Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

22 June 2012

Sizzling in the Southern Sun: Cool Hand Luke Revisited

I don't know if this happens to all film lovers or if it's just a sign of some character flaw in myself, but of late my passion for the movies has waned a bit. I suspect/hope that it is just part of a more general need to step back and chill at the end of a long academic year and that my mojo will return soon enough. I simply haven't felt much like watching (or writing about) movies. I've been catching up on some favorite TV shows, watching entire seasons of Treme, Mad Men, and Foyle's War, but not many movies. In preparation for writing about Goodbye Solo, i did watch Taste of Cherry (1997) and Umberto D (1952): two great movies, though admittedly, watching them was like tossing ice cubes on the already sputtering fires of my joie de vivre. I also finally watched Red Desert (1964), which arrived from Netflix in April and sat on top of the DVD player until early June (not a very economical use of a Netflix subscription, to be sure). I admired it greatly in that way that we recognize and admire great works of art in a museum, where there are guards and alarm systems to ensure that we stand at a safe distance: no running your fingers along the textured surface of a painting, no standing a half-inch away to inhale its scent, no holding your tongue to it to taste the paint. I confess that at least in part what was ailing me was the need for something a little more visceral. 

And this past Wednesday night i found it. We've gotten so accustomed to having movies available to us all the time and in such a dizzying array of formats, that it's sometimes hard to remember the sheer visual impact of seeing a movie like Cool Hand Luke (1967) in all its technicolor splendor on the big screen. But last night i had the opportunity to revisit that pleasure -- and got a nice reminder of the kind of films that started my love affair with the movies in the first place. I sometimes get so caught up in art house and indy films that i forget what a great and beautiful machine Hollywood in its heyday could be. If i were going to get all film scholarly on you, i could talk all about the homoerotics and Jesus-metaphors in Cool Hand Luke, but i'm not going to. I'm going to talk about heat. Everything in this movie is hot, with the obvious exception of the title character with his unflappable sense of cool and his iceberg blue eyes. Those eyes and that sudden flash of a smile are the cool center around which the rest of the film seems to swelter. Paul Newman, well, Paul Newman was hot long before Paris Hilton turned the word into a meaningless cliche. Paul Newman was a beautiful man, and this movie never for a moment lets us forget that. 

Cool Hand Luke is one of the most embodied movies ever to come out of Hollywood, filled with bare-chested men sweating in the southern sun, lusting after a rustic Lolita in an unforgettable car-washing porn parody, even offering a few glimpses of exposed male posteriors that remind us what a watershed year 1967 was in its gleeful smashing of the rules of the Production Code. But male tushies and naughty girls washing dirty cars were not the only ways in which Cool Hand Luke broke the rules of classic Hollywood filmmaking. The heat in the film is not solely or even primarily due to the presence of all those sex-starved, sweaty men. The real Prometheus here, stealing fire from the gods and putting it on the movie screen, is Conrad Hall, cinematographer extraordinaire. Connie Hall was a visionary who used the "mistake" of letting the sunlight flare the camera lens to great effect, making the men on the chain gang seem ready to burst into flames like hapless ants being incinerated on a sunny sidewalk by some juvenile sociopath with a magnifying glass. In the decades since the release of Cool Hand Luke, we've become so accustomed to the use of lens flares as part of a film's visual rhetoric that it's hard to remember that this technique was once such a startling way of shooting a scene. But even today, our jaded 21st century sensibilities are no match for the scorching heat of Connie Hall's camerawork. 

Postscript: The documentary Visions of Light (1992), an invaluable source of information about the  cinematographer's art, contains this interview with Conrad Hall in which he discusses his iconoclastic approach to his craft. The first minute shows a few clips from Cool Hand Luke that demonstrate the powerful impact of the use of lens flares in the film. 

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