Friday, August 11, 2017

SILKWOOD: Blu-ray (ABC Pictures 1983) Kino Lorber

The murder of chemical technician and labor union activist, Karen Gay Silkwood on November 13, 1974 has never been properly explained away. Despite an ‘official’ report of accidental death (Karen conveniently smashed her white Honda Civic on an isolated stretch of road, into a culvert while en route to an explosive interview with New York Times’ reporter, David Burnham, that would have blown the lid off scandalously lax operations management at corporate leviathan, Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication facility near Cresant, Oklahoma) and a toxicology report to suggest she had been ramped on marijuana and the prescribed sedative, methaqualone at the time of the crash; the single car wreck that claimed Silkwood deviated in other highly suspicious aspects from the ‘official’ findings. For starters, skid marks were noted on the road immediately before the crash site, suggesting Karen had tried to prevent her demise. And there was also considerable damage to the rear bumper of her Honda, with minute traces of another car’s paint deeply imbedded implying a direct hit from behind that the frontal impact alone could not have created. Lastly, Karen had left the Hub CafĂ© in Crescent barely a half hour earlier following a union meeting, toting a binder-full of valuable research and other documentation from the plant to expose their cover-up. No such documents were discovered at the crime scene by police.  
The life of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) is perhaps as tragic as her untimely passing; a diligent employee, toiling under hazardous work conditions and living in relative squalor with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) and lesbian friend, Sherri Lou ‘Dusty’ Ellis (changed to Dolly Pelliker in the movie to avoid a lawsuit, and played to perfection by Cher).  Based on Karen’s unprepossessing and dead end circumstances, to be overturned in turmoil and death, Mike Nichols’ movie incarnation, Silkwood (1983) benefits from a passionate screenplay co-written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. At the time of production, Cher’s stardom outranked Streep’s – if not in movies, then world-renown for her lucrative recording career and tenure as the snarky, pacifying, yet below-the-belt hitting ‘better half’ on the long-suffering Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74/1976-77). Indeed, when autograph hounds began to litter the outdoor locations it was Cher’s signature/not Streep’s they were after. Silkwood would change both women’s fortunes: Streep and Cher each nominated for an Academy Award; alas, neither winning the coveted statuette.
The picture proved something of a departure from Mike Nichols’ usual fare; first, that it was based on a true story, and second, because it took on, with unvarnished raw humanity, to expose certain fundamentals about these socially awkward misfits. The relationships explored in Silkwood are indelible, largely because they are painfully genuine. When Cher’s wounded tomboy playfully refers to herself as a ‘dyke’, the word sticks in her throat; her declaration of ‘love’ toward Karen, while in full acknowledgement it will, and can never be reciprocated, is a reminder just how unfathomably careworn and grotesquely marginalized these characters are; no more so than when Karen’s own life begins to unravel after she is repeatedly contaminated (deliberately or otherwise) and forced to endure abusive scrub downs, stripped of all human dignity, and later, every last possession she owned. From the ashes of this dehumanization, Karen Silkwood emerges as an outspoken advocate for worker’s rights. It is a passion perhaps not even she was aware she possessed.
Polarizing Silkwood’s anti-nuke sentiment is one thing; popularizing it – quite another.  In hindsight the picture’s success really is owed to Meryl Streep – then, something of an unknown quantity with the wellspring of her acting chops as yet to be fully plied in the movies. She runs the gamut here, from self-possessed to radicalized and finally petrified, infusing her performance with a sort of grassroots astuteness married to her own yen for playful sass. At once, this Karen Silkwood is hauntingly human and fragile, yet funny and compassionate. Whether defying her impishly sinister boss, Mace Hurley (Bruce McGill) or coyly flashing a milky white breast to shock another belligerent coworker into submission (a scene Streep consternated over because of her stance against nudity and female exploitation in the movies) our empathy here is firmly anchored to this marginalized mother of three, cruelly estranged from her kids, never entirely secure in her new love and even less settled as those forces conspiring against her intervene to disrupt and dismantle this already precariously perched imperfect world, brought to the edge of extinction…and finally, pushed beyond the point of no return. Streep would later confide, “(Karen) was unsavory in some ways...Mike spoke of the film as being about people asleep in their lives and waking up: ‘How did I get here?’ And that's exactly how I felt...I think the movie is about human nature more than about any issue...I get very creepy feelings if I think about it…but my heart breaks for her. She was only twenty-eight or twenty-nine when she died, and it was a real waste. I'm really glad I got the chance to try to step into her shoes for a while.”
I suspect the chief hurdle for today’s movie-goer, unaccustomed to such heavily involved dramatic character studies, is to set aside his/her own prejudice chronically in search of a narrative trajectory where one, in fact, does not exist. Nichols’ movie is not about or even modestly interested in cleverly delineating the ‘emotional arcs’ that any basic ‘screenwriting 101 class’ would suggest as essential to establish the connective tissue between these intersecting lives. Rather, the picture vacillates, to the point of wallowing, in that formless mendacity begun to fester and infest the truth that is Karen Silkwood’s daily grind and inescapable reality.  The Ephron/Arlen screenplay sucks the viewer into its black hole of unqualified exactitude, turning this bucolic backwater on end. The equilibrium of the piece is quite simply not there and the movie steadily becomes more of an abstract tome to Karen than a definitively examination of her downward trajectory. Arguably, it’s not even a movie about the perils of plutonium. Nevertheless, when Silkwood’s producer, Michael Hausman proposed to shoot the picture in authentic locations, he was quietly encouraged by Oklahoma governor, George Nigh to take his business elsewhere. Evidently, Kerr-McGee’s corporate influence extended well beyond its deeply entrenched ‘closed door’ production facilities. Henceforth, while Silkwood – the movie – would not shy away from the specifics of the company’s monstrous mismanagement; even going so far as to connect the dots for the audience and lay blame for Karen’s death squarely at the stoop of their corporate footprint, the authenticity of the piece would have to be reincarnated at production facilities expressly built far away from her home town - in Texas.
This much about Karen Silkwood's life is not in dispute: that she earned a reputation as someone with an implacable resolve, doggedly amplified by her rising consciousness, bitter life circumstances, and, a subtle smear campaign indulged by Kerr-McGee to erroneously suggest she brought ruination upon herself. Was Karen Silkwood a saint? Hardly. Were the particulars of her personal imperfections used against her to insinuate a greater level of responsibility owed her than the company? Absolutely. Was anyone buying this ruse? No. Indeed, after Karen’s death, her father, Bill, sued Kerr-McGee and was awarded $505,000 in damages and $10,000,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, this judgment was reduced merely to cover the loss of Karen’s rental property for barely $5,000; the case reversed yet again on appeal to the Supreme Court, who restored the original verdict. Eventually, Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1.38 million, while admitting zero liability. A year later, the Cresant, Oklahoma facility was shuttered for good.
Silkwood picks up Karen’s cause as an avenging angel; her commitment to union activism never more steadfastly pressed into service than after being contaminated by radioactive materials. In the immediate aftermath following her death, a public spin was put into place to intimate Karen Silkwood was a chronic troublemaker, unpopular with her fellow employees who lived in fear of losing their jobs because of her.  Silkwood illustrates some of these stressors afflicting Karen’s relationships at work – mostly with management – though only with her fellow employees when they begin to worry about a similar fate. To date, there is little to support Kerr-McGee’s claim Karen willfully contaminated herself and the residence she shared with Dolly and Drew, merely to bolster an unsubstantiated opinion the company was knowingly endangering the welfare of its employees through improper handling of its toxic payload and lax safety precautions.
While the laissez faire attitudes toward relationships established in Silkwood can appear rather blasĂ© by today’s standards, we must recall that in 1983, American movies in general had yet to address homosexuality as anything more or better than in a quaint condemnation or as figures of fun; also, that the idea of men and women cohabiting without a wedding ring to establish their ‘moral fidelity’ essentially meant the parties involved were either of dubious sincerity or usually ‘unlikable’, doomed and/or prescribed as counterpoints to the focus as the ‘villains’ of the piece. Indeed, Silkwood is unapologetic and frank about Karen’s complicated lifestyle; her free-wheeling promiscuity (indulging in a brief fling with union rep, Paul Stone, played by the late/great Ron Silver) after Drew has moved out, and her even more casual flirtations with her practicing lesbian/housemate, Dolly, who moves another lover, Angela (Diana Scarwid) into their roost when it becomes clear Karen will never fully indulge Dolly’s love for her. Meryl Streep gives us a lustily ‘inappropriate’ portrait of this feisty gal who takes no lip from her bosses, navigates her way around an oversexed coworker, Winston (Craig T. Nelson) a beefy boar who would like nothing better than to get in her pants, and, sounds off – mostly without carefully thinking her way through just about every situation.
What makes Silkwood click as it should are the performances; uniformly strong, with its principle trio among the best assembled for this sort of character-driven display of acting fireworks. Kurt Russell and Cher definitely hold their own. As the previously contaminated and cancer-ridden coworker, Thelma Rice, actress, Sudie Bond reveals unexpected depth while Craig T. Nelson’s company whore, assigned the task of doctoring negatives and falsifying Kerr-McGee’s safety records, generates unexpected menace – sustained and very low key. Cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek’s starkly lit compositions and Georges Delerue’s understated underscore, visually and aurally amplify the contradictions between this petrochemical- nuclear landscape, and the isolated communities who call these vast plains, with their one road main streets and dirty little roadhouses, home. While most biographical movies give us the basic lay of the land and a linear set of circumstance to chart a lifetime either successfully or ‘un-‘ condensed to fit into two hours of drama, Silkwood endeavors (and mostly excels) at slowing down and avoiding this formulaic thumbnail. Perhaps most miraculous of all, the picture never allows Karen Silkwood to become a martyr, a symbol or even a catalyst for change. Instead, Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols elect to maintain her integrity as a flawed, but fundamentally pure of heart woman, perhaps unknowingly helping to bring about her own demise.
Movies as good as Silkwood decidedly deserve a 1080p Blu-ray transfer far better than this! Produced by ABC Pictures and presently under the rights of MGM/Fox Home Video, the hi-def transfer farmed out to Kino Lorber for this release is anemic and flawed at best. Contrast is weak, for starters. Miroslav Ondricek’s palette of colors are inherently bland – yes – but Silkwood’s transfer teleports them into the unnatural realm of muddy and uninspiring flat hues. The image is also riddled in age-related artifacts indicative of a transfer derived from faulty archival elements that have not been given either the basic clean-up or color correction they so desperately require and deserve. Flesh tones waffle between pasty pink and garish orange. Dimly lit scenes suffer from an excruciating loss of fine detail; only marginally more appealing during brightly lit outdoor sequences. Nothing about this transfer pops as it should. I would have settled for basic overall visual clarity. But whole portions of Silkwood are very softly focused – unintentionally so. Grain appears to have been scrubbed with ample DNR applied. While there are moments where one can almost settle back and ‘accept’ this transfer as imperfect, much of what is here screams a genuine lack of interest and investment on the part of the distributor. For shame!  I am more forgiving of the 2.0 DTS mono sound mix. It covers the essentials of a dialogue-driven movie circa 1983 without undue bells and whistles and/or distortions added via the ravages of time. The movie sounds fine. But it looks like hell. Extras are limited to an interview with producer, Michael Hausman and a slew of theatrical trailers for other movies Kino Lorber is hoping will whet the consumer appetite. Bottom line: while Silkwood is a movie that should be screened far more often, this Blu-ray really isn’t the way it ought to be seen. Junk in/junk out. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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