Wednesday, September 08, 2004


criminally, last night was the first time i'd ever seen 'duel'. what a great little film. i can't say i've ever enjoyed a spielberg film so much - though the first time i saw 'jurassic park' (as a 13-year old, admittedly) was special in a sublime, fantastic way.

'duel' seems to me to be very un-spielbergian. that is, it's an intensely mental/cerebral film, subtextually concerned with issues of masculine paranoia, sexual frustration. everything's centered around our businessman/salesman central character. one can't help but think that spielberg's making a very rare political comment via this flimsy, weird figure - if he reminds me of any other cinematic character, it's michael douglas's anguished/uptight/high-strung businessman in 'the game': a film that deals with similar issues (capitalist-individualist paranoia & frustration, sexual & physical confrontation & 'release') in far more elaborate ways. 'duel' is the story of a capitalist pedant/family-man/hard-working-husband forced to discover dormant, aggressive, 'masculine' depths within himself by way of a 'duel' (a great, purposely archaic title, by the way, suggesting a medieval male showdown, a chivalric ritual designed to uncover just who is the more virile, worthy man); a showdown with a myterious, grumbling, rusty, massive (dare i say it?) phallis of a truck. a truck which might only exist as a sexual/physical threat in our protagonist's mind, much like 'the game' douglas plays.

all these themes are perhaps explored more coherently in the story upon which the film is based. i've no doubt they've been explored in countless cultural/film/gender-studies spielberg essays.

what needs to be celebrated here is the way spielberg, a cinematic first-timer (at least i think this is his first film), is able to suggest & reinforce these themes while still managing, a) to fill the film with a first-timer's cinematographic enthusiasm, & b) to keep things hurtling along, keep us, as ever with spielberg, on the edge of our seats. the two above points work hand-in-hand, in my opinion. it's not at all EASY to sustain a car chase for ninety minutes (give or a take a few rest stops), but spielberg pulls it off BECAUSE of the youthful/enthusiastic daring of the cinematography & the editing. look at some of the wonderful, dramatic shots he gets from cameras mounted on both the truck & the car. look at the way he intersperses roadside shots of the two cars chasing each other (at what still seems a quite incredible & scary pace, even by today's special effects standards). look at the quality of the shots of our 'hero' driving his car; often intimate, often side-on & distanced, often kubrickian-crazy (during the VERY sexual-orgasmic radiator-killing hill-climb, the camera seems almost to be sitting in weaver's lap, looking up).

essentially, what we see in 'duel' is a young director showing us his virtuosic bag of tricks WHILE AT THE SAME TIME providing us with a multi-layered mental tale. the opening shots of the film, for example - seemingly innocuous shots of a highway taken from a camera mounted on the car's front bumper. but no - there's more going on here. spielberg actually uses this intro to establish his lead character in a really subtle, classy way. we hear a radio, some music, but then we hear weaver (or could it be the disgruntled anti-capitalist truck driver?!) changing the station every time an advertisement comes on. already we get a sense of what an impatient, frustrated bloke weaver is - he instinctively changes the station the moment he hears his own working culture (a sales/advertising culture) intruding into his private sphere.

he loves this sphere. he probably loves driving, loves the chance to get away from the 'wife & kids'. (note the way he's so touchy about his car, repeatedly telling the school-bus kids to get off the bonnet). & note the way his telephone call to his wife is mere obligation, nothing else (lovely camera conceit during this scene, also). as i've mentioned, when this nomadic male sphere is inexplicably threatened by an enormous truck, he has no idea how to react. he wrongly identifies the truck driver in 'chuck's cafe' (a great little scene, featuring a really daring initial hand-held tracking shot as weaver walks into the cafe, & some wonderful close-up focus-pulling. having said that, i suspect weaver overacts a bit as the somewhat unnecessary voiceover takes over). he tries repeatedly to alert that ever-dependable source of (mainly male) authority - the police. in one incredibly dramatic & well-shot scene, the truck actually plows through the public phone box weaver is calling from. the truck seems less interested in 'killing' weaver (as he repeatedly says to himself & others) than in ensuring this is a true duel between men - no inteference from outside authorities such as the police is permitted.

& in the end, after the conflict becomes almost a father-son thing (the truck trying to push the infantile red car into the path of a train, & the red (read fiery) car - the son - resisting this suicidal rite of passage), when the fight dies down as weaver hides his car in a semi-junkyard (the suggestive shots of old, decrepit cars suggest weaver's infertility, his cowardly sterility), & when it is reignited after a very suggestive glimpse of the truck's huge undercarraige axle, weaver finally wins a hollow victory. he doesn't actually meet his enemy head-on, instead sacrificing his male 'sphere' by sending it head-first (with the help of his briefcase - another capitalist symbol?) into the truck (weaver jumps out before impact). the truck flies over a cliff-face - defeated & mangled but also having achieved what it wanted to achieve: the complete destruction of the smaller prey. watching the truck's huge wheel slowly come to a stop (a wonderfully effective imagistic conceit) you get the feeling it's meant to symbolise a film reel, & the shots of weaver shortly afterward would seem to confirm this. he's been through a crazy, fantastic, cinematic experience - good guy vs. bad guy - but also a weirdly private, paranoid, even masturbatory experience. it's not the kind of victory/experience he's going to celebrate with others (i.e. masturbation). he's instead left on his own, in the middle of nowhere - his world just as privately frustrated as it was before.

if only spielberg could've made a few more cerebral, suggestive, semi-freudian films like 'duel' before he became the spectacularly dull hollywood director of choice.


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