William Friedkin's Jade (1995) makes its Blu-Ray debut this week (though, sadly, not in the unrated director's cut). Most people probably don't care much. It was a huge flop and the critics were flat-out mean to it. Much of the reason for its reception was the screenplay by the highly paid and much-reviled screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. His Showgirls had been released just a month prior, and critics were beginning to see him as something less than a super-scribe and more like a super-hack with some demented attitudes toward women. Ultimately, Showgirls became a cult classic, but Jade languished and disappeared.
It's hard to make much of a case for Jade as a masterpiece, but it deserves better than it got. My friend Bob Stephens took a crack at defending it in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner when it was initially released on video in 1996. He noted the film's use of masks as a visual and symbolic metaphor, and also appreciated many of Friedkin's brilliant juxtaposing shots, such as moving from a trail of blood to a shot of an empty dinner jacket hovering above a party in the film's opening minutes. (A soul leaves the body.) Hopefully a new generation of fans will take a look at this neglected movie on Blu-Ray and find similar things to admire.
As for myself, when I initially saw Jade in 1995, I joined in the parade of haters, though I gave the film some props for its remarkable car chase sequence through the crowded streets of San Francisco's Chinatown. (I compared it to the equally astonishing chase sequences in Friedkin's The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A.) I recently looked at the film again and found that the Eszterhas-related politics of the time played a huge role in my opinion of the film. Jade definitely plays better today with some distance from the hype.
In 2001, I interviewed Friedkin for the first time -- for the DVD release of The French Connection -- and I was nervous. I had heard he was a hard-ass, and I wanted to be on my best game, so I did a ton of research. Friedkin seemed to sense that I had done my homework and he seemed to like me. The interview went very smoothly, and he greatly impressed me. He was a great talker and a thoughtful man. I interviewed him again in 2003, for the DVD release of To Live and Die in L.A., and I managed to point out a detail in the film that he said no one else had ever noticed. After speaking with him, I felt I was getting close to the core of Friedkin's style. I began to see a connecting thread through all of his work.
Friedkin began working in television making documentaries, and it occurred to me that maybe he was a reporter at heart, and his personal god was in the details. All of his films are curious about and obsessed with facts and process, the way things work and what things are called and how they all fit together. (This also applies to his three remarkable chase scenes.) The French Connection is about the tracking of a drug dealer and the police work that goes into such an operation. To Live and Die in L.A. is about the branch of the Secret Service that tracks down counterfeiters. The Brink's Job is about the details of a real-life robbery. Blue Chips is about how college basketball players are recruited. Deal of the Century is about black market arms dealers; Rules of Engagement is about a military trial, and so on.
Friedkin's curiosity usually comes without judgment. He has included a whole range of gay characters in his films, including The Boys in the Band, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A. and Bug. They may not always be flattering, but they're at least honest, and without distaste or disdain. Discovering this line through Friedkin's films excited me, and I began to devour everything I could find in his filmography, trying to fit them all into my new theory. I even found ways that The Exorcist fit. Yes, it's a supernatural horror film, but it, too, is about the details around Regan's possession, rather than the spectacle of it. (Friedkin told me he does not consider it a "horror" film.) Friedkin's dedication to research and details even resulted in some great DVD commentary tracks for classic films like The Leopard Man (1943) and Vertigo (1958).
But then something happened. I interviewed Friedkin a third time, in 2007, for the theatrical re-release of Cruising (1980). I started talking to him about my theory, and the way he creates very vivid worlds out of research and details, and he suddenly countered with "nothing can be proven." Rather than shattering my theory, this revelation added a new wrinkle to it. Friedkin understood that, even after all the research in the world, one can never really know or understand a thing. This idea is central to The Exorcist; after all the details of the holy water and the prayers and the rituals, what really happened? Is there a God or a devil? Can one exist without the other? No one knows.
This also applies to Friedkin's most recent film, Bug, which was released in 2007 and should have been a comeback for him. It certainly received his best reviews in many years, but the ad campaign painted it as a scary movie from the guy who made The Exorcist, rather than a complex, psychological thriller, and audiences misunderstood it. In it, a couple (Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon) locks themselves in a hotel room, convinced that they are victims of a military experiment involving bugs, which may or may not be real. More so than almost any other Friedkin film, Bug revels in the details of the unknowable.
This new layer to my theory helps explain the disappointing arc of Friedkin's career. No one wants to see a movie about the unknowable. People see movies for comfort, to be told that everything's going to be fine. In braver times, Friedkin won an Oscar for Best Director for The French Connection and then directed one of the highest-grossing hits of all time with The Exorcist. Reaching heights as great as this can only make subsequent films seem disappointing, even if they really aren't, even if they would be perfectly admirable in anyone else's career.
Admittedly, there have been missteps and bad luck. Deal of the Century could have been a brilliant satire, but the presence of Chevy Chase turned it into a broad comedy that didn't work. The Guardian looked for all the world like a cheap attempt to cash in on his earlier Exorcist success, and not even Friedkin's staunchest admirers can say much to defend it (I still like it). As mentioned before, Jade suffered from the anti-Eszterhas sentiment of the day, and Cruising came out in a wave of negative controversy that had little to do with the actual film. The Hunted was unfavorably (and unfairly) compared to The Fugitive. Rampage suffered from distribution troubles, was re-cut, and remains difficult to see, though it has some passionate defenders.
Most of these films can be looked at today with fresh eyes, and, taken together, can be viewed as individual chapters in Friedkin's lifelong search for knowledge and understanding. The point is to continue to be curious and open to everything. That knowledge does not necessarily lead to understanding and that, ultimately, nothing can be known is not a reason to give up. It's only part of the journey.