You may notice there are six William Friedkin films showing at the Pacific Film Archive this month, with the director in person for some, and The Exorcist is not among them. "That devilishly good chiller from 1973 is the exception to his rule, the rule being that darkness comes from within, not some satanic squatter," writes PFA video curator Steve Seid. "From the late sixties to the present, Friedkin has delved into the dark matter that dwells in the human soul."
Verily, this visceral survey supplies us with a lot of troubled men running agitatedly around and roughing themselves and each other up. (Sometimes they even go so far as to get shot in the face.) Friedkin has spent his career spilling blood, mud, sweat, grease, fire, or, in the special case of The Boys in the Band, barbed bon mots. (Sample dialogue: "What's more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?" "A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation.") That one, from 1970 and from Matt Crowley's off-Broadway play -- reportedly the first with an ensemble of openly gay characters -- dared to dramatize culturally imposed self-loathing. It's the earliest Friedkin film in this particular batch and arguably the most internally coherent. The latest is the recent Killer Joe, a grim, game effort to expunge Matthew McConaughey's track record of useless romantic comedies.
The Boys in the Band
Otherwise, the director sure has a knack for the wordless men-at-work montage, whether it's Roy Scheider and company in 1977's Sorcerer, an update of The Wages of Fear, in which four fugitives haul two big trucks full of nitroglycerin hundreds of miles through the punishing jungle; or 1985's To Live and Die in L.A., in which Willem Dafoe undertakes as cool a counterfeit-money-making operation as can possibly be supported by the music of Wang Chung.
And of course there is The French Connection, with Scheider again and Gene Hackman, and of which David Thomson has shrewdly observed, "It seems clearer now that what the film is really saying is, 'Look, how else are monstrous infants going to avoid growing up but by being cops?'"
A new memoir, The Friedkin Connection, vividly registers the vicissitudes of his career. (There is a chapter called "Hubris.") The book has many good tidbits, like the one about how before Friedkin got involved with 1980's Cruising, in which Al Pacino plays an undercover cop investigating a spree of murders in New York's gay S&M scene, Steven Spielberg was attached to direct it. See it again if only to imagine how different it might have been.
Friedkin, the tortured-soul specialist, once made a documentary that got a man off of death row, but later decided the man was guilty. He also made a comedy about the arms race starring Chevy Chase. And a movie about a teenage girl possessed by the devil. And many other dark matters. Friedkin ends his book by evoking Samuel Beckett: "I haven't made my Citizen Kane," he writes, "but there's more work to do. I don't know how much but I'm loving it. Perhaps I'll fail again. Maybe next time I'll fail better."
Dark Matters: The Films of William Friedkin runs September 12 through 21, 2013, with Friedkin in person September 19 and 21, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.