Sunday, January 13, 2008

Jacob's Ladder

I saw Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction) when it came out, in the theater. It was downtown St. Paul in 1990 and I went with a girlfriend and her friend. It was a rough crowd – they yelled and booed at the scenes they didn’t like. The audience was mostly black and, in spite of the racially mixed Brooklyn and Vietnam War setting, they reacted to the movie as if it were annoyingly white.

I loved it. I remember being moved and spooked by it. We rode the bus home from downtown, I remember that.

It's a very strange film. Bruce Joel Rubin's script, which languished unfilmed for years was long hailed as one of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays until Adrian Lyne decided to film it. Rubin also wrote Ghost.

Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Richard Gere auditioned for the starring role, but the relatively unknown Tim Robbins got it. The female lead, played by Elizabeth Peña, was auditioned for by Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell and Madonna.

Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran who, after the War, finishes his doctorate in philosophy but can’t work. He’s divorced from his wife and one of their three sons was killed by a car on his bike. Now he’s a postman in Brooklyn and he’s shacked up with Elizabeth Peña, a coworker. He’s having hallucinations that turn out to be the result of an Army experiment with LSD that was designed to make soldiers more fierce. Years later, the after-effects are scary and Singer discovers that his whole battalion is suffering.

My second viewing of the movie, more than 15 years later, is interesting for two reasons. One, the subway scene in the first ten minutes was filmed in the now (and then) abandoned Bergen Street express station on the F line in Brooklyn.

The F line, as many Brooklyn residents know, is designed with an express track that has been unused for decades because the decaying Gowanus Canal overpass can't handle the extra stress. Express service may be restored in the next 6 years, but in the meantime, and for the last 20 or more years, there has been a Bergen Street station directly below the normal operating Bergen Street station that is only used in emergencies. Both opened in 1933.

[From the film: Tim Robbins walks through the Bergen Street Station.]

[Photo of the Bergen Street express station from 7]

I saw it once -- only a glimpse -- when, during construction, the train had to use the express tracks temporarily. My train went by it without stopping. It’s a mess and it’s not fit for use anymore.

The scene in Jacob’s Ladder, in which Tim Robbins is trapped in the Bergen Street station, was filmed in the abandoned express station, according to the DVD notes (and subway historians) “The production team had to put up hundreds of feet of tile and signs in order to make the station look as if it was in working order.”

In the movie, Robbins rides a C train to Bergen Street. It's entirely possible that the C went that way in the 1970s, when the film takes place, but it's on the F and G lines now.

In real life, the upstairs, working part of the Bergen Street station, has giant stainless steel doors at either end which conceal the stairways to the express station below.

The second thing about the movie that caught my attention -- then and now -- was Singer's occasional hallucination of the man with the head that shakes like a rattlesnake's tail.

According to the DVD notes and a New York Times review from 1990, the film's creators were imspired by the artist Frnacis Bacon, among others:
"Mr. Lyne said he watched endless documentary film about Vietnam, read countless chronicles of near-death experiences and visited every major special effects laboratory in the United States seeking an original look for his underworld.

"Finally, they came up with what they thought a more understated, believable vision of hell, inspired among others by the English painter Francis Bacon, the English engraver-poet William Blake and the American photographer Diane Arbus."



Blogger Chef Rykwon said...

I had my first really memorable conversation with my mom about heaven/hell/afterlife, etc. after we watched this movie. I have not seen it in a while but I remember being pretty uneasy but not like I was scared. More like I wasn't comfortable dealing with the thought of my own death, which I really had not given much thought to before that. This still remains one of my favorite movies. It's good that you put it up here. Not to mention subway history. That's always a good thing to read.

6:20 PM  

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