Friday, September 21, 2007

cool hand luke, by stuart rosenberg

or, "strategies against architecture"

Picking up on a visual reference in last week's pick, 25th Hour, Skunkcabbage and I moved on this week to Cool Hand Luke (1967).

I wrote last week that 25th Hour is concerned with Impartial Law and its inherent abuses; Cool Hand Luke announces similar concern with its very opening shot:

The parking meter functions here as the perfect picture of Ultimate Impartiality, a kind of clockwork judge literally incapable of concern with ambiguity or context. And the very next thing we see is Paul Newman's Lucas Jackson wandering down the street, calm, determined, and drunk, slicing the tops off of those parking meters:

Needless to say, the episode doesn't end well:

This scene is the primary dramatic unit of Cool Hand Luke in microcosm: Luke, the charismatic rebel, engages in some gesture of resistance, which results in Authority moving on to the next level of punitive force, which in turn sets the stage for more resistance, beginning the cycle anew.

Luke's acts of resistance—along with the acts he uses to ingratiate himself with his fellow prisoners—are frequently anarchic and playful, situating him firmly in the American Trickster tradition, somewhere between Huck Finn and Bugs Bunny. Unfortunately, dudes like this guy here on the left aren't exactly Elmer Fudd:

That's the guard referred to by the prisoners as the Man With No Eyes, who functions even more memorably than the parking meters as an icon of cold impassivity, so much so that James Cameron cribbed the mirrorshades look for the T-1000 in Terminator II (1991). (In the interest of fairness, I should note also that Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg has himself cribbed it from the equally impassive Eyeless Cop who pulls over Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960).)

In any case, he and the other "bosses" aren't simple rubes, so Luke's attempts at clever subversion, although symbolic successes, often result in violence being visited upon him. Any time you start emphasizing the vulnerability of a male hero's body, you're only half a step away from dusting off the old Christ metaphor, and Cool Hand Luke fully indulges this impulse in some man-interrogates-God sequences and some pretty shameless shots:

That said, it's also worth noting that Luke demonstrates a detachment from his own schemes that's more Buddhist than Judeo-Christian: he plans none of them in advance, and he consistently downplays any praise that comes his way afterwards. So that's Luke in a nutshell: part Huck Finn, part Bugs Bunny, part Jesus Christ, part Buddha. It's no wonder that he's taken on something of the status of folk hero by the end of the film. (It's also no wonder that Paul Newman's easy charisma and charm here gave him star power that lasted him a generation.)

The film's thematic richness provided me with a lot of possible avenues to pursue—penal institutions, vulnerable bodies, male camraderie, martyrdom: you could follow it up with anything from Down By Law to 300. But ultimately it's the theme of the "charismatic outsider" that carries the day, so next week we'll be watching Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Skunkcabbage's write-up is here.

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