Dave's Other Movie Log




In 1999, John Sullivan (James Caviezel) , a 36 year old police detective, whose father Frank (Dennis Quaid), a fireman, had perished in a fire thirty years before, continues to live in the family house in Queens. One night, John's neighbor and buddy Gordy (Noah Emmerich) resurrects an old amateur transmitter/receiver that had belonged to Frank and reactivates it, with the unexpected result that John is suddenly placed in contact with his father on the eve of the latter's fatal accident, courtesy of sun storms that are also producing spectacular displays of the aurora borealis--courtesy of computer graphics--just as they had at the same moment in 1969. Such is the interesting premise of Frequency, directed by Gregory Hoblit from a screenplay by Toby Emmerich, but sadly after that point the film doesn't seem to have the least idea what to do with it. Things become more complicated when John decides to save his father by warning him about his impending demise, a good deed that unexpectedly precipitates the death of John's mother at the hands of a serial killer with a thing for nurses. From that point on, John and his father, staying in contact by means of the magic radio, are on the track of the killer in two different time frames, and the plot becomes highly convoluted leading to a dénouement that is longer on action than logic. Although I have no intention of seeing the film a second time,  I do have the impression there are some real questions left dangling after the final fade out--for example, why the renegade cop and homicidal psychopath Jack Shepard (Shawn Doyle) has to be disposed of in both past and present to eliminate him. The movie only gives a fuzzy visual answer by showing the setting changing back and forth, and indicating Shepard undergoing some morphic change in the present time as if he were about to dissolve like the Wicked Witch at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

No one could be surprised that reviewers hastened to compare Frequency to The Sixth Sense. Not only are both films ghost stories, but the tacit father and son relationship between Malcolm Crowe and Cole Sear in the latter film is a counterpart to the explicit one between Frank and John in Frequency.  In fact, Frequency is a far better motion picture and to its credit goes quite far beyond the genteel Schadenfreude of The Sixth Sense. But it has only performed modestly at the box office so far, and the reason, I think, is not just that The Sixth Sense got there fustest with the mostest. Probably Frequency's most basic weakness is the way it erratically wobbles back and forth between the genres of inspirational fantasy and horror, in a way guaranteed to perplex audiences about which direction the movie is headed--assuming they can keep track of all plot twists. However, Frequency works best when it sticks to being a horror film, and I think it would have been a far more successful picture, commercially and artistically, if its makers had skipped the inspirational theme altogether. Unlike The Sixth Sense with its innocuous revenants, Frequency ventures into the territory of traditional literary horror--and to a certain extent, science fiction--when John begins to grasp the consequences of his decision to alter the past, for example when he realizes his mother has died after he calls her and gets a wrong number each time. (The scene, which takes place at night in John's kitchen, is very effectively photographed in dark blues and blacks.) At moments like this or the one in which John and Frank understand  they are talking to each other over the radio for the first time, the film reminded me of parts of the great British supernatural thriller Dead of Night (1945).

Yet Frequency even manages to undermine its potential as an effective horror picture, owing to a relentlessly speeded up, nervous visual style that relies upon some very jerky handheld camera shots combined with a lot of fast cutting, sometimes making it look as hyped up as Oliver Stone's  Any Given Sunday. After a shot of the sun's burning surface, Frequency descends to earth with a pumped up to the max, in medias res opening which shows Frank rushing to the scene of a potentially disastrous fire where he proceeds to heroically save the day--and it hardly ever manages to momentarily put on the brakes during the remainder of the action. Even one of Universal's house directors working on a B horror film in the 1940's would have had the sense to build some suspense with the discovery of the radio. But in Frequency the gadget is no sooner discovered and turned on, than dad's voice begins to burble out of the great beyond. The evidence of great horror films from the past, however, demonstrates how much more powerful a movie in this genre can be when the logic of a straightforward linear narrative has to confront the illogical events occurring within the drama. This is the strength of Dead of Night as well as that of the best Val Lewton pictures such as Jacques Tourneur's The Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943), and Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim (1943). Frequency is too busy splattering the screen with effects like superimpositions, subjective cuts, slow motion shots of objects descending to the floor, not to mention restlessly crosscutting back and forth between past and present, to bother with details like this, although details--much less than thrills, and far less than gore--are what make up the core of a memorable horror show.

It would be difficult to positively dislike Frequency, but the film's inability to consistently develop its interesting main premise--the return of the dead to life by means of a radio--is fairly mind boggling even given the rather shaky standards of screen dramaturgy in Hollywood these days. In the first pace, the apparent return from the grave of anyone, no matter how deeply loved in this life, could only be profoundly unnerving to the person who experienced it. But John never shows any response other than unadulterated joy when he finds himself conversing with his presumably deceased parent. Secondly, the sensation of horror, of existential Angst, that must necessarily accompany such an event, can only be doubled when the person returning is a close family member. When this person is the hero's father--is it necessary to recall Hamlet?--the meeting can only be that much more intense. It is not necessary to have taken Freud 1A and to have written a term paper on the Oedipus complex to know that father-son relationships, even under the most favorable circumstances, are fraught with emotional ambiguity, although not the slightest glimmer of this insight makes its way into Frequency. Yet, strangely enough, the movie's glowing description of John's reunion with his long lost father is contradicted by what the movie shows elsewhere. Frank is extroverted and gregarious--as played by Dennis Quaid, he seems not so much the prototype of a model father as the prototypic image of an all-American male. His son, by contrast, is a loner who breaks up with his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie and who seems destined to live out his life in the shadow of his father's memory. Here appearances count for more than Frequency's explicit testimonials to filial devotion, since it would not be easy to imagine a more striking contrast than that between Quaid's broad, smiling face, and fair features, and James Caviezel's haunted looks, and darkly brooding features that recall those of the young Montgomery Clift. (If anyone ever has the bright idea of remaking Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy as a movie, Cavaziel would make a perfect Clyde Griffiths.) The differences in personality signaled by these physical differences imply a far less than ideal father-son relationship that the movie simply wants to sweep under the carpet. 

I have an allergy to the inspirational fantasy genre in which typically the souls of the departed or angelic emissaries or other beneficent spirits return to lend a helping hand to erring mortals, but until watching Frequency I did not imagine that it could be degraded  much beyond its already debilitated status. The most famous example of this kind of scenario, Ferenc Molnar's Liliom, used by Rogers and Hammerstein as the basis for the musical play Carousel, and the subject of a far greater motion picture version directed by Frank Borzage in 1930 (see below), might well be described as the exception that proves the rule since in it the titular hero bungles his mission when he returns to Earth and is last seen in the movie headed for the infernal regions. Unlike other genres--the horror film being a prime example--that have seen great days in the past and do not seem likely to revive in the future, I do not think the inspirational fantasy in its more or less undiluted form was ever anything but contemptible. (The one exception that occurs to me is William Dieterle's shamelessly arty Portrait of Jenny [1948], based upon a novel by the now nearly forgotten Robert Nathan, which does not so much depict the triumph of the soul over death as the triumph of passion over all obstacles, an amour fou fueled behind the scenes by David O. Selznick's infatuation with Jennifer Jones, according to David Thomson.) Although I do not personally believe in the afterlife, the immortality of the soul, or the return of the dead to life, I would certainly admit that as questions these topics are open to serious discussion. Nevertheless, both believers and non-believers might well agree that attempts to transfer eschatology to celluloid are likely to be artistically unsatisfying and philosophically repellent. Already the attempt to render in human terms as a work of art what by definition lies outside of human experience poses not a few difficulties--and the last time a great artist succeeded in doing this, as far as I am concerned, was when Dante wrote The Divine Comedy back in 1302-21. Where movies, in picking up on this theme, do not prostitute a once great idea, they pander to the gullible public that supports far more astrologers, diviners, and self-styled psychics in this country today than ever flourished in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Rome, or the Celestial Empire. Inspirational fantasies often use dubious theology or simply superstitious fear as a motivation; in Frequency the motivation is baseball, mom, apple pie, and the USA. At the end of the film, it turns out that all this complicated machinery of rearranging the past has been brought into play so that the Sullivan family will be reunited in the final reel. Ultimately what Frequency has to offer for its labors is a highly idealized picture of the American middle class family as the Kingdom of Heaven--just as idealized and just as spurious as its picture of father-son relationships. 

Nor does Frequency fare much better with another, more promising theme it touches upon--that of the tension between past and present which figures so conspicuously in the fiction of Henry James and Marcel Proust. Like many recent movies, this one takes some real pains to evoke the past--that of 1969--with Elvis records, black and white video images of that year's World Series as well as scenes that occur in a psychedelically decorated disco with characters sporting memorably forgettable hippie attire. Yet Frequency gets no further below the surface of the past than it does that of middle class life. Its "sense of the past"  reduces to the nostalgic velleity of soused old timers hanging out in a neighborhood tavern recalling the good old days of '69. Nevertheless, I doubt if considerations of this kind are likely to disturb anyone who just wants to be entertained and is not put off by the awkward mélange of genres. If I often found Frequency frustrating, I cannot say I was ever bored. In the last third of the film, where father and son are trying to capture Shepherd, its high adrenalin style even stands it in good stead, and provides some excitement that is relevant to the unfolding of the plot. Probably the wisest thing is to try and set the movie's shortcomings aside while watching it, like scraping mold off a piece of cheddar that has been sitting in the refrigerator too long, and look at its strong points--first of all the very solid performances by Dennis Quaid and James Caviezel  in the main roles. But it is the  shots of the aurora borealis which deserve a very special mention, even today when such cinematic wonders have become commonplace. Looming up behind the Brooklyn Bridge, this spectacle has something of the imposing magic of the shots of the city of the future in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Looking at it made me wonder what William Burroughs would have done if he could have made a commercial film and if he had had such effects at his disposal. One thing is certain: he would have had a far better idea of what to do with them than do the makers of Frequency.

To check out the review of Liliom click here

U-571   Liliom  Boys Don't Cry   Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai  The Green Mile  Erin Brockovich  The Beach  Mission: Impossible II

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