Like a hurricane
Retrospective William Friedkin
We are all aware of the power of the image, as we repeatedly experience politicians and populists using them for their own means. And we know that we are easy prey for the dream-factory called Hollywood. With the greatest ease we slide into its visions and surrender to them completely, just as we indulge the sensations of a roller-coaster-ride. But that's only one side of the coin. Cinematic images are not only instruments to exploit human beings. They can also give impulses and stimulate an exchange of ideas. And, occasionally, they succeed in confronting us with what we cannot see or maybe do not want to see.
The incredible might that originates from cinematic images is something that William Friedkin recognized at the very beginning of his career – and has used it ever since with incredible success. His first film, a one-hour television documentary produced in 1962, did not just pave the road to Hollywood for the filmmaker, who was born in 1935 in Chicago. »The People vs. Paul Crump« also kept a man from going to the electric chair. The documentarian images of Crump in his cell – ready to surrender after nine years of fighting – and the re-enacted scenes of the derailed robbery and the subsequent, unrestrained police brutality, amplified to a huge outcry. Friedkin demanded justice for Paul Crump, who did not stand a chance against the American justice system. But he also demanded something else: a clear view of things; one that cannot easily be manipulated. The harsh Chiaroscuro of this documentary's black-and-white images became more than a stylistic device. It shows an ambivalence that is in contrast with a constantly conflicted reality that offers no easy solutions.
»If you're going to make a film or an album of music or a painting, you cannot afford to stop and think what other people will think of it. You've got to take into consideration what your editor thinks, if, say, you're a writer. But I don't have anyone to answer to. I make a film because I want to. Sometimes they're successful, sometimes they're not, but the way I think about my films is always very personal.«
This ambivalence is the core of William Friedkin's works. He, who – other than the usual representatives of the New Hollywood – never went to film school, approaches cinema differently than Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Peter Bogdanovich. Like them, Friedkin is part of the »American Renaissance«, whose proponents reinvigorated the American cinema in the 1960's and 1970's and reinvented it. »The French Connection« (1971) and »The Exorcist« (1973), his biggest successes, belong to the iconic works of their time. The story about the obsessed New York detective Jimmy »Popeye« Doyle mirror – like the »Godfather« chronicles or the story of »Taxi Driver« – the politics of Richard Nixon as well as the radicalization of parts of the protest movement.
As opposed to Coppola and Scorsese, Friedkin is not just a brilliant visionary storyteller who uses all his might to draw the audiences into his tales. He has also always remained a documentarian. The candor and spontaneity of his debut »The People vs. Paul Crump« can be found in all of his creations. The agile camerawork of Enrique Bravos, who worked as his camera operator on »The French Connection«, »The Brink's Job« (1978) and »Cruising« (1980) provokes a special kind of attentiveness. Not all of the images in his films are flawless, but each of them induces the audience to choose their own position. Friedkin's cinema knows no omniscient narrator and offers no safety or security. There are only scenes and moments that one has to put together by oneself. Gene Hackman's »Popeye« Doyle is – of course – on the right track when he obsessively haunts the Frenchman Alain Charnier. But his methods remain as questionable as his behavior.
»There are many untalented people making millions of dollars in the filmbusiness.«
William Friedkin is unquestionably one of the most radical filmmakers in the history of American cinema. One just has to take the numerous stories and legends into account – many of them unbelievable today - that surround the making of his films. But his image as »Hurricane Billy« remains just a side note. The true radicalism of his films can be found in their absolute sincerity. His adaptations of Harold Pinter's »The Birthday Party« and Mart Crowleys »The Boys in the Band« (1970) leave the audience as unnerved as »Bug« (2007) and »Killer Joe« (2011), his cinematic versions of two plays by Tracy Letts, which were made decades later. Rational explanations and ready-made moralistic positions fail when confronted with Friedkin's films. We have to draw our own conclusions and endure the conflicts that his images create within us. Even if one believes in the end that the devil has inhabited Regan, there remains a morsel of doubt. The horror that Friedkin conjures in »The Exorcist« goes far past the film's shocking moments. We are tossed into an abyss of uncertainty that is hard to endure. But that's exactly the overwhelming force of Friedkin's cinema that is – in its moral, but also political ambiguity – more relevant today than ever before.