Apr 22, 2015

Morning Patrol

Nearly a decade ago, I saw a totally unclassifiable Greek cult film entitled Singapore Sling (1990) of the completely and utterly depraved yet darkly humorous and equally erotic sort that pays bizarre homage to Otto Preminger’s classic film noir Laura (1944) and that one might describe as the most idiosyncratic ‘arthouse horror’ flick ever made. Admittedly, I was somewhat caught off guard by the film because it was released on DVD by Synapse Films, which typically releases less than artistically merited cult horror flicks, and I certainly was not expecting such a stylishly sleazy cinematic work that managed to be so decidedly demented yet inordinately aesthetically dignified. For whatever reason, I did not think to look into some of Singapore Sling director Nikos Nikolaidis’ other films until rather recently after researching films on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and discovering that his debut feature, Euridice BA 2O37 (1975) aka Evridiki BA 2O37, was a disturbing black-and-white mutation of the classic Ancient Greek tragic love story. While barely known outside of Greece aside from his magnum opus Singapore Sling, Nikolaidis—a modern Renaissance man of sorts who also worked as a record producer, theater director, and prolific TV commercial director, among other things—might be, at least in my less than humble opinion, the world’s greatest director of dystopian arthouse works. A man with a patently pessimistic view of the world and where it was heading, Nikolaidis described his swansong The Zero Years (2005)—a film set in a dystopian S&M brothel where four prostitutes that were forcibly sterilized allow themselves to be devilishly defiled while running low on food and other supplies—as not depicting some less than ideal foreseeable future, but as depicting the pernicious present. Set in a necrotizing post-apocalyptic Europa where amnesia and mysterious fevers are rampant, death squads roam the streets and countryside, absurd booby-traps await you around every corner, and where any person that you come into contact with will more than likely attempt to kill you, Proini peripolos (1987) aka Morning Patrol is arguably Nikolaidis’ greatest contribution to the dystopian subgenre as a work that is so malignantly melancholic in its essence that it makes Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) seem like a relatively conventional Hollywood fantasy film and Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) seem like a bombastic live-action cartoon directed by an autistic fanboy. Set in a neo-noir nightmare realm where the main city is completely unpopulated yet classic Golden Age Hollywood film noir flicks from the 1940s and 1950s are perennially playing on TV screens and in movie theaters, Nikolaidis’ virtual anti-sci-fi flick features nil special effects and a sort of post-European Europe where the only memories of past times come in the form of old school works from the Hebraic dream-makers of Tinseltown. Somewhat paradoxically, Morning Patrol is arguably Nikolaidis’ most hopeful and romantic work, as a sort of apocalyptic romance where two strangers that initially attempt to hate one another yet ultimately unite and bond on mutual faded memories and try to find hope in a world that is beyond hopeless. Featuring a deceptively intricate and philosophical script, the film is notable for featuring excerpts from the writings of novelists like Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick, Daphne Du Maurier, and Herman Raucher for the scenes where the two lead characters narrate their thoughts on living in a dying world plagued by death, pain, murder and not much more. 

 Morning Patrol begins with the nameless female protagonist (Michele Valley of Singapore Sling and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kynodontas (2009) aka Dogtooth) roaming the countryside and attempting to remember her former life in a place in the East called ‘Mandele’ that no longer exists. The female protagonist is afraid that if she refrains from talking that she might die and that if she attempts to sleep she will be caught by a death squad called the ‘Morning Patrol.’ Undoubtedly, the protagonist has a rather pessimistic worldview as indicated by her remark, “The most stupid question once can ask on this earth is, ‘Where the hell did everybody else go?,’” but she has perfectly good reason to think the way she does as virtually all of her fellow surviving humans want to kill her just so that they can steal her mostly worthless belongings. Indeed, the only people left in the world are coldblooded killers and the protagonist is reluctantly one of them, as she lives in a ‘dog eat dog’ world where passivity means a very certain grisly death. As the protagonist says regarding other people, “Sometimes I see them in the distance... sliding down the hills, heading West...They kill each other over a drop of water... or they get killed by Patrols.” Although she has no evidence that there is something waiting for her on the other side, the protagonist is also heading west to a dubious placed called ‘The Sea,’ but first she must pass through a nearby city that is even more deadly than the countryside.  Since she, like all the survivors of whatever apocalyptic event led to the dystopian world that now exists, suffers from amnesia and can’t quite remember anything clearly about her former life, the protagonist speculates that she used to have a boyfriend and lived with her parents. After finding a crouching corpse that she initially mistakes for a living man, the woman is able to bandage her wounded arm while she tries in vain to remember how she injured it. 

 As demonstrated by the fact that she brutally slaughters a man with a knife after mistaking him for a corpse and stealing his watch, the female protagonist is a fierce murderess who is well prepared to fight to the death, especially when it comes to malicious men. After all, as the woman pessimistically narrates, “What does it matter where you are, if you’re dead. In the murky waters, or high up in a marble tower, what does it matter. You’re dead, and you don’t care about anything anymore,” thus reflecting the fact that she has a little bit of life left in her and she is determined to get to a nearby city where she will have food, water, and shelter. Of course, the city is occupied by members of the Morning Patrol and when the protagonist arrives there, she does not waste any time in murdering one of the guards and stealing his gasmask. Upon entering an abandoned luxury apartment, the woman finds food still on the dinner people as if the family that originally lived there had just vanished into thin air while eating. While at the apartment, the woman watches vintage junky classic The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) directed by Otto Preminger and starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak, but her viewing is interrupting when she notices a remote control toy car in the building and abruptly leaves. 

 When the woman enters another apartment, she finds various James Dean and Natalie Wood posters hanging on the wall and begins watching The Big Combo (1955) directed by Joseph H. Lewis and starring Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte, but she does not stay there for long. After leaving the second apartment, the woman heads to a completely empty movie theater that is curiously screening Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, even though there is clearly no one there running the film projector. While attempting to enjoy the movie, a unisex gang of four men and women that are dressed somewhat like post-apocalyptic punk hobos begin approaching her in a rather bizarre manner that makes it seem as if they are performing ballet with the theater seats. Ultimately, all four of the gang members surprise attack the female protagonist at once and a female member knocks her out by putting her head between her thighs in a somewhat fetishistic fashion. When the protagonist wakes up, she finds herself tangled in reels of film and soon notices that all four of her attackers have been mysteriously murdered and thus she is able to get back all the gear and supplies that they stole from her. As the protagonist will soon discover, she has a guardian angel of sorts that has been watching over her ever since she arrived at the city. 

 After leaving the movie theater, the protagonist finds a loaded shotgun in a large junk pile and heads to another abandoned apartment to watch some more old school Hollywood film noir. While staring at the television like an automaton, a man sneaks up on her and points the shotgun she just found at her face. Upon revealing his face to her and moving the shotgun away from her head, the man (Takis Spiridakis of Nikolaidis’ Glykia symmoria (1983) aka Sweet Bunch) reveals to the woman that he is a guard in the Morning Patrol and that he has been watching over her ever since she arrived in the city. The guard also warns the woman that is his job to kill if she is still alive and in the city after three days, but he also demonstrates his genuine concern for her by warning her to stay away from, “Cinemas, food stores, phone booths…They’re all traps. Nighttime is the best time for running.” While the woman more or less admits to killing one of his Morning Patrol comrades and stealing his gas mask, the man decides not to turn her in and instead begins to leave, but on the way out he collapses. Indeed, the guard suffers from a mysterious and seemingly incurable illness that causes fevers and his bones to ache. When the man wakes up, he finds himself lying in bed with the woman who is once again watching an old film noir. Ultimately, the woman blackmails the man into helping her to make it out of the city so that she can make it to the seemingly mythical place in the west called ‘The Sea’ by stealing the pills that he uses to treat the mysterious illness that he suffers from.  While the man probably could easily beat up the woman and take his pills back, he seems to genuinely want to help her and has obviously become disillusioned with working for the Morning Patrol, so he goes along with her plan to travel to the Sea, even though he knows that no one who has ever traveled there has ever comeback to confirm that it actually exists, thereupon more or less guaranteeing a very certain death for both of them.

 It is quite apparent that, despite their initially resentful attitudes towards one another, the woman and man have a strong attraction and connection towards one another that only becomes all the more apparent the longer they are around one another. Indeed, the two might have even known one another in a previous life, as the woman asks the man at on point, “Are you sure we have never met before?” and then says, “You had a house on the hill. I used to watch you from afar,” but the guard cannot remember anything. Needless to say, it does not take long for the man’s comrades at the Morning Patrol to realize he has gone AWOL and they immediately begin attempting to hunt him and the woman down. Meanwhile, a second guard (Panos Thanassoulis of Singapore Sling and Dimitris Athanitis’ Kamia sympatheia gia ton Diavolo (1997) aka No Sympathy for the Devil) on a motorcycle keeps a lookout for the two protagonists and even talks to the man via telephone and warns him to not go west because the death squad has already setup a roadblock there. At one point, a group of Morning Patrol members attempt to murder the man and woman at what looks like a post-industrial junkyard, but the two protagonists kill them and then steal their bus and begin heading towards the outskirts of the city. Naturally, the man begins succumbing to his illness over time and the woman begins acting vaguely more intimate with him. When the two enter a swamp one night, the man collapses and narrates, “I could already hear the patrol approaching us. Don’t think that I quit. I know this is my last chance. And if they’re going to get me back, they won’t get me alive. There are so many stories about us. They say that after the river, down at the valley of death, when the moon is gone, seven angels pray for those who leave the city…And when the battle is over, and the smoke dissolves, we get to the sea…alive or dead, it doesn’t matter. Don’t think I quit.” The woman picks up the man and attempts to carry him through swamp but he ultimately dies in her arms. After the man dies, the woman passionately embraces him and kisses him on the lips for the first time. The last thing the man says before dying is, “Do you have a name?,” which is a question that the woman refused to answer when the two first met.

 Notably, director Nikos Nikolaidis would later state regarding his masterpiece Morning Patrol, “This is a movie that still scares me and I avoid watching it... I believe that it is a film ahead of its time just like "Euridice BA 2037" was.” Indeed, while it is not nearly as graphic or grotesque as Singapore Sling, The Zero Years, or many of Nikolaidis’ other works (in fact, the only nudity it features is a rather brief nipple slip from Michele Valley), the film is completely soaked with a positively penetrating sense of dread, hopeless, despair, and emotional deadness that consumes the viewer’s soul from the very beginning to almost the very end. It is only until the final couple minutes and especially the last couple of second of the film where Nikolaidis dares to express any degree of love and compassion in the very final scene when the female protagonist is finally able to let down her guard and express her affection for another human being, but it is ultimately too late as the male protagonist has already dropped dead.  Of course, one could interpret the final scene of the film as a message to viewers that, no matter how shitty and degenerate the world is, one must never hold back on love because you might miss it entirely if you do not act upon it immediately as there is no telling one a lover might perish or when the world might end.  Undoubtedly in its complete and utter lack of special effects and utilization of real location of  strikingly exotic post-industrial ruin, Morning Patrol strangely reminded me of the somewhat strongly forgotten hippie-ish dystopian flick Glen and Randa (1971) directed by McJew Jim McBride (David Holzman's Diary, Breathless), but of course Nikolaidis’ film is a remarkably more entrancing, atmospheric, and culturally pessimistic work that, in terms of its construction as a slow-burning post-apocalyptic celluloid nightmare, seems nearly immaculate. Indeed, aside from its superficial similarities with Glen and Randa, the only other film I can think of comparing Nikolaidis' work to is Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Stalker (1979), which certainly shares some aesthetic similarities as both works manage to make the dystopian and the dejecting so delectable. It should be noted that Morning Patrol is the second film in the director's post-apocalyptic ‘The Shape of the Coming Nightmare’ trilogy, with Nikolaidis' first feature Euridice BA 2O37 being the first chapter and his cinematic swansong The Zero Years being the third and final installment, thus making the triptych seem like the foundation of the auteur's entire celluloid oeuvre. While Morning Patrol is unequivocally the least sexually explicit and most ‘conventional’ chapter in the trilogy, it also happens to be the most immaculate as a disturbingly aesthetically pleasing work that is oppressively foreboding and practically bleeds weltschmerz in a particularly preternatural fashion that no other Mediterranean filmmaker ever seemed capable of. Indeed, if Nikolaidis had a specialized talent, it was making the end of the world seem so innately pernicious yet paradoxically beauteous. 

-Ty E

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