After the Gold Rush

Paul Duane sought to rediscover Nicholas Roeg’s Eureka and found himself in a world of astrology, death, sex, shit and gold.

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I care not whether my work be read now or by posterity. / I can afford to wait a century for readers when God himself has waited six thousand years for an observer. / I triumph. / I have stolen the golden secret of the Egyptians. / I will indulge my sacred fury.

(from ‘Eureka’ by Edgar Allan Poe)

NB: SPOILERS for this 33-year-old film will be found throughout.

In 1912, prospector Harry Oakes found the second largest gold strike in history (the largest served as foundation for the Hearst fortune) in northern Ontario, east of the town of Swastika.

Oakes had always been a monomaniac, convinced he’d become the richest man in the world but unclear as to how. His unrelenting desire for gold coupled with his lack of interest in partnership mark him out as a special type, a self-made ubermensch, defined by his contempt for lesser humans. Though it’s hard to see how he ever believed he’d make a doctor, he first studied medicine before deciding, in 1898, that the Yukon was a more fitting destination.

The gold rush there brought him neither riches nor satisfaction, and he roamed the world, stopping at the Congo and in Australia among many other places before his destiny found him, east of Swastika, at the Lake Shore mine, the source of what the books always call ‘untold riches’.

After buying himself a title, he left Canada because he objected to paying taxes, eventually moving to a private island in the Bahamas. There, at the age of sixty-nine, he was mysteriously murdered, possibly by his closest confidante, a property developer and Iago figure named Harold Christie whose colourless exterior seems to have concealed intense hatred and jealousy of Oakes.

His life, his death and the subsequent trial of his son-in-law, the dissolute Alfred de Marigny, provided Nicolas Roeg with subject matter for his last great film, a sort of mystic Citizen Kane laced with alchemical and Kabbalistic symbolism, the story of a man who found what he wanted and lost what he had. But until he found the Edgar Allan Poe “prose-poem” Eureka he couldn’t tie these themes together to his satisfaction with a greater cosmological and mystical vision in his head.

Together with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, he came up with a story that was, on one level, a murder mystery and a courtroom drama, but which also aspired to evoke the mirroring of life on Earth with the greater Universe, and vice versa, the macrocosm and the microcosm. Typical Roeg, in other words.

Also typically Roeg, of course, is that their inter-relatedness would involve explicit sex and violent death. Coming out in 1983, when such concerns seemed tasteless and pretentious, Eureka would virtually end Roeg’s career.

When I saw Eureka, in about 1985, it had just about managed to escape from its US distributors, MGM / UA. They struck one print for the entire American release and shackled Roeg to an extraordinary agreement; he had to be personally present in the cinema whenever the film was screened. Unsurprisingly, there were few screenings in the USA.

The European release was a little better, and I saw it in Dublin’s now-vanished Screen Cinema, without Roeg (as far as I know) in attendance. But the film was out of tune with the times and it made almost no impact, apart from in the NME, which was a lone bastion of ’70s auteur-worship. (This was a time, you have to remember, when Oliver Stone was considered a genius & ‘arthouse’ meant Merchant – Ivory).

Reviews at the time varied from puzzlement to contempt. The New York Times clearly considered it a joke while Roger Ebert could see the film’s greatness  but still felt the need to end his piece with a defensive “At least it’s never boring.” I can’t find any contemporary reviews from the UK and Ireland but I’d be surprised if they were any more positive.

It’s easy to see why the film didn’t go down well. It’s clearly, openly imperfect – experimental, wildly so in fact, and not always successfully. Roeg structures his tale as a triangle, but when one of your three points is Gene Hackman and another is Rutger Hauer, let’s just say you’re not going to achieve geometric perfection.

The story is pretty straightforward in broad terms – a prospector achieves enormous wealth, retires to his private island with his alcoholic wife and adored daughter, whose unsuitable marriage troubles him, leading him to court danger with gangsters, as if hoping to be murdered.

But as always with Roeg, the narrative fractures with obscure, occult references and cross-cutting between different timelines, until it begins to seem as if Harry Oakes (in the film, Jack McCann) made a deal with the Devil to find his gold, and that his ending was foretold in his beginnings.

Then again, it’s not that simple. The Devil here is Frieda, a beautiful, dying brothel madam, who seems to have had some previous existence as Jack’s lover. Wandering, lost in the snowy wastes, he finds his way to her dreamlike abode. She gladly takes him in, reminiscing about their time in Paris, but it’s clear that Jack has foregone the pleasures of the flesh in favour of the desire for riches – “Gold smells stronger than a woman,” he tells her. But she wishes for the past, when the only nuggets needed were the ones between his legs. (Yes, this is a film where people actually say things like that, another reason reviewers got a bit sniffy, I think).

And the film makes it clear that Jack’s choice – gold over love – is fatal to him, and to Frieda. By descending into the womb of the earth and striking away with his pickaxe, unleashing an explosion of golden nuggets which he bathes in exultantly, Jack also destroys his own great love. And it doesn’t take an encyclopaedic knowledge of alchemy to note that the gold he wallows in, as photographed by Alex Thomson, sometimes has a distinctly faecal appearance.

In the opening twenty minutes we get astrology, death, sex, shit and gold, and I haven’t even mentioned the Philosopher’s Stone that guides Jack to his destiny, or the pack of wolves that track him (and seemingly return later, in the shape of Joe Spinell and his pack of murderous mob goons), or the Wagnerian symbolism of the Yggrdrasil-tree he falls asleep under just before finding the gold, or the mysterious fire that awakens him from that sleep, or the moon’s role in all this. Or the Citizen Kane snowglobe, owned by Frieda, which seemingly encloses Jack’s questing figure… Mysteries inside enigmas inside references. All in the service of telling a story with a very simple point: greed is not good.

Aside: a man, tiny in an inhospitable landscape, but indomitable, descends into a primordial pit and comes out rich, propelled by a dark flow of the thing mankind wants most of all, and his life from then on becomes a paranoid, clenched battle to hang on to what he’s got, despite the fact it seems to bring him little joy. I wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson watched Eureka before making There Will Be Blood? The Magic 8-Ball  gave me the answer “Don’t count on it”, but I’m not superstitious. I believe the evidence of my own eyes.

After this initial, phantasmagoric, hallucinatory segment, the film seems to settle into a different rhythm, becoming the story of Jack McCann’s obsessive love for his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell, then Roeg’s wife, and incandescent here) and his suspicion of her playboy husband Claude (Rutger Hauer). The first time we see Jack and Tracy together the scene is designed to play as one between flirtatious lovers, and the deliberate confusion this evokes about their relationship overhangs everything that follows.

Jack found the gold in the same way Claude, a gold-digger for sure, found Tracy. Jack straight-up accuses him of it over dinner, and Claude throws it back at him; I’m just like you, but you stole ‘your’ gold from the earth. Then, swallowing one of the little gold baubles Jack hands out as after-dinner treats, Claude assures his host that, like all things, it too will pass. And the viewer ticks another box in their Alchemical Bingo Card. Claude, the reverse alchemist, is Jack’s rival and polar opposite. This unstable situation can’t last. And it doesn’t.

Jack’s frenemy Perkins has embroiled himself in a situation with some gangsters who want to build a casino in Luna Bay (there’s that moon again) and it seems these guys won’t take no for an answer now that Jack’s changed his mind. Initially they send lawyers, but back on their boat, the goons wait to be let off the leash.

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Aside: how can I have gotten this far in without mentioning that this film has a young Mickey Rourke in it, playing the lawyer, Aurelio? You know, even if you can’t be doing with Roeg’s mysticism and find the epic nature of his concerns pretentious, Joe Pesci as a thinly disguised Meyer Lansky, with Rourke & Spinell as his sidekicks, are an absolute treat to watch.

The eventual murder of Jack McCann by Mayakovsky’s / Meyer Lansky’s goons is spectacularly gruesome and appalling. However, what’s most striking to me is how Roeg / Mayersberg manage to tie the true facts of Harry Oakes’ murder (his mutilated body was found with white feathers scattered all over it) with the poetic facts of Jack McCann’s life and death. The white feathers filling the air in his bedroom around his murdered body rhyme visually with the softly falling snow as he sleeps beneath the World-Tree, holding the Philosopher’s Stone in his hand.

McCann, the film asserts, has been dead a long time – ever since he found the gold, in fact – but that isn’t to reduce this great puzzle-film to a ‘death dream’ trope.  It’s more that, in the film’s cosmology, when McCann chose dead metal over living flesh, he chose death over life, and then he just spent the rest of his life waiting for that decision to catch up with him.

Once McCann’s met his end, however, the film is missing one crucial angle from its geometry. Like a three-legged dog, it limps along, Russell and Hauer’s amour fou more or less keeping you intrigued till the end, but when Hackman dies, all the life goes out of the film.

And when Roeg entrusts his grand finale, a courtroom monologue wrap-up that seems to go on forever, to his wife, it’s a bit like Kane casting Susan Alexander in that opera. Russell gives the scene everything she’s got but I don’t think the greatest actress alive could’ve made this one work.

It tries to evoke a dreamlike stasis, where everyone in the courtroom but the two lovers no longer exist, but falls sadly flat, and with it the great period of Roeg’s career comes to an end. He made some fine films after this – there’s nothing wrong with The Witches, and Track 29 is the best film Dennis Potter was ever involved with – but nothing to rival his astonishing run from Performance until Eureka.

 Aside: I wish I could pass by without mentioning the scene where Hauer’s character takes a couple of women to some kind of voodoo orgy, but it’s so off-key, its treatment of the film’s Caribbean characters so grotesque, that it should be mentioned. I can’t find any way to defend it, not even aesthetically. It’s like some kind of callback to 1930s movies such as White Zombie in its use of non-white characters as signifiers of everything sexually depraved, primitive and evil. If you watch a lot of old movies, you get used to having to work around this kind of thing, not ignoring it but not letting it distort your overall impression, because if you did so, you’d rarely get to the end of a film without exploding in rage and disgust.

Released today, the new Masters of Cinema blu-ray from (of course) Eureka Distribution is superb, beautifully capturing the film’s obsessive movement from ice to fire, without losing any nuance. A film that’s been unavailable in any decent form for far too long has, thankfully, been rescued, and in a form that fully allows the viewer to appreciate Roeg’s obsessively pictorial imagination. In an era when many acclaimed films are basically radio plays with pictures, Eureka is a reminder that cinema is a visual medium, where complicated philosophical notions can be expressed without ever having to be put into words.

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