Saturday, November 28, 2020

Holiday Gift Guide: Valley of the Gods

This film is like a clown car loaded with symbolism. No matter how hard you try, you will probably never finish unpacking it. It also has some striking natural scenery and a really interesting supporting cast packed in there. Lech Majewski is probably best known in North America for the wonderous “cinematic painting” The Mill and the Cross and he brings the same genre-defiance and distinctive visual sensibility to bear in the fabulistic Valley of the Gods, which is now available on DVD. It would indeed make quite a memorable gift for any fan of Jodorowsky-ish auteurs on your shopping list (but be warned, they will keep talking about it for months to come).

Either a lot happens in
Valley, or maybe not that much. Engineering titan Wes Tauros is about to secure the uranium mining rights for the Navajo Nation’s Valley of Gods (near Monument Valley), where the spirits of their ancestors are thought to reside. The deal has split the community, largely but not entirely along generational lines, between those who value the spiritual over the material concerns and those desperate for greater opportunities.

John Ecas was a copywriter with the Tauros company, but he is now concentrating on his midlife crisis and pining for his wife, who left him for her hang-gliding instructor. On the advice of his unconventional shrink, Ecas has embraced absurdity as a means of therapy. It was during his resulting misadventures that he crossed paths with Tauros, in his incognito homeless avatar. Ostensibly, Ecas is summoned to Tauros’s grand castle in the sky to serve as his Boswell, but the weirdness that unfolds could just be the novel he is finally writing.

There are a lot of visual references going on in
Valley—so much so, astute viewers may start to second-guess how much they are projecting themselves. Regardless, cineastes will inevitably see echoes from dozens of films, starting with the grand vistas of John Ford’s classic Monument Valley westerns. Ecas’ trippy spirit walk brings to mind John Cassavetes dropping-out in Paul Mazursky’s Tempest. Tauros is frequently likened to Howard Hughes within the film, but his Xanadu is also reminiscent of Hearst Castle, while his statue garden is shrewdly compared to the Medusa’s lair. Fittingly, the great Keir Dullea appears as Ulim, Tauros’s trusted butler and confidant, because there are elements of the wildly over-the-top climax that bring to mind 2001.

So, basically whatever you might want to see, you can find in
Valley, maybe even kaiju. Of course, John Malkovich is perfectly cast as the eccentric and arbitrary Tauros. Dullea is aptly mysterious and a little bit unnerving as Ulim. Plus, the great John Rhys-Davies is wonderfully sly as Dr. Hermann, Ecas’s erudite analyst, who we can’t be absolutely sure truly exists. These are three of our favorite thesps, whom Majewski shrewdly uses in ways that play to their strengths.

You also have to give Josh Hartnett credit for his gameness breaking-down, cracking-up, and brooding hard as Ecas. Yet, he still gets overshadowed by his more colorful co-stars and Majewski’s over-powering visuals (stunningly lensed by Majewski and his co-cinematographer, Pawel Tybora). However, Berenice Marlohe manages to add a degree of humanity as Karen Kitson, a fellow guest of Tauros, invited because of her resemblance to his late wife.

It is a shame
Valley went straight to DVD and VOD this summer, because if it had opened in theaters any other year, it would have stayed on screens for months. Cult movie fans would have kept coming back, just to renew their debates over what it all means. Based on Valley and Mill, Majewski must be the boldest, most interesting filmmaker working today. Mill is truly a work of art unto itself. Valley is somewhat hit-or-miss, but Majewski constantly swings for the fences, which is exciting to watch, even when he hits a towering pop-out. Very much recommended for fans who appreciate highly interpretable, argument-worthy cult cinema, Valley of the Gods is now available on DVD and BluRay.