This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine The Foreigner, by Amos Poe.
The Foreigner (1978, dir. Amos Poe)
Max Menace (Eric Mitchell) has arrived in New York City from Europe. He is completely alone. He seems to be in the city for a reason. But what is that reason? Is he a spy? Is he involved in espionage? Is he a destroyer? A collector of information? Is he a ringleader or a pawn? Does he even know who he is? Is he waiting to meet someone, some contact? In this frame, Max watches a staticky American TV documentary on punk. The show is alarmist, focusing on the violence of the punk scene in the UK, and worries that the phenomenon will spread to the United States. “What seems to worry the British,” the narrator intones, over footage of pogo dancing kids at a concert, “is not that punk rock fans have rejected the older generation’s values, but that they have rejected all values. They are anti-everything. They will tell you at the pop of a safety pin that they have no future and society offers them nothing.”
The shot lasts for nearly 2½ minutes with no cuts, and there are much longer takes throughout the film. In contemporary films, there is a cut, on average, every 4-6 seconds (thank you, David Bordwell). There is no dialog in this long take, just the droning voice of the TV narrator. Max watches and fidgets on the hotel room bed, fully clothed, in a skinny black tie, white socks, and penny loafers, a sort of mish-mash of private detective, punker, and Teddy Boy. He seems fascinated by the punk documentary, but it’s impossible to know why.
Amos Poe once described his film this way: “The Foreigner tells a story by leaving out the facts.” In this sense, the film is like punk and especially No Wave, which made songs by leaving out the notes. In this frame, Max is pursued by Zazu Weather (Séverine) who runs beautifully in the sun through the city, her hair back off her face. Why does she chase after him? Because she chases after him. What does she want from him? Is she friend or foe? Her pale body is overexposed in the sunlight.
The film nears its end. It does not end well for Max. In this frame, he sits on his hotel room bed, brooding like Laurence Olivier, as Zazu talks to him from the other side of the door. He will not let her in. What she says is cryptic, like a message Philip Marlowe might receive in the Big Sleep. “I don’t really know what you’re up to,” she says, “but I’m the only one who can get you out of this mess. Don’t move until I come back. I’m the only one who can get you out of here alive.” Out of where? The room? The city? The United States? Is she to be trusted? This is a question. For us and for Max. Does Max even deserve to “get out of here alive,” or is he a terrorist, as Poe has suggested recently?
In April 1978, the critic Tom Buckley wrote this about the Foreigner in the New York Times: “It seems incredible that a museum [the Whitney] that is exhibiting Saul Steinberg on the third floor should be showing the cinematic equivalent of kindergarten scribbles on the second.” And yet at every turn the Foreigner conspires against the mad, irrational judgments of cinematic taste. This is because the Foreigner is hardly a film at all. It has characters, sure, and some semblance of a plot. It has settings, and music, and occasional dialog. But mostly it shows people doing things like chasing each other, playing in bands at CBGB, sitting on beds, walking down alleys, shooting guns, smoking cigarettes, riding on ferries, slipping notes under doors, getting beaten up, walking on the beach, etc. Max does these things too, but if he is the main character in the movie, it is only because the camera happens follows him around. Randomness cannot be an organizing principle, but if it could, it would be the Foreigner: which is another way of saying: anybody in this film could be the main character.
And wasn’t that what punk did, obliterate difference? In theory at least. But theory is all we’ve got to go on. Theories of theories of theories. We ride into the future on the fumes of theory. There was no difference in punk, between the stage and the audience, between good musicians and bad ones, between hi-fidelity and lo-fidelity, between trash and art, between stoopid and smart, between primitive and avant-garde, between theory and practice.
Which brings me around to the end. Max’s face is downcast, as if he knows he will die soon with bullets in his back, and that all his thoughts all his life had been misdirected, leading him to this moment, trapped in a hotel room in a foreign country.
“The blank generation.”
By the time Max realizes that these are more than just words, it’s too late.