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Departure, Arrivals

Paul Newman

Stranded: I've come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (Zeitgeist Films)

Let the Right One In (Magnet Releasing)

Three kinds of performers appear in films: actors, stars, and star actors. Some very good actors lack the looks and personality to become stars. Some stars, iconic though they may be, have just enough talent to get by. Then there are the actors who have both talent and charisma. No American was ever more indisputably a star actor than Paul Newman.

Newman's death on September 26, like the deaths of all those who have mattered to us, brought memories--keeps bringing them. The first time I saw him was on Broadway in 1953. The play, William Inge's Picnic, was about a freewheeling vagabond who hits a small town and interferes between a girl and her well-behaved suitor. I found the suitor, played by Newman, much more interesting than the supposed hero. The last time I saw him on stage was in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, when, already a screen figure, he scintillated as an older woman's lover. (The film version preserved his performance.)

Newman's move to films transformed him from a valuable actor into a different order of being. In his first moments on screen, which were in a biblical disaster called The Silver Chalice (1954), he seemed almost incredible--a paradigm created magically to exemplify the very idea of the star actor. It was hard to believe that anyone actually had been born so attractive and with so much talent. But soon he became familiar, even necessary. As film followed film, he became a kind of companion. In his earlier days Newman was dogged by comparisons with Marlon Brando, who was rising at about the same time, but their two careers and personalities separated so widely that the linkage soon came to seem silly.

To list all of Newman's noteworthy films, out of his sixty-five or so, would be pleasant but indulgent. Much has recently been said, justly, about his appeal, through a humanity that made even the selfish Hud someone we understood while we clucked. Instead, I join those who emphasize his range. Remember the pug in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the blithe bandit in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the white man raised by Apaches in Hombre, the aging fatalistic crime boss in Road to Perdition. But the one role that seems to sum up all he could achieve, and without vanity of achievement, is the alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict. Anyone looking for the quintessence of American film acting can find no finer instance than Newman in that picture. I have seen it five or six times, and now, in grateful obeisance, I want to see it again.

On October 13, 1972, a plane from Uruguay went down in the snowy Andes. On board were forty-five people, including a rugby team, with relatives and friends, bound for a game in Chile. Once the plane was reported missing, helicopter searches began but failed. Days passed. Hope of rescue waned. Seventy-two days later, two survivors of the crash who had struggled across the fearsome mountains finally found a shepherd. Sixteen survivors were rescued.

This story, of the crash and survival and the trek across the mountains, has already been the subject of films. One was made in Mexico; another one, called Alive (1993), which starred Ethan Hawke, was American. Both films were unseen by me, but however good they may have been, I didn't regret it while watching Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, a documentary by the Uruguayan director Gonzalo Arij ón. In 2006 Arij ón took some (now white- haired) survivors and their children back to the scene of the crash. Carefully deploying their comments, the sure-handed Arij ón fashioned a disquietingly gripping film. Visually, Stranded is composed of some shots actually made there in 1972, along with obviously recreated shots (cigarettes being lighted, feet moving through the snow, a meeting with the old shepherd). Like other documentary directors before him, Arij ón assumes that we will know which moments were re-enacted and why they were needed.

The details of the crash are as stark as we would expect. Just one example. A young woman was pinned in the wreckage, and her brother tells us thirty-four years later how he held her in his arms for two days while she bled to death. Most of the drama, naturally, is not in the dead but in the living. They expected to be rescued and gradually saw that expectation fade. They didn't even hear the helicopters that were searching for them. They ate the odd things that were in the plane; then they ate even odder things--hair oil, cosmetics, anything that could be swallowed. Then they faced the looming, increasingly dreadful question. They were surrounded by bodies, frozen bodies.

To read about what followed or to see it played by actors would be grim enough. But to hear about it from the aging survivors themselves, all men who are clearly civilized human beings, is disturbing in an unexpected way. We look at people who ate people--bits of bodies anyway--and we feel stripped of a veneer. All moral dilemmas are inevitably weighed against our judgment of what we ourselves would have done. No one wants to be asked the question that this film implicitly asks, yet facing the question is strangely salutary. We are a bit less fraudulently sure of ourselves afterward.

For these particular men, the foundation of their behavior in this crisis was their religion. They are all devout Catholics. (The rugby team was sponsored by a Catholic group.) As they incised--as minimally as possible--the bodies of men and women whom they had known, they remembered the transubstantiation of bread and wine in their faith. They convinced themselves that what they were forced to eat had somehow similarly been transmuted; that heaven itself had made their survival possible, had ordained it. In any case, those of us who cannot share their religious assurance can still be glad that these men found it. (The group of sixteen survivors, increased by wives and children, has since grown to a group of one hundred.)

Any account of the courage and determination of these men, especially those who climbed and slid and climbed for days until they found that shepherd, would be stunning enough. It is all the more overwhelming when we hear the story from the survivors themselves, men who look like not some super race, but just people we might know. None of us, it seems fairly safe to say, will ever be in a situation like the one that they endured. But they are not a different race: we are their kin. It is somewhat astonishing to be reminded that elements of these men, who did what they were willing to do in order to survive, reside within our modish, brightly bantering selves.

Which leads to a tenuously connected subject. Are there many people in the twenty-first century who believe in vampires? Obviously there are millions who enjoy vampire novels and films, but that doesn't necessarily mean belief. We can love A Midsummer Night's Dream without believing in fairies. The huge public pleasure in vampire fictions has doubtless been analyzed by sociologists and psychologists as one aspect of the hunger for horror stories, and I suppose it involves thoughts about mortality and sex. But, old grandfather Dracula included, it is hard to remember any work about vampires that could, in itself, be taken as more than frisson fiction.

The matter comes up because of a Swedish film called Let the Right One In, which is based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist that has been published in twelve countries besides Sweden. The picture was directed by Tomas Alfredson, experienced in television and film, who has lately been chosen to direct at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, Ingmar Bergman's old temple. The connection with Bergman fits further because, despite its subject, Alfredson's spare suggestive compositions in the film convey his regard for Bergman. Further: the production design by Eva Nor én would not have disappointed Bergman, nor would the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, which is already hung with festival prizes. The cast, including the two twelve-year-olds in the leading roles, are impressively competent. All these factors only make the picture more puzzling.

When we see a rampantly commercial film made by people who we know are capable of better work, we understand that livings must be made, lives must be occupied, places in the scheme of things must be maintained. But Let the Right One In begins like a truly serious picture, a possible addition to the Swedish film treasury. (Sweden was one of the first countries where film was sometimes treated as more than entertainment.) More: this film continues seriously, in structure, look, tone. Nonetheless, it is a vampire story. We are forced to assume not that all these gifted people were just making a living, but that they believed in this picture. (Indeed, the central vampire elements wind through sequences that, in gravity and temper, seem to belong in another film.) That is the puzzle.

The screenplay, adapted by Lindqvist from his novel, begins with Oskar, a schoolboy in a Stockholm suburb, who has a schoolboy's troubles: bigger boys bully him. In the courtyard of the apartment project where he lives, he meets a newcomer girl named Eli, and, rather diffidently, they become friends. One day Oskar is playing with a Rubik's cube, which he lends to her. She understands it very quickly. In time Oskar asks if she will be his girlfriend, and though she is apparently fond of him, she tells him that she is not a girl. Transvestism flares in our heads, but soon enough we learn what she meant. This twelve-year-old, which at least is what she seems, is a vampire.

Blood, her diet, recurs throughout, like inserted splotches in a film about a schoolboy's troubles. The blood and the troubles meet in a finish that lifts commonplace childhood matters far up into the supernatural. Nothing is ever explained. That appears to be part of the point. If the picture has a theme, it might be that the inexplicable can burst into the midst of dailiness. Still, any puzzling about the why and wherefore of this picture cannot dim admiration for Alfredson's directing, especially of the two excellent youngsters, K åre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. I wonder what K åre and Lina dreamed about at night during the months of shooting.

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.

This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.