everyone feels comfortable during nude scenes. It’s a move that has been made by other directors, and in keeping with the kind heart of the film, the documentary doesn’t question this in terms of workplace practice, but rather celebrates the action. In light of the #MeToo movement, it’s hopefully a practice that will stop.
The central fault with the movie is that it offers no challenges or criticisms of Friedkin, and also overlooks some of the director’s minor works. It does, though, try to reframe 1977’s Sorcerer as his greatest work, which really should have been met with the riposte made by Al Pacino’s Steve Burns in Cruising: “You gotta be kidding. Yeah, you’re kidding. I knew it. No.”
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